“I Feel Like I Slipped Through The Cracks”: Tackling Imposter Syndrome in Graduate School

AUTHORS: Aya Dudin and Kathryn Reynolds



Do you identify with this thought: “Am I competent enough to be a graduate student in my field?”




If you’ve recently contemplated this question, you may be experiencing a set of feelings best described by the term imposter syndrome. Imposter syndrome is a psychological thought pattern resulting in an inability to internalize achievements, leading to the questioning of one’s competence for a professional position. Despite professional success, individuals experiencing this thought pattern are left feeling fraudulent, terrified that they’ll be ‘discovered’ one day. A simple search query for the term ‘imposter syndrome’ yields ~5.8 million search results on Google and 10,100 search results on Google Scholar. This suggests a heightened awareness of—and interest in—this phenomenon. Interestingly, these feelings are common among high-achieving individuals and are particularly widespread in graduate school, especially among new students. The skills we learn as scientists may predispose us to feeling like a fraud: we constantly critique others’ research, and in turn, we find it all too easy to project those critiques onto ourselves. However, we can also apply our graduate skills to navigate and overcome such thought patterns, as we will explore in this article.


While brainstorming ideas for this piece, we discussed imposter syndrome with numerous graduate students from our program. Many identified a common theme in their struggles to feel deserving of their graduate positions: “I slipped through the cracks and I got here.” We therefore feel that it is crucial to normalize conversations about feeling fraudulent and out of your depth. We also feel that it is important to turn these common insecurities into learning opportunities, as individuals as well as a collective. While imposter syndrome may be an intimidating roadblock on the path to graduate success, confronting these feelings can help you find the motivation and tools to grow, both as a scientist and as a person.


If you think back to your undergraduate physiology training, you may remember that stress elevates cortisol, and that elevated cortisol can improve both mental and physical performance. However, this only holds true for a certain stress threshold, after which elevated cortisol has a negative impact on performance. Thus, mildly questioning your abilities every once in awhile while may motivate you to push your own limits, but severely doubting yourself over a prolonged period of time and panicking due to negative self-perceptions can seriously hamper your success. The key is to manage feelings of imposterism so that they don’t tip over into unhealthy territory. As one Neuroscience graduate student describes,


“[I think imposter syndrome can be somewhat] positive if you have a strategy to combat it. At some point, everyone gets cocky. But, you don’t know everything. Imposter syndrome puts that in check. When you get too comfortable about things and let things slide, imposter syndrome can be a preventative method to keep you asking what’s out there that you don’t know. If you let that get you down to the point that you feel like you don’t know anything, that becomes a problem.”



It can be very difficult to adopt a headspace where you can tackle negative feelings head-on and use them as learning tools. Here, we investigate some of the underlying circumstances and traits which can lead one to feel fraudulent, and suggest some mechanisms to productively manage these negative self-perceptions.




Dealing with Isolation


Living with the angst and fear of being ‘discovered’ can be a very isolating feeling. This isolation is compounded for graduate students who spend a significant amount of time working alone, or tackle brand new ideas with few mentors to offer guidance. Often, graduate students work for months before receiving feedback, and even when feedback is received, it may not be highly structured, i.e. it is not a grade derived by following a rubric. This is the nature of graduate work; however, many students are accustomed to having a clear measure of their performance prior to graduate school. For many of us, undergraduate grades and detailed feedback may have been ways by which we measured our deservedness, and may have even contributed to our self-worth. Therefore, it can be difficult to measure our level of competence in this new unstructured environment. It may be reassuring to learn that you are not alone - the majority of us have felt this way at some point in graduate school. You may find it beneficial to reach out to fellow graduate students to express your feelings of isolation and self-doubt. It is also imperative to remember that your self-worth is more than the validation you receive from your academic performance. As described by Seaborne (2020),


"... It is crucial to differentiate yourself from your work in order to maintain both your mental and physical health… You are a person long before you’re a PhD researcher."




Dealing with Uncertainty


Major career moves such as switching disciplines, taking on new roles, or looking for postgraduate positions come with a high degree of uncertainty and often trigger feelings of imposterism. Being out of your depth can be deeply intimidating, but with heightened awareness of imposter syndrome, you can choose to utilize this feeling to expand your knowledge rather than internalizing doubt. In the words of one Neuroscience graduate student, 


“I thought I was going to go to university and get all the answers, and I just have more questions. [To combat my feelings of imposterism, I’m] trying to become a better question asker.” 


Carving out time to feel more prepared in uncertain situations will immensely help dispel feelings of undeservedness. Sometimes half the battle is knowing how to find the resources you need to succeed in a new environment - and fortunately for us, our graduate training has equipped us to do just that. Try conducting literature reviews or taking short courses to boost your skills (LinkedIn Learning can be an excellent - and free - resource!). If you’re feeling stuck, sit down and make a plan. Putting your goals and feelings onto paper will clear your mind of internalized stresses, while also creating a resource to refer back to whenever you need to check your progress. 


It can also help to seek targeted feedback in uncertain situations. This feedback can come from your supervisor, your peers, or an expert in your field. When looking for feedback, start by identifying specific skills which need improvement, as opposed to general feelings of negativity. Once you’ve pinpointed these skills, you can approach trusted individuals to ask them for targeted suggestions. For example, many graduate students feel out of their depth when giving presentations or leading classes, and can benefit from obtaining specific advice regarding slide content and/or presentation style. The MacPherson Institute on campus offers teaching support for all graduate TAs; they can even visit your classroom to provide honest and constructive feedback on your teaching performance. Asking for outside opinions can be very validating, as we are most critical of our own actions - your perceived inadequacies often aren’t visible to others. It can also help break the cycle of internalized negativity about your performance/skills, and instead redirect your thought patterns and resources in a productive way.




Dealing with Perfectionism


Graduate students tend to be high-achieving individuals with an innate tendency towards perfectionism. Often, perfectionists struggle with feeling that their perceived mistakes make them unworthy or inadequate. However, it is important to realize that making a mistake is not a failure. Instead of seeing your mistakes as evidence of inadequacy, try to reframe them as learning opportunities - making a mistake can often help you learn more effectively than if you were to do everything perfectly the first time. We can also take some guidance from the field of engineering when struggling with perfectionism, as one Neuroscience graduate student explains: 


“When you go to seek answers, you end up with more questions. In science, you’re taught to optimize everything and then start. In engineering, you’re taught to make something functional enough. You don’t have to be perfect. You need a thread, and to start pulling at it. [When designing new experiments, I’ve found that] professors are equally as lost as we are, just at a different level.”




The tips we’ve mentioned above may help you start a journey by which you learn how to actively change your mindset long-term. However, sometimes a ‘quick fix’ is necessary to stop negative self-perceptions in their tracks. Next time you’re feeling overly critical of your abilities or progress, try one of these tips:

  • We’re often so much harder on ourselves than we would be on others in the same situation. To reframe your negative thought patterns, ask yourself, “If an undergraduate student came to me in this situation, what advice would I give them?” Focus on ways to encourage ‘the student,’ make them feel comfortable, and bring out the best in them - then turn this advice right back on yourself.

  • Evidence-based approaches have shown that three affirmations per day can combat anxiety and negative thought patterns. Affirmations can take the form of statements such as, “I am proud of my ability to handle (a particular situation where you felt tested and challenged),” or “I am proud of (a small or large personal victory).” Reminding yourself of your resilience and your past successes can boost your confidence and help yourself feel deserving of your current status.


If you find yourself experiencing imposter syndrome, remember that this phenomenon is widely prevalent within high-achieving populations such as the scientific community. In other words, you are in good company. Also, remember that experiencing negative self-perceptions does not mean that you are a fraud. We tend to underestimate how much we have learned as graduate students, and we do not give ourselves credit for the steps we have already taken on the path to postgraduate life. Remind yourself that you’ve gotten this far in your education for a reason - you’ve already proven your worth, and you will undoubtedly continue to do so as you progress in your graduate studies!






Referencing and additional literature/resources on imposter syndrome:


Horne, Rachael*. (2017, November 1). How to get over imposter syndrome as a new graduate student”. bitesizedbio.com. Retrieved from: 

https://bitesizebio.com/37238/impostor-syndrome-graduate-student/?utm_source=facebook&utm_medium=social&utm_campaign=SocialWarfare&fbclid=IwAR0qflqiQQ9WWEN9rj-ua-3qzdCYaOjTbp5OMIFuzrfMrSl4sK8Yaz9Hyjw


Seaborne, Robert. (2020, February 3). A person before a PhD: understanding and combating an academic identity crisis. Nature. Retrieved from:

https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-020-00306-y

 

TED-ED. (2018, August 28). What is imposter syndrome and how you can combat it? [Video]. 

YouTube. https://youtu.be/ZQUxL4Jm1Lo

 

Wilding, Melody. 5 Different Types of Imposter Syndrome (and 5 ways to battle each one).

 themuse.com. Retrieved from: https://www.themuse.com/advice/5-different-types-of-imposter-syndrome-and-5-ways-to-battle-each-one


Woolston, C. Faking it. Nature 529, 555–557 (2016). Retrieved from: https://doi.org/10.1038/nj7587-555a



Young, Valerie. 10 Steps You Can Use to Overcome Impostor Syndrome.

impostersyndrome.com. Retrieved from: https://impostorsyndrome.com/10-steps-overcome-impostor/


*Rachael Horne is a MiNDS alumna. 





Special thanks to Nicole Greisman, Saurabh Shaw, and Dr. Catherine Maybrey for helpful discussions surrounding imposter syndrome.