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Facing the Imposter

Updated: Mar 25, 2022

This post was first published on Bio By The Bay.

I picked up my phone one Sunday afternoon. I knew I'd have to go into lab that day but it wouldn't take long. Maybe a little computer work afterwards to straighten out the results, and that was it. Like an idiot, I checked my email.

Twelve emails from my PI. He was rescheduling our weekly meetings and was apparently unaware of the "do not send" option of a calendar invite. His very last message included "What about 8am Monday morning?" What, this Monday? Tomorrow? First thing in the day like that? "We can talk about your upcoming exam," he added, sealing my descent into nausea, rapid heartbeat, shortness of breath - you know, normal physiological responses to being stalked by carnivorous, all-teeth-all-claws charismatic megafauna, otherwise known as a panic attack. That test is coming up. The one I have to present for. The first one to cement my status as a PhD student. It's coming. And there's no way I can do it.

Then they'll know. They'll all finally know.

When I went to grad school the first time around (for an MS, in a completely different field), orientation week included a woman representing the counselling services department. "The number one reason grad students seek out a counsellor," she explained, "is work/life balance - often students who are supporting a family. The second most common reason is imposter syndrome. And no, your file did not get swapped with someone else's. Your achievements do matter and you do belong here." Pshaw. Shows you how little she knows me.

Over the first dozen or so months of this graduate program, my emotional resilience has waxed and waned. The best days are the ones I stand tall, look practically at my obstacles, refuse to take failure personally, and am energized by the opportunity provided by being surrounded by smart people at a fancy university. The worst are the days my emotional resilience meter is at zero, exacerbated by a lack of sleep and major food groups, after a long week of inexplicably, repeatedly failing experiments. I don't belong here, I think. What if I can't do this?

Emotional resilience waxes and wanes throughout grad school.

Imposter syndrome is real, and it's something many, if not all, grad students face. Here's what's worked and what hasn't with me so far.

Hasn't Helped: "Believe in Yourself"

I know there's science behind this. "Positive Thinking Positively Influences Outcome" has got to be a headline summarizing some Psychology Today research. Or you know, that Harry Potter scene where Harry gives Ron the potion to guarantee success, but doesn't - it's Ron's false confidence that saves him in the end.

There's even wisdom literature on the power of positive thinking. "A joyful heart is good medicine," King Solomon once wrote. Confucius adds that the "will to win" is needed for achieving "personal excellence." There is truth to these aphorisms.

But when faced with my own ineptitude, positive thinking is not always a comfort. We all know the guy who struts about with all the confidence in the world but no skill to back it up. I certainly don't want to be that. When the feeling is at its worst, "believe in yourself" can sound like a call to be disingenuous, to continue with the "lie" that you don't belong here.

Instead: Be Real About Your Strengths and Weaknesses

If I don't want to overstate my case, I don't want to overstate my weaknesses, either. Using a trope like "believe in myself" won't help me overcome imposter syndrome. But if I won't do that, I can't let myself swing to the opposite end of belief. Being honest with myself about my own strengths and weaknesses is a much more realistic way for me to pick myself back up.

Hasn't Helped: Comparing to Other Students

I remember my first day of grad school, sitting at a table hearing all the other first years introduce themselves. These people are so smart! ... what am I doing here? It was an inevitable thought. This second time around, I've been surrounded by first year students fresh out of undergrad who majored in the field (and from big-name colleges). My undergraduate degree was not at all in my current field; it was from a charming liberal arts school no one's ever heard of; I have a measly <2 year work experience (and none of the math or engineering prerequisites) to back me up in the field I'm trying to get a PhD in. Throw in weekly lab meetings with a team mostly occupied by upper year grad students and a postdoc, and you've got a recipe for disaster.

Instead: Talk to Other Students

Those crippling feelings of self-doubt? The creeping suspicion you don't belong? The terror at being the only one struggling in your classes and rotation project?

Yeah. You're not the only one.

There's nothing like dropping a hint you're not ok and suddenly dishing back and forth on all your shared doubts and fears.

An honest conversation with other lab mates can be a lifeline here. A willingness to be a little vulnerable goes a long way. When I found out the other first years in my lab were thinking and feeling some of the same things I was - students I know, ask advice from, and respect the work of - I was reassured that maybe I am crazy, and this imposter syndrome is unfounded in reality after all. When I hear the more advanced grad students recounting their early experiences, I am comforted. Maybe this is just another phase to work through. There's nothing quite like dropping a hint you're not ok and suddenly dishing back and forth on all your shared doubts and fears.

After one honest conversation with a gal I thought was going happily through her studies with all the confidence in the world, she concluded our mutual commiserations with a resigned, "I think grad school is just going to be hard! I mean, they can't let just anyone in here."

While it's good to talk to your peers for that shared experience, it's also good to talk to friends and family outside of academia. I guarantee you they think you're amazing, for the simple reason that you are there. I may secretly suspect that they swapped files and admitted me by mistake, but the rest of the world is smart enough to realize that sounds ridiculous. Friends outside of academia can also offer some much-needed perspective on the more arbitrary, borderline bizarre hoops to jump through that are part of the academic system. Life outside of grad school is very different! It's also good to get other perspectives. If "I'm surrounded by smart people" sounds like a curse to you (I am constantly reminded how dumb I am), you need someone outside to consider it another way; "That's awesome! Think of all the things you can learn from them!" Ouch. Have I always had this much pride? Of course I want to be surrounded by people smarter than me, especially when they're willing to help. It's why I came here in the first place!

Hasn't Helped: Focusing On That One Thing

That one time you bombed a presentation. Or were stumped by a question in lab meeting. Or asked a dumb question in office hours with the professor whose lab you're trying to join. If you're anything like me, a mistake betraying your "imposter status" stays with you, lurking in the background, keeping you up at night or jumping up to assault your confidence at the most unexpected moments. Don't go there. Own up to the mistake, the skill that needs practice, and move on.

"I now know firsthand that academics can feed worship. Don’t let academics become a dusty, heartless enterprise." Joe M. Allen III

Instead: Broadly Consider Past Achievements and Strategies That Have Worked

One moment that feels like failure does not erase everything you've accomplished so far. Keep a record of achievements, great or small, that meant something to you. Take note of positive feedback from your PI (fight that tendency we all have to focus on the one negative thing nested in between good ones), and every once in a while, consider how far you've come since Day One.

I came to grad school a second time, knowing that imposter syndrome was real and I'd have to watch out for it. Somewhere in between years one and two, I'd completely forgotten this self-imposed rule. Don't let that happen to you. But when it does, talk about it. And if that doesn't help, well, what did you expect? You think I know what I'm talking about? I clearly don't belong in this PhD program anyway. Why are you asking me?

Ultimately, you need to find a coping mechanism. Anything to get my mind off the imposter syndrome and onto the work that actually needs to get done is welcome. And for me, that has actually been - resignation. And resolve. Sure, I don't belong here. Yeah, maybe, they swapped my file (lol). But who cares? I made it. I'm here. And I'm going to give it my absolute best while I can. I will prove that I belong here. You'll see. You'll all see.

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