Stats and data analysis are common requirements in graduate programs. Most of us are required to use quantitative statistical methods to analyze our research data. The first semester or two of grad school is often a bit like an “obstacle course” where courses bring up old insecurities from undergrad or high school which come back to haunt us! Fellow grad, Dennis, often talks about the struggles he is experiencing with our current graduate stats course, and how he has to work extra hard at it to do well. In fact, he once told me, “they shouldn’t have let me into this grad program given the conditional probability that I am terrible at stats!” Ironically enough, Dennis gets A+s on all the stats assignments, and I don’t. Nonetheless, I too feel the same way! It was interesting for me to realize that a peer who outperforms almost everyone in the course feels as incompetent and insecure as I do.
Do you also find yourself feeling like you are not good enough to be in grad school and somehow you just slipped through the cracks? Perhaps it was sheer luck or a mistake that you were accepted into the program? Welcome to the secret circle of high achievers suffering from Impostor Syndrome. Imposter syndrome is an inability to internalize one’s accomplishments and thereby constantly feeling incompetent. This diminishes your personal perception of your skills and abilities and makes you feel that you haven’t truly earned your successes even if there is clear evidence against that thought. Imposter Syndrome doesn’t discriminate, being an excellent student does not protect you from it. In fact, being a perfectionist or over-achiever likely means you are highly self-critical and therefore at higher risk of experiencing Imposter Syndrome at some point in your life.
The proliferation of Imposter Syndrome memes online suggests that it is a common relatable experience among young adults, specifically graduate students. These experiences mean that individuals are unable to internalize praise from their supervisors or peers, recognize their academic achievements, or to feel proud of their successes.
We often tend to attribute our failures to our own internal features, attaching them or labeling them as part of our core personality and abilities. Suppose you had underperformed in a course in the past; you may think that to be the true and permanent reflection of your competency in that subject area. Sometimes, we tend to attribute our failures to external situational factors in order to avoid being held accountable for the unwanted outcome. For example, we may at times comfort ourselves by telling others “I didn’t sleep the night before the exam, so it is understandable that I didn’t do well on it,” rather than facing the fact that we didn’t study as much as we should have or that we skipped several classes. We can also choose to reassure a friend the same way; this kind of self-talk can be helpful when we experience a setback or feel incompetent, but it also diminishes responsibility and accountability for failures that were in our control.
As grad students, we often have this tunnel vision that few things truly matter; our grades, publications, and how well we do overall in grad school. The pathological push towards publishing, often as a result of the emphasis placed on publications by the program, is an unhealthy mentality. We deeply internalize the “publish or perish” mentality and feel if we don’t publish then that makes us unworthy of being in the program, an imposter. However, graduate student publication records are not an objective or holistic reflection of our true merits or future success. As grad students, we should not lose sight of other important experiences and skill building opportunities like mentoring, teaching, and knowledge translation.
Moreover, scientists are made, not born! I may think at times that I don’t have the same skill set or spark of genius that I observe in my peers. It is likely that they see you in the same light. Your perception of your peers’ intelligence and abilities may be due to the length of time they’ve been immersed in the program. Often times, your capacity to excel is a result of the practice and the amount of time spent doing something. Your feelings of unworthiness or inability to conduct research probably have little to do with you lacking the ability to be a scientist and more to do with just needing more time and experience to master your craft.
“People aren’t very accurate at identifying how well or how poorly they’re doing,” says social psychology professor David Dunning of Cornell University.
As grads, we are always surrounded by experts, so it’s easy to make upward comparisons. When you know a lot about a field, you have a better sense of what you don’t know or where your knowledge gaps are. Whereas a naive undergraduate just starting a Statistics class may think “I’ve got this!” Meanwhile, they don’t quite understand the depths and applications of stats just yet. But as grad students we are no longer living in blissful ignorance, we very much know the extent of what remains to be learned and mastered. This can be overwhelming and leave us feeling inadequate.
There exists a spectrum of imposters. There are those who just make light of it. These people may be going through the same things as you, but they may have social supports and connections who can listen to them vent when they feel like they are not good enough. These people may find it easier to recognize and ignore their feelings of inadequacy. Those who lack the support and resources to understand these experiences may experience a lot of pressure and potentially anxiety or depression. It appears that it is important to be sensitive and aware of the fact that some peers may particularly be having a harder time dealing with the stress and pressure of the program, especially if the Imposter Syndrome thoughts are pervasive and unaddressed or unmanaged.
“I’ve had people tell me, ‘You’ve just described to me something that I have felt for so many years, but I didn’t know there was a term for it,'” says Kevin Cokley, a psychologist at the University of Texas at Austin.
Opening up to others helps! If you have Imposter Syndrome, it’s likely that other students around you have it as well. Sharing stories helps alleviate stigma. Instead of keeping up a grad school false facade, connect with other grad students. We often mask our feelings of inadequacy, but underneath all may share the same insecurities. It’s almost as if the Imposter Syndrome itself is an imposter in our psyche, and the thoughts it causes don’t hold any validity. At a micro-level, we can encourage others or ourselves to reach out to people and start conversations. At a broader level, we can promote an academic atmosphere where it feels safe to talk about it. Hopefully, now that you have read this blog, that you feel empowered to share your experiences of Imposter Syndrome with peers and be a support for others.
Acknowledgment: This blog was written in collaboration with my colleague, Dylan Ermacora, who’s valuable insight around the topic enabled me to write the blog.