Soon they will all know the truth that I am an idiot and don’t belong here. I better not speak up because I am surely wrong about this. These people know so much more than I do/have so many more accomplishments than I have/belong here and I don’t.

If these self-destructive thoughts sound familiar, then you might be suffering from Impostor Syndrome. First described by Clance and Imes (1978) as an ‘imposter phenomenon’ observed in high-achieving women, it is now generally understood to impact both men and women.   I believe it can be observed in a great many graduate students as well.

And why wouldn’t it?  We might be in school when others have “real jobs,” and if we are working we are “not serious” about our academics (no matter how well we are performing in our coursework). Every few months there is some evaluative program milestone to get anxious about, as well as a relentless stream of “constructive criticism” from instructors and mentors. The way seems fraught with constant assaults on one’s self-esteem. Not to mention that the work and thinking can be hard (as I wrote about in an earlier post, “Grad School made me stupid“).  Feeling like an impostor seems like a very normal reaction to these circumstances. That being said, spending energy on feeling this way can be self-destructive, especially when it prevents us from speaking our minds, taking necessary risks in our work, or just generally experiencing peace of mind. So how to overcome this insidious state of mind? While I’m no expert, I feel I have received good advice on dealing with it and thought I would share it in this space. Additionally, I’ve crowd-sourced suggestions from my Twitter and Facebook networks and found some great ideas for dealing with it from those who’ve dealt with it themselves.

Share how you feel.  Find a support group and ask them for help. I find that having diversity in those I talk things over with is a key component to success with this. I have friends who are finished with their degrees, friends in my program, friends in other programs, and friends who couldn’t care less about my grad program.  I can commiserate, get advice from those ahead of me, and get grounded from friends outside this crazy, academic world. In this way I am validated while also moving towards a solution. There is nothing that I dislike more than hearing myself complain without also identifying a course of action to overcome the problem.  My support network is good at helping me do that.

Be kind to yourself. I can be really good at the negative self-talk. Many years ago, it was suggested to me to imagine that I was directing such talk at a good friend, rather than at myself. I was horrified: I couldn’t imagine saying such awful things to someone I cared about. That was a wake-up call to try and change my thought patterns. When the negative self-talk rears its ugly head, I usually repeat a positive phrase, distract myself, or go ask someone else how they are. All of these are good ways to short-circuit it for me.  Also, I usually have a couple of goals related to what I am doing that don’t require external validation to meet. For example, rather than only feeling good if a conference proposal is accepted, I set my own goal to have fun writing it. Goals focused on my own self-actualization make it easier for me to run the gantlet of  judgement from my instructors, committees, and reviewers. 

Fake it ’til you make it. This was the most common piece of advice from my crowd-sourcing. Acting as if I belong will eventually lead to belonging.  Imagining how I would behave if I were not feeling so insecure was useful. I just acted that way until I owned it (I even named my unflappable alter-ego and acted as if I were her. Also, I have a theme song. I don’t know: it just works!)

Help others. When I’m honest with myself, feeling this way is incredibly self-centered. Staying in my head in this state is just unwise.  Taking two minutes to help someone else can make the all the difference in how I feel.  Ask your classmates how they are. Go on Facebook and see who is having a bad day and write to them. Look around you: does someone need a hand? Sometimes I just write notes (on paper, with a pen, envelope, and stamp) to friends or family to say hello, knowing that it will brighten their day. At various points in my academic career I’ve volunteered in soup kitchens, with the developmentally disabled, and I am still an adult literacy tutor. An hour a week helping someone learn to read is a great way to remind myself that there are a lot harder pursuits than being in a graduate program, and there are many more things that matter than whether my advisor or classmates think I am smart.

All of this being said, grad school can be a really stressful time. If you are struggling with anxiety, depression, or just feel too overwhelmed to tackle your negative feelings yourself, be sure to seek help. Most campuses have counseling centers that offer free depression/anxiety screenings as well as free therapy. Please don’t suffer alone.

Be sure to tell us about your tips to dealing with Impostor Syndrome in the comments!

For more on Impostor Syndrome:

[Image by Flickr user rhoadeecha and used under Creative Commons license]


21 Responses to Banishing Impostor Syndrome

  1. Melvin grant says:

    There is an online quiz here for the Impostor Syndrome.

  2. Karen says:

    Andrea, we both know the extent to which this syndrome can erode our sense of efficacy and general well being. Thank you for not only saying it out loud but offering meaningful, helpful advice. I’ll be checking out those resources you offered and can I mention how my faith carries me through? I guess I just did.

  3. Great article Andrea. Grad students are so susceptible to impostor feelings. Partly it’s a function of being as student which means you’re literally having your knowledge tested on a regular basis.

    Partly its academic culture itself — which helps explain why the one study which found males identify with the impostor syndrome more were college professors.

    The advice to fake it til you make it is good. Yet over the 25 years I’ve been working with primarily women I’ve found that for a host of reasons this is trickier for women to do.

    I ended up writing an entire chapter on the reasons why its easier for men to make it up as they go along as well the legitimate reasons why many women resist what could be construed as BSing.

    It never occured to me when I was writing my own dissertation way back then that I’d ever be writing a book that talks about the poop on bullshitting 🙂

    Valerie Young

  4. […] great posts for new graduate students, like How to Read a Book (a deceptively difficult task) and Banishing Impostor Syndrome (I’m always faking it, but one day I hope to make it) in addition to more traditional first […]

  5. Would you believe that professors (especially new assistant profs) suffer from this too?

    • I would believe it. It seems like it might be worse: now you have a “real” job and there’s no more safety net! It’s good to talk about it, I think, so that people know they are not alone. Thanks for the comments, as always 🙂

  6. Katie says:

    Oh, thank you, thank you, thank you so much! I’m a first-year grad student, and I have been feeling PRECISELY what you describe. On top of the feelings of being overwhelmed by the sheer volume of work, trying to figure out how to “read/speak/think like a grad student”, and all the normal moving-to-a-new-place adjustments, the constant feeling that I don’t belong here has been eating away at what little confidence I did have, and sabotaging my ability to do the simplest things, like participate in class discussion. Having come from a somewhat less-illustrious background than the rest of my cohort, it has been incredibly difficult not to feel continually intimidated by everyone around me. This will go a long way to helping me resolve those issues.

    Thank you!

    • Katie,
      Thank you for these comments. My heart goes out to you as I read them and your blog as well. As you see above, even professors feel this way. Many grad students, even those from the “illustrious” schools,feel this way. I do hope the suggestions in the post and in the comments help you feel less alone, and that they help you move into a place of comfort and strength. Reading your blog, it sounds like we have a lot in common in that we didn’t take the most direct route to graduate school. Even though the path is different, the view from the top of the mountain is the same. Just keep walking.

      Good luck!

  7. ReadyWriting says:

    Sometimes, unfortunately, you can end up in grad program where there is little support from your peers. I strongly recommend Twitter to find support and kind, encouraging words. Also, remember there is life outside of your PhD. You are more than your PhD, and there are tons of people out there who share your interests outside of your PhD. When we can start to see that our PhD is only one part of our identies, it becomes much easier to manage those negative voices.

    • That is so true: I think it is SO important to expand your network beyond your program. I have found so much support through twitter and other social networks. I especially second the idea of recognizing that we are much more than Graduate Students. Staying rooted in my other identities has been my saving grace. Thanks so much for chiming in. Your comments are much appreciated.

  8. Janni Aragon says:

    This is a common feeling, but we don’t talk about it enough. And, your suggestions are all great. I know that helping others also helps you. Peer mentoring is important.

    And, like Lee said, have a life outside of work or at least attempt to do so.


  9. cory.owen says:

    I keep thinking back to this post every now and then as I see so many people struggle with this. I’m great at faking it, but what I think has helped me the most was that one of my professor’s hosts a monthly dinner at his house where the conversation usually turns into the various aspects of our lives that we’re struggling with. With a few glasses of wine in our system, we’re a lot more willing to open up with our fears and to support each other. Sometimes even admitting that you’re struggling is a battle!

  10. […] I have come to believe that success in graduate school is a combination of ignoring feelings of Imposter Syndrome while simultaneously resisting an academic culture that undervalues real-world experience.  I love […]

  11. Eryn says:

    Great article! How refreshing to read a piece that reminds us that when we take the focus from ourselves by helping others we can actually feel better. Good information all around! (I was told the fake-it-till-you-make-it advice years ago and give it to some students as well.

  12. […] What’s more, I know that I am not alone. That said, you will be hard pressed to find another doctoral researcher who will be willing to open up and admit to being in a similar situation. If they do, it will be in whispered undertones, and they’ll be looking left and right to make sure that there’s nobody else around to overhear their ‘confession’. We are all scared of discovery and to an extent, I believe that we all have varying degrees of ‘Imposter Syndrome‘. […]

  13. […] impostor phenomenon? To answer that, I will point you to a marvelous article at GradHacker entitled “Banishing Impostor Syndrome.” In her article, author Andrea Zellner outlines four main strategies for combating this […]

  14. Thanks so much for this article! It’s such a comfort knowing that I’m not alone in this experience. Your tips for overcoming the impostor phenomenon are wonderful! I have linked back to your page in a recent blog post I wrote on the subject, and have earnestly encouraged my readers to have a look. Your work is much appreciated!

  15. […] generally hard for me to to hold in any question, I’ve remained largely silent because I feel woefully under-informed. If someone else brings up the issue, I get more comfortable and add in my own response. Of course […]

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