Imposter Syndrome

Author: Alaina Talboy, MA ABD


Making the jump from undergraduate to graduate studies may inspire intense feelings of accomplishment, pride, happiness, and … imposterism?  Newly minted graduates who are stepping into higher degree programs often report feeling like an “imposter” in a sea of other graduate students who appear to be more intelligent, more qualified, and more capable of meeting all the requirements of a graduate degree.  Often, these students feel like they are a fraud, someone who does not belong in such a group of highly intelligent individuals, and that it is just a matter of time before other people realize this too.  These feelings are referred to as Imposter Syndrome, which affects both female and male graduate students.

I wish I could say I am impervious to this syndrome, but I have also experienced my fair share of imposterism as well.  Accomplishments that others view as landmark successes, I have written off as “catching a lucky break” or that I just happened to be in the right place at the right time.  Internalizing success is something that I struggle with on a regular basis.  Despite the ever-growing list of publications, awards, grants, all the time and effort I see myself putting into research and teaching, I still get the feeling that sometimes that someone, somewhere is going to notice that I do not belong in academia.  And I am not the only successful academic who experiences this.

Imposter Syndrome affects up to 70% of people in general (Clark, Vardeman, & Barba, 2014).  Further, it is extensively documented in people who pursue academic careers (for a summary, see Parkman, 2016).  We all know about the intense pressure to succeed in both research and teaching (as well as service, mentoring, and other lesser-known metrics) if we ever want to be successful in academia.  But no one ever really warns us that we might experience intense feelings of imposterism, let alone how to address it as we pursue these academic careers.  Unfortunately, I do not have a cure, but I can tell you what helps me (and others) when I realize I am having these feelings. 

First, talk to your cohort and professors about it.  It is difficult and often jarring to go from being the best and brightest of your undergraduate program, to being just one of the best and brightest who was accepted into your graduate program.  Considering sitting down with your colleagues and mentors to discuss these feelings openly.  You might be surprised to find that you are not the only one who experiences imposterism from time to time.  Your advisors went through graduate school long before you, so they may have some sage advice for dealing with these types of issues.  These conversations may even help you build a network of support that can become foundational for your career development.

Second, take a break. OK, I know this one seems counterintuitive, but bear with me.  The academics I know who experience imposterism are some of the hardest working people I have ever met.  They are the first to the lab, and the last to leave, constantly working on something related to their research or teaching.  The myth of working 80+ hours a week in graduate school is just that, a myth.  Treat your graduate studies just as you would any other career.  Put in your 40-45 hours a week (ok, maybe 50 on a really busy week), but then take time for yourself.  Physical health and mental health go hand in hand, and sometimes your body needs the break as much as your mind does.  Go enjoy a few minutes in nature, at the beach, or anywhere that is not related to academia.  Separating yourself from the work (even for just a few minutes) can help you unpack a mental load so that when you head back to your desk, you are ready to tackle your to-do list head-on.

Third, consider mentoring younger cohorts.  By providing advice and support to those who are just starting their career path, you can very quickly and easily see how far you have come and how much you have learned.  Even taking the time to talk to incoming freshmen about the challenges of completing an associates or bachelors degree can help you reflect on who you were when you first started your journey to who you are now.  Giving back in this way not only helps the next generation of researchers and intellectuals navigate academia, it also helps us grow and see how much we have grown.

Finally, recognize that you are intelligent, qualified, and capable of doing what is needed to complete your graduate degree.  Take a moment to tell yourself that from time to time.  You are enough.  You are not an imposter.  You belong in the position you earned.  Trust that!  And if you are still struggling, drop me a message and I will tell you that myself.
Clark, M., Vardeman, K., & Barba, S. (2014). Perceived inadequacy: A study of the imposter phenomenon among college and research librarians. College & Research Libraries, 75(3), 255-271.

Parkman, A. (2016). The imposter phenomenon in higher education: Incidence and impact. Journal of Higher Education Theory and Practice, 16(1), 51.