Do you feel that your acceptance to graduate school was a mistake? Are you secretly worried about someone discovering that you are light years behind every one of your classmates? Have you been struggling with feelings of inadequacy despite doing well in your coursework?
If you answered yes to the above questions, you are most likely suffering from impostor syndrome, a psychological condition that is very common among high-achievers.
Those who set high expectations for themselves often find it hard to reconcile the perception others have of them with their own perception of their competency. They downplay their accomplishments for fear that they may not be able to repeat them. They have a hard time accepting praise, and take any negative feedback not as a reflection on the project in question but as a reflection on their abilities.
Thus, they avoid applying for fellowships, submitting journal articles, or asking for any recognition in group work. They are in hiding; they are perfectionists; and they are extremely stressed.
If this is you, rest assured that some seventy percent of grad students
have felt that way at some point during their studies.
Here are five ways that can help you cope with impostor syndrome:
1. Write down your thoughts
If you feel a wave of negativity taking hold of you, take a piece of paper, give yourself ten minutes and write down all your thoughts. “I don’t belong in this program. It’s pure luck that I ended up here, and I’m a fraud for accepting a spot. My research is pointless, my thesis is stupid, I will never be able to prove it, and soon they will all know that I’m a failure…” Okay. No more than ten minutes. Now read over your confession. Does it sound completely rational and plausible? If there is even an ounce of doubt, (be honest here!) then do yourself a favor and tear the page into tiny pieces then throw them away. It’s nothing but a bunch of nonsense inspired by your momentary insecurity. You will feel lighter instantly.
2. Create a written antidote
Write down your achievements and expertise in a notebook, or in a file on your computer. Every time you receive a positive comment or appraisal, add it to your “praise diary.” Save all supportive emails and notes—anything you recognize in your more objective moments as praise, acknowledging that you are smart, talented, and belong to grad school. If you think of yourself as a failure, the collection above will convince you otherwise.
3. Stop comparing yourself to others
There will always be someone ahead of you in any area of your life, especially in your chosen field of study. If you let that stop you, the world will be deprived of the talent you bring to it. Focus on what you bring to the discussion, what you have the potential to be best at. Remind yourself of your strengths (see the praise diary above) and focus on them. That way you will be able to work with everyone in your field in a supportive and more productive manner. Besides, how do you know that the person you are comparing yourself to isn’t battling impostor syndrome herself?
4. Accept that you aren’t a master of your discipline yet
Alright, so you can’t get over the fact that you aren’t as far ahead as the Person You Admire, or as far ahead as you thought you’d be, or as far ahead as any misguided notion would have you believe you should be. It’s okay. You are in grad school to learn. If you knew everything already, there would be no point in attending. You will have plenty of time to rise to the top of your career.
5. Volunteer to teach someone a skill
There is always a need for tutors in the sciences, humanities, or arts, and your hobbies might be in demand, too. Volunteer teaching will force you to acknowledge your expertise. If you were no good would anyone ask you for help?