In the midst of studying for my written qualifying exam, I began to panic. It was a mixed panic, the jitters you get before a big exam coupled with a crippling self-doubt. I had experienced this same self-doubt before, when I was first accepted into Mayo Graduate School (MGS). I did not feel like I had earned my place in graduate school, especially at Mayo Clinic, and that my accomplishments felt like nothing compared to those of my peers. I came into graduate school with only two years of “real” college experience, as I had taken dual credit courses in high school and lacked substantial life experience. The courses I had taken in college were difficult in some cases, but for the most part manageable and easy when compared to my first graduate school courses. The first few months of graduate school were overwhelming and I felt that they had made a mistake in admitting me into MGS. I felt like I was not good enough or smart enough or experienced enough to be in graduate school.
Does this sound familiar? This self-doubt and unnerving fear of being unmasked is known as imposter syndrome and it is common in graduate students. So much that the University of Washington made a flyer with information on the topic and how to overcome imposter syndrome. Upon researching the topic, I came across several articles and videos concerning imposter syndrome. I have included some additional links at the bottom for more detailed information.
So why does this happen? Why do we feel like such frauds?
It happens to the best of people. Those that are high achievers or perfectionists are most likely to suffer from imposter syndrome, and yes, that can include people we consider brilliant. People that tend to be over-achieving in nature set high standards for themselves or their goals and become anxious when on the road to completing such goals. Studies have also indicated that it’s more common in women given that women are less likely to credit themselves for their work and underrate themselves when compared to their peers. More recent studies, however, have shown that there is a trend of imposter syndrome occurring in men and that it is equal to that in women. Furthermore, a 2013 study of ethnic college students in the Journal of Multicultural Counseling and Development showed that imposter feelings are higher among a group of African Americans and Latino/a Americans.
Imposter syndrome or feelings can be subdivided into three categories as follows:
- Feeling fake: that constant feeling that you’ll be unmasked due to a mistake or falling short of expectations of others.
- Attributing success to luck: often times, sufferers from imposter syndrome give credit for their successes to everything but their own abilities.
- Downplaying their own success: imposter syndrome sufferers may also feel like their successes aren’t a big deal or relevant.
To have imposter syndrome, does not mean that sufferers experience all three imposter feelings, but can be one, two, or all feelings. Graduate students are susceptible to imposter syndrome upon matriculation due to course-load or difficulty in addition to the constant ups-and downs that come with science. Experiments failing or protocols that you can’t seem to get right are prime situations that can lead to imposter syndrome. Graduate schools are now offering counseling as well as informational sessions on imposter syndrome, exemplified by the University of Washington flyer and by the yearly session offered by the Initiatives for Maximizing Student Development (IMSD) in conjunction with the Employee Assistance Program (EAP) here at Mayo Clinic.
How do you overcome imposter syndrome?
The first step to overcoming imposter syndrome may be one of the most difficult: recognize that it’s there. Often times, people experience imposter syndrome but don’t recognize it as a problem or realize that it has a name. To recognize that there are imposter feelings occurring, is a major step for several people, and can therefore help in overcoming it. Overall, realizing that expectations are set to high also aids in overcoming imposter syndrome. Setting expectations to realistic levels is the key to overcoming imposter syndrome.
Talk to Someone
Talking to mentors about self-doubt and imposter feelings can also aid in setting realistic goals for yourself in addition to recognizing your abilities. Much like speaking to a mentor, family members can also give advice and support in situations of imposter feelings. Finally, as mentioned above, the EAP at Mayo offers counseling for imposter syndrome.
Reality vs. Perfection
As perfectionists, this step is difficult in that you have to come to terms with realizing that no one is perfect. We’re all human, and we make mistakes, but that’s life. You live and you make mistakes, and you learn from them. No one expects you to know everything, and there will always be someone that’s smarter, or more knowledgeable, but that’s room for improvement. Once you stop comparing yourself to others, a new world opens up. We’re always learning and we never stop being students, which in a way takes the pressure off. My undergraduate research mentor once told me he didn’t know everything and that he was terrible at many things, but he was always good at reading and learning to become better in new areas of science and stay ahead.
Take Credit for Your Achievements
This one is self-explanatory, but needs to be said. Take credit for your achievements and don’t downplay that. You got to the point where you are because you did something great and you deserve to be proud of what you’ve done.
For more information, please visit the following sites.
No, You're Not an Impostor (Science Article)
Mayo Employee Assistance Program (available on the Mayo Clinic intranet only)