Academia can be a thrilling place to work, but it’s also an environment that puts a lot of pressure on you to achieve. Combined with the competitive atmosphere, it’s no surprise that many academics (regardless of their seniority) experience impostor syndrome.
Impostor syndrome is a nagging feeling of self-doubt and unworthiness that persists despite obvious achievements. Grad students experiencing impostor syndrome constantly feel like they are intellectually inferior and were admitted to their program by mistake. They worry that it’s just a matter of time before someone notices that they shouldn’t be here. They are sensitive to criticism and skeptical of praise from their peers or supervisor. They tend to play down their accomplishments or attribute them to luck rather than skill. In the long term, impostor syndrome might hold them back from achieving their goals and progressing in their career. This feeling of phoniness has a major impact on their well-being, mental health, productivity, and interpersonal relationships.
The first thing that will help you move past this feeling is to realize that you’re not alone. Impostor syndrome is a common feeling among graduate students and academics of all levels. Find someone you feel comfortable with in your program and talk to them about how you’re feeling. Chances are they feel the same pressure and have the same doubts that you do. Even the students who seem to have it all together are probably experiencing similar self-doubt. By sharing your feelings, you can encourage each other and share tips for mitigating impostor syndrome.
Comparison is at the heart of impostor syndrome, and, as the saying goes, comparison is the thief of joy. In grad school, you are constantly surrounded by intelligent, high-achieving people. But try not to see their successes as your failures. Comparing yourself to others will almost always increase your feelings of being less than. Remember that we all have different strengths and while they may excel in one area, you excel in another. Comparisons can be especially demoralizing if you’re comparing yourself to someone at a different career stage than you. Obviously, a PhD student will not have accomplished as much or be as knowledgeable as a postdoc. They have had more opportunities to hone their time management skills, apply for grants, and prepare manuscripts. But you’re seeing them now, not how they were when they were at the same point as you.
Something that’s key to overcoming impostor syndrome is learning to separate your feelings from facts. Just because you feel a certain way doesn’t mean it’s true. You might, for example, feel like a slacker because it seems like everyone else in your group spends more hours working than you. However, you may have better time management skills than they do or start working earlier in the day. Similarly, you may feel like you always have to know the answer to a question and that you don’t deserve to be where you are if you don’t. This is not true. Like everyone else, you are not expected to have all the answers all the time and are allowed to ask for help when you need it. Your feelings are sabotaging your rational brain. You have to change to a growth-based mindset, allowing you to focus on the learning opportunities in a situation.
It is important to keep in mind that some scholars don’t just feel like impostors, they are made to feel like impostors by the demographics or history of their field. In fact, the “impostor phenomenon” was first identified in the 70s as a feeling of intellectual phoniness in high-achieving women. More recent research shows that students who are members of minority groups report higher impostor feelings. They will likely have a harder time overcoming these feelings because their environment reinforces them