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September SPSPotlight: Coping with Imposter Syndrome

When You Feel Like a Fraud: Coping With Imposter Syndrome

 By Sarah Williams, GSC Member at Large

The truth is, I don’t belong in grad school. I’m not nearly as clever, accomplished, or imaginative as my peers. I can’t achieve their level of insight, their drive, or their success. The mere idea that I could continue into an academic job, knowing how good faculty members are compared to myself? Preposterous. Somehow I’ve fooled everyone, slipped into graduate studies unnoticed, and am just biding my time until someone figures out I shouldn’t be here.

If those words ring true to you, you’re not alone. These types of thoughts and feelings are one of the signs of impostor syndrome: the feeling that your accomplishments are illegitimate, are due to luck instead of ability, or are the result of deceiving others into thinking you’re more competent than you really are. It’s commonplace - some estimates range as high as 70% of all people feeling like this at times. Famous figures have shared these feelings, from Emma Watson (“Any moment, someone’s going to find out I’m a total fraud”) to Albert Einstein (“I feel compelled to think of myself as an involuntary swindler”). And it seems to hit two groups particularly hard: high achievers, and those who are beginning new endeavours.

In other words, graduate students.

I first heard about this phenomenon during orientation in my first year of graduate school. I already felt like a fraud, like I’d been accepted accidentally and wouldn’t last past the first week. They ensured that they told us this was a normal feeling, that senior students and profs often felt the same way, and that it didn’t mean we didn’t belong. And you know what? Knowing didn’t help as much as I expected. “Aha,” I said to myself, “other people wrongly feel this way, but I REALLY don’t deserve to be here.” Self-doubt is a tricky beast to battle.

I am now three years into grad school, and still struggle with these feelings sometimes. (Let me tell you, writing that first paragraph was not a challenge for me!) But as always, when I feel uncertain about belonging in this world, I turn to psychology for answers. Here are a few theories from social psychology, and how I apply them to think about impostor syndrome.

Pluralistic ignorance. People generally don’t go around talking about feeling like a fraud. And people generally don’t go around boasting about the mistakes they made, the times they struggled to think of research topics, or how often they’ve stayed up until 2 a.m. watching Netflix instead of working on a grant proposal that was due the next day. Instead, they talk about successes, brilliant insights, and how often they’ve stayed up until 2 a.m. working on that grant proposal. We’re well aware of our own failings, but because we’re not keen on talking about those failings, we don’t… which means that when we, personally, fail, it feels like we’re alone. If all the other grad students are succeeding, and I’m failing, I must be an impostor! If I feel like a fraud, and no one else says they do, I must be a fraud! I try to remind myself that others do feel the same way, and that others do encounter the same difficulties and make the same mistakes - we just don’t usually see that side of the story.

The Dunning-Kruger effect. Most people are aware of one side of this effect: that unknowledgeable people often overestimate their abilities, because they don’t have the tools to assess their (lack of) knowledge - they don’t know what they don’t know. The flip side of this is that highly knowledgeable people will underestimate their abilities, for two reasons. First, we assume that everyone knows what we know, and it isn’t anything special - this is especially true when we are surrounded by peers who do, mostly, have the same research, statistics, and reasoning skills as us. Second, and I think more importantly, is that we KNOW what we don’t know. I’m aware of all the papers I need to read, the research topics of peers I don’t fully understand, things that I knew at one point but are now unclear, and because I’m aware of the vast number of things I’m entirely unknowledgeable about, I start feeling… dumb. When I do, I try to remind myself of what I DO know. When I feel like I haven’t achieved much, I just remember that if asked, without blinking an eye, I know how to run statistical analyses that would make much of the general population cry in terror. That there are some areas in psychology (admittedly, very small areas) where I am the ultimate expert.

In the end, there is no one easy way to beat the impostor syndrome. My solutions may not work for everyone. If there is one thing to take from this article, however, it is this: you are not alone.

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