Impostor Syndrome

I recently heard the term “impostor syndrome” while listening to a podcast—this article has a good discussion of the phenomenon in graduate school. It was on offhand remark and the speaker did not give any detail or explanation, however, I knew immediately what the term meant.  For me, it was one of those perfect terms that clearly illustrate an idea without further explanation.

It was something that I had felt in graduate school and I assumed many others did also; it is the general feeling that you are not talented or intelligent enough to be there.  I just never knew a term existed for this feeling.  One reason it might be common in graduate school is the selection process.  The applications and tests required for admission to graduate school seem to be poor indicators of success in the program.  My GRE score does not capture my ability to learn independently or develop novel research.

Upon beginning graduate school, I was a (over)confident student with little doubt in my ability to succeed.  Various interactions quickly broke down that confidence.  My new labmates had knowledge that far surpassed mine in our research field.  Granted, they were three and four years my senior, but closing the gap seemed daunting at the time.  My first interaction with a professor in the department did not help either.  I was admitted with a fellowship for my first year.  This unnamed professor told me that I likely received the fellowship by mistake; according to him too many unqualified applicants had received it that year.

Having a person who should have been a mentor basically tell me I was an impostor was a hit to the ego.  Many professors do similar things.  Some will openly state you should know answers to the questions you ask.  Others will present complicated topics during lecture and tell you that they should already be obvious or clear.  If they truly expected students to already know everything they teach, why would graduate school exist?  There was recently some controversy over a departmental letter sent to astronomy graduate students.  Among other things, it implied that if you were not regularly working 80 hour weeks, then you might be an impostor.

Luckily not all professors are like that.  Many, like my thesis advisor, are actually interested in teaching.  Finding an advisor that did not immediately expect me to be an expert was integral to my success.  For me, the feeling disappeared as I neared graduation.  My confidence had returned by the time I defended and I certainly was not concerned about being viewed as an imposter in the future.

This is the point where I should say something motivational and tell anyone that feels like an impostor that it is not true.  Unfortunately, based on my experience in graduate school, I cannot.  Less than half the people who began with me actually attained the degree they attempted.  Some left because they realized six years of poverty—working on problems that verge on meaningless—was not for them.  Some were victims of circumstance.  Others honestly did not belong.  Either they did not have the discipline to work on their own without specific goals or their undergraduate degree left them unprepared.  There were certainly times I felt I was in the last category.

That being said, I would suggest ignoring the voice in the back of your head.  It is more important to rely on real metrics.  If you cannot pass required classes and you struggle to motivate yourself to work on research, graduate school may not be for you; I still would not use the term impostor though.

While, in many ways, graduate school can be viewed as a sacrifice, it should not be years of pain.  There is nothing wrong with moving on to something you are passionate about—not to mention getting a four year head start in pay compared to your classmates.

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