• The Ghost of Grad School

Impostor Syndrome: Remember Who You Are

What is impostor syndrome?

Our good friends Wikipedia defines impostor syndrome as a psychological pattern in which an individual doubts their skills, talents or accomplishments and has a persistent internalized fear of being exposed as a "fraud." Originally a term used by psychologists, "impostor syndrome" has been generally embraced into the common lexicon (though I hear it most used in professional settings).

To many academics, this definition hits all to close to home. And not without reason as nearly 70% of people experience impostor syndrome at least once in their life time.

Unhelpful Ways of Dealing With Impostor Syndrome

I've seen (myself and others) give two main unhelpful reactions to experiencing impostor syndrome.

"Going Low” (lack of confidence, understating what one has done)

Continuing to devalue one's contributions and achievements is basically the definition of the impostor cycle. You might procrastinate till the last minute or you over-prepare unnecessarily. Either way, you likely continue to see the accomplishments that you do achieve as things you've acquired out of luck. This is fairly detrimental to establishing yourself as an academic where tooting your own horn is seen as part of the game (XXX link to other blog post).

Alternatively, you might take the high road.

"Going High” (prideful, overstating what one has done)

Taking the path of (often odd or overly forced) pride is also unlikely to assist one in the long run when dealing with impostor syndrome. This is basically where you (sometimes intentionally but oftentimes not) act like you are a gift from god and have all the answers to all the questions.

This backfires pretty rapidly in academic as one might imagine because... no one has all the answers. That's literally why academia is a thing. Plus, in an environment where many people are tooting their own horn (and rightfully so if they have the accomplishments to back it up), it's easy to spot who hasn't done shit but is talking like they did.

I have an unfortunate example of where "going high" backfired on someone. I was in collaboration with a hiring committee that was looking to replace an outgoing faculty-level researcher. We got a fairly competitive application from a graduating student that some on the hiring committee were aware of. This student had good credentials but talked in their application materials as if they had run projects themselves and were a self-made star in their field. Folks on the hiring committee knew well enough about the applicant's background to know that they were overstating their contributions to specific projects, which lead to further doubts about what the applicant could achieve. This applicant did not get offered the position.

I believe this applicant was a good student and scholar but they fell into the trap of sounding unrealistically independent and not correctly positioning themselves in the narrative of their application materials. They didn't even mention working with their mentor! Were we supposed to believe that they were born achieving at levels like this? Trying to sound older (in a professional sense) than we actually are is a common pitfall - and one that can have consequences. Be sure to avoid it.

A Simple (But Not Easy) Answer to Impostor Syndrome

Just focus on the truth: you are a graduate student (or post-doc or research scientist, etc etc) on the path to academic enlightenment.

You don't have to be the all-knowing expert. You can be a graduate student on the path to greater things. Remember, it takes ten years to become an expert at something (assuming you are working on it full-time).

I strongly recommend reflecting this in your writing. Some examples of ways to talk about your achievements in a balance way (not too high, not too low)

  • Growing expert

  • Emerging scholar

  • Rising contributor

Nothing wrong with bragging about our accomplishments, but let's do so in a realistic way.


Most people will experience impostor syndrome at some point and most people will work through it on their own. However, not all will find their own solution and it's not worth continuing to suffer if your own attempts at finding a solution aren't working.

If you continue to struggle with impostor syndrome despite your attempts to work through it and it is becoming a problem in your professional and/or personal life, do yourself a favor and seek professional help. A university therapist is literally the perfect resource when dealing with this kind of issue. They can help you get perspective on your accomplishments, your shortcomings, and whether further therapeutic assistance would be necessary. When it doubt, ask an expert for help.

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