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Imposter syndrome: seriously, am I who they want?

“I have written 11 books but each time I think ‘Uh-oh, they’re going to find out now. I’ve run a game on everybody, and they’re going to find me out.’”—Maya Angelou I never experienced imposter syndrome until I made it to my second graduate program. When I was in my undergraduate years I did have […]

“I have written 11 books but each time I think ‘Uh-oh, they’re going to find out now. I’ve run a game on everybody, and they’re going to find me out.’”
—Maya Angelou

I never experienced imposter syndrome until I made it to my second graduate program. When I was in my undergraduate years I did have a lot of moments where I felt I wasn't as brilliant as some of my peers, but I at least thought I was good enough to get by. When I pursued my masters degree, I was initially worried that I wouldn't be able to academically keep up, but after my first few classes I knew I was going to excel. Even in my post-graduate jobs I worked, I always felt confident. There wasn't really a time that I questioned if I was going to make a total fool of myself. Then came my PhD program. 

When I first applied to my PhD program, I thought "well, this is going to be a long-shot, but I'll apply". I only applied to one school, I knew they only bring out a couple of people for an interview, and I decided I would just continue working in research if I didn't get in. In fact, I told my husband "I'm just letting you know that I applied for this program, but we don't really have to think about moving or anything, because they'll never want me". Imagine my shock when I found out they wanted to fly me half-way across the country for an interview. 

When I arrived for the recruitment weekend, I told myself not to worry too much. After all, not all who would be interviewed would be accepted. I decided to just go there, learn what I could over the weekend, and at least I could say I tried. Right? I loved everything I learned about the program, I thoroughly enjoyed the faculty I interviewed with, and I left. Again, I told myself not to get my hopes up...but then I got in. 

Fast-forward some months to when I was starting my program. I was continuously worried they had made a mistake. I was afraid that at some point they would have a sudden realization that I was not the person they meant to accept. Yet I was. So that brings me to this question of; what was I so worried about? I had demonstrated success before, so why did I suddenly become this anxiety-driven person who felt inadequate and unfitted to be here?

Imposter syndrome is a real issue. I hadn't known it before, but it is very familiar now. There's no real reason for it, yet it creeps up when you least expect it. With every successful course I have taken in my PhD program, every high mark on my exams, and every successful project I may work on, there it sat in the back of my mind telling me I'm going to screw this up.

So how do you get past it? The first thing I would recommend is finding a mentor who is able to affirm the value of the work you do, encourage you, and with whom you feel comfortable disclosing your fear of failures with. The second is to write down your thoughts of why it is you feel like an imposter. I say this because when you look at these remarks on paper, sometimes it helps you realize how ridiculous they actually look. In addition to this, write down all of the things you are successful at. Sometimes you need to remind yourself of all you are capable of to remember that you are here for a reason. 

I hate that phrase "fake it til you make it". I always have. The thing is, sometimes you sort of do need to 'fake' it. Go through the motions, but at the same time recognize all of the ways you are not an imposter. Make note of why you should be where you are. I know this is going to sound really cheesy, but everyday write down one thing you did right. Until then, don't be shy. Reach out, and talk to other people, because the likelihood of other people having a similar experience is probably pretty high. 

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