Emily brought home a nice little present from work: “Apparently there’s such a thing as Imposter Syndrome.”

This is not, as I first thought, a disorder in which people adapt to stressful environments by faking their way through them. My first reaction to that was “Hey, I totally have Imposter Syndrome!” But no.

It is instead a disorder that prevents people from seeing how good they actually are at what they do. They cannot internalize their accomplishments or any metrics by which others measure success.

Oh. I definitely have Imposter Syndrome.

My conceitedness in other areas aside for a moment, I wonder on a near-daily basis if I’m just faking my way through graduate school. I think “This isn’t good enough; I’m not good enough; how did I get here? Why haven’t I been kicked out yet? I can’t possibly keep doing it this way without failing. I’m going to get caught. I’m going to pay for this.”

Past academic successes are all irrelevant when I think about what I’m doing now. I cannot believe that I deserve to be where I am, no matter what I’ve done before, no matter what anyone has said before.

Looking at the Wikipedia entry on Imposter Syndrome I see this unsurprising claim: “It is commonly associated with academics and is widely found among graduate students.”


I spent all summer avoiding my advisor because I’d given a talk to the department in May that I thought went horribly and I was heartbroken over it. Even though in her e-mail immediately after she said the talk went well and that other faculty members agreed, and even though I spoke to other members of my committee who thought it went well, and even though other graduate students I spoke to thought it went well, I could not believe them. I still don’t believe them. I don’t. I think “Well, they just don’t know enough about the material to be good judges of the talk,” or “She’s just saying that…” or “The ones who actually do think it was garbage aren’t going to say anything about it so of course I only hear the good, ignorant, feedback.” I make up ways for them to be wrong about me, for me to just be pulling the wool over their eyes.

Whether I genuinely suffer from Imposter Syndrome, actually am undeserving, or even cannot possibly suffer from it because it’s not a real disorder, I think I know why graduate students seem unusually prone to the feelings associated with it.

In graduate school we are training to become experts in our fields. We are learning how to learn to be experts. But we are also learning from experts, people who are at the top of their game, and we read nothing but papers written by people at the top of their game. We measure ourselves not only against our peers (though we do that as well), but against those who have been doing what we do for twenty, thirty, or forty years longer than we have. Some of us can accept that fact for what it is, a fact that shouldn’t impact our own self-valuation, but others of us can’t. We look at our own research, our own writings, our own conclusions and compare them to these lauded, well-respected, well-circulated thoughts and we always find our own to be lacking. It’s no wonder we think we’re not good enough.

We might actually be good enough to be exactly what we are: graduate students and young academics. But the only way to convince ourselves of that is to spend more time reading each others’ work and seeing that we are all making the same mistakes, that we aren’t just getting lucky or fooling people.

But getting graduate students who already feel like imposters to share their work with other graduate students, who they feel will find them out as imposters, is like herding cats into a bathtub full of water. Moreover, even if we do all share our work we would never accept the judgment of other graduate students as valid, because they are just graduate students. “Aren’t they all imposters too?” we’d think to ourselves.


There’s that.

Any other grad students out there feeling Imposter-y? How about people feeling like fakers in other areas? I’m not alone, am I?

18 thoughts on “Imposter”

  1. Nope, not alone. I did a Master's in Teaching and still feel like an imposter. I'm just hiding out here at home with my 2 boys so no one actually has to find out about it…
    (ps. my spell check doesn't like imposter… )

  2. Not at all alone.
    Heck, even as a parent I was kind of surprised they just let me walk out of the hospital with my daughter – as if I had a clue what I was doing. (Note: I had changed precisely 2 diapers in my life before my daughter – when I was 15 and babysitting – pretty sure I did it wrong back then.)
    I struggle (and always have) with feeling like I'm always underqualified no matter what field I'm in.
    Don't let the aura of smug self-confidence fool you – that's something we Imposters do to try and keep people from noticing that we're completely unfit.

    Seriously, you can ask some of my closest friends. Heck… ask my husband.

    Personally, I love this 'syndrome' – it kind of gives us a shape to our fears, doesn't it?

  3. I have felt like an imposter since the day I left high school. Not qualified to take the degree course I took (I scraped into university by the skin of my teeth), bluffing it in my first job, and now that I have got a "career" type job, I'm just waiting to be hauled into the boss's office and told that they have seen through me. Being the "go-to expert" for a department of over 200 people doesn't help. Dispassionately, I know that I'm good at what I do, but that doesn't stop me feeling like I'm faking it every minute that I'm in work.

    The veneer of self-confidence and control is very thin – I may be nearly 30, but inside, I'm still 13 and scared…

  4. AH, now I know why I didn't go into academia, which made me the black sheep in a family full of doctorates and MDs; in art history, german literature, and the fun subject of red blood cell membrane sodium-potassium pumps (imagine spending your whole life researching THAT). I knew full that my already imposterish feelings would become magnified. Unfortunately, I can't escape the genetic tendency to feel like an imposter in what I do now, which is run a non-profit. On the other hand, that swinging pendulum between imposter syndrome and smug self-confidence seems to be what characterizes some of the most creative minds in history, so we're in good company.

  5. During my grad student orientation, they actually had a brief presentation about "Imposter Syndrome," and the counselor mentioned that when the university holds seminars about the topic, they're the most well-attended of the year — by students AND faculty. I experienced these feelings shortly after I joined my first grad student research appointment, largely because every other member of the 10-member research team had received their PhD from Stanford, Harvard, or Berkeley. Even the other grad students earned their M.A.s from one of the three. Having attending a smaller liberal arts college, it took me about 2 months before I stopped getting the jitters before our conference calls and meetings. You're definitely not alone, and I think one of the interesting elements is that the faculty have been there (and some still experience it). One of the shining stars in our department, a younger, well-published professor with a Stanford PhD, admitted he dealt with the Imposter Syndrome until shortly after he started his professorship. It helped me to know this is normal. Sometimes, I tell my husband I feel like a scholar with a lower-case s, while I feel as if the others are *Scholars*. Who knows how those Scholars feel, though.

  6. I'm not a grad student but really get this post. I often have trouble answering calls from people or opening emails because I'm convinced they are about to knock me back/put me down or generally tell me I'm rubbish when reaching out and trying to grow my website. I know my work is good yada yada, and yet at the same time am convinced that others don't think so, that I'm disillusioned, that they will be angry with me for thinking I can join in playing with the grown ups. I have butterflies in my stomach every time a new email about the business arrives or the phone rings convinced that the jog is up, they've found me out and i'll just have to give it all up and crawl back in my hole.

  7. Oh, you are most definitely not alone. Great point about being afraid to share our work. I have a graduate-school colleague at Yale who keeps offering to read my drafts (she's on leave right now, so she'd actually have time), but I'm terrified she'll see how little I really know.

    Thanks for sharing this. I'm stalling out in my grad program, and I wonder if Imposter Syndrome is at the core of my problems.

  8. Grad student? Hell, what about being a parent? At what point can you be confident that you haven't totally screwed up your kid?

    I'm a total imposter parent. I don't know how they let me breed…glad I did, but wonder when everyone will realize that I'm faking the responsible parent thing.

  9. I don't know what you are in grad school for, but when I did my masters, I may have felt like I was faking my way through some of the work, but once I had the degree, and had begun working in my chosen field for real, which is as a college administrator, it became apparent that what is truly important is doing the job well, getting the experience and continuing to learn, on the job. The degree is a means to an end, part of the journey, it is not entirety of who you are or the end of your growth as a person.

  10. Yes, definitely. Especially now since I can't get a job and I've been told my credentials aren't worth anything and I need serious upgrading just to qualify for a residency. Except that just makes me lame. So, then no.

  11. Ugh, totally. Especially now that I'm thinking about getting a masters or an accounting designation. Why do I even think I would be able to do it???

  12. Thanks to God I've never been ambitious! I might have fallen prey to this vicious syndrome! Just a BA and I manage to doubt myself occasionally.

  13. You are not alone. I went to law school, and pretty much felt this way the whole time. I felt this way the whole time I worked after law school. My husband will be finishing grad school in 1 week, and I know he has felt like this. For a long time. When it's not 2:00 in the morning, I'll ask him if and how he got over it, and post it then.

  14. Talked to grad student Husband. Yes, he has felt the way you do all the time. Asked what he did about it, he said “forgot about it.” Which I think means he just let it go, and continued on with his work. Sorry that’s not more helpful – Husband can be so laid back he’s practically horizontal.

  15. The first career I ever wanted was to be an actress. When I was 14, I decided it wasn't practical and set my sights on becoming a lawyer. 9 years of practicing law and I still "act" like a lawyer every time I set foot in the courtroom.

    Also, I work with a lot of "experts." I am now convinced that NO ONE is as good as they may think they are (or pretend to be)!

  16. Late to the party, again, as usual. I blame the pressing demands of academia, and career, and children who can't stop screaming. Yeah, I just got everyone and everything to leave me alone for a few minutes.
    It took me a long time to get over the Imposter Syndrome feeling (not that I knew what it was called when I had an acute case of it, but there you have it). I think the moment I was able to push past it was when I could have an intelligent discussion with committee members for my thesis about ideas, and actually anticipate and see their ideas, and build on them.
    I actually had to tell myself at one point, "no, really, this is as good as it gets. I'm in a top-rated school for my program, the faculty like and support my research, I can go to conferences and have a reasonable grasp of what's being discussed…. I'm not an imposter. I know this stuff."
    Hopefully you hit that point soon. You're getting a PhD at Stanford. That's freaking amazing. If nothing else, people are going to accept what you say based on those two credentials alone…. or as the saying goes, "fake it 'til you make it"…. it works wonders.

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