Imposter Syndrome

The prof asks a question; several peers jump in with seemingly coherent answers before you have even wrapped your mind around what she’s asking. You freeze, and the inner monologue kicks in:

“I bluffed my way through undergrad, but I don’t *actually* know what I’m doing – my supervisor’s going to see right through me. How am I going to catch up? Why did I think I was ready for grad school?? I’ve made a terrible mistake!”

You wander around a conference, looking at posters that are ostensibly in your field – and feeling completely lost. You gaze vaguely at the findings, avoiding eye contact, increasingly flustered:

“Did everyone else learn this in their Master’s? I’m supposed to be a PhD student, for crying out loud! Why is none of this familiar?”

Imposter syndrome refers to the common experience of doubting your skills, qualifications, and accomplishments, feeling afraid of being exposed as a fraud, or feeling like you don’t deserve credit for your successes (which you secretly believe might be flukes).

It’s a bit misleading to call it a syndrome, which implies pathology or diagnosis – but the term has caught on (compared to alternatives like imposter experience), so we use it as a shorthand. At its core, imposter syndrome refers to experiences of unhelpful self-doubt.

Self-doubt and imposter syndrome are all too common in graduate school. Compared to undergrad, you have fewer guidelines, goalposts, and grades to let you know you’re “doing it right.” You face ambiguous expectations and unstructured tasks with few instructions or precedents. Suddenly, your colleagues are advanced grad students, postdocs, and faculty members who may be among the best in your field. And self-doubt can run rampant when you’re isolated from peers who can help us “benchmark” our expectations.

(Recently, the notion of imposter syndrome has been critiqued for locating “the problem” in individual beliefs rather than in the systemic bias, microaggressions, undermining, and disrespectful dynamics can fuel self-doubt and make people feel like they don’t belong. This can happen to anyone, but can disproportionately affect women, people of colour, LGBTQ folks, and others who are marginalized in their workplaces. This is absolutely worth attention: we must work toward supportive work/academic cultures that value diverse expressions of leadership and competence).

If you experience imposter syndrome, you’re not alone. Not only grad students, but many postdocs and early career academics struggle with self-doubt. The good news is, there are ways to challenge and channel self-doubt into a more balanced view of ourselves – one where we feel energized to keep learning and growing.

In this article from the American Psychological Association, experts unpack different strategies for addressing imposter feelings:

  • Learn the facts (address cognitive distortions)
  • Share your feelings
  • Celebrate your successes
  • Let go of perfectionism
  • Cultivate self-compassion
  • Share your failures
  • Accept self-doubt as a common feeling, particularly during transitions and periods of learning/training.

Closer to home, check out some ideas and insights compiled by Celia at UBC’s Chapman Learning Commons, drawn from Mike Cannon-Brookes’ TEDx talk “How You Can Use Impostor Syndrome to Your Benefit” and clinical psychologist Robert Duff. For instance, we can get better at recognizing negativity bias, the tendency to not only notice bad things more often than good, but to attribute good things to luck or circumstances but bad things to our own shortcomings. (Practicing gratitude – e.g., by writing down three things we’re grateful for every evening – is one way to start shifting negativity bias).

Finally, an excellent new podcast from the University of Alberta, Grad School Confidential, begins with the episode: “Who am I to Talk About Imposter Syndrome?

Want to know more? The ICORD Trainee Committee is hosting a webinar, “Overcoming Imposter Syndrome,” on Monday May 17 from 12-1:30pm. It will be presented by me (Karen Ross, Wellbeing Support Coordinator) and Karen Flood, psychologist with UBC Counselling Services. Click here for more info. Hope to see you there!