Do I Really Belong In Grad School? Managing Impostor Syndrome

Have you ever felt like you are bluffing your way through school? As if you are pretending to be so studious and dedicated, but really all you just want to sleep in late and watch Netflix all day? Do you feel you’re masquerading as a scholar, and sooner or later your peers and professors will discover your deep dark secret?

If you feel this way, you aren’t alone. It’s called impostor syndrome. Some students mistakenly believe they aren’t intelligent and only got to where they are because of luck, even though it’s not reality. They think they don’t deserve to be in their academic program and worry about getting found out by their peers. This anxiety and constant comparisons to others can make daily living stressful.

Impostor syndrome was first identified by Suzanne Imes, PhD, and Pauline Rose Clance, PhD in the 1970s, but students have most likely been doubting themselves long before that. It isn’t officially classified in the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, but it still affects millions of people nationwide.

The truth is there’s no simple fix, but these ideas can help.

Get a mentor

Mentors can help with a range of academic and career issues. Your mentor could be your academic advisor, a more senior student or a professional in the career you are seeking to pursue. Having the mentor’s support at various stages in your life can help you see all the good things about the work you do.

Remember your successes

It’s natural to focus on the things you don’t know rather than the things you do know, but that kind of thinking is detrimental for those with impostor syndrome. Instead it can be helpful to focus on the things you do know and things you have achieved. If you find it difficult to focus on the good instead of the bad, try writing your achievements down on paper so they’re easier to visualize.

Don’t focus on perfection

You might see all of your peers as perfectly put-together and organized, but the truth is likely different. Realize that whether you’re working on one exam or a larger project, no one’s perfect. Such thinking will help you realize that you don’t have to be perfect, either. Focus on doing the best that you can do, and don’t worry about being better than others.

Discuss impostor syndrome with others

As with many things in life, knowing you’re not alone in feeling like an impostor can be helpful. Reach out to other students or your advisor. They can help put you on the path to realizing that impostor syndrome doesn’t have to control you. You’ll likely realize that other people do see you as capable and intelligent, and that they’ve coped with negative thoughts in their life, too.

Stop the comparisons

It’s natural for people to compare themselves to others, but realize your comparisons might be unrealistic. There are certainly many people whom you could compare yourself to in grad school. You might look at a classmate who has a lighter course load and think you’re struggling more than them, or you may even see how much work your advisor does, not realizing they have many students who assist them daily.

Seek professional help as a last resort

If you’ve tried to minimize the effects of impostor syndrome and nothing has helped, it may be time to seek professional help. A therapist or psychologist will be able to offer suggestions to get to the bottom of why you experience impostor syndrome. Get in contact with someone at your school’s counseling and psychological services office, and see what they can do to help.

If you’re still concerned about impostor syndrome, check out Dr. Pauline Rose Clance’s Impostor Syndrome test to see where you fall on the scale!

Sources:

Ancowitz, N. (2013, April 17.) Managing Your Impostor Syndrome. Psychology Today. Retrieved August 11, 2014 from Psychology Today.

Warrell, M. (2014, April 3.) Afraid Of Being 'Found Out?' Overcome Impostor Syndrome. Forbes. Retrieved August 11, 2014 from Forbes.

Weir, K. (2013.) Feel like a fraud? gradPSYCH. Retrieved August 11, 2014, from American Psychological Association.