4 Ways to Overcome Imposter Syndrome in Grad School

Imposter syndrome in grad school is a universal experience.

Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

From the humanities to the STEM fields, from public universities to the Ivy League, imposter syndrome is a staple institution of PhD programs everywhere.

It’s only natural. After all, to enter grad school is to plunge into a professional world populated by top-class researchers and scholars. People who have spent decades studying their chosen topic.

It’s perfectly natural to not immediately ‘fit in’ at a place like that.

And grad students today are under more pressure than ever before. They’re expected to take classes, teach, do research, publish, write their dissertations, and apply for jobs all in the span of 5–7 years.

The fact that many academics and PhDs tend to bottle up their own stress and anxiety doesn’t exactly make the experience easier.

Trust us. We’ve all felt self-doubt. We all felt like we didn’t belong. And we all got over it. You can too.

This article offers 4 positive steps you can take towards recognizing and overcoming imposter syndrome in grad school.

We’ll start with how to identify and talk about imposter syndrome, in all its sinister forms. Then we’ll discuss how to normalize imposter syndrome and seek help both on and off campus.

1. Recognize Types of Imposter Syndrome

What actually causes imposter syndrome in grad school, and how can you recognize it?

As you might expect, this varies quite a bit from person to person. But, in broad terms, we’ve identified two main types of imposter syndrome in grad school:

  • A dreadful background hum: This type of imposter syndrome afflicts PhD students far and wide. It’s everpresent, like the cosmic background radiation of grad school. No matter what you do or how hard you work, there’s a perpetual feeling of inadequacy. In academia, nothing is ever good enough.
  • A ‘don’t look down!’ moment: This type of imposter syndrome manifests when you’re slammed with work. Maybe it’s a term paper. Maybe it’s your prelim exam or the first chapter of your dissertation. Either way, you’ve climbed higher up the academic Everest than ever before. You’re beat up, exhausted, and not sure if you can reach the next foothold. And then, in a moment of desperation, you look down.

In both types of imposter syndrome, the basic feelings of self-doubt and inadequacy are the same. For type #2, add an extra dash of panic.

“What if I’m not as smart as I thought I was?” you wonder.

“Have I been fooling myself this whole time?”

“How can I possibly compete with [this or that other person in the field]?!”

If you’ve ever caught yourself asking these questions, it’s crucial to understand that everyone feels both types of imposter syndrome at some point or another.

Self-doubt doesn’t mean you don’t belong in grad school or in academia. Quite the contrary; it means you fit in perfectly.

2. Talk About Your Imposter Syndrome

This one’s hard. We know. But, if you can, we strongly encourage you to talk about your graduate-school imposter syndrome.

First, talk to your grad-school friends. They all know what imposter syndrome is, and chances are they’ll be more than happy to vent with you. For example:

  • You: “Hey, have you ever, sorta, felt a bit, I dunno … in over your head in grad school?”
  • Them: “Are you [bleep] kidding me?! Every day I wake up and I’m like ‘I don’t know WHAT the [bleep] I’m doing here!’”
  • You: I KNOW RIGHT?!

(Fun fact: the “?!” punctuation is called an “interrobang.” Neat, huh?)

Anyway, if you make the effort to reach out to people, you will usually find that they’ve felt all the same fears, doubts, and stressors as you.

If talking face-to-face isn’t comfortable for you, there’s nothing wrong with shooting them an email, text, Facebook message, carrier pigeon, whatever works for you.

Next, talk to your academic advisor. Remember, a good advisor will support you and help you however they can. They’ll help you organize tasks and keep you to a schedule. If you don’t have a good advisor, see this post.

In either case, it’s crucial to talk about imposter syndrome openly and honestly. Say exactly what you mean. Don’t beat around the bush. Don’t downplay your concerns.

By talking about imposter syndrome in grad school, you’ll normalize it. And normalizing a problem–especially when the problem relates to mental health–is the first and arguably most important step towards dealing with it.

3. Take a Break

If you’ve hit a wall in your writing and start to feel the creeping dread of imposter syndrome, take a break!

Put your dissertation away for a while, and go do something else. Get away from academia. Take a vacation. Visit friends and family.

Get a hobby! Take up beekeeping or something. Whatever you find meaningful and fulfilling. Whatever gets you away from your academic work for a little while.

Imposter syndrome in grad school is, at its most basic, a psychological response to intense work conditions. Not “intense” in the sheer volume of work, necessarily, but in the intellectual complexity and lofty expectations placed upon it.

That, plus the near-total lack of boundaries between personal and professional life in a PhD program, fosters an environment that can feel overwhelming even when the absolute amount of work remains fairly consistent over time.

So, let yourself unwind! Let your brain calibrate. A little bit of de-stressing goes a long way.

And when you do come back to your academic work, take it one step at a time. Do a bit of writing one day, a bit of research the next, and so on. 

A steady, consistent work schedule is the best way to remain productive while keeping your imposter syndrome in grad school under control.

4. Access On-Campus Mental Health Resources

Every college campus has resident mental health resources. They’re for all students to use. So use them!

If your imposter syndrome is connected to persistent feelings of stress and/or anxiety, call up your on-campus psychiatry clinic, or visit their online portal, and schedule an appointment.

Even an hour of counseling per week can make a huge difference.

This is especially a good idea if you have a TA stipend or some other funding package that comes with a healthcare plan. Seriously, being a grad student doesn’t pay that well (haha), but you have access to cutting-edge healthcare services. Don’t waste them.

If you’re looking for more advice on mental health in academia, please check out our recent post on PhD stress management.

Conclusion

We truly hope that this discussion of imposter syndrome in grad school has been both informative and encouraging for you.

There are many ways for grad students to manage and overcome imposter syndrome. Take a break. Talk to people. Ask for help. You have options. Use them.

Let’s conclude with a cheesy inspirational quote. Have you ever heard this one? It goes something like:

“Don’t fear failure. Not failure, but low aim, is the crime.”

Did Bruce Lee say that? James Russell Lowell? Ernest Holmes? Who knows…

Our point is this: if you sometimes feel like an imposter, that means you’re aiming high. You’re climbing the academic Everest. It’s only natural to look down and feel scared.

Everyone does! Everyone feels in over their head sometimes. At the end of the day, nobody really knows what the hell they’re doing. We’re all winging it. You can too.

For more advice on surviving (and thriving!) in grad school, please check out our Graduate School Career Success blog section.

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