Impostor Syndrome: Tips for Quieting that “I can’t do this” Feeling
Updated: Feb 18, 2020
Impostor syndrome is defined as the persistent, often nagging, feeling that your success is not deserved, and has not been legitimately achieved due to your very own efforts or skills. Do not let this feeling stop you from achieving everything you deserve in life.
By Destenie Nock January 17, 2020
Ever have that feeling that you do not belong? Do you sometimes feel like at any moment your adviser or colleagues are going to realize you are not as smart as you looked on paper and then you will be cast aside and ultimately cast out of your career social circle?
Imposter syndrome is that "I can't do this...Everyone else is doing better than me....They are going realize I'm not that smart" feeling. You are not alone. We all feel that way at some point in our lives.
Even Michelle Obama admitted to having impostor syndrome, so it’s no surprise that this is a common problem facing most young professionals, graduate students included. Yes, I just called all graduate students young professionals. You are at the beginning of your career and you should start viewing yourself as a professional in your field. Graduate school is the moment you start making a name for yourself as a leading researcher in your field. If you want others to take you seriously you need to treat graduate school like your career...not an extension of undergrad.
This brings us to Tip #1 for quieting that negative feeling: act like you belong because you do! In other words you have to “fake it til you make it.” All of your past experiences have led you to this very moment in time. The skills and knowledge you possess have allowed you to reach a space where you can start your career and really shine. I tell this to my colleagues, grad students, snd the undergraduate students that work with me in the lab. We are all researchers doing what hasn’t been done before. Therefore there’s is no correct path and mistakes will be made.
Tip #1: Act like you belong because you do!
Which brings us to Tip #2: expect mistakes to be made, and when things go wrong don’t beat yourself up about it. When something goes wrong there’s two possible scenarios:
Scenario 1: you blame yourself and keep asking yourself how you could have made such a big mistake. The wave of upset-ness that crashes over you causes you to have anxiety about moving forward in your project. Your supervisor is getting upset because you are not showing them results, which causes you more anxiety. Knowing that you want to finish the project as quickly as possible you press on and continue with your research.
Scenario 2: recognizing that it was a mistake you write down the reasons that caused it to happen and make a plan to avoid those pitfalls in the future. Knowing you want to finish this project as quickly as possible you press on and continue with your research.
At the end of the day you will need to continue your research so you might as well not beat your self up about it. Mistakes happen, just accept it and keep it moving.
Tip #2: Expect mistakes to be made, and when things go wrong don't beat yourself up about it.
Even with all of the advice in the world impostor syndrome may still rear its ugly head, so that is why it is important to remember Tip #3: seek help when needed. If that nagging voice will not go away then sometimes it is best to talk to someone about it. This could be a friend, family member, or therapist. Often talking it out will relieve some of the stress, and the person may have some suggestions for how to work through it. I started seeing a therapist once a month just to talk. She helped me come up with stress management techniques, and reminded me not to put so much pressure on myself. Remember that impostor syndrome is something that impacts all of us and you do not have to go through this alone.
Tip #3: Seek help when needed.
I cannot stress it enough...we all go through the feelings of doubts. When you are in your career and you are looking forward it is easy to see someone, and say "it is easier for them" or "they are so smart, no wonder that are farther than me." Everyone has their own journey and we all start somewhere. When you are starting something new it's hard, and progress is normally slow. This is why Tip #4 is do not compare your beginning to someone else's middle or end.
Tip #4: Do not compare your beginning to someone else's middle or end.
When we are over-stressed, overworked, and overwhelmed we can often feel like we are inadequate. Often the impostor syndrome rears its ugly heads when you are overworked, over stressed, and nothing seems to be going right. This leads us to Tip #5: Have an outlet for your stress and anxiety. If you invest in being your best self then you will be better equip for quieting that negative voice.
Tip #5: Have an outlet for your stress and anxiety.
Congratulations on making it this far in your career! You deserve to be here! Do not let you or anyone else stand in the way of reaching your dreams.
Summary of the Tips:
Act like you belong because you do!
Expect mistakes to be made, and when things go wrong don't beat yourself up about it
Seek help when needed
Do not compare your beginning to someone else's middle or end
Have an outlet for your stress and anxiety
Note about the author: Destenie Nock holds a PhD in Industrial Engineering an Operations Research from the University of Massachusetts Amherst. She is a Post-Doc in the Carnegie Mellon Engineering & Public Policy (EPP) Department and and Adjunct Professor in Civil & Environmental Engineering (CEE) for 2019. In 2020 this will transfer to a tenure-track Assistant Professor position in EPP and CEE at Carnegie Mellon. She earned a MSc in Leadership for Sustainable Development at Queen's University of Belfast, and two BS degrees in Electrical Engineering and Applied Math at North Carolina A&T State University. She is the creator of the PhD-ing It Blog site which posts articles about graduate and undergraduate advice, and research updates in energy and sustainability. In her free time she enjoys hitting the gym, painting, and cooking with friends.