Last Updated on June 26, 2022 by Laura Turner
Updated July 29, 2021. The article was updated to correct minor grammatical and formatting errors.
Impostor Phenomenon. Have you heard of it? I hadn’t either until graduate school.
As a first-year graduate student, I often asked myself, “How in the world was I accepted to this program? Did the admissions committee make a mistake? Do I REALLY belong here, among these competent, intelligent individuals?” It was exhausting! One evening, while doing what you’re often recommended not to do (googling my symptoms), I finally found the term to label the feelings I had endured the entire first year of graduate school: impostor phenomenon.
According to the American Psychological Association (APA), the impostor phenomenon (also called impostor syndrome) presents among high achieving individuals who are unable to internalize and accept their success. It is said that those who suffer from the impostor phenomenon credit their success to luck rather than to their own abilities, and they often fear that others will reveal them as intellectual fraud.
The term impostor phenomenon was created by two American psychologists named Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes in 1978. Over the course of five years, Clance and Imes worked with a sample of 150 highly successful women—ranging from PhDs who were experts in their respective fields to students who were recognized for their academic excellence—to understand the more personal experiences that surround impostor feelings. One-third of the sample were individual psychotherapy clients while the other two-thirds were in group sessions or college courses taught by Clance or Imes. They found that despite their earned degrees, academic excellence, and respectable achievements, the women did not experience an internal sense of success. Instead, they credited their successes to a temporary cause, such as luck or chance. Furthermore, the women maintained a strong belief that they are not intelligent; in fact, they were convinced that they had fooled anyone who thought that they were. Simply, they considered themselves to be impostors.
The phenomenon was originally thought to only apply to women; however, recent research suggests that both women and men suffer from these types of internalizing feelings.
Needless to say, I quickly realized I was not alone in my feelings. But if this is so common, I thought, why did it take me this long to identify these feelings, to learn about the impostor phenomenon, and to begin overcoming it? Why have I never even heard of this term before!? Unfortunately, many high achieving individuals experience the impostor phenomenon, but it is not as frequently addressed in academic institutions and/or workplaces. Therefore, many of those who suffer from these feelings do so in silence, like me.
While I am not a trained mental health professional, below are a variety of techniques to overcome the impostor phenomenon in graduate school. Some of these I used myself while others are recommended by mental health professionals.
Reflect on your abilities and strengths
The fact that you are seated among fellow graduate students is because you have earned your right to be there. (Let’s face it, the probability that you were mistakenly accepted into your graduate program is vanishingly small. Although these events do occur occasionally, they are often recognized by admissions committees within minutes or hours of the mistakenly sent acceptance email.) You are here on your own merits: your academic excellence, your experiences and achievements, your unique attributes, your lens, and what you can bring to your respective field. These are why you are where you are today, not a glitch in the system.
Recognize positive feedback for what it is
When you receive positive feedback from a professor or mentor, please recognize it for what it is worth. Your professors and mentors are here to train you to be a highly competent member of your field and, ultimately, a colleague that they are proud to say they trained. When they offer you positive feedback, that is because you have earned it! Keep a record of these praises and return to them when you begin to doubt yourself.
Talk to your loved ones
Sometimes the feelings become overwhelming and what you really need is to talk it out with someone who knows you best; someone who loves you, cares for you, and supports you. Talk with them about what you are feeling. If nothing else, doing so will help them to understand why you might be behaving a certain way or you may feel better just by verbalizing your feelings. You never know, they could be experiencing similar feelings too. Regardless, your loved ones know you best and might be able to offer you some help.
Seek out guidance from your mentor
While this might be difficult to imagine, your mentor was once in your shoes. They were not always a successful Ph.D., a highly respected professor, and a researcher contributing to the field in incredibly meaningful ways. They were first a graduate student, just like you. Your mentor may have some really profound insight or advice that they learned from experience. All you have to do is ask.
Celebrate your successes
When we achieve something, we are often quick to look at our to-do list for the next task we can accomplish. Just submitted a manuscript for review after working on it for twelve months? Time to immediately start working on that poster for a conference coming up in three weeks!—No! When you’ve accomplished something, take some time to celebrate it, to be proud of yourself, and to realize that your hard work has come to fruition.
As we all know, our mental health is just as important as our physical health and sometimes our own remedies just aren’t enough. If it is feasible for you, seek out mental health resources. It is important to not view seeking therapy as a weakness; seeking help from professionals in times of need is a strength and takes great courage. After all, Clance and Imes’ research suggests that individual or group therapy can be extremely helpful for those experiencing the impostor phenomenon. They note that as a result of a combination of therapeutic interventions in conjunction with a commitment to change, a high achieving woman who has previously considered herself an impostor begins to allow herself to state and believe, “I am intelligent. I have learned and achieved a tremendous amount. It is all right for me to believe in my own intellectual abilities and strengths.”
No matter how you choose to overcome the impostor phenomenon, I encourage you to feel proud of how far you’ve come in your own academic and professional careers. Celebrate all of your achievements, no matter how small, because believe it (or not), you deserve it!
Meghan is a recent MPH graduate from Saint Louis University where she currently is a research assistant on a project aiming to address increasing rates of child maltreatment in St. Louis, MO. Interested in the use of community-based participatory research to develop sustainable initiatives addressing child health disparities and empowering youth in underprivileged communities, Meghan is preparing to apply to PhD programs in public health sciences.