Fake It ’Til You Make It
7+ ways to conquer imposter syndrome.
In September, four weeks into my first year as a Ph.D. student, I wrote about imposter syndrome. It hit full-force, and I hadn’t had time since moving across the country to rebuild a social network. So, I struggled. I wrote and I went to therapy and I kept chugging along.
I’m slowly, incrementally getting better at appreciating myself, and I’ve learned and adjusted so much in the eight months since September. Here is an edited version of the original piece I wrote in September (pre-Medium).
To incoming first years: you’ll get through it, and you won’t believe the things you’ll learn. Hang in there.
In the month I’ve been a PhD student, I’ve learned this: grad students, especially women and traditionally underrepresented minorities, truly and deeply believe that we’ve gamed the system. That we tricked the Powers That Be into granting us the right to exist in academic spaces, that one wrong step will blow our collective cover, and that we are incapable of knowing or doing anything meaningful.
The term Impostor Syndrome was coined in the 1970s to describe “an internal experience of intellectual phonies, which appears to be particularly prevalent and intense among a select sample of high achieving women” (Clance & Imes, 1978). PhD programs and impostor syndrome go hand in hand, and people have written about it before. However, many of the essays I’ve read were targeted at students already in the midst of dissertation writing, well beyond their initial transition into their program.
As a first year, I desperately want advice on readjustment — transitioning from the workforce or an undergraduate institution into this whole new world of high-pressure speed-learning. So, I asked around and gathered advice from a bunch of people with varied experiences with grad school: former mentors, current peers, recent graduates, PhDs and clinicians and ministers and composers. We all deserve to survive and thrive in our field of choice. This is a compiled list of advice to myself, and to anyone else (especially first-year students) struggling with feelings of inadequacy in academia.
Build a support network (slowly but surely).
When you transition from the Real World to the Academic World, you land in an alternate universe where everyone has the same narrowly-defined academic interests as you. Suddenly, you’re spending all week shuffling between work and classes and social events with the same dozen or so people, talking about calcium imaging techniques (or <insert token sexy jargon topic here>) at parties.
These people know exactly what you’re going through, and you can rely on your peers for support! Setting aside a couple of hours every week for dinner or coffee with new friends is always worth it, even when it feels like you’re too busy.
Schedule and organize like crazy.
Grad school requires juggling more commitments than school alone or a job alone would ever throw at you. Visually tracking where your time goes allows you to see, at a glance, that you’re doing what you need to do (or that you need to readjust your priorities).
Recording everything helps — “officially” scheduling fun time in addition to Big Bad Work Obligations ensures that self-care (and your sanity) won’t fall through the cracks. I use multiple planning and goal-tracking systems, both digital and analog, to keep my life on track**.
** You certainly don’t need to also do this! Some people love planners and journals, other people find them to be extra sources of stress. But if you like making lists, doodling, and/or externally processing goals, these might help you too!
Google calendar is a godsend, especially for setting up phone reminders and remembering room locations. If you have a couple minutes to spare, color coding events by category (class vs. non-fun meeting vs. fun thing) can help you visualize how your week is being allocated.
I also invest in a hardcover bullet journal, my combined calendar/to-do list/scrapbook. Here, I write down what I need to read and when I should probably go grocery shopping, and I tape in all the little stickers, cards, and wristbands I hoard as Fun Time souvenirs.
It also serves as a daily log of spending habits, moods, and goals. I take about 10 minutes at the beginning of the month to set up a couple of quick charts and about 30 seconds every night to bubble in some squares. By the end of the month, I have a big spread of personal data — excellent for remembering what makes you feel best when life gets crazy.
Work with AccountabiliBuddies.
Grad school requires lots of independent learning — great in theory, difficult to commit to in practice. How can you trick yourself into maintaining intrinsic motivation in the long term? Weight loss trainers have been touting this advice for ages: vocalize your goals, visibly track your progress, and partner with people who share your goals.
Form study groups, go to exercise classes as a posse, schedule game nights, whatever works! Hold each other accountable so you won’t kick yourself later for letting something fall by the wayside.
Find an excuse to go outside every day.
Especially if you spend the majority of your workday in a windowless basement. It’s shocking how much better fifteen minutes of the real world and the sunshine can make you feel! You can make up an excuse no matter how busy you think you are — take a super long “bathroom break,” buy coffee from that place that’s 0.8 miles away instead of relying on your lab’s Keurig, eat lunch with a colleague, anything. Just get outside.
Take time to recharge.
Nearly every single grad student I heard from, whether they went through a STEM PhD program or law school or divinity school, said that setting aside “me time” was the single most important thing they did for themselves. “Me time” can encompass anything from reading a book before bed, going clubbing, cooking dinner, or anything in between — recharging has so many definitions!
I’m a music lover and former college DJ, so I unwind by jamming with friends, practicing music independently, and going to lots of concerts. Whatever your non-academic thing is, go do it! Happy, well-rested researchers are more creative, more ambitious, and more productive.
If you need help, ask.
Sometimes, it’s hard to discern the fine line between transient academic stress and chronic mental illness. Luckily for us PhD students, many universities offer subsidized health care, both physical and psychological. If you think that you might need help beyond what your normal support systems can provide, go get that help. Grad school is hard, and trying to keep an unaddressed mental illness in check while navigating research and classes and outreach is more than you need to handle alone.
Remind yourself that you’re still learning.
A friend phrased it this way: “it’s grad SCHOOL. If you already knew everything, you wouldn’t need to be here.” Especially if you are in a program that starts you off with lots of survey coursework or lab rotations, remember that you are not expected to produce flagship journal-worthy (or ANY journal-worthy) publications in your first year. Or your second year, or your third year. You are expected to learn how to synthesize and generate knowledge as a Novice Expert in [Highly Specialized Field Your Grandma Doesn’t Care About], and that’s enough.
Finally, when it doubt, fake it ’til you make it.
Impostor Syndrome is a bitch, and you might feel like you and ONLY you are a dirty liar who somehow duped your entire department, the admissions team, and every academic being who has ever interacted with you. But here’s the secret: whether you’re actually a fraud or not, just keep faking it. You’ll trick ’em into thinking you’re good at things, and in the process, you might trick yourself into realizing that (GASP) you were good at things all along.