We Are Not Alone

by Kate Rahbari

Ms. Rahbari and her colleagues in the University of Illinois at Chicago Medical Scientist Training Program during the White Coat Ceremony, August 2015.

If magic had allowed my high school self to teleport to the future and see what I have accomplished with my own eyes, I would still deny what I see today. I am one of only a handful of Native Americans in medical school, and I am in my second year of a dual MD-PhD program. For many, these are marks of hard work and success. But for me, they are flukes, mistakes, simply a stroke of luck.

It started in high school when my fear of failure inhibited me from taking more challenging courses and applying to more competitive colleges. Once I reached college, someone suggested that I received scholarships because I was a member of a minority.

I was told countless times that any medical school would accept me because I am Native American and a woman.

Others asked me if I went to college for free because of my ethnicity.

Each of these comments had a common thread: they suggested that I received special treatment. Consistently hearing this left me feeling undeserving of the success I had worked so hard to achieve. It was hurtful for several reasons, but the worst consequence was I began to think that they were true.

If I had been born a white male, would I have made it this far? Maybe minority outreach was the only reason for my success. My insecurities grew, and I felt like a fraud.

I am not smart enough.

I don’t belong here.

I don’t deserve these good grades.

I am here because of luck.

Someone is going to find out I am not smart.

In retrospect, it is easy for me to see how these thoughts and comments changed the way I viewed myself and my achievements, but for the longest time I felt like a fraud without recognizing or understanding why. I thought I was alone in these feelings until my junior year of college. I was at the SACNAS Conference, listening to a talk, feeling out of place and not smart enough to be among all the brilliant minds and accomplished professionals who surrounded me.

Ms. Rahbari in front of her poster at 2011 SACNAS, where she presented her summer research project for the first time.

Unexpectedly, the speaker described that she has felt, and still feels, exactly how I was feeling in that moment. She and several others explained how frequently throughout their careers they have felt like frauds, waiting for someone to realize they do not belong. She explained it is a common feeling among high achieving individuals, especially women and people of color, and it is called imposter syndrome.

I was shocked.

These people have doctoral degrees. They are experts in their fields! How could they still feel like imposters?

Learning that the people I admire and view as successful have the same doubts as me was encouraging. It gave me hope I could succeed despite my insecurities. At the same time, it was disheartening to realize that if they still have these doubts, then I would probably have to fight them for the rest of my career.

After the conference, my doubts continued to infect my mind:

I am not smart enough.

I don’t belong here.

Unfortunately, simply learning about my imposter syndrome was not enough to cure me. Years later, I continue to work on rejecting and reducing my imposter thoughts nearly every hour of every day. They happen frequently, especially when I succeed or when other people tell me they think I am intelligent. The only time I truly do not feel like an imposter is when I tell myself I am not one. I force myself to think about my accomplishments and qualifications to remind myself I am not a fraud. Sometimes I look at a “Win List” I made for myself and keep as a physical record of my proudest accomplishments. I even read old emails from mentors who have given me encouragement along the way.

Ms. Rahbari’s “Win List” started after 2011 SACNAS. The list is a collection of accomplishments dating back to Ms. Rahbari’s senior year of high school, for whenever she needs a reminder.

Over time, I have become increasingly alert and responsive to my imposter feelings. Whenever doubts arise, I give myself a pep talk in my head:

You are smart.

You work hard.

You are more than a score on an exam.

You are qualified.

You deserve to be here.

Now, several years after sitting in that audience and feeling like a fraud, I can proudly say I belonged there. I graduated college with honors, I presented my research at several national conferences, I worked at the National Institutes of Health, I was included as an author on three publications, and I was accepted into medical school, all despite my imposter syndrome.

Ms. Rahbari receiving her Bachelors Degree in Biology from Temple University in 2013.

I was not immune to setbacks along the way, but I got through them all because someone was brave enough to share their story with me at the SACNAS conference.

I am thankful the people I admired were courageous and vulnerable enough to let me know I am not alone.

For anyone who has similar experiences and similar doubts, know that you are also not alone. You are worthy of success. You are intelligent, hardworking, and qualified. You can overcome your doubts. Here are a few ways to do it:

1. Stop putting so much pressure on yourself. I often feel like an imposter when I put unrealistic expectations on myself. It is wonderful to have ambition and goals, but realize you will never be perfect, and no one expects you to be. Forgive yourself when you do not meet your own expectations. Recognize the value of self-care and treat yourself to a break when you need one.

2. Don’t listen to yourself. Ignoring imposter thoughts takes constant, deliberate effort. Train yourself to change the way your mind recognizes and responds to situations that typically precipitate imposter feelings. Understand that imposter thoughts do not define your reality. For example, if you do badly on an exam, do not doubt your intelligence. If you do well on an exam, resist the thought that it was merely luck. Imposter thoughts are habits, not reflexes, and you can learn to manage them over time.

3. Surround yourself with supportive, positive people. Pursuing a career in science and medicine is difficult and isolating. I would not have made it this far without the mentoring and peer support I received along the way. Finding mentors who believe in me, cheer me on, and challenge me has helped me learn to believe in myself.

Ms. Rahbari and her classmates from the Temple University MARC (Maximizing Access to Research Careers) program in 2013.

4. Don’t compare yourself to others. I have spent more energy than I would like to admit comparing myself to my peers. Remember that everyone is on a different path and has different life experiences, and because of this we are each able to contribute something unique and valuable. Everyone is trying to put on their best act, but this does not mean they are resistant to struggle and doubt.

If magic allowed me to teleport to the past and, without any imposter thoughts, view what I accomplished, I would see someone who is intelligent no matter what her exam scores show. I would see someone who is humble and hardworking. I would see someone who finds learning exciting and is not afraid to ask questions, someone who is more capable of success than she knows but will come to see her worth more and more with time. She is not defined by her doubts and insecurities nor is she alone in them. She is not an imposter. She is brave.

About the Author

Kate Rahbari is a Haliwa Saponi tribal member. Ms. Rahbari grew up in West Chester, PA, and studied biology at Temple University in Philadelphia. She is currently in her second year of medical school in an 8-year Medical Scientist Training Program at the University of Illinois at Chicago. She will be pursuing a PhD in Microbiology and Immunology.