Imposter Syndrome in Students

Overcoming Imposter Syndrome: The Bane of Graduate Students Everywhere

Graduate student sits at desk, in front of a laptop, holding her face in her hands. She looks stressed; a sign that she is suffering from imposter syndrome in students.

I Feel Like Don’t Belong in Graduate School

Imposter syndrome is a common complaint I hear from graduate students, although not in so many words. Often students tell me that they feel like they aren’t good enough or smart enough for graduate school, even though they’ve been accepted and their marks are good. Sometimes, they tell me they lack self-confidence and feel like their work isn’t good enough. Sometimes, they tell me they feel like they don’t measure up to other students. Some students even report feeling like they’ve accidentally fooled the admissions committee into thinking they are smarter than they really are and that they live with a constant worry of being discovered.

If this sounds familiar, you might have graduate student imposter syndrome.

Have you ever thought to yourself:

  • I don’t know why they accepted me because I am not smart enough for graduate school
  • I’ll never be able to do this as well as everyone else
  • One of these days they’re going to figure out I don’t belong here
  • This comes so much easier to other graduate students
  • It takes me so long to figure these things out, my advisor must think I’m incompetent
  • I’d never have thought of that solution, maybe I’m not cut out for grad. school

Sounds like student imposter syndrome

Do you know that sinking feeling in your stomach? The fear that your mask of competence might slip at any moment? The worry that you don’t measure up? It feels terrible. Even when you’re getting good grades and feedback, you question if they’re just humoring you. No matter how hard you work it feels like it’s not good enough and you start to wonder if it ever will be. If you’re feeling like an imposter in graduate school, you’re in great company!

What is Imposter Syndrome?

In 1978, Drs. Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes coined the phrase ‘Imposter Phenomena’ to describe a common feeling among high achievers that their success is the product of luck or deception (often unintentional).

Imposter syndrome is not the same as low self-confidence or low self-esteem. In imposter syndrome, the negative feelings specifically focus on performance and achievement. It’s a false belief that your work isn’t good enough and your success is underserved. This belief persists even in the face of positive feedback and objective validation that your work is indeed up to par.

Low self-confidence, on the other hand, is the belief (true or not) that you are not competent enough to handle challenges. Low self-esteem is the belief that you are inherently not good enough as a human being. Graduate students with imposter syndrome may have low self-confidence or low self-esteem, which would make imposter syndrome worse, but many don’t.

Causes of Imposter Syndrome in Students

There are two general schools of thought on the cause of imposter syndrome. Both of which probably play a role.

Misattribution of Performance

The first is the tendency of some students to ascribe their academic achievements to factors outside of themselves; factors like luck, good timing, and the over-generousness of those recognizing the achievement. These students minimize the contribution of their own hard work, persistence, and competence.

Critical Evaluation Skills

The second contributor to student imposter syndrome is a reversal of the Dunning-Kruger effect.

The Dunning-Kruger effect is a well-documented cognitive bias where people who lack skills in an area overestimate their competence in that area. This happens because the knowledge required to evaluate performance is based on knowledge of the skills required to actually perform well. In short, people who are bad at something lack the ability to judge that they are bad at something.

A well-known example is driving skills. Studies have repeatedly shown that more than 50% of the population believes they are above-average drivers (a mathematical impossibility), with poorer drivers being more likely to misevaluate themselves as better than they are. Teaching poor drivers better driving skills leads to an increase in the accuracy of their self-assessment.

The flip slide of this is that as you develop skills in your field you become better able to see areas in which you could improve. On the whole, this is a good thing. If you could not see how to improve a skill, it would be very hard to do so. However, it becomes problematic when you start to focus only on the gap between your current skill level and the one above you. If you only ever see the ways you can improve, it can lead you to be constantly dissatisfied with the quality of the work you produce.

Consequences of Imposter Syndrome in Graduate Students

As you can imagine, attributing success to luck and focusing only on performance deficits can have serious consequences for graduate students. High stress, overwork, perfectionism, anxiety, and depression are all associated with imposter syndrome in students. Left unabated these can lead to burnout and possibly drop out.

Overcoming Imposter Syndrome in Graduate School

Overcoming imposter syndrome is an important part of developing a healthy mindset and approach to your graduate studies and eventually your career. Here are some practical countermeasures to address the burden of imposter syndrome.

  1. Record your achievements at the end of the day. Keeping a short list of daily achievements can rebalance your attention between deficits and successes. Remember that day-to-day achievements may be small (I finished the first page of my methods, I fixed my data import code, I passed my quiz, etc.). That’s ok, the point of the exercise is to shift your focus to appreciate what you did accomplish.
  2. Join a graduate student support group (virtual or in person). Students who report feeling isolated are more likely to report imposter syndrome. This makes sense. Communicating your struggles with other students who are experiencing similar challenges can help reset your expectations for your own performance.
  3. Give yourself a reality check. Many students compare themselves unfairly to others. You might read a well-written article and think you are a poor writer. You might have a faculty member point out a solution to a problem and think, I never would have figured that out. This is terribly unfair to yourself, to compare yourself to seasoned professionals with decades of experience! You’re probably right. At this moment in time, you are not performing at that level, but neither did they when they were graduate students. When you compare yourself to others, it’s time to remind yourself that comparisons are unfair then refocus on how far you’ve come so far.
  4. Trust that your advisors, professors, and the admissions committee recognize acceptable performance. When you find yourself thinking that a grade or an award was unearned, remind yourself that your professors aren’t gullible. They have enough experience working with students to know what your performance should be! Trust their judgment and accept that you have earned your success.
  5. Say thanks to imposter syndrome. When you’re feeling particularly bothered by imposter syndrome remember that it’s a by-product of your ability to recognize ways to improve performance. Without it, it would be difficult for you to grow as a student. So, acknowledge its role in your life, thank it for the opportunity, then set it aside and refocus on your current goals and activities.

Student imposter syndrome may take a while to overcome. However, with better understanding and countermeasure practice, you can quiet the self-doubt and approach your graduate studies with a healthier perspective.

Wishing You the Best in Your Academic Success,
Dr. Cristie Glasheen, Your Graduate Student Success Coach

All for Free!

Bravata, D. M., Madhusudhan, D. K., Boroff, M., & Cokley, K. O. (2020). Commentary: Prevalence, predictors, and treatment of imposter syndrome: A systematic review. Journal of Mental Health & Clinical Psychology, 4(3).

Sverdlik, A., Hall, N. C., & McAlpine, L. (2020). PhD imposter syndrome: Exploring antecedents, consequences, and implications for doctoral well-being. International Journal of Doctoral Studies, 15, 737-758.