Have You Spotted Me Yet?

The Imposter Syndrome

“I still believe that at any time the no-talent police will come and arrest me.”

Mike Myers, Canadian Comedian.

During the second year of my graduate studies, I presented preliminary results of my thesis at a child development conference. As I stood in front of my colourful poster – I was secretly reading it over and over, checking for more typos – and wondering “will anyone find this interesting?” “I have nooo idea what I’m talking about here” “they are all know I’m a novice”. I was so immersed in my insecurity that I did not notice someone attentively reading my poster. This uneasy feeling in my stomach is nothing new – I have felt like a phoney from the day I started graduate school. I was not as smart or capable as others were in my cohort.

Last year, I received keys to my new office (read: closet with an electricity plug). When I tried to unlock the door, the key would not fit. I tried it in every direction, pulling on the locked door, pushing on the locked door, giving the locked door a little shake. The door stood there, firm, unwavering. It stared at me with its big brown wooden eyes.

I burst into tears like a toddler who dropped his ice cream.

Is this their way of kicking me out?

ImageTo this day, I am waiting for someone to tap me on the shoulder, saying “excuse me; there was an error at the admissions office…you don’t belong here.”

This uneasiness and self-doubt is common (read: average!). The “Imposter Syndrome” was initially posited by Clance and Imes (1978). They examined how feelings of phoniness may hinder women’s careers first identified this phenomenon.

The Imposter Syndrome is characterized by the inability to internalize one’s successes and belief that peers will eventually recognize that we do not belong. Successes are not attributed to aptitude or hard work; instead, they are believed to be result of timing, luck, and the ability to “fool” others. The phenomenon is prevalent in highly achieving, successful men and women, who grew up in different family structures and work in diverse fields – from psychology to molecular biology.

In the long term, the Imposter Syndrome can have serious consequences: it may hinder one from applying to a new job, or reaching for a promotion. Let us not hand in our office keys just yet – there are ways to overcome the Imposter Syndrome. The first step is to talk to our peers, as we are likely to realize that others feel the same way (ouf!). Accept that feelings of inadequacy are common – in everyone. Accept it. Now move on.

Experts suggest that highlighting successes is one way to fight back against the imposter syndrome. For instance, I spent an embarrassing amount of money framing my Master’s diploma and I update my CV as often as possible. I cannot say that I feel like grad school is where I belong. So far, I have convinced myself that I fooled enough people to get where I am today. I am in the process of developing a new perception of myself, as a professional, a clinician, and a blogger. I am trying to value progress as opposed to mere result. I would be lying to you if I said that I internalize these beliefs, but at least, I am taking the time to enjoy the view from up here.

And that stubborn wooden door? Turns out I was given the wrong key in the first place. It eventually opened.

How do you experience the Imposter Syndrome?

How do you overcome it?


Averagely yours,

The Candidate


This post is based on an article originally published in Psynopsis. It can be accessed here: http://www.cpa.ca/docs/file/Students/Psynopsis32(3).pdf
Young, V. (2009). The Imposter Syndrome. Retrieved May 25th 2010 from http://www.theimpostersyndrome.com.
Garden, J. (2009). The Imposter Syndrome, How to Replace Self-Doubt with Self-Confidence and Train Your Brain for Success, Big Dream Media, NY.
Clance, P.R., Imes, S.A. (1978). The imposter phenomenon in high achieving women : Dynamics and therapeutic intervention. Psychotherapy: Theory, Research & Practice, 15, 241-247
Pishva, R. (2010). “Phew, I fooled ‘em this time…. but I may not be so lucky next time”: The Imposter Syndrome among graduate students. Psynopsis: Canada’s Psychology Magazine, 32(3), 35.

6 thoughts on “Have You Spotted Me Yet?

  1. Feeling that way everyday in my neuroscience PhD program. I’ve learned to adopt the “fake it ’til you make it” mentality…

  2. “I still believe that at any time the no-talent police will come and arrest me”
    “So far, I have convinced myself that I fooled enough people to get where I am today.”
    I feel like that sometimes also. Especially when I look at the CVs of all of my colleagues.
    Well, I keep hoping that I make a breakthrough and that the sheer magnitude of my findings will motivate me into becoming an ‘expert’ in my field. Until then, my motivation is that my paycheck keeps a roof over my head and food on my plate… oh, and of course, I do like being a cell biologist, I don’t think I could do anything else or be anyone else.

  3. Pingback: Layer Cake: The Anatomy of Graduate Student Cohorts | Average: Chronicles of a Phd

  4. Pingback: Is this your first time? | Average: Chronicles of a Phd

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