Guest Blog: Dealing with the Impostor Syndrome: Not Once, But Twice

I began my graduate career back in 2004 in the field of Ethnomusicology. My cohort of 4 people included someone who was the Assistant Director of a non-profit organization that placed inner-city kids in music lessons and brought musicians from all over the world for performances and workshops, a blues musician and a long-time jazz musician who had met many of the famous names we speak about when we’re talking  about jazz. They were all at least 4 years older than me and had worked at various jobs within the music field since graduating from college. On the other hand, I was 22-years-old, straight out of finishing my undergraduate degree. I had just moved from Florida and was completely unfamiliar with the West Coast (the other three had lived somewhere on the West Coast all their lives). My partner and I had no friends and were just getting our bearings on where the closest grocery store was, specifically because we had no car and had to either walk or navigate the bus system. Our family and closest friends were 3,500 miles away.

Then there was graduate school. I figured that since I got good grades as an undergraduate and really enjoyed things like writing papers that graduate school would be the next logical step and it would be a very smooth transition. Boy, was I wrong! I sat in my first graduate seminar on a Thursday morning. The professor was one of those so-smart-his-brain-is-too-big-for-his-head type of guys. He didn’t look at anyone in particular when he spoke. He just stared off into space as  if he were talking to an audience that none of us were aware of but had to be in this room somewhere. He was rather awkward and seemingly unapproachable. I listened to every word he said during the 2-hour seminar and understood close to none of them. I took copious notes and decided to go to the library and check out every book he mentioned during his lecture. This proved quite stressful, as I also had to learn to navigate a new library system, so it took me a few hours to check out about 6 or 7 books. I walked home that afternoon with an arm full of books and I was mentally exhausted from the experience. I was totally lost. After the weekend passed, I mustered up the courage to speak to the others in my cohort. It turns out that despite the looks of confidence on their faces, they were all lost too!! I felt much better knowing that it wasn’t just me.

We formed a support/study group and met frequently, talking about our uncertainties in graduate school and our  interactions with this “scary” professor. We finally began to understand how this professor worked. He seemed quite unapproachable in class, but was incredibly supportive and helpful when you spoke to him one-on-one  in his office. He ended up serving as the chair of my MA thesis and was a great support for me when I faced issues in a course that I taught a few years later.

But that was only one class…there were other subjects besides the Music of Asia. In other classes, my colleagues would go off on tangents about jazz or about other things that I had never heard of in my life. They would jeopardize the discussion with the professor, who also had a broad knowledge base on the subject. Once again, I felt lost. Why did they know these things and I didn’t? Should I have known them? Did I miss all of this in a reading or something? Are they going to find out they admitted me by mistake because I’m not as smart as my colleagues? And there it was, the full-blown impostor syndrome!

After weathering the storm, I realized, again from talking to my colleagues, that there were times that they had no idea what I was talking about. They had never heard of some of the things that I had studied or experienced, and although they always looked confident, they were equally as lost as I was when they spoke (although I probably looked confused, not confident!) I realized over time that we were all admitted to the program for different reasons and that we were not expected to know everything. We were there to learn, and most importantly, to learn from each other. In fact, one of my colleagues who seemed to know everything about everything once told me that he didn’t know how to properly use citations until he read one of  my papers. I taught him how to do something and I didn’t even know it! I later realized that we were all supposed to be there, and suffering the impostor syndrome was normal and just a phase. I spent the next two years mentoring new students and telling them about the impostor syndrome and that it was OK to feel lost at first. I was the expert. I had been through it and was helping others, the way it should be. But then, for a variety of reasons, I switched over to the Sociology Department. And it happened again…

I entered the Sociology department in 2007 and was excited to begin my first/fourth year of graduate school. I was relatively new to the program, although the previous year I had taken a few statistics courses so I knew a few professors and some of the students in the program. In fact, one of my statistics professors, who was a heavy-weight in the department, wrote one of my letters of recommendation for admission. I felt confident that even though I took a huge leap from qualitative to quantitative research and from Music to Demography that I would be fine. After all, this wasn’t really my first year of graduate school so I knew what I was doing! My new classmates looked up to me because I exuded confidence and wasn’t nervous about the typical first-year issues of being lost in class and not knowing where the grocery store was near my house. And then, it happened…

I took a course taught by my former statistics professor and letter of recommendation-writer during my first quarter in Sociology. She was going through a lot that quarter personally and professionally and did not have the energy to keep the course organized. It was so disorganized that she gave us instructions for our final paper the week it was due. These instructions were completely the opposite of what she had expected earlier in the quarter. I scrambled to get this done, and ultimately had to ask for an extension because I was taking 14 credits (10 is a full load) and had too many other final projects to have to change this one as well. Being new to the field of Sociology, I had never written a final paper before, so here was my first stab in the field. I wrote the paper from home while visiting my parents in Florida. I spent an entire day working on it and felt pretty good when I submitted it.

When I returned from break, I saw that I had an envelope in my mailbox with my name written on it (misspelled!) I opened it and it was a 2-page, single-spaced letter from that professor ripping my paper to shreds. She had highlighted certain parts of my paper and had comments such as, “Did you even read this article?” And “If you think this person is a schmuck, just come out and say it!” The last sentence was, “This would only be a B- undergraduate paper.” I was crushed. Here I was, I had just completely changed my graduate major and had to start over in a different field after 3 years and I picked the wrong field! I was barely capable of writing a good paper at an undergraduate level. I had made a mistake and so had they. They admitted me by mistake. They found out I wasn’t as smart as I thought. Maybe I was a good student in Ethnomusicology, but Sociology certainly wasn’t my field. After reading the letter and holding back tears, I brought a trusted friend of mine to the 7th floor bathroom in Condon Hall and just cried. I was hurt. I had regrets. I couldn’t believe what had happened! I even showed up to the first day of the first class I was taking with my advisor late and with red eyes. I didn’t want my classmates to know what had happened because I wanted them to think that I was still as confident as the first day I began our program. I wasn’t going to suffer from the impostor syndrome, I was going to warn them so that they never did!

I decided to send an email to the professor apologizing for wasting her time with the paper and explaining that I did not do a poor job on purpose. I wanted to make it up to her to re-do the paper so I could learn from my mistakes; not to get a better grade, but to prove to her that I could to it and improve myself as an academic. She responded immediately and graciously accepted my apology. Things were looking good.

After swallowing my pride, I was able to talk to some classmates about it. Apparently she ripped into a few others as well, not just me. Also, one of her advisees said, “You probably caught her on a day where she was in a bad mood and she lashed out on you. That’s one of her faults. Don’t take it personally.” I realized this was probably true because every time I saw this professor, whether it was in the hallway or in our neighborhood while she was walking her dog, she was very awkward towards me. I tried emailing her several times over 2 years asking if she was still willing to meet with me (she never gave me a grade either, so I ended up with an incomplete in her course!) She never responded to my requests via email but always in person said awkwardly, “I’ve just been so busy but I know I owe you a meeting.” I realized after all this time passed, that my friend was right: it wasn’t me with the problem, it was her. After this course, I never received any other criticism like that from any other professor. Sure, my work is not perfect, and from time-to-time I got some harsh criticism, but nobody ever attacked me the  way she did. It is unfortunate that the isolated incident occurred right at the beginning of my time in Sociology and that it set off triggers of the too-familiar impostor syndrome. I should have known better, but instead fell victim to the very thing  I was trying to protect others from and swore I could detect from a mile away!

We all go through ups and downs in graduate school. These are a few stories of my downs. On the upside, I’ll be graduating in June with a PhD and while these stories shaped me, they did not define who I was and how I proceeded in graduate school. Impostor syndrome, you tried to get me twice, but you lose! I belong here. 

Sabrina Bonaparte is a PhD candidate in the Sociology Department. Her research areas are Demography, Statistics and Education. She is the manager of the UW SACNAS blog.  

10 comments on “Guest Blog: Dealing with the Impostor Syndrome: Not Once, But Twice

  1. Amanda Bruner says:

    Very well written entry, Sabrina! Thank you for sharing your experiences! You definitely belong here and I look forward to calling you Dr. Cyber SACNAS!

  2. Amanda Bruner says:

    Very well written article, Sabrina! You definitely deserve to be here & I look forward to calling you Dr. Bonaparte!

  3. Thanks, Amanda! You can call me Dr. Cyber SACNAS Bonaparte! :)

  4. Way to hang tough Doc Bonaparte!
    Isn’t it incredible how some people in our lives are placed as mentors, when in fact they can barely lead their own?
    Bravo to you for exposing the issue to yourself, and realizing you did ‘belong’.

  5. ambercaracol says:

    Great blog Sabrina! Thanks for sharing your experiences. After reading it, I felt like saying “Take that imposter syndrome. Ha!!” 2 more months! Yay!!!! =)

  6. Thanks, everyone! It’s people like you who got me through times like these, so I appreciate your support.

  7. A great essay, thank you Sabrina!

  8. […] Washington SACNAS Student Chapter Blog, Sabrina talks about her dealings with imposter syndrome in not one, but two graduate departments, showing resolve and persistence as she pushes through the bad times and heads toward the good […]

  9. […] It’s difficult to explain what a PhD program looks and feels like. Even though I had a vague idea of what it would be like, nothing can compare to the dizzying experience of being in it. In the midst of feeling completely overwhelmed by this new environment (an academic environment unlike any other you’ve been a part of), the copious amounts of assigned reading (think entire books. per class. per week.), the inherent long term planning (dissertation anyone?), and the way that my brain was being forced to operate (i.e. chronically critically versus leisurely haphazardly), I realized I was not alone in feeling this way. My fellow cohort members were already feeling uncertain and insecure as they began to navigate this new terrain, and older cohort members admitted that they were still not immune to the “imposter syndrome” – the inability to accept and internalize your own competence, capabilities, and accomplishments and the belief that you will be found out as a fraud. (For excellent reading on how other grad students coped with and overcame the imposter syndrome check out these blogs’ posts from GradHacker, Contemplative Mammoth, and University of Washington SACNAS. […]

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