The Seed Of Doubt:
I vividly remember waking up to a phone call I received a few years ago. Startled and disoriented I answered the phone expecting the usual deactivation threat from the good people at AT&T. Instead, I heard a pleasant voice from the University of Washington inviting me for an interview to potentially pursue my Ph.D.
Maybe they got my phone number mixed up with someone else’s? I couldn’t entertain the idea that I could “possibly” receive training from a top 5 ranked research institution. I kept thinking, “What luck? Why me?” This is when it all started:
My mom didn’t exactly put my GRE score on the refrigerator. My GPA was decent, but not spectacular and my research experience was, lets just say “untraditional.” So why did UW Medicine end up giving me a chance? I started reflecting on reasons why an institution so great would want an individual as “ordinary” as myself. Was it because my letters of recommendation were stellar? If that was the case, then this was based on someone else’s overinflated depiction of me and my achievements. I did obtain a fellowship at the NIH but that was only because I worked my way through the backdoor and started as an intern. I graduated with a bachelor of arts with high honors, but I studied anthropology not biochemistry, pre-medicine, or computer science. Real doubt consumed my subconscious when I realized: It must be because I am a minority student who grew up in a single family home, and attended a high school where it was common place to double your lunch money playing spades on the bathroom floor. UW must have felt sorry for me or at the very least they needed to meet the diversity statement on their homepage.
Say it with me “I am not a fraud”
“Impostor Syndrome” is the name given to the stream of consciousness I just described. I am two years into graduate school at UW and I am still worried about being “exposed.” Impostor syndrome is alive and well in all types of successful people: graduate students, professors, men and women, white and black, gay and straight. It’s real, and it’s not going anywhere. On the contrary, the more you achieve, the more you will feel like an impostor.
According to psychotherapy experts, Impostor Syndrome, “is a psychological phenomenon in which people are unable to internalize their accomplishments.” “…Despite external evidence of their competence, those with the syndrome remain convinced that they are frauds and don’t deserve the success they have achieved.” We impostors chalk our successes up to a fluke of chance or just simply being lucky, and we are always in over our heads.
Only Diamonds Can Sharpen Diamonds:
If you can identify with my musings you are not alone. Everyone feels this way at some point when they are internalizing the successes in their life. There are several ways to cope with Impostor Syndrome, and consequently internalize your success:
Communicate. Misery loves company, so surround yourself with successful people because they are likely to feel like impostors too. Sharing your feelings with your peers is okay. This is the only way you can discover that your peers feel exactly like you do. I have to admit it’s immensely therapeutic to hear people that I believe are leagues more intelligent than me say, “I feel the same way.”
Under Sell, Over Deliver:
From what little success I have accumulated I can provide some advice. My first year of graduate school was one of the hardest transitions in my life. When you enter a new professional environment its very difficult to assess your progress, especially in graduate school. Moving forward and accumulating further success is a huge challenge. Comparing yourself and your accomplishments to others in your cohort is a natural yet toxic consequence of interacting with your peers. Comparing your experiences, strengths, and weaknesses to that of your peers is impossible and fruitless. Everyone’s path to success is different and you should use this as an opportunity to learn from your peers rather than compete with them.
Having an accurate pulse on your performance and progression in the work place is of great importance. Creating weekly lists and accomplishing them is something that works for me. I regularly set goals and share them with my advisor. If those goals are not accomplished in the time allocated we both leave our weekly meetings disappointed. That disappointment serves as motivation because I realize that I did not meet the goals we agreed on and this motivates me to work significantly harder the following week.
Doubt is Healthy, Fear is Paralyzing:
I am preparing to take my general exam this summer. This is not something I am looking forward to yet I know its necessary for me to progress from graduate student to Ph.D. candidate. My greatest fear is that I will fail my exam and not achieve a goal I have set for myself. However, I will not let that fear paralyze me. I will let that seed of doubt motivate me to work hard and communicate with my mentors when I am floundering. I will surround myself with people who encourage me to succeed. There’s a chance that I will make excuses about approaching and passing another milestone in my life. Ultimately, this milestone will serve as just another notch on my belt reenforcing my new train of thought. Because when I do pass my general exam it will be because I am legitimate not lucky. In the words of Thomas Jefferson “I’m a great believer in luck and I find the harder I work, the more I have of it.”
- Langford, Joe; Clance, Pauline Rose (1993). “The Impostor Phenomenon: Recent Research Findings Regarding Dynamics, Personality and Family Patterns and Their Implications for Treatment” (PDF). Psychotherapy: Theory, Research, Practice, Training30 (3): 495–501.
- Lucas Laursen (2008) “No, You’re Not an Impostor.” United Kingdom. Science Careers. Science Magazine.
Keolu Fox is a graduate student in the department of genome sciences. His research interests include human genome sequencing technology, and human genetic variation.