Imposter syndrome in graduate school ubiquitous

Syndrome does not mean an actual inadequacy or lack of achievement



Medical students, doctoral candidates and Tom Hanks all have this experience of feeling out of place in common.


If you ever experience a feeling where you have no idea why you do what you do and that you do not deserve to be where you are, you are not alone.

This feeling is a universal experience called imposter syndrome.

About 70 percent of people experience impostor syndrome at some point or another in their lives, according to a recent survey.

Tom Hanks in an interview once said, “No matter what we’ve done, there comes a point where you think, ‘How did I get here? When are they going to discover that I am, in fact, a fraud and take everything away from me?’”

Many successful people have also admitted to having suffered from imposter syndrome.

Traditionally women, people of color and first-generation college students have been known to suffer more from the consequences of this “internal experience of intellectual phoniness” than others. Current research, however, suggests both women and men experience impostor syndrome equally. This means it is not an actual inadequacy or lack of achievement that causes someone to feel like an impostor.

As graduate students, we are living in the in-between stages of a student and a professional. It certainly seems as though we are more susceptible to feeling the imposter syndrome at this stage than we might be at other times.

Graduate students today are under more pressure than ever before. They are expected to take classes, teach, do research, publish, write their dissertations and apply for internships or jobs — all in the span of three to five years.

“During my first year as a medical student, I noticed most students in my class were from prominent schools and had impressive research experience,” said Deepika Kubsad, University of Washington School of Medicine student. 

To enter grad school is to plunge into a professional world populated by top-class researchers and scholars —  people who have spent decades studying their chosen topics. It is perfectly natural to not immediately fit in at a place like that.

“Even though I had extensive research experience and a list of published papers to back it up, I felt like the dumbest one out of the bunch,” Kubsad said. “I started to doubt myself and think that the program must have made a mistake in picking me, and that I’d somehow fooled them into thinking I’m qualified.”

Even though your peers seem more advanced and qualified than you are, I bet most of them feel insecure too. 

“When my first journal got accepted for publication at a peer-reviewed journal, I could not even take credit for my own accomplishments because of the constant feelings of not being that good enough [of a] Ph.D. student,” said Rahul Jha, final-year WSU electrical engineering doctoral candidate.

As graduate students, we experience self-doubt, feelings of phoniness, ruminate about less than perfect performance and being uncomfortable with our achievements. 

These feelings influence our sense of self, mood and relationships with others. 

It can continue to affect students as they graduate and move into the working world, where they may feel lower levels of job satisfaction.

“I felt I was inadequate and unqualified in the first few weeks of starting my career as a programmer but getting some ‘kudos’ in our weekly update meetings, the feeling of being recognized and encouraged by my teammates made me feel like a valuable contributor in the next few months,” said Harshita Jasthi, Amazon Web Services software development engineer.  

We need to find a healthy balance in our busy lives with a recognition that at times, graduate programs will be more demanding than others. 

You are just beginning your journey as an academic and researcher and remember that you are here to learn.

I want to emphasize that when you are feeling like an imposter, it is only because you are climbing high and it is natural to feel scared of heights you have never seen before. 

I want to give kudos to everyone out there who are working very hard to achieve their goals — switching careers, starting graduate school, getting back to work after having a kid, working towards that promotion or just any hurdle you might have — you are enough, and your inputs and efforts are very valuable.