The Impostor Syndrome Doesn’t Have to Hold You Back
Lisa called her husband in tears.
After six months of writing, her research proposal had finally been approved.
Yet, she still couldn’t shake the impostor syndrome: the nagging feeling that she wasn’t good enough for her graduate program.
Crafting her proposal had been a torturous process.
Lisa and her committee had gone back and forth with comments.
She tried her best to satisfy all of her committee’s requirements, but no matter what, they kept finding gaps in her proposal.
What’s more, they didn’t always agree on how she could improve.
As the “expert on her topic,” Lisa was supposed to pull all of their comments together, into an exciting and feasible research proposal.
But during each committee meeting Lisa felt like they were tearing her down.
She wasn’t sure if her thesis committee was on her side, or if they even wanted her to graduate. She was in her fifth year already.
How could she have made it this far, and still feel so inadequate for graduate school?
Fifty percent of her classmates had already dropped out of the program because they felt hopeless about graduating, and most were too ashamed to talk about their challenges with anyone.
Lisa’s classmates felt like impostors in a school where all the other students had everything together.
They isolated themselves from their classmates, and they also avoided conversations about their theses with their friends and family members who “didn’t understand what it took to finish a thesis.”
Without the support or perspective they needed, it’s no wonder they never graduated.
Like many of her classmates, Lisa was falling prey to some pernicious myths that plague graduate students.
If you’re a graduate student or PhD candidate, chances are you’ve been fooled by some of the same misconceptions too.
Let’s debunk the five myths that can crush the confidence of any graduate student.
How to Overcome the 5 Myths that Feed the Impostor Syndrome
When you have the Impostor Syndrome, you live in fear that one day someone will discover that you are not as smart as they thought.
Perhaps you looked good on paper, but they made a mistake when they admitted you, and deep down you feel like a fraud.
The Impostor Syndrome is a “state of mind”, and is not correlated with your achievements.
If you have limiting beliefs such as:
- “I am not smart enough to be in graduate school”, or
- “They must have made a mistake when the admitted me”, or
- “If others knew the truth about me they would realize that I am not as smart as they thought”
you probably have some version of the Impostor Syndrome and this held you back from achieving your full potential.
In addition to limiting beliefs that you are not “good enough”, the Impostor Syndrome is also accompanied by self-doubt, low self-esteem and lack of motivation.
While these feelings are very real (and may have been with you for years), they are limiting beliefs and not the truth.
The only truth is the story that you tell yourself and how you interpret your experience in graduate school.
You have the choice of interpreting a dead-end project as an indicator that you are “inadequate” or make an objective assessment that the project is not worth your time and move on.
Myth #1: “I am the only one with these challenges”
It’s easy to feel isolated as a graduate student.
When you’re diving deep into your own research topic, you can lose sight of all your peers who are facing similar challenges.
However, isolation will only feed stress, and create a vicious cycle of even more isolation and stress.
In this case, a little perspective goes a long way.
Sharing your feelings with other people who’ve been through the same process, and listening to their experiences, can help you feel less lonely.
Set aside some regular time for coffee dates with someone you trust.
Talk to other students or recent graduates.
You’ll find that each thesis presents its own unique challenges, and that your peers are likely feeling the same way you are at this stage.
You don’t even have to seek out a support network within your own program, or area of study. Many of the challenges of completing a graduate degree are similar across different disciplines.
Myth #2: “It is only a matter of time before they realize how inadequate I am”
This is the hallmark of impostor syndrome: You feel fundamentally inadequate, and it seems inevitable that everyone else will feel that way about you too.
However, this is the stress talking, not reality.
Think back on when you applied to graduate school, the effort you put into your undergrad degree, and the hard work it took to even be admitted to your graduate program in the first place.
Candidates are only accepted to these programs after very careful selection.
If you’ve made it this far, that means you’ve already demonstrated your abilities, time and time again.
By definition, you are “smart enough” to be there.
Myth #3: “I am not a good graduate student and I don’t work hard enough”
No matter how hard you work, there is always room for improvement.
That’s not a sign of failure; in fact, it’s just the opposite.
Even the most accomplished academics still run into obstacles or dead ends in their research.
That doesn’t mean you aren’t a “good” student, or that you aren’t putting effort into your research, it just means you have a chance to learn from your experiences.
Receiving critiques from your advisor or thesis committee is a normal part of the process.
These people have a responsibility to help you make your thesis the best it can be, and feedback is a necessary part of that process.
Don’t let criticism discourage you.
Instead, use it as an opportunity to learn and improve.
Myth #4: “My thesis research just isn’t good enough”
There will be times when it seems like your topic or your research is simply not up to the standards of your field.
However, a thesis doesn’t have to be Nobel-Prize-winning work to succeed.
Rather, the purpose of your graduate studies is to make a unique contribution to your field, and for you to learn how to be an independent researcher.
Graduate school is supposed to be the beginning of your career, not the culmination of it.
At some point, most scholars will doubt the validity or the quality of their work.
In fact, this is a must for every good researcher, and an indicator that you’re on the right track.
But to tell yourself your work “just isn’t good enough” is defeatist and draining.
Instead, channel your energy towards the aspects of your research you love, or are most excited about, to get back on track.
Myth #5: “I made so little progress, there is no way I can graduate”
As graduate students or PhD candidates, we tend to hold ourselves to a very high standard.
In the midst of all your hard work, you may occasionally stop to take stock, and feel as if you’ve accomplished very little.
No matter what your field of study is, graduate research is never a straightforward, linear process.
Progress comes in leaps, and can happen when you don’t expect it.
Mistakes and failures are still indicators of progress, and something everyone grapples with in their research.
Look back on your entire career as a graduate student.
Three reasons why you can let go of the Impostor Syndrome no matter how behind you are…
Reason #1: It was the Impostor syndrome itself that has impeded your progress.
If you are behind (even WAY behind) it is probably because you spent so much mental energy on wondering whether you were “good enough” to be in graduate school that you had no energy left to make progress.
The next time you sense any limiting belief passing through your mind (or if someone tries to plant a limiting belief in your mind), simply view it for what it is – a belief and nothing more.
And if you still have doubts, take a walk – I know that you will see your accomplishments and progress from a new perspective, and will get new insights that will help you stay motivated and continue to make progress.
Reason #2: Graduate school is meant to challenge you, and it will push you outside of your comfort zone.
Many PhDs who are now successful in academia or industry admit to doubting whether they would ever get their PhDs.
I have seen students who have made “leaps of progress” by remembering these two simple concepts.
Once they recognized that the “Impostor Syndrome” was a belief, students went from doubting that they would ever finish to having the confidence to:
- Discuss their thesis requirements with their supervisor and
- Developing a clear action plan in just a few weeks.
Pretty cool, right?
Reason #3: Almost all graduate students feel like impostors at some point
You have probably heard that the Impostor Syndrome is common among graduate students.
But, how can you be an impostor if everyone else feels the same way?
This may sound crazy (but certainly worth a try), try to embrace the feeling like you are not good enough.
After all, if you knew everything that you were supposed to, what would be the point of going to graduate school?
You don’t have to let Impostor Syndrome drain your confidence and energy.
Reframe critique as “constructive feedback” and focus on what you need to do to get to the finish line.
If you still feel overwhelmed by the work you have left to do, remember that many graduates do a significant portion of their research and writing in the final three to six months of their studies.
It is tempting to get carried away by feelings of frustration, but the more you can focus on what you need to do to finish, the quicker the puzzle pieces of your thesis will fall into place.
In fact, the sooner you let go of the myths that graduate students tell themselves, the sooner you can stop beating yourself up, and finish your thesis.
What is your biggest challenge that is keeping you from being confident about finishing your thesis? Please comment below and Dora will respond to you directly.
For more tips to help you get your thesis DONE and be more productive in graduate school, click here to get on the waiting list for the “Finish Your Thesis Program” and you will receive a free copy of Dora’s guide “Finish Your Thesis Faster”