My Most Humiliating Day in Graduate School
“Do you realize how many people just lost weeks of work because of what you did?” the postdoctoral fellow asked me.
“If I were you, I probably couldn’t sleep at night.”
And with that he turned his back and walked away.
I leaned against the wall, closed my eyes, and tried to analyze what just happened.
I was a 1st year students, and the postdoctoral fellow had been training me for 2 weeks to culture cells.
That morning we discovered that all of the cultures in the incubator were contaminated with yeast and had to be thrown out.
As I had the least experience, the postdoctoral fellow automatically assumed that I had caused the yeast contamination by not using proper sterile technique.
Some of the experiments had been set up weeks before, using cells that only became available every few weeks.
It is fair to say that people lost months of work because of me – or so I thought.
I later learned that even the most experienced researchers had yeast contaminations from time to time because they were so difficult to prevent.
While there was no proof that I had caused the contamination, and no one besides the postdoctoral fellow blamed me, the feeling of guilt stuck with me for years.
I thought that “I was not cut out” for graduate school, and this feeling grew stronger after every dead-end experiment.
In essence, the feeling that I was a “bad” graduate student became a self-fulfilling prophecy.
I fell behind and I was embarrassed to admit it to my supervisor, thinking that I would talk to him when I caught up.
The results was that the more I avoided my supervisor, the more confused and overwhelmed I felt.
At the beginning of sixth year I had very little publishable data and a severe case of chronic inflammation in my arms brought on by stress.
As I saw my peers publishing papers and scheduling their thesis defenses, I felt like a fraud.
What was I doing in graduate school anyway?
I had good grades in college, that’s probably why they admitted me, but I felt like a failure who did not belong in a PhD program.
I felt alone, hopeless, and guilty for using up my department’s funding and not having any publications after 5 years.
At the time I didn’t know that there was a name for this feeling:”The Impostor Syndrome.”
Had I know that there was a name for this feeling, and that so many other students experienced it, would have helped me to let go of it, and possibly finish my thesis sooner.
How Do You Know You Have 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, or 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.
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.
You Can Crush the Impostor Syndrome Today
If you ever felt like a fraud, the realization that you are not alone is a big relief in itself.
However, if you have had these feelings for years, it may be tough to let go of the notion that you are an “impostor” or a “bad” graduate student.
The irony is that the more you believe that you are a “fraud” the harder it will be to make progress, so it is a self-fulfilling prophecy. In other words, the Impostor Syndrome not only affects your mood, but also your performance. It is nearly impossible to make progress if you believe that you are not “smart enough.”
While I had been carrying around a deeply rooted belief that I was a “bad” graduate student for over four years (since the day that we discovered that the cell culture incubator was contaminated), I was able to let go of it in just a few minutes.
In my sixth year I had a conversation with a student who had just defended her thesis after 7 years of graduate school.
She was bright, but like many other students, she had a series of dead-end projects, and her supervisor was a particularly difficult person to work with.
I congratulated her after her defense, and asked for her advice on how I could finish my thesis. Her reply really surprised me. I was expecting her to tell me that I needed to work longer hours, or do multiple projects so at least one of them would work out.
Instead she said:
“Dora, you need to fight. They won’t hand you a defense date unless you negotiate. So, if you want to finish, show them what you have and keep negotiating until they let you go.”
Her reply changed my whole perspective on how I approached my thesis. If I didn’t believe in myself (which I didn’t at the time), why would my committee let me get a PhD?
After more than 5 year in graduate school, I finally realized that getting a PhD was not just about the quality of your research, but also about how much you stood up for yourself at committee meetings.
My friend did not hand me the data I needed to graduate, but she gave me an insight that boosted my motivation and focus overnight. I no longer felt like an “impostor” or a “bad” graduate student – I just had to pull together what I had and negotiate with my supervisor on what I needed to do to finish.
I knew I didn’t have enough data at that time to write my thesis, but I also knew that my friend pulled most of her thesis together in the last 6 months. If she could do it, then I could too.
There are 2 reasons why you can let go of the Impostor Syndrome no matter how behind you are:
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.
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.
You can stop feeling like you are not “smart enough” once you realize that your limiting beliefs, and not your intelligence, are holding you back from progress.
While the conversation with my friend changed my perspective on graduate school in an instant, I still went through periods of self-doubt over the next year. I had to set up a new experimental system using technology I was not familiar with and my data was not reproducible.
In those moments of self-doubts when I had that feeling that I was “not good enough”, I used one or both of the following techniques:
1) I visualized getting my PhD diploma at my graduation ceremony. I knew that my family had to make a lot of sacrifices for me to be able to go to a PhD program in the US (and they would need to fly over from Hungary to see me graduate), and the feeling that I could finally make them proud of me filled me with so much positive energy that I was determined to get through another day of troubleshooting my instruments.
2) I went on a 20 minute walk. You might think, “How is a 20 minute walk going to fix my data or write my thesis? It will actually suck up my time!”
I took 3 or 4 walks a day to increase circulation in my arms and I realized that every time I went on a walk I got a new insight about how to optimize my experiment or analyze my data.
While the walks did take time away from my work, I felt so energized after I returned to my desk, that on the long run I was more productive.
At the time I felt resentful that I had developed an inflammatory condition that forced me to take so many breaks, but ironically these breaks gave me the boost in creativity and inspiration that I needed.
Eventually, I got into the habit of taking a walk every time I was confused or overwhelmed, because I knew that after every walk I would see my thesis from a different perspective that would help me overcome hurdles and make progress.
This experience had such profound effect on me, that I continued to practice the daily habit of walking, and to this day I get my best ideas during my walks.
You can read the literature, or you can just go on a walk and feel the difference it makes in your productivity (not to mention you will be getting exercise).
To see progress quickly, I recommend doing both of the above at the same time.
Visualize yourself handing in the final version of your thesis during your walks, and feel that sense of relief in your whole body.
You will feel so GOOD – and that’s the feeling you need to keep yourself motivated.
Visualization is such a powerful tool for motivation and focus that it is routinely used by Olympic athletes to train for events.
When you combine the power of visualization with the boost of energy and creativity you will get from a walk, you will see an immediate improvement in your productivity.
I have seen students who have made “leaps of progress” with these 2 simple techniques.
They 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.
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.
Has the Impostor Syndrome ever held you back from being confident or productive? How did you overcome it?
Please share your comments below because we have students from all over the world who are looking for inspiration. Thank you!