3 Tips to Overcome Imposter Syndrome as a Graduate Student

Jul 23, 2020

By Angell Kim

What you put into graduate school is what you get out of it, as goes the cliche. However, internal obstacles such as imposter syndrome sometimes get in the way of reaping the benefits of graduate school. 

If you are about to begin graduate school or are already a first-year graduate student, you can apply these tips to overcome common setback situations many students face. Instead of struggling with imposter syndrome, you can take advantage of the opportunities for growth, learning, and development during graduate school and even after graduating. You’ll just need to have a flexible mindset and be willing to get out of your comfort zone a little.

What is Imposter Syndrome?

Imposter syndrome is when you have low self-confidence, feel insecure, fear judgment, doubt yourself, think you are a fraud, or, put literally, feel like an imposter in your life or achievements. In graduate school, it might manifest itself by making you feel like you don’t belong so that you are too intimidated to speak up, express your voice, or ask questions. 

Sometimes you may feel too shy, too embarrassed, or think that your question is silly. You may feel that you don’t want to interrupt or bother your peers and might end up not speaking up nor asking a question. However, it’s worth it to work towards breaking that barrier to express your thoughts, ask your questions, and debate current issues. As our world wakes up to the importance of equity and social justice for all, speaking up, asking “why,” and having open conversations are important not just in the classroom but also outside of it. Strive to get your points across because different angles and perspectives create diverse discussions, which facilitate important conversations that may not have happened if you didn’t speak up in the first place. Your voice can inspire others to lift their voices, too. Here are three ways to help you overcome imposter syndrome and make your voice heard with pride.

#1 – Recognize It For What It Is

To overcome imposter syndrome, you have to first recognize that you are feeling it. Whenever you feel self-doubt or an “I am a failure or not good enough” mentality creeping in, take a step back, acknowledge your feelings, and write them down.

For example, you might write,

  •  I feel stupid for asking this question. 
  • I feel dumb in this cohort. 

Now, write why you feel that way.

For example:

  • It’s probably something everyone knows…
  • Other students who participate are way more qualified. The other students have amazing backgrounds and experiences. Mine don’t even compare…

Now, putting the emotions aside, write down the cause and effect of the thought. 

For example:

  • If I don’t ask this question, I will be constantly wondering. If I don’t ask this question, maybe others who are in the same boat as I am won’t know either.
  • If I was not good enough, would I have gotten into graduate school in the first place?

Finally, write down an optimistic spin to it. 

For example:

  • If I ask this question, I will stop worrying about it and have the answer.
  • If others in my cohort participate more and have incredible backgrounds, that just creates a well-rounded academic environment from which I can learn and benefit.

Recognize you are feeling imposter syndrome and put it down on paper. Thinking through your feelings logically can help you realize that it is okay to ask that question and it is okay to be surrounded by equally smart individuals in graduate school. This is what graduate school is about, learning from others! Sometimes fear prevents us from taking action, but, if you can break down that fear to muster the courage to ask that question or speak your voice, you are winning and beating imposter syndrome.

#2 – Write Down Your Accomplishments

Sometimes, you can feel imposter syndrome not only in the academic realm but also in your personal life. With social media surrounding us everyday, it is easier to see the achievements of others in the spotlight and not recognize your very own. 

It is helpful to make a “brag” list which can help you with overcoming imposter syndrome. With a pen and paper, take the time to write down your achievements and experiences: Your painting was displayed in third grade. You got onto a varsity team for a sport in high school. You traveled to Colombia. You helped your sister with math homework. Your homemade chocolate chip cookies are unrivaled. You studied in Germany. No achievement is too small. Write them all. Write them proudly! Keep the list and update it occasionally because your achievements are limitless. 

You got into graduate school for a reason. You were chosen for your achievements and academics, so take a moment to remember them when imposter syndrome creeps in! Now, stick that note on the wall or somewhere in your notebook where you can see it everyday. Every time you feel doubt, look at your list. You have to visualize, train, and remind your mind that your negative thoughts do not define you. 

#3 – Find Your Community

Having imposter syndrome and negative thoughts about yourself can prevent you from taking advantage of the opportunities that graduate school and life can bring. A community helps you have a sense of belonging. Because it gives you a place where you feel free to be yourself, you can get out of your head without overthinking it. Self-confidence is like a mental muscle to strengthen. Once you feel comfortable in one place, you start exuding that confidence with others and in other spaces gradually. Soon, there is no time or room for imposter syndrome to take over.

However, community and a sense of belonging won’t come to you on your doorstep. You have to find a community or create it and then be active in it, build it, and strengthen it. Taking initiative to find or build community can help you create a space where you can be mentally strong and help others to do the same. It is a bit challenging for everyone, but if you’re willing to learn and get out of your comfort zone to get into a comfortable zone and into a community, consider the following:

  • Let’s say there are initiatives where social groups are created via social media or there are events to meet and greet. Take advantage of those opportunities. Overcome the invisible barrier of fear that you’ll be the only one participating in the social media groups or the only one there at the events.
  • It might be radio silent in those social media groups, or maybe nobody shows up to the events. In that case, you have a good opportunity to be a leader by initiating conversation, organizing study groups, or even coordinating outside social events to get to know your cohort better. 

Even if you go to the event and there is no one there but the coordinators, it’s not a wasted opportunity. Take advantage and get to know them better. Overcome the invisible barrier of awkwardness by breaking the ice. Let’s say you’re really introverted. Try to make small talk and always have a few fun conversation topics (travels, sports, and favorite TV shows are good starters) in mind in case there’s a lull.  

Despite the differences in background, whether it be age, race, socioeconomic, etc., all of you are there to study, excel, and receive higher education for the next chapter of your lives. By focusing on collaborating for success, you’ll get people together to study, have conversations, and gradually find your community and niche all while connecting others at the same time.

Of course, leading and coordinating will take time and effort, but it’s an initiative that benefits you and your peers. 

In conclusion…

Imposter syndrome is ultimately fear.

If you have it, recognize it. 

Once you recognize it, take action, however small or big, to lead into more confident actions. If the result wasn’t what you wanted, try again. If you see someone who is trying to overcome fear, build a more comfortable environment by being an ally. Again, he or she will appreciate it, and you’re helping create a more communicative and confident society.

Graduate school isn’t easy, but it’s a great environment to overcome your fears and imposter syndrome before launching into your career. Don’t forget your achievements and where you are so you can keep adding to your list of accomplishments, speak your voice with pride, and even pave the way for others to use their voices too.

Angell Kim graduated from the University of Texas at Austin with a Bachelor of Arts in International Relations and Global Studies and a Minor in Latin American Studies. She is a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer from Colombia (2016-2018), a 2020 Donald M. Payne International Development Fellow, and is a 2020 Paul D. Coverdell Fellow and MPA student at the University of Arizona.

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