Feel like a fraud?: How to combat Imposter Syndrome

By Nina Cook: Imposter Syndrome happens to the us all, but it does not define us.

Rice University

You’ve arrived at Rice. You’re sitting in your first class and a fellow student starts spouting off words like “Anthropocene” and quoting some German philosopher you’ve never heard of before (yeah, I’m looking at you, Heidegger). You don’t know what’s going on, but you’re pretty sure that in about five minutes your Dean of Graduate Studies will come storming into the classroom to escort you from the premises because you definitely don’t belong here.

Hi everyone! My name is Nina Cook. I’m a fifth-year PhD Candidate in the English Department at Rice University and a recent survivor of Imposter Syndrome. Widely defined as a psychological condition experienced by 99% of graduate students (and yes, that statistic is made up – I’m not a math major), Imposter Syndrome can be detrimental to your first-year, second-year – for me, even my third-year experience. I don’t think I have ever fully overcome my Imposter Syndrome, but I did learn to survive it – and it does get easier the farther you progress in the program. In the remainder of this blog, I’m going to share three quick and dirty tricks on how to hack your Imposter Syndrome to ensure that you can be the most confident and collected version of you that you can be.

#1 – You’re your own worst critic – but you could be your own best coach!

It’s a cliché, but it’s true. We are way harder on ourselves than anyone else would ever be on us. I love  Chris Bennett, the Nike Global Head Coach. He’s a great coach, and I highly recommend that you try out some of his guided runs through the app if you’re trying to get into physical fitness. But I think the best sound bite Coach Bennett has given me wasn’t necessarily even about running – it was about positive self-talk. About halfway through one of his longer runs, Coach Bennett checks in with the runner and asks “how are you doing?” He then lists off some potential answers, all of which are pretty negative: “not as well as I’d like,” “I’m dying,” “I’m not a runner – why did I think I could do this,” etc. It’s pretty surprising how often my mind is telling me those exact things, even though I’m a seasoned runner. But then, Coach Bennett drops it on you – he asks you to talk to yourself not as you are now, but as you would if you were coaching your best friend. It’s an amazing, instantaneous, and powerful reframe. Why are we so generous, supportive, and kind to others, and so dreadful and full of judgment towards ourselves? This doesn’t just apply to running – it can work for grad school too. Instead of thinking of everything you don’t know, or all the reasons you shouldn’t be here, tell yourself what you’d tell your best friend: They let you in for a reason. They see something in you that perhaps you can’t see in yourself. You’re special. You work hard. You will succeed.

#2 – You may feel like the only Imposter – but honey, we’re all just faking it ‘til we make it.

I can promise that you’re not the only person in the room who feels like they don’t belong. Everyone is faking it. Do you learn a lot in graduate school? Yes! Does anyone actually know as much as they suggest they do? Definitely not. There’s so much to learn – so many ways to grow. You’ll never know it all, and that’s okay. When I start to feel overwhelmed by how much I don’t know, or to feel that the “star student” must be more brilliant than me because she seems to suggest that she knows everything there is to know about Marxism or Narrative Theory or the idiosyncrasies of Walter Benjamin’s philosophy, I like to remind myself of the famous quotation that’s attributed to one of the wisest men in the world, Socrates: “I'm wiser than he[r] in just this one small way: that what I don't know, I don't think I know.” There’s pleasure in learning. If we knew it all, then that pleasure would be forever out of grasp. Not knowing doesn’t mean you don’t belong – it means you do! Afterall, a university is built to share knowledge with those who don’t know.

#3 – There are stupid questions – but there’s no shame in asking.

I hate it when professors say there are no stupid questions. Boy, have I heard some stupid questions in my day – and some of them have come from my own mouth! I think what professors typically mean when they say “there are no stupid questions” is that you shouldn’t be ashamed to ask questions. We learn through trial and error. We learn through the Socratic Method – which involves the asking and answering of some pretty stupid questions. And, as previously stated, we know Socrates was wiser than most. Don’t be scared to ask questions. It means you want to learn.

So that’s all I’ve got for now. Three ways to combat Imposter Syndrome: recognize that you should be a coach, not a critic; realize that everyone else is faking it too; and ask as many questions as you can think of – you’re going to make it. You belong here. You deserve this. And I promise, it does get better.