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Imposter syndrome: you’re not alone

Hi Gaels!

You might have read my last blog, where I talked about how eager I was to be part of a small cohort in graduate school. My expectation was for there to be somewhere between 20–50 students in the Epidemiology MSc program.

Well, things didn’t turn out quite that way. You can imagine how thrilled I was to find out that there are only 12 other students in my cohort! I feel lucky to be able to learn with such a supportive and tight-knit group for the next two years. My graduate lectures are already much more engaging than my undergrad lectures felt by virtue of their emphasis on group activities and discussions at our tables. I also have been able to start developing strong relationships with some of the faculty members and teaching assistants in the program. Around this time last year, I remember questioning whether graduate school was the right move for me. So far, my MSc program has been great!

However, what I am struggling with is imposter syndrome.

On our first day of class, I remember being impressed by the diversity of backgrounds among fellow students in the Public Health Sciences program. Prior to entering grad school, some of my peers had spent years bolstering their work and research experience. Some have even already completed graduate and professional degrees. Almost everyone took at least one epidemiology or public health course during undergrad—and most completed an undergrad degree that seemed more relevant to epidemiology than my psychology major. My sole exposure to epidemiology, however, was in a short module in an elective course in my second year. When I met my classmates, I wasn’t just impressed. I was overawed.

I often look back at my experiences with a negative lens and catch myself dwelling on my apparent “shortcomings”—i.e., specific qualifications that I lack. My tendency to juxtapose my weaknesses with others’ strengths has prompted me to feel “out of place” and “not good enough” for graduate school a few times. In these moments of minor despair, I often wonder: “If so many of my classmates are entering the program with a baseline level of knowledge and experience that I may not have, does that mean I am already behind?” Even when things are going well, my inner critic sometimes interjects: “How long can I keep this up for?”

Many new grad students will have experienced imposter syndrome before; it is common to feel self-doubt and inferiority in academia. I would even argue that you are just about guaranteed to experience imposter syndrome throughout your studies to some extent, regardless of how far you’ve come and how successful you are with your education.  

Graphic showing spaceman and words "the imposter"

I thought it would be helpful to share a few practical suggestions that I have used to ground myself and re-gain confidence when I need it. Feel free to try them out for yourself:

Hear from others: be open about your fears

  • Sharing how you experience with imposter syndrome often compels others to do the same, which is an excellent way to normalize your feelings of self-doubt. Learning that others share your concerns can provide you with a great sense of belonging, and in turn, may help you feel understood. It becomes reassuring to hear from fellow students that “[x] is going to be a challenge, but we will face it together.” Others can also remind us that it is 100% normal (and expected) to not know everything; in turn, you’re doing the same for your classmates.

Think constructively: focus on what you CAN control.

  • Imposter syndrome can stem from the belief that your previous experiences are not good enough. Instead of ruminating on what you could have done differently, try redirecting your thoughts to what you can do now. For example, if a particular class is making you feel like an imposter, you may decide to spend extra time to review your notes, experiment with a new study strategy, or book an academic skills appointment with a specialist.

Practice self-affirmation: acknowledge and embrace your strengths.

  • When feeling inadequate, it feels natural to overlook your positive qualities. Take a moment (or several moments!) to praise yourself for what you have been doing right. Your background may have equipped you with unique strengths that others—including those who you compare yourself against—would ironically feel inadequate about not having. For example, I constantly gloss over the fact that my psychology degree provided me with lots of training and first-hand experience with statistics and research methods, which have both already been key assets for learning many fundamental biostatistical principles. I might be behind in epidemiology, but I’m ahead in these aspects at least.

Finally, keep in mind that YOU were selected for admission to Queen’s. You have already proved that you belong!

So to my fellow graduate and undergraduate students dealing with imposter syndrome: I hear you. You are never alone in your experience. Next time you catch yourself being your worst critic, I would encourage you to do something about it—whether that be one of the strategies I outlined, or something different. And don’t forget you can always talk to the specialists at SASS if you need some extra help.

Until next time,

Shahnawaz