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Managing impostor syndrome in graduate school

70% of the population is estimated to have experienced impostor syndrome at some point in their life [1] according to research published in the International Journal of Behavioral Science. Impostor syndrome is the constant fear of being outed as a “fraud” and the immense feeling of self-doubt regarding one’s capabilities, or belonging in a community, usually triggered as one enters a new setting.

For many people, starting graduate school can set off impostor moments. In fact, it would not be farfetched to argue that the higher up in the academic ladder you climb, the more prevalent this phenomenon becomes. The longer one spends in academia, the more frequently one writes papers or grants sent for review, or applies for job positions, promotions, or tenure. All these are instances that subject oneself to peer judgement and are thus potential instances of rejection.

In academia, the step up to a graduate program can be thought of as a bottleneck event which selects for the brightest, the most driven, and the most hardworking. In a graduate degree program where everybody else seems so accomplished and motivated, there is an invisible pressure to stay afloat and to appear to thrive. Consequently, any minor setback or failure, even the failure to live up to constructed expectations, can breed feelings of inadequacy and displacement, which can subsequently snowball into full-blown impostor syndrome.

Being surrounded by high-achieving individuals, graduate students can be prone to doubting their own abilities and accomplishments

In a graduate degree program where everybody else seems so accomplished and motivated, there is an invisible pressure to stay afloat and to appear to thrive.

A major cause is the act of comparing of oneself to peers. Our perception of what makes a graduate student is based on what we observe of those around us, not our understanding of ourselves. Our expectations are, consequently, built on the bases of these observations. Any discrepancies between how we perceive ourselves and the expectations established then become potential triggers for impostor syndrome. Therefore, in trying to manage impostor moments, it becomes important to shift our gaze inwards and to equip ourselves with the proper know-how to manage these moments. The below are some of the things I found helpful during my own journey in a PhD program.

Tip #1: Christmas tree approach

I consider myself fortunate to be under the tutelage and guidance of an extremely patient and understanding supervisor for my PhD studies. After confiding to my supervisor about my impostor syndrome, he advised that I focus on building a good foundation of basic biomedical concepts and techniques. He also suggested that I be familiar with landmark papers in the field. Cutting edge techniques and advanced concepts, he said, heavily rely on a solid grasp of the fundamentals. In fact, distilling complex ideas down to the basics has served as a useful strategy in my navigation of a rapidly advancing, jargon-laden discipline.

This approach is called the “Christmas tree approach”, named after how people would normally assemble Christmas trees. The process starts with establishing a strong stable foundation, subsequently attaching the trunk, branches, leaves, piece by piece. Being well-rooted in basic concepts gives us more confidence to work on and decorate the branches and leaves, and ultimately sets us up for success – the star at the top of the Christmas tree.

My project, which requires analysis of single-cell omics data, seems understandably daunting for someone whose expertise was in a completely different discipline. I realized, however, that techniques such as single-cell transcriptomics can be boiled down to the basic concept that gene expression involves the production of RNA; part of the Central Dogma of Molecular Biology. Single-cell technology simply allows us to study this phenomenon at the eponymous single cell resolution. The RNA found in different cells reveal clues about what kinds of genes are actively expressed in those specific cells. Consequently, inferences such as cell identities, trajectories, etc., can be made. Using the Christmas tree approach, I have also found success in understanding other techniques and concepts that will help me ask and answer important questions that I will be exploring in my project.

Learning in graduate school means gradually building up expertise starting with the fundamentals

In many other instances when research seminars and academic discussions explored complicated ideas outside of my research topic, I have found myself doubting my place in the PhD program. These impostor moments stem from the assumption that everybody else listening has fully understood the topic, and the expectation that I should be able to fully understand it as well. By having mastery over fundamental concepts and techniques, I am reminded that I have all the groundwork laid out and prepared for learning and interpreting these advanced ideas as well.

Tip #2: Build a good support system

I cannot stress enough how important it is to build a support system wherever you choose to pursue graduate studies. Your support system should consist of friends, colleagues, or mentors with whom you feel comfortable being open and vocal about your thoughts, feelings and needs.

Graduate school can feel very isolating and lonely since everyone works on their projects in silo. I have found myself sometimes using other people’s progress as a benchmark to measure my own and that has only tended to exacerbate feelings of inadequacy and incompetence.

What keeps me grounded is being encouraged, sustained, and inspired by the most supportive group of friends I could ever ask for. My friends, who are in the same program, are the first people with whom I celebrate my achievements, share my complaints, and from whom I actively ask for advice and help. They are the people I confide in and lay bare all my insecurities with.

Having a support group to share achievements and struggles with can make graduate school a less challenging experience

What keeps me grounded is being encouraged, sustained, and inspired by the most supportive group of friends I could ever ask for.

As I step into my 2nd year in the PhD program, I have become painfully aware that the candidature exam inches closer with every day. Part of the expectation for the exam is having some primary data as evidence to support the thesis project, proving that the student is in good standing to complete the program. More recently, I have been bothered by pervasive thoughts of whether I am doing enough every day or whether I will have enough data in time for the exam.

After sharing this with my friends, I found that they were also struggling to similar extents in their own projects, and that my worries and insecurities related to being in a demanding program are echoed. This was relieving to hear, as it helped me realize that the anxiety I feel is normal and that my struggles do not automatically make me a less qualified PhD student than my peers.

Tip #3: Nurture your hobbies and interests

When your identity mostly revolves around only being a graduate student, there is a tendency to conflate the successes and failures of your endeavors with your self-worth. To minimize any potentially overblown impact my work has on my mental state, I have found it helpful to wear multiple hats and to ground my identity in more than just one aspect of my life.

On top of being a graduate student, part of my identity is also being a language enthusiast, a podcaster, and a hobby baker. I spend my free time trying to learn a language, editing for a podcast, or baking cookies and pastries for my friends. My time is not fully devoted to the care of cancer cells in culture dishes; and my emotions and mental health are not completely tethered to the outcome of my experiments. In wearing multiple hats, I find myself less susceptible to being overly affected by a negative result or a failed procedure. Instead, the variety of activities I’m involved in helps me feel recharged and excited to go to the lab every weekday morning.

In wearing multiple hats, I find myself less susceptible to being overly affected by a negative result or a failed procedure.

Hence, I would exhort anyone reading this to go take that hike with a friend over the weekend, develop a green thumb by taking care of plants, or learn how to make a killer tiramisu. You don’t need to do everything at once. Start off by allocating time to do at least one thing you enjoy every week. Yes, you have dedicated a few years to the pursuit of higher learning, but your identity need not be restricted to only this aspect of your life. By developing hobbies and interests, you dilute the negative impact of any setbacks in your studies, while infusing your weekly schedule with variety and excitement that will keep you motivated and driven.

Cultivating other hobbies and interests can help graduate students find a sense of growth and fulfillment even when outside the lab

Tip #4: Develop an internal locus of identity

Arguably the most important counter to impostor syndrome is addressing the chief symptom by understanding and appreciating your own worth. You managed to get into graduate school; amongst a sea of capable and qualified applicants, you were chosen to be part of the program. A panel of professors assessed your application and decided you have what it takes to complete the program, that is why you are here. You might be conditioned by past experiences to think that achievements are never enough, but admission into the program in itself is an achievement worth celebrating. You deserve your place in the program. More importantly, you should arrive at this conclusion on your own.

When I was first admitted to the MD-PhD program, I was plagued by self-doubt and fears. I had a less-than-pleasant experience completing my undergraduate thesis project, and I certainly did not want to go through a second round of that level of mental anguish. I had been led to believe that my ideas did not make logical sense, and therefore my thoughts and contributions were not important. It took me a long period of soul-searching and introspection to arrive at a place where I could convince myself that this was not the case, and that my accomplishments since graduating are testimony to that.

Not all of us have access to a magic hammer that tells us whether we are worthy; we cannot rely on other people’s validation and judgement of our worth. In my journey learning to manage impostor moments, I found it important to develop an internal locus of identity and to value my perception and understanding of myself more than those of others. Some of the habits that proved helpful in this process include meditating for five minutes at the beginning and end of the day to focus my thoughts or process my emotions and experiences. Through meditation I have become better able to analyze why I react or respond the way I do, and this has helped fortify me against crippling impostor moments.

Tip #5: Adopt a growth mindset

In Plato’s Apology, Socrates claims that a wise person knows that he knows nothing. The raison d’être of academia itself is to acknowledge how little we know and to attempt to characterize and then find answers to what we don’t know. As a graduate student, more often than not I have found myself to be the person in the room or the conversation that knows the least (to no one’s surprise). What strikes me, however, is that even the postdocs in my lab confess that at this point in their careers they are still constantly learning about new techniques and concepts that they are as unfamiliar with as I am.

It is not surprising then that the higher up we climb in academia, the more likely people suffer from impostor moments. The idea of not knowing comes across as admittedly disconcerting and threatening to one’s self-esteem, especially when the expectation, external or internal, is otherwise. When I recognize that I am entering an unhealthy headspace, I have learned to convert this negative energy into a positive drive to resolve the issue instead. Specifically, instead of flogging myself for not knowing something, I try to reframe the scenario and think of it as an opportunity to learn something new. Doing this has helped me stop thinking of failures as evidence for incompetence, but rather as puzzles to solve or skills to master. This way of thinking is commonly called the growth mindset.

Adopting a growth mindset can help address feelings of inadequacy and open up avenues for further personal development

For most people, impostor syndrome will continue to rear its ugly head, as we constantly expose ourselves to new environments, measure ourselves against expectations, or expose ourselves to the possibility of failure. Learning to overcome or manage impostor syndrome does not necessitate being impervious or immune to its effects. Some may argue about whether this is even possible. From my own limited experiences, I am content to contend that it is possible to minimize how much one is affected by impostor syndrome, and to learn how to manage the feelings associated with it.

Most of the tips I suggested are based on my belief that an inward gaze is key to managing impostor syndrome. Your progress, your achievements, and your setbacks should be appreciated and evaluated only in the context of your own journey, not the expectations imposed upon you. You have done the work, you absolutely deserve to be in grad school, and it’s time you start believing it.

[1] Matthews, G., & Clance, P. R. (1985). Treatment of the impostor phenomenon in psychotherapy clients. Psychotherapy in Private Practice, 3(1), 71–81.

John Joson Ng is an MD-PhD student at Duke-NUS Medical School, Singapore. He is currently trying to identify potential biomarkers for prognosticating leukemia at diagnosis. Outside the lab he enjoys baking for friends and is currently in a quest to find the best pastries in the city.

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