Tips for Grads: Imposter phenomena and ways to cope with it

By Foram Gathia, PhD student

Imposter syndrome, also known as imposter phenomena, is a behavioral health phenomenon described as self-doubt of intellect, skills, or accomplishments among high-achieving individuals (National Institute of Health).

As graduate students, we often find ourselves thinking, “I am not smart enough. I was just lucky to get this opportunity. I don’t deserve this praise,” and feeling overwhelmed when someone speaks highly of us. In some cases, imposter phenomena can be a catalyst for growth. On the other hand, it can also lead to increased anxiety, depression, and career burnout.

The good news is that you are not alone: High-achieving individuals often experience these feelings. However, it is important to strike a balance between accomplishing great things and allowing yourself to enjoy those achievements. We often sail through life jumping from one goal to another without realizing that we have reached milestones along the way which were once only distant dreams.

How can we cope with these imposter feelings? Here are five tips:

  • Let go of your inner perfectionist. Striving for perfection is counterproductive and perfectionism only feeds into your imposter emotions. Take a step back and ask yourself, when is good enough good enough? As Sheryl Sandberg puts it, “Done is better than perfect”.
  • Keep a success journal. Celebrate the small successes you encounter along the way and document them so that when feelings of doubt take over, you can flip through the pages of your accolades and know that you deserve every bit of it.
  • Maintain perspective. No one knows everything, but everyone knows something. It is important to be a learner and remember that we all have something valuable to offer. Your unique set of experiences can be a great source of learning only if you share it with others.
  • Develop a new script. The way you narrate your story depends only on you! Remember, you are leading the show of your life and what you portray is what others will see. Revise your internal script as required and give yourself credit for how far you have come.
  • Embrace the feeling and use it. Avoiding feelings of self-doubt seldom yields positive results. Acknowledge that you are feeling a certain way but don’t let it be a hindrance to your success. Keep in mind that feelings are not facts.

In conclusion, there is no one-size-fits-all formula when facing feelings of self-doubt. Still, it is important to adjust and re-adjust your lens as many times as needed to finally be able to applaud yourself for enduring all the hardships and not give up. You’ve got this!

Tips for Grads is a professional and academic advice column written by graduate students for graduate students at UW­–Madison. It is published in the student newsletter, GradConnections Weekly.