You made it. You got into the grad school of your dreams! You worked hard, you spent hours working on your application, bravely navigated your way through the interview and you now are here. So, why do you feel like maybe you shouldn’t be?
Why You Might Suffer From Impostor Syndrome
The dreaded impostor syndrome: that nagging feeling that everyone else around you is far more capable, competent and deserving of your position than you. Maybe it was that first meeting with your peers, when you felt that your accomplishments were minuscule in comparison to the one guy that published 3 papers as an undergrad or to that girl who spoke at 5 conferences in the last year alone. Feelings of impostor syndrome in graduate school are common and result from many things.
Here are a few that hit new graduate students the hardest:
Often, students who switch from one discipline to another feel unprepared and severely behind their peers in the general knowledge of the new discipline. This leads to a lack of confidence.
Being Assigned a Class to TA That You’ve Little Experience With
Most graduate schools require you to TA at least one course that is related to the topic of your graduate degree. If you’ve switched disciplines, TA’ing might be especially difficult. Even if you haven’t switched, sometimes you might be out of your element—although schools generally try to match their TA’s ability to the course they teach. Maybe there aren’t enough TAs or your background is too narrow for the type of courses your school offers. A lack of confidence with course material may lead you to be closed off to students, a poor resource, and ultimately may lead to you feeling like a complete fraud.
Supervising Undergraduate Students
One of the common responsibilities graduate students have is to supervise undergraduate students in the lab (i.e., the thesis students and the volunteers). This can often induce impostor syndrome, especially for newer graduate students. The responsibility of teaching proper methods and best practices while still learning and focusing on your own research, may lead some students to believe that they are not fit for this responsibility.
Tackling Your Feelings of Impostor Syndrome
Switching Disciplines: You Deserve to Be There
While this may feel extremely daunting, just remember graduate schools are extremely picky with who they let in. You went through a lengthy screening process, they know your background, your grades, and they scored your interview. Most schools only accept students they believe will be successful in the program. If they believe you will be successful, then it’s your duty to at least try to believe the same. Tell yourself that “I may not know as much about this discipline as my previous one, but I’m smart and driven enough to learn.”
TAing the New Class: Be Prepared
Do your best to prepare. As a TA you are generally given course notes and resources, like rubrics and learning objectives. Use these resources effectively and extensively. Review the course material a week prior to when your students will be learning it, and communicate with the instructor. If you’re a new TA, they don’t expect you to know everything about the course. Your job is not to always know what to do and the correct answers to your student’s questions. Your job is to help the students and to have the skills to seek out the answers.
Supervising Students: You Understand Your Students
Let’s face it: a lot of things in grad school are designed to test your abilities and force you to gain new skills. Supervising students does both. As a new graduate student, the very reason you feel underqualified may be exactly the reason you might be great at it. You are uniquely positioned to understand the struggles of junior students. After all, you were one only a short time ago. You know how difficult it is to learn certain techniques and how managing lab and class time is a challenge.
Use this supervising opportunity to grow, not only as a grad student but as a potential mentor. Management and communication skills are critical to success. Think of supervising students in grad school as a learning experience, no one is expecting you to know how to deal with every situation.
You Can Overcome Imposter Syndrome
Impostor syndrome is rampant in academia and is especially prevalent in new graduate students. Unfortunately, we rarely talk about it. Overachieving students often tend to compare themselves to their peers; unfortunately, this fuels the feelings of impostor syndrome in academia. But the truth is, in academia there is a good chance you will always be in a room with someone more accomplished than you. This shouldn’t take away from what you’ve done to get yourself to this position. Know that the feelings of impostor syndrome are extremely common and that these feelings are normal, but they can be a great burden on your success and future work.
So, if you find yourself facing these challenges, take a minute to evaluate what you’re feeling, and see if those feelings really are valid. If all else fails “Fake it till you make it.” You’d be surprised how far that takes you.