Conquering Impostor Syndrome

Published: Tues., Dec. 2, 2014; by Stephanie Shipp

Stephanie Shipp portrait

Getting accepted into graduate school is exciting. Chances are good that your process looked like mine: I excelled in my undergraduate courses, made it through the GRE, and received excellent recommendations from my professors.

When I received my acceptance letter in the mail, I remember experiencing a sense of relief that I was on my way towards my goal - earning a master’s in journalism with an emphasis in integrated media communications.

My experience with Impostor Syndrome

The relief was momentary though. I remember feeling very overwhelmed during the first semester of my program. I thought that everyone knew more than I did, and I felt like I could never know as much as they did. Because I felt like I didn’t fit in, I even considered dropping out during the first two months.

One night, while out at dinner with colleagues from my department, I spoke to another graduate student about this. It winds up that they felt the exact same way! After speaking to several other people, I realized that my feelings were quite normal. Everyone sometimes felt like they didn’t belong. One graduate student even went as far to say she realized that if she didn’t sometimes feel overwhelmed in the program, then she probably wasn’t learning anything.

Apparently we all suffer from impostor syndrome, or the feeling that we don’t belong in graduate school. This is normal. We feel like we’re in over our heads when in fact we’re being challenged by our coursework and others around us. This is a good thing. It means that we’re getting what we need out of our education.

I finally got over my case of impostor syndrome when I realized that I was in graduate school to learn, not to compete with others, and that everyone’s areas of expertise and interests vary.

No one is going to be an expert on everything. We all have our niches, and we can take advantage of this by learning from others. If other people seem more knowledgeable than you, this is most likely because they just have different areas of expertise from you. Chances are good that they think you know a lot more than them as well.

How you can take on impostor syndrome

The first step to overcoming impostor syndrome, in my experience, is to talk to other students. Talking to other graduate students who are going through the same thing will help. We are very lucky at UNL—I have heard many students say that their departments are supportive rather than competitive. Your colleagues are therefore very likely to talk about their own impostor syndrome. Realizing that everyone feels somewhat out of place will help you realize that you actually fit right in.

The second step is to remember that you are not expected to be an expert about everything covered in class. Remembering everything said in a 3 to 4 hour lecture would be nearly impossible. Take good notes and make sure you can recollect the overall theories and concepts, but don’t be too hard on yourself if you can’t remember every detail from the lecture. That person who engages the professor with deep questions in class might have been in the program longer than you or might have already taken a class that covered that material.

The third and final step to overcoming impostor syndrome is to enjoy your program. Graduate school is a great opportunity to focus on your interests. Focusing on your own interests and performance will prevent you from seeing others as the competition. Putting your own work first will remove you from the mindset that you have to live up to standards being set by other students in your department. After all, your goal in grad school is pursuing your area of interest and completing the degree well—you can do this without comparing yourself to others in your department. Removing yourself from a competitive frame of mind is the best thing you can do to overcome impostor syndrome.

Hopefully these suggestions can help you overcome impostor syndrome. If your coursework feels too overwhelming, speak with your professors or others in your class. Also, try to engage with other students in your program. This will provide you with a good support network that will last until you graduate from UNL and beyond.