This blog roundtable is part of a series about graduate school – why do it, what is it like, and what to do afterwards. I encourage you to give your own opinions in the comments section, and if you disagree with a point made by the panel, voice your opinion! This is something a lot of my readers can relate to, so I’m hoping to hear from all of you. Note that these are the opinions of those involved, and do not reflect our institutions or departments in any way. For a full list of the questions, read the first post.

One of those is not the mouse you are looking for (click to go to

EDIT 11/11/11: Added John Hodgman Nerdist interview

Imposter syndrome is something that not many students have heard of, but are paradoxically very familiar with. In a nutshell, the Imposter Syndrome suggests that you’re not as smart as your peers, that you’re “lucky” and sooner or later you’ll be discovered as a fraud. While it isn’t a formal DSM disorder, but is still recognised as a problem in higher education, both at the student and junior faculty level.

The long term ramifications of this negative thinking can be profound. If you don’t think you can succeed, or are afraid to try, you’ll not only appear more nervous at interviews, you’ll apply to less grants, not be as ambitious as you might like to be and even adopt negative behaviours such as procrastination or perfectionism.

For those interested in learning more, check out Wikipedia, this article, and this piece on teaching evaluations among faculty members, as well as the references at the end.

ADDED 11/11/11: Funnily enough, the day I posted this, I was driving back to my parents’ place while listening to a Nerdist podcast where they interviewed John Hodgman (“I’m a PC”). Around the 45 minute mark, John starts talking about how his life changed following him starting on The Daily Show, and then being featured on the Mac vs PC ads. While telling us about this, he talks about how he felt like he was on a game show, and that at any point someone would jump out and tell him that his whole life was a giant prank. It’s interesting to know that even celebrities can feel the effects of the impostor syndrome.

Lets hear from the panel!

Megan Carter (twitter, website):

I felt this most intensely when I started my master’s.   The problem is that as researchers we are exposed to massive amounts of information and surrounded by knowledgeable people all the time!  As we ourselves become more knowledgeable we realize that there is an awful lot that we don’t know.  I tend to feel like I should be an expert and am judged by others as an expert; often I don’t feel like an expert though, I feel like there is still too much to learn. Important things to keep in mind: you know more than you think; it’s okay not to know (because you can easily find out); the person you rate most highly in your field doesn’t know everything; and others feel the same as you do.

EpiGrad (twitter, website):

If there are, I haven’t found any. I have a semi-regular attack of “Just who the hell do I think I am, trying to pull this off?”, fret about it, fight through it and move on.

Penny Deck (twitter, website):

I hadn’t heard of this until Atif included it in his questions. I think I’m quite guilty of falling into this habit. There’s a couple things that have helped though. First, I highly recommend two books by Linda Babcock and Sara Laschever, particularly for women:

Women Don’t Ask: The High Cost of Avoiding Negotiation–and Positive Strategies for Change

and Ask For It: How Women Can Use the Power of Negotiation to Get What They Really Want.

I was also very fortunate to share an office with a male colleague for several years who is a couple years ahead of me in negotiating work etc… His mentorship was invaluable.

The Illustrated Guide to a PhD is one of my favourite graphics that captures just how much you know after doing a PhD in the grand scheme of things. Click link to see the whole comic.

Travis Saunders (twitterwebsite):

The biggest thing that helped me was starting my blog.  Sometimes it seems as though everyone knows more than you do, but when I started writing the blog I realized that while I didn’t know everything, I knew a lot more than I thought.  That made me a lot more confident in my academic writing and in presentations as a result.  I imagine that tutoring or other teaching opportunities would probably have a similar effect.

Morgan Craig-Broadwith (twitter, website):

This syndrome encapsulates everything I felt (and still feel unfortunately) during graduate school. While the terminology I use is somewhat different (i.e. intelligence complex) the experience is the same. I honestly do not have a good answer for this question, as internalizing my accomplishments and accepting my intelligence is an everyday challenge…my apologies for the lack of wisdom on my part.

Tim Brown (twitter, websiteLinkedIn, Material Physics Group Website):

Interesting question. I’m surrounded by very smart individuals in my field. I often feel that I am nowhere near their caliber. But I know I have done well, and accomplished a significant amount of unique research during my PhD. It can be difficult to fight the impostor feeling. It takes time to realize that you are doing good work.

Atif (me!) (twitter):

I think this comes down to two issues: one, you are surrounded by brilliant people (yourself included) and two, the constant rejection we spoke about on Monday.

When you’re in the graduate student bubble, you are surrounded by people who are motivated, driven and intelligent. However, our knowledge bases are very small, and so even peers in the same area as you seem like they have a lot more knowledge, when, in reality, their knowledge base is simply different to yours (see comic above).

For the second issue, you have to be confident in yourself and your skills. You’ve made it this far, and so you have the skills and abilities to succeed. I think a lot of people feel this way, and knowing that helps infinitely.

This was an interesting question that I was presented with, and one that isn’t really talked about in graduate school, despite the long term ramifications it could have. How do you all feel – is this something you can relate to? Feel free to reply anonymously.

Check back Monday for our next post: What if things aren’t going so well? What advice do you have for those who might having a tough time – either juggling multiple commitments, losing interest or falling behind?

Laursen, L. (2008). No, You’re Not an Impostor Science DOI: 10.1126/science.caredit.a0800025
Brems, C., Baldwin, M., Davis, L., & Namyniuk, L. (1994). The Imposter Syndrome as Related to Teaching Evaluations and Advising Relationships of University Faculty Members The Journal of Higher Education, 65 (2) DOI: 10.2307/2943923