And here comes the Impostor Syndrome

I was going to make this massive upbeat post about starting graduate school, how excited I am, and how proud I am to be the first person in my family to pursue a PhD, or really, to study science at all.

Then I actually went. And now I’m having massive Impostor Syndrome.

In summary, feeling incredibly stupid, overwhelmed, and unprepared is not what I needed heaped on top of the general melancholy I already felt for being utterly alone in a new city. Did I mention I suck at making new friends? Well, I do.

It doesn’t help that all of my grad student friends are telling me to get used to it, because it never goes away. Or that when I’ve tried to confide in some of my fellow first years, they look at me like I’ve sprouted a second head because they totally understand the papers we’re reading. Or that I feel like I can’t even discuss it here on my blog, since apparently everyone in the department knows about it. I say apparently because within five minutes of me showing up to a department event, someone new approaches me and goes, “So, I hear you have a blog!”

I mean, that’s a great thing for people in your new department to read, right? “I have no idea what any of these papers mean, not to mention I’m completely uninterested in them, and I’m not quite sure how I got accepted here anyway.” The whole point of Impostor Syndrome is that you feel like you need to hide your ineptitude. Maybe if I voice my concerns on a popular blog, I’ll be cured!

…Or not.

I just can’t shake the feeling that I don’t know what I’m doing. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy science and doing research. And I have about a million different research ideas running through my brain. My problem right now is I think all of my research ideas are surely retarded, which is why no one has thought to do them before (not because, you know, they’re potentially innovative or something). So instead of piping up when someone asks me, I sit quietly and seem totally uncreative and stupid.

It doesn’t help that on top of that, I look back at how much I enjoyed my summer. Right now I would love to do nothing but write books, blog, speak for student groups and conferences… I’m not sure if that’s just me having escapist fantasies, or if that’s what I should actually be doing. I always told myself you need training to be a research scientist, and that you can paint and write books on the side, not the other way around. But then I come home exhausted from a day in the lab, realize I haven’t done any artwork in the last four years and that all of my novels sit half completed, and I wonder if I’m just deluding myself.

Of course, if I tried to make a career out of writing, I’d probably be sitting in my apartment starving, wishing how I could be off in a lab discovering some new aspect of evolution and actually getting a paycheck.


I apologize that this post is so crappily written and without a real point*, but I just needed to think out loud for a bit.

*Ugh, apparently I have Blogger Impostor Syndrome too. Sorry.


  1. says

    If they weren’t making you feel ignorant, they wouldn’t be doing their jobs.That’s what learning feels like.Just keep at it and hold out for those beautiful ‘click’ moments where understanding dawns. They will come. What one fool can do, another can.(I’m so uplifting!)[Edit] Any person to make a fishes or ponds cliché gets a million negative internet points.

  2. says

    I know there are many people in Seattle with whom you would fit in. But yeah, it is hard at first. I didn’t really know anyone when I first came here, but within a couple months I met one guy at work and we clicked really well, and now five years later at least 90% of my current social circle can be traced back to that one chance meeting.

  3. Arsather says

    Impostor Syndrome, for what it’s worth, never goes away. Like needing glasses, diabetes, or the loss of a loved one, you just learn how to manage it (or not) as best you can.I’ve been at the top (or near anyway) of my chosen, technical profession for 15 years now, and I still expect somebody to walk up to me some day and say “OK, that’s enough. Get out of here and let a REAL tech take over.”Based on your writings, I have faith that you will be able to find methods that will allow you to manage this situation and probably even figure out ways to use to to your advantage, helping you excel. If not, you can always come kick me out of my job :-)namaste – I bow to you.

  4. Hemant says

    One of the reasons I left medical school was because there was all this other stuff I wanted to do with my life but med school was getting in the way. It took me until about February of that first year before I realize my heart just wanted in my training.It might take a really great spark/idea before the research passion takes ahold of you, but hopefully, that’ll happen. A PhD can definitely open a lot more doors for you… and once you get into the groove of everything, I’m sure you’ll find a way to do the other things you love :)

  5. LS says

    Huh, so when I felt like it was a fluke that I managed to pass the math test required to skip my senior year of highschool, it might have just been psychological chicanery? I’d love to offer you some real encouragement, but it would be hollow coming from someone like me. I mean, it would take you about 30 seconds, using knowledge learned in a 100 level class, to confuse me re: almost any science. But UW isn’t an easy school to get into. And that should speak for itself. Regarding writing as a means of making money, I’ve recently discovered the blog of one of my favorite authors from my childhood, who has been working professionally without a publisher for many years now. And I’ve found the information he writes about to be very helpful to me in understanding how I can develop myself as a professional writer:http://www.michaelastackpole.c…(specific post I’ve found pretty helpful.)Regarding being terrible at making friends, we should start a “terrible at making friends” club.

  6. says

    It sounds sucky and scary, but hang in there! Once you’re settled in, if you still want out- you’ll know it’s for real and not just teething problems. In the meantime, you can always complain on twitter, the other people in your department probably don’t read your tweets.

  7. says

    I’d join that club! Then probably wind up sitting by myself after scaring everyone off because of my loud opinions and somewhat inappropriate sense of humour.

  8. Cummingsmailbox says

    Don’t be too down on yourself,you are following a typical psychological pattern experienced by anyone heading to a new adventure. Those moving across borders, those going to college for the first time, those moving to new cities for school or work. You build up your expectations and how great its going to be and then reality hits…everything seems hard because the rules of the game have shifted. You don’t even know where grocery stores are, or how you get things done in the local bureaucracy (academic, or otherwise). Like first going to college, the funnel has narrowed again. You were used to getting everything done, or “getting” everything…but now….it IS harder material with stronger competitors, but it will all fall into place. The typical psych curve is way up the first week or two, then a slump, but after 3-6 mos, you “get it” and life is pretty normal. Hang in there. Or come back to Indiana! (we’d love to have you, but….)

  9. Dae says

    Jen, I understand a lot of how you feel. My program started in mid-August, so I’ve been here about a month and a half now, but I’m just starting my PhD too, and in a slightly different area than my BS is in. It’s really hard not to feel inadequate and behind, but it got better for me, and I am reasonably sure it will for you, too. A near-instant way to feel better is to notice how many of your classmates are also being quiet. Don’t assume they get it and you’re the only one who doesn’t – there are almost certainly a lot more people as confused as you are. Another good thing to do is to approach one of your friendlier profs and ask what he or she usually expects first years to be familiar with – get that prof to give you a reading list to help you feel more on top of things!My best professor handed out a copy of an essay for us all to read on our first day of class, and I think you may appreciate it as much as I did. It’s entitled “The importance of stupidity in scientific research,” (Martin A Schwartz, J. Cell Science 121: 1771, published 2008) and you should look it up! It’s a quick read. =)

  10. says

    1. Imagine yourself being awesome.2. Then act like you are awesome.3. Study in baby steps. Everything is understandable, you just need to put the time into it.You’ll be fine. They wouldn’t have let you into grad school if they thought you didn’t have potential to excel.

  11. Steven says

    I recently finished my MSc and was a constant suffer of imposter’s syndrome. Like everyone has said, its natural for the most part, but you will get moments when it goes away, when your work is going well. People who don’t look like they are suffering probably are just good at hiding it. Just remember that you did well doing research as an undergraduate and you are only going to be getting better at doing it in the future! :) Goodluck!

  12. moonablaze says

    insert occupational therapy for me. and I’m in my second year of a 2-year masters program. I finally thought I had it under control this spring, but then I went to do fieldwork… ya that did not help.

  13. moonablaze says

    I also have impostor syndrome about being well-adjusted and socially acceptable. I am lousy at making friends, so all my friends are people with super awesome magnetic personalities who have lots of friends but who happen to actually had a chance to really get to know me (like my best friend was just a bridesmaid for like the millionth time while I’ve been invited to exactly two weddings in the past 5 years, my dad’s and my cousin’s, and not for a lack of knowing people getting married- my program is 90% female and new rings were showing up weekly last year). I know that these people are exceptions, and I actually have a totally reasonable number of friends but I still feel like a total social outcast – even though every one of the 108 people in my year of my program know me and all but 2-3 are friendly to me (some people are jerks).

  14. says

    I’m in a totally different place than you (married forever, 3 teenage children, *almost* grew up in the Seattle area, menopause is my next life-phase) and yet as I started grad school last week I felt the SAME way.You are not alone. You are normal. This too shall pass. It’s NOT you. You have earned and deserve your place in academia.C’mon over – I’ll break out the GOOD wine. Better yet, I’ll come to you and buy you a drink.Breathe in, breathe out.

  15. says

    I just finished my first year as a grad student far from home. Knowing first hand the challenges I want to tell you it DOES get better. Yes, you’ll be playing “ignore the kid behind the curtain” for the rest of your life, but hey; we all do that. Just last month I passed my qualifier after a summer of breaking equipment in the lab. Can’t help here, but I may be able to offer insight into other things you’re dealing with.From what I can tell, you’ve given yourself a better chance than I had to get situated. This will be a good start. The biggest mistake I made, I think, was not giving a decision like “moving 3000 miles from everything you know and love” the proper respect that it deserved. I literally thought it would be easy and I could just be myself on a different coast. I’m astounded at how much prior understanding of myself came from day-to-day routines and interacting with people you see every day. Not having any of that apply anymore made me feel like I was starting from scratch. Beginning to feel like myself amidst so many other changes (not to mention doctoral work) took months. It was literally the unhappiest I’ve been in my life. Consequentially, my peers were reluctant to build friendships with me. Bad bad times. I was finally able to circumvent these difficulties as opportunities to explore local culture arose. I never forgot who I was, but I had to learn how to express myself in a new way. It was hard.Amidst all the difficulty, it really helped me to remember I don’t have to know exactly who I am in order to make decisions I will be proud of in the future. This is when I started making friends again.I hope this helps.

  16. Cb says

    In order to cope with the creative stalemate that is law school and the loneliness of a new city, I have an easel set up in the corner of my apartment, and I find it’s an amazing stress relief from school and respite from isolation. Somehow it works.

  17. Rex says

    I know that it is a horrible cliche, but I am a firm believer in the concept “fake it until you make it”!I have been pretending to be a successful entrepreneur for about 12 years now, and even though I still feel that I don’t really know what I am doing, no one on the outside can tell! The 50 families who have made their living with us these last dozen years sure can’t tell that I am faking it!

  18. Screamer77 says

    Jen, it does NOT last forever, it’ll go away. The first weeks are the hardest, you need to get used to the new place, new schedule, new people…. And those who tell you they understand it all…. they’re soooo faking it, believe me! I just finished teaching the first week of the new term, every day I asked each one of my 65ish students if one thing they were supposed to do was clear and if they had questions, or doubts (I even tried having a couple of them explain the whole thing to see if they actually got it)… of course they said they understood, and then the weekend came, and with it a bunch of emails from students who did not understand. :/You’ll be fine, and you’ll have a blast!

  19. says

    It is true! People in your department read your blog!Sorry you are not having a good week. Many people have been through all of this before you, and you are going to be fine. Feel free to come by if you want to chat about adjusting to grad school or Seattle. Neither is necessarily that easy. (Uh, just maybe not until Wednesday, I have a big deadline.)

  20. Andrew says

    Jen: Do what you love to do, follow your passion, don’t worry about fame or fortune. Only you will truly know what that passion is, but when you find it, pursue it, and don’t look back. You won’t care what other people think, or whether they care – because you’ll be doing it for you, not them. Some may like it, some may hate, but ultimately you’ll love it, and that is what counts.

  21. Happy Rabbit says

    When my daughter was at her first orientation at Carnegie Mellon she was greetrd with, “Congratulation. You are some of the best and brightest in the country and the world. You are all from the very top of your class…but now…you are just average.”

  22. Screamer77 says

    Oh, and having that impostor syndrome may actually be helpful, because it will push you to work harder to prove that you belong there.As for making new friends, you have tons of potential friends in your readers, and also you’ll eventually get to know people you work/live with well enough to call them friends. Of course, it takes time. When I moved to the U.S., I had to start over, and I sort of gave a chance to anybody… this way I went through at least 3 ‘series’ of friends before I found a bunch of good ones I hope will be in my life forever. Hang in there.

  23. says

    So, after a bit more thought, I’m realizing that when I told you earlier that I surprisingly hadn’t dealt with Impostor Syndrome yet, what I really should have said was “so far I haven’t been absolutely crippled by the feeling that I don’t belong here.” I have been getting along okay, and while I’m still working on making good friends, I am friendly with a lot of the people in my program. I’ve also been told explicitly by a professor that I am doing well in class, better than most, and god damn that felt amazing.That said… I have had tons of moments when I look at papers and they might as well be in a foreign language, and my brain shuts down and I freak the fuck out, just flat-out concluding that I’m not smart enough for this. Because clearly if you don’t instantly get every paper you read, you aren’t prepared for grad school. Brilliant fucking logic, eh? I also am kicking myself for not living in the nicer grad housing on campus… not for comfort’s sake, but because most of my class is living there, and I’m starting to think that being in close proximity with classmates 24/7 will be the only way I get close to anyone. But as has been said above, if you take papers slowly and in small enough pieces, they will start to make sense. And fairly often, it’s just a matter of forcing myself to get through the damn thing and keep my mind interested. Which sucks when you’re reading a paper in a subject that is not your thing at all, but you do what you have to do. The other day my brain was refusing to give a shit about the papers I needed to read… so I devised a fairly complicated system of highlighting different types of information in the paper with different colored highlighters. Was the highlighting itself actually useful? Heh, probably not. Did I look somewhat insane? Possibly. But having to decide what category various statements fit into forced me to think about them, and I got through the paper on a day where more than anything, I really just wanted to sleep. So to summarize… I’m doing okay in that I haven’t wasted hours upon hours sulking, crying, or otherwise feeling miserable and wallowing in it. But I’ve had sleepless nights and anxiety-filled days and plenty of moments when it just seemed to fucking hard to keep going. So I get it.But I’m making it, and you know me…I can be a total train wreck. You’re about 100x more functional than me, and you got into a more prestigious school because you fucking earned it. If I can do it, you can.Oh, and if you feel the need to bitch to a fellow 1st year… you know where to find me.

  24. Guest says

    oh, take it from the starving writer – you are probably better off.i may end up selling out all my morals to work for a huge gov’t megacompany just because i can’t stand the uncertainty of whether or not i will make rent each month.but don’t stop writing. art is always there, even if you ignore it for a while.

  25. says

    I wish somebody had warned me about that before going to university. I thought I was clever, received straight-A’s right throughout school, then couldn’t cope with the workload that came with university. I was wholly unprepared for being “average” or “struggling”.

  26. says

    Jen – a wise man once told me that every intelligent person’s greatest fear is the fear of being Found Out. So trust me, all of your colleagues are dealing with the same doubts that you are. From having read 6 months of your posts I have no doubt that you can write. So put that in your back pocket for now – a good fall back.But doing science is hard work and it requires credentials that being an author simply do not. You do not yet know whether you can make that grade, but hey, at this point no one does. So relax, take a breath, and keep pushing forward. A year from now you will have enough data to decide what to do next – but you lack that today. “Data, data, data, I need clay to make bricks.” Be patient, trust yourself, and press on.Good luck.

  27. Azkyroth says

    Weird. I don’t seem to have this. In all of my lower division engineering classes I’ve almost certainly been the only person who transferred from a junior college (I completed my prerequisites there, but two years ago when this was originally being settled my employer, who unfortunately has really no respect at all for community colleges, was financing my education and “suggested” that I complete all my actual Engineering courses at Sac State, even lower division), and I’ve never felt out of place in those courses. I often, however, have the sense that people are likely to see me as out of place or an impostor – for instance when I ask questions people often turn and look at me, and I always sensed this sort of subtext of “…dude, if you don’t GET IT, what are you even DOING here?” which may well be entirely imaginary – and I feel preemptively defensive about that (even after being gracious about getting an A in Circuits without really trying, while pretty much everyone else struggled for a C). I wonder if this is a sort of atypical manifestation of the same phenomenon?

  28. says

    Jen, What you’re feeling is completely normal. Everyone (seriously, everyone) in grad school goes through this all the time, especially at the beginning…I know because I’ve been there. There are ups and there are downs, but the best part about grad school is getting past the low points and realizing that it was totally worth it. Stick it out and I promise things will get easier, these first couple of weeks will be the hardest but when you come out on the other side you’ll see that it was worth it. I’m sure the impending threat of the first real week of class is making you anxious as well, but you’ll soon see there was nothing to be nervous about, all the faculty here in the department want is for you and me and all the other grad students to succeed. If you’re still feeling sucky you can always come downstairs for a chat, my desk is on the 2nd floor right in the middle of Debbie’s lab (straight ahead when you come up the stairs).

  29. says

    I agree with everyone else. I totally get impostor syndrome, i feel it all the time, and I’m not even in grad school. It’s taken me years to accept that i am even just good at what i do, though I’ve heard I’m pretty excellent at it.As for the making friends thing, geez, totally understand. When i moved to Seattle, 2 years ago, i was warned about the “Seattle freeze”. It really wasn’t as bad as that, but it took me meeting my boyfriend to gather the social structure I have now, because he knows everyone, it seems. I’ve been told that Seattle is a city full of shy people, and I agree – everyone is nice, but totally on guard and a bit mistrusting. I also heard (right before I met my boyfriend) that you need to meet and befriend the one person who knows EVERYONE – that’s your way in and people will trust you then. It really sucks to hear that, honestly, but it seems to be the truth. Give it 6 months to a year. You’ll find that person and they will open doors for you.You don’t totally suck at making new friends, really, it’s just a little difficult here at first.

  30. A-M says

    I was like that throughout my whole degree in modern languages. I got first class honours in the end, so I can’t have been totally useless. Just remind yourself, they wouldn’t have let you in if they didn’t think you could cope!

  31. denature says

    I’ve been there. First year is the worst. Then prelims. It does go away, to be replaced by ‘why are all these incompetent people getting interviewed for tenure track positions?’Reading papers is a skill that can be developed. Luckily for me, we had a first-year paper bashing seminar. My first-years were more gregarious than myself, and got us together once a week to watch Seinfeld. This eventually led to subgroups playing townies in pool at a local dive bar. Years later someone even got tenure at a major university.It was the really smart people who had trouble in grad school. They didn’t like the frustration of failed experiments and having to wait so long for answers. See how you like the rotations and research before deciding on your interest level in grad school. And classes are overrated.You also have good grounding. If in doubt, see how quickly your classmates can come up with 3 flaws in the reasoning of ‘why aren’t monkeys still evolving into humans?’

  32. cpsmith says

    You are very much not alone. I’m studying philosophy and my main area of interest is philosophy of science whilst almost everyone else in the department studies continental philosophy. All the other first years seem so at home while I’m struggling to understand the material. I’m also the only female grad student which doesn’t help things. I love my studies but the impostor syndrome still lingers and I don’t expect it will be going away any time soon. At least I’m told that it is normal.

  33. says

    After reading all (ok well, most) of these comments, giving you this message of hope is like a drop in the bucket of all the other messages of hope everyone here gave you, but here it goes.First off, while I know you know this, it can help to hear it; you are not alone. I dropped out of grad school myself, but when I was in it, I felt it. My fiancée is a counseling psychology student, and she’s been in the program for 4.5 years now. She has/still feels it. I know that doesn’t help too much, but know that if everyone feels that way, then it has to be just a feeling.Second, it does get better. (warning armchair psych ahead, my fiancée would kill me for this) Part of the reason I feel this feeling is so common in grad school is because everyone there was the tip top of their game in undergrad, and now they condense and you see tons of people who are on top of their shit. It’s an over reliance on downward social comparison. Eventually, you start to place your self worth on your accomplishments themselves, and not on how your accomplishments compare to others. Third, don’t hold this in. Talk to people. I know that it’s hard to make friends, so they may not be available, but talk to old friends, family, etc. Tell them how you feel. Just having any sort of support network helps. Really.Fourth, learn to love yourself. Look at what you’ve already done. You’ve done more with your live now than some people do in their whole lives. Normally, it’s a bad idea to over intellectualize your emotions, but in this case it’s ok; just keep repeating all the objective accomplishments you’ve already done and keep looking for those short term goals.Fifth, use short term goals, and take note when you make them. This is one problem my fiancée has. Keeping your eye to the long term goal all the time makes you forget all those goals you have accomplished on the way. Make short term goals, and when you meet them, let yourself feel good about them. Finally, repeat this mantra: “If I wasn’t qualified, they wouldn’t have accepted me.” The whole thing about the impostor syndrome is that it’s predicated on the idea that you have duped your professors into letting you into the program. Trust me, your professors can be stupid sometimes (you’ll find out soon enough if you haven’t already), but they aren’t idiots. They know how to recognize talent in their field. When it comes to admission, professors rarely make mistakes. I mean very rarely. Getting into grad school requires a large history of performance that they can draw upon to make their decision. The best predictor of future behavior is past behavior. You’ve done well in the past, so you’ll do well in the future. You’re very intelligent, and you will be able to handle any situation grad school hands you. My last piece of advice is, (while still focusing on short term goals) keep an eye out once and a while and check to see if you’re where you want to be. I took one year of Comp Sci grad classes before I realized I didn’t want to do that. It was a hard decision. I felt I let my family down. But I’m the happiest I’ve ever been. My fiancée has days where she just wants to stop, but then she’s reminded of all the people she’s already helped, and how excited she gets about being a psychologist in training, and her spirit is renewed. It’s all about what you want. You’re family and friends want you to be happy. They’ll support you in what ever decisions you need to make in this part of your life. They also are great advice givers, even if they don’t know exactly what you’re going through.Hang in there, you’re doing fine. I promise~Rubbs

  34. Star says

    I went through the exact same things you mentioned when I was in my Ph.D program for English. I ended up leaving the program after the first semester. I went on an got another Master’s degree. Now, four years later, I TOTALLY regret the decision to leave the program. I kick myself everyday for doing so. Regret sucks…

  35. Chris says

    Jen – you wouldn’t really want to be comfortable in a new position because ‘comfortable’ means you aren’t being stretched – and this ultimately is more frustrating than dealing with imposter syndrome. Hang-on in there – it can only get better – well at least until the next placement!

  36. Chrissy says

    I can’t believe that despite how incredibly brilliant you are, you feel this way. Makes me feel better about the way I felt when I transferred to an enormous campus from my itty-bitty one to finish my biology degree. Apparently no one is immune to Imposter Syndrome. Thank you :-)

  37. NotThatGreg says

    I had a grad school course in digital image processing. It was originally 1.5 hr twice/week, but the prof asked if it could be 3 hours once a week, and that’s what it became. We were given this huge stack of photocopied papers and we all sat there while the prof droned through it all in bewildering detail for 3 hours. At one point he was discussing how a CAT scan is reconstructed from x-ray absorption measurements taken at all angles around the outside; I was actually able to follow that one, though there was a compact form of least-squares in it I hadn’t seen before and had to figure out later. But one part I didn’t get, so I asked him, ‘how can you use matrix operations to model progressive absorption through, depth of tissue, absorption is multiplicative, and you are modelling as a summation, no? ‘ (I was probably not quite so erudite). Answer (duh) “you use logs of absorption’. Exactly like that. “Right, OK.”It was very unusual for anyone to ask questions in this class, and to this day I don’t know if the rest of the class didn’t ask because it was obvious to them, or because they weren’t following closely enough to see the problem. But this was one of the few parts of the material that I was following closely enough to have a question like that. In the end we weren’t tested on the bulk of the material, I think there was a project to be done to illustrate that you had grasped something of digital image processing. I found out later that the same prof was teaching the same material to engineers in two whole-day sessions for about $1200, in that situation there are no tests. I think that’s what he was more comfortable with.

  38. Isaac Emery says

    Exactly! I cannot recommend highly enough this article by Martin Schwartz (first published in JCS, and possibly elsewhere), “The Importance of Stupidity in Scientific Research”… .Basically, if you don’t feel really, really dumb sometimes, “you’re doing it wrong.” And if you aren’t okay with that, you probably shouldn’t be in science. But I don’t think it has to be a “bad stupid”; I’m sure there have been times when you have read papers, done an experiment, or listened to talks at a conference and gone away with your head spinning with “whoa, I don’t get this at all!” But that’s exactly why being in science is so awesome – everyone feels that way, even the really really smart people, and eventually we *figure it out*!In my own research, I alternate between “uggggh, this is so simple, why has no one done this before!” and “oh crap, I have no idea what I’m doing – what’s going on?!” And I’ve been here three years, and they haven’t kicked me out yet so I must be doing something right. :D I am sure you’ll do well in grad school. Just give yourself a chance, read a LOT, and stay away from for your first semester.

  39. says

    I’ve been there, had no idea it was a whole Syndrome! I had the same sorts of thoughts you have my first year in graduate school. I started wondering if I should drop out and pursue my childhood dream of making films instead. I wrote every close adviser I had—professors from college, family members, close friends, etc. a major letter explaining all my frustrations and asking for advice. I got tons of good advice. My favorite was my philosophy professor from college who said he usually tells people the last thing they should do is try to go into philosophy but that going into film was even less practical!But the most decisive and crucial advice I got was from my dad and it’s always stuck with me: you can always walk away, but you can’t always come back. Don’t leave unless you’re certain you should leave. Even cutting out after two years in the extraordinarily unlikely scenario you still hate this after two years has you with a Master’s in Biology I imagine and sets you up ahead of your peers for a mere 24 year old. You have many years to change course. This tedious awful first semester of graduate school (the single worst semester of my whole life, hands down—no stage of the dissertation discouraged me as much) is a good way to spend your time at this place in your life. You’re very young, you’re very ahead in the game, no matter how much you are naturally inclined to obsess over ways you are behind a particular peer.If this really isn’t for you, the biology master’s still opens opportunities for you that other ways you could spend this next two years won’t. Activism and fiction writing will be there in two years. This sort of opportunity may not. So, trudge through and acclimate or not as the case may be.Graduate school is awful. I hated being a graduate student the whole ten years. But I loved philosophy and I loved teaching and I loved the ideas I worked on and those things sustained me despite all the frustrations of the way of life. If you hate it in the classroom, if your first real successes in the lab don’t really gratify you, etc., then leave. But you gotta hang in there for at least this semester and preferably for the next two years, rather than get on the path of an aimless bounder. Some people are aimless bounders who need some time to find themselves, but I don’t think that’s really you as far as I can tell. So, whatever you do don’t act rashly. Grad school is the first time you’re truly surrounded by your peers on every side, people just as smart or smarter than you in every class, and your professors no longer hug you close to their chest as the special undergraduate who has talent for the field and can go beyond minimal expectations. Now you’re quite ordinary and it’s as much a huge ego blow as anything else. And that’s a GOOD thing. The impostor syndrome is partially a function of our own arrogant assumption that when we’re doing things right we must be the smartest person in the room and anyone but the smartest person in the room doesn’t belong in the room. That works when you’re an undergrad and the smartest (or nearly the smartest) in the room. Now you’re learning on an emotional level the truth that the world is crawling with people as smart as you or smarter and that the best most of them ever attain is equality with each other. It’s humbling and it’s a really, really, really good thing for intellectuals to experience to curb their arrogance. It’s good to be around your equals and betters. You’ll grow more from it than you could possibly otherwise and gain the ability to do everything you’ve imagined you can do THROUGH this experience. This is HOW you become an academic. It’s not by just being brilliant.Just don’t psyche out. Grad school sucks but learning is great, publishing is great, teaching is great. Opportunities will abound to do whatever you want on the other side of this. Hang in there in the meantime.Welcome to the big pond, little fish. You can always leap out and flop on the ground with nowhere to go, but you can’t always get back in the pond.

  40. JsePrometheus says

    The papers aren’t supposed to make sense when you read through them. You should have to read through them a couple of times to even have an inkling.You will still be able to write books and blog in the future, but I have a feeling that Ph.Ds will soon be considered a necessary prerequisite to be a famous skeptic.

  41. Camelswithhammers says

    cpsmith, I went to a school that was quite heavily continental. I wanted to go there for that but my background was far more heavily analytic and so I can identify a bit with some of where you might be at. If you’re interested in confidentially discussing some of what’s up with your general situation with someone outside your department (and possibly with whom you can stay anonymous if that’s important to you), just feel free to write me at camelswithhammers at gmail.Either way, best wishes!

  42. says

    I’m sure this has been covered in the 45 posts above, but here’s my two cents. Everybody is faking it. That’s what I’ve decided, anyway. I had a career in the theater for a while, mainly as a technician, then I got the opportunity to design lighting. I remember sitting around production meetings or creative meetings with directors and set designers and thinking, “how am I going to get through this without sounding like I don’t have a clue what I’m talking about?”, but I always did, and people seemed to like my work. I even occasionally got positive mentions from the critics. Eventually I decided that even some of the designers I admired were throwing around as much BS as I was trying to hide the fact that they weren’t feeling all that artistic about it. Some even told me as much, in a more diplomatic way.Then I quit all that and went to grad school. I had some really smart professors. One created a software system for students in China to use from scratch because they couldn’t afford the commercial one. This was a big, complicated system and he really built it from scratch, no piracy involved. Another was a climatologist, trained initially as a geologist, and while he didn’t do any geology research any more I saw him in paper presentations by geologists and he was still up to date enough on it that he could ask questions that really nailed them to the wall. And both of these guys really knew math too, it was just instinctive to them, every statistical method was just right there, exactly the right one for the problem and why. And finally, there was one professor that went to Harvard back when that meant something. This guy was a walking encyclopedia. He could discuss any model used in the field with ease, he could reference papers like he had an annotated bibliography of the whole discipline floating around in his head. And then he could bust out with obscure historical tidbits from his undergrad at Harvard. This guy seemed to know everything, but also how to put it together into a complete whole. I think he could have sat down and written a comprehensive exam on a moment’s notice. I remember having a delightful argument with another student about some thing or another, and he heard us and walked into the grad office, took the other student’s side, and proceeded to demolish me. On something that had nothing to do with his research area whatsoever. His grasp of facts and logic blew me out of the water. I remember thinking all through my master’s that I was faking it and eventually somebody would find me out. Eventually somebody would catch on that I was just blowing smoke and that everyone in the department knew better than I did. I figured it would be one of these three. Not one of them did. The first became my thesis advisor and I became his research assistant writing programs for him and he gave me glowing recommendations, the second also gave great recommendations, and the third – well I had a small seminar class with him in which I though I would surely be unmasked. By the end of the class he was telling people what a great student I was. He sat me down for a meeting with the graduate program head and they tried to convince me that I really needed to do a PhD. So did my advisor. I ended up connected with some folks who knew these professors and I would keep hearing about how they ended up talking about me and how great I was. I say all this not to tell you I’m smart (frankly, I might not have made it in your field, and I’m certain you are smarter), but because the whole time I felt like I was an impostor and I would surely be caught soon, and yet even working closely with the people I expected to catch me, I never was. Because I wasn’t faking any more than anyone else. Trust me, they’re all faking. Even the ones who seem to understand everything.

  43. Goldarn says

    Remember that people who are more competent tend to undervalue themselves because they realize there’s a lot they don’t understand.

  44. Courtney S. says

    My first semester in graduate school (English) was the most miserable I have ever been in my life. This was supposed to be the thing I do for the rest of my life, and I teetered on the edge of failing, hated every single day, and very seriously considered quitting at least once a week. The second semester, it was like the sun had appeared, and I realized that not only am I smart enough to do this, I could tough it out for the requisite number of years. Two pieces of advice: Develop a drinking habit and don’t let yourself get overwhelmed with work. Figure out which things are most important for you to read/do, and only do those when it feels like your brain is going to explode from lack of sleep. Then BS it from there. I think too many people walk into grad school thinking it’s going to super! fun! when it’s mostly miserable for most people. If this is a thing you definitely want to do, embrace your inner masochist. But believe me, no one who’s been through it or going through it should judge you for deciding that being unhappy and stressed for 7 years isn’t your cup of tea.

  45. Jed says

    I am in my third year of my electrical engineering PHD and the best thing I have learned is that you should take the weekends off. This may mean that you are on campus until 8pm many days, but having a day or two when you do not go do work on campus makes a huge difference. Also to echo everyone else who has commented, everyone is faking it. After a while you bet a bit better at faking it and realize that it is ok. In case there is anyone is grad school who does not read it, I recommend PHD comics (

  46. JM says

    Grad students really benefit from a good mentor. I spent a couple of decades either in or hanging around grad students as husbands or friends. The ones with mentors were usually successful. This mostly applies to those working on PhDs or thesis masters, not MBAs or such. You really need someone in your corner because it is so competitive.

  47. ethanol says

    In my first year of grad school, I was in a class and the professor was about an hour and a half into a lecture about k space. I raised my hand and asked “so k space… what is k space?” Everyone burst out laughing, not because I hadn’t gotten it but because everyone was exactly where I was, I was just the first to say it. The professor, to his credit, started over from a new angle and made us understand it, and he is now my advisor, so don’t think that asking questions makes you look stupid. But the more important point is that people flaunt what they know but hide what they don’t, your classmates are almost certainly not as confident as they seem.

  48. DianaG says

    I know exactly how you feel. Just take a day to sleep in, don’t think about it for a few hours, and start fresh again. I found that compiling my CV helped me feel better. Looking at all the stuff I have done made me feel more confident about the things I still have to do.Currently, I’m dealing with the aftermath of leaving my experiment in some untrained person’s hands for the weekend while I went to AAI in Montreal. Live and learn, I tell myself, but it’s still a hell of a lot of work.Hang in there, you’ll make it through.Remember: If it were easy, everyone would do it.

  49. says

    Wow Jen, you have a lot of highly academic readers here. I was going to say I feel your pain but so many have beat me to it. I started my program recently too, and up until last week I felt completely lost and like I didn’t deserve to be here. Now however I am so overloaded with work I don’t have time to worry, just pour the coffee down the gullet and charge. I once heard that one, everyone feels inadequate when the start, and two, the successful grad students always feel inadequate. So here’s to 5 years of feeling left behind, while really being 3 steps ahead. Good luck

  50. says

    They say that at Georgia Tech’s orientation, too (or used to say…I hear they’ve tried to make orientation a little “friendlier” these days). It’s totally true. I’ve known high school valedictorians who wound up on academic probation and grad students who got their bachelor’s degrees at top schools with top grades who never finish their program.But then I know people who struggled in their previous phase who wind up being totally brilliant once they get to something that they’re passionate about. I think that’s the key.

  51. Equinoxjjh says

    Grad school was an order of magnitude or two harder than undergrad. We all struggled, we all thought at times that we couldn’t do it. It was hard, especially after two years, to continue convincing myself that it was worth it, but after making it to the end it clearly was worth it. Hang in there, you can do it! It gets better……

  52. says

    First of all, the not understanding or caring about most of the papers you have to read in grad school is TOTALLY NORMAL. Your colleagues lying to you about understanding or enjoying the reading is also pretty common. :) (Some people might actually be telling you the truth, but most of them are full of crap and just want to look smart and are suffering from their own impostor syndrome.) One thing I learned as an undergrad when I was struggling in school for the first time in my life is that it’s perfectly ok to be totally lost, and it’s more than ok to ask for help or clarification, whether it’s from a classmate, a professor, a TA or some other person who can assist you. It’s hard at first, especially if you’ve never had to do it before…it feels like admitting failure or defeat. I’m not sure you ever totally get over that.Last week, I was at a conference that had a WONDERFUL plenary panel on impostor syndrome. The panelists were all top women in industry and academia, and they talked about how they still experience impostor syndrome and about how they manage it. The panel was recorded, but the video isn’t up yet. (If I find it, I’ll send you a link on Twitter or something.) One of the takeaways I got was that impostor syndrome comes from a difficulty with internalizing your successes, and if every time you’re having difficulty with it you take a step back and start thinking about everything you’ve achieved so far (whether it’s related to what you’re doing right now or not), it helps a lot. In a sense, it’s like counting to 10 when you’re angry; just think to yourself, “If I could [insert significant life achievement], then I can totally do this. I am capable. I am driven. I’ll get there.”At the very least, work on the assumption that where you are right now is not because someone made a mistake and not because you “got lucky.” Someone, somewhere, at the very least thought that you were capable of this. Just give it a little time.

  53. says

    It will go away with time and some accomplishment. But, don’t be surprised when it arises again in the future at the start of another project. This has happened to me at the beginning of every new endeavor – grad school, new job, new assignment – that, at some point along the way, I just gave up and embraced the fact that this neurotic behavior comes with the territory of high-performing individual who is not walking the beaten path. Much luck and peace to you.

  54. griffin says

    You have no idea how good it is to hear that other people feel this way too. I’m in the same boat in my biostatistics program. Half the time I have no idea how I’m going to make it through. I get a problem set and spend 3 hours staring at question 1 not knowing where to start. (What’s more, my boyfriend is also a statistician, and keeps looking over my shoulder and saying “Oh yeah, you just need to do this factorization here…”) I knew going in that it would be 60 hours a week, but I had no idea how absolutely mentally and emotionally grueling that would be. And I know that soon it’s going to be 70 to 80 hours a week if I want to finish in 5 years and not 6 or 7. I believe you can make it through, partially because I have to believe I can make it through too. People do succeed in these programs, and we somehow have to convince ourselves that we are those people. Anyways, from one semi-depressed grad student to another, good luck. We’ll probably figure it out someday, right?

  55. John Small Berries says

    My wife is working on her dissertation for her Ph.D. and still has impostor syndrome.I know you say that doesn’t help… but, hey, at least you’re not suffering from the Dunning-Kruger Effect.

  56. Elizabeth says

    First, let me just agree with what everyone else has been saying — I know exactly how you feel because it’s how I feel about half the time (I’m starting my third year of PhD work at Stanford). But I also know that when it got really bad a few months ago, all the people who said “Sounds like Impostor Syndrome. Welcome to graduate school,” just made me feel so much worse. The only thing I was able to do that actually helped was rethinking my goals, dialing them down to be controllable. So, not aiming for meaningful results, just aiming for having done the experiment. I had one mentor in undergrad who described graduate school as failing, repeatedly, until finally you don’t fail anymore.The one thing that I haven’t read too often in the comments but that has been really true for me and the people around me is about outside interests. Keep them going. Find a way, even if it’s not as much or as often as you’d like. When I was interviewing at MIT, one of the professors I talked to told me to keep writing, no matter what, because it would keep me sane. I try to spend 30 minutes a day on fiction; three pages in my journal, and I find the time each week to take a circus acrobatics class. The student who sits next to me does the same with art and music: he spends a short while every day drawing or painting and playing guitar. When I was at my lowest (my experiments were failing, my fellowship application had been rejected for the third time, I needed to give my first thesis committee meeting and I couldn’t even get mice to breed) was also when I lost sight of those outside interests. Find a way to do them, even if it seems exhausting or impossible. It isn’t. In fact, it will keep you sane.

  57. Reed says

    Just remember:1) You are a popular internet celebrity, and2) Stephen Colbert thinks you’re hot.You’ve already won at Life; everything else is just gravy…

  58. Plasmodel says

    I would give you some thoughtful suggestions but I am also in the same situation (starting a new graduate program in Pathology, and starting in a new country)..So, do keep us updated about your progress!!

  59. Georgia Sam says

    When I was in grad school, especially my first year, I frequently woke up in the middle of the night thinking “What the hell am I doing here?” Fortunately, there were some professors in my department (mostly the younger ones, but also the chair) who occasionally reassured the grad students that they were doing OK & making progress toward earning their degrees. With any luck, you will find professors like that in your program.

  60. says

    I’ve been there! I was working on my PhD, and I did worse than I’ve ever done in my life on a stats test, and I was totally freaking out that I wasn’t cut out for grad school. You know what one of my profs said? Everyone in grad school thinks that, except the ones who really aren’t cut out for it. If you think you’re in over your head and don’t belong there, you’re on the right track! Hang in there!

  61. Emily says

    I think you can do whatever you want with your life. Look at the audience you’ve attracted with your blog. We’re all watching you because we appreciate what you have to say, and your audience will grow if you wanted to pursue writing full time. Don’t stay doing something you don’t love when something better is within your grasp. Stay in grad school because of your love of science, or get out and do something else you really love. I don’t think anyone doubts you will succeed. In any event, I’m a college freshmen and you’ve really inspired me with your blogging, both about science and atheism, so keep at it. You’re brilliant and you’ll get through this.

  62. Rhino_of_Steel says

    I’m just starting the grad school application process (why is the Ontario Graduate Scholarship deadline in less than a week? That is far too damn early.) I’m already feeling it. I see the handful of others also applying and I’m terrified because they all seem so much smarter than me. Most of us are trying to get into the masters program at our current school so I know my competition well. Despite a few professors being enthusiastic about writing me a recommendation letter, I still feel inadequate. But that seems to be the way life goes. I know this is what I want to focus on for the rest of my life and I had better suck it up and get through it. Otherwise I’m stuck with a fairly useless bachelor’s degree and no real fall back. Consider yourself fortunate that you have other avenues to pursue in the unlikely event that biology doesn’t work out.

  63. Jamey says

    Have you considered listening to Rocky music? Seriously, it doesn’t have to be actual “Duh-duh-duh-dun-dah getting stronger music”. Just stuff that makes you feel like Rocky.

  64. says

    I feel dumb for typing this, but that’s all part of the exercise I guess. Anyway:* Realising there’s something you don’t understand is the first step to learning, not the first step to failure.* Always ask questions. People who don’t dare will thank you for it. Chances are if something is completely incomprehensible then it was probably explained wrongly.* Discuss stuff with your peers, even (read: especially) stuff you think you understand.* Get used to failure as a scientist. Knowing what the answer isn’t is still a valuable result.* Blogs, books and speeches are more interesting for you to write and give if you continuously have new (research & life) topics to share.If none of that helped, draw a smilie face on a post-it and stick it to your monitor to remember all the internet fans that wish you well!

  65. cpsmith says

    Thank you! I’m actually doing ok for now. I was very frustrated about things but I just did a presentation that seemed to be well received so for the time being I’m feeling pretty on top of things. However, should I ever again start withering away into a wimpering mass of insecurity and self-loathing I may just take you up on it.

  66. says

    “I think he could have sat down and written a comprehensive exam on a moment’s notice.”HA, well, once you’ve been teaching for even a couple semesters, you have to have so much material down cold already that going back to retake your comprehensive exams would be a cakewalk, no matter who you are.And it’s also why you have so many ideas at your fingertips and are ready and fluidly able to discuss them on a moment’s notice. You say it all so often, you wind up drilling it all into your own head. I’m constantly giving lectures on topics I’ve not talked about in semesters, maybe even years sometimes, and yet I can go in cold and it all comes back. Years committed to learning something and constant verbal presentations, reading thousands of papers from your students saying back to you everything you’ve said to them, on and on, it all becomes just second nature. You don’t have to be a genius, you can be an “imposter” who just practices it all so very often that you accidentally get it all after all. That’s really how it works for most of us, I’d imagine.

  67. says

    “I started my program recently too, and up until last week I felt completely lost and like I didn’t deserve to be here.”I heard about your incident with the sun. Must’ve been embarrassing, glad to see you’re not giving up, Icaarus

  68. Bethany Berkowitz says

    “My problem right now is I think all of my research ideas are surely retarded, which is why no one has thought to do them before (not because, you know, they’re potentially innovative or something). “I guess you could just talk faster when talking about your research ideas or maybe think faster when you are thinking about them, though I’m not sure how that would relate to their being innovative or not. That is what you meant by “retarded,” right?

  69. n0b0dy says

    I’m really late to the party ’cause I haven’t looked at a blog in about a week, so I apologize for potentially duplicating previous posts that I’m not going to read. But I’m going to say my piece anyways.First, impostor syndrome right now is probably a good thing. Not because it’s good to feel like a stupid fraud, but because of how it means you will behave early in graduate school. I did not have this problem. And I’ve witnessed people who didn’t have this problem. And not having this problem is a bigger problem. When I went to graduate school, I knew too much. I was too smart, too clever, too confident. I was always willing to speak up in seminar. I was always right. Whatever I said was always really deep or meaningful or insightful or whatever. As a result, I never got one iota of mentoring. Intellectually, I was way too far ahead developmentally from where I was in terms of professional development.I’ve seen other people in the same boat. Professors assume that we know professional shit that there is no fucking way we would ever find out if they didn’t tell us but they don’t tell us because we’re all articulate and confident in seminar. I kind of feel like I’m professionally screwed now because of the basic fundamental professional development shit that I don’t know. I’ve managed to fanagle a postdoc, but getting through the system this far was a lot harder than it needed to be.There were just loads of little things along the way that I never heard about. No one told me, for example, that our university offered travel grants and that I could apply for them. Most other graduate students were told about them (with the notable exception of other people who seemed too competent). I ended up having to skip my medically necessary drugs for 6 months to scrounge up money to pay to present at a conference and then I got horribly sick because of not having them. And I asked why no one told me when they knew I was having to stop taking my meds to go to a conference the answer was universally something along the lines of “we thought you knew about it because you always seem so on top of things.” It just never occurred to them that someone who was too confident in seminar wouldn’t know every other single thing about the system in general.So embrace the impostor syndrome. Allow yourself to go through looking a little bumbling. Because otherwise people will assume you know everything there is to know about the system and you will miss out on opportunities later. I think impostor syndrome in this situation is adaptively like big eyes and fluffiness in baby animals; it causes you to behave in a way that is more likely to get you some nurturing that you mightn’t otherwise get.Second, you are right. If I tried to make a career out of writing, You’d probably be sitting in your apartment starving, wishing how you could be off in a lab discovering some new aspect of evolution and actually getting a paycheck. It might work out, but it’s a longer shot. I’m actually having a go at doing something creative because I’m a trailing spouse and until this postdoc came through there weren’t any jobs to be had anyway.I found that I was stifled because I was not in a lab discovering new things and so on. Somehow my creative work was better when I was attending school full time and working full time because of the richness of my environment. And my creative work has only really taken off again since I got this postdoc and I get to play with cool toys and hang out with graduate students and the other postdoc talking about incredibly geeky things. Don’t let a few months in between intellectually stimulating environments guide your perception of what it’s like to really just be on your own trying to follow your creative interests. A few years in an intellectually impoverished environment is pretty bleak and it becomes increasingly difficult to follow through.[Edited because I didn’t add some key paragraph breaks and it was really annoying to read.]

  70. says

    Some more thoughts from a former grad student..(who also got to the party late..)Data:1. Former Engineering student (at U. of I at shampoo-banana) who then went to Germany for 3 years studying history and then came back to Wisconsin for History of Science/Technology2. INTJ (as I discovered first year in grad school after a friend showed me the stuff..)–but it’s all just a construct..3. Finished Ph.D in 2009 after ten years–humanities Ph.D’s take a long time–esp. in history–but also especially if you decide to have a real life along the way–and my real life included a new partner and her 3 kids… We are now married and they are teenagers..Anyway.. that’s the background–do with it what you want.. but the thoughts:1. Don’t worry about being an imposter–for a simple reason–because we are all imposters in grad school–that is part of the point. Although your compatriot first years may look at you as if they are all fine–most of them are just in the same boat as you are–but no one has the guts to admit it as you are–much less to another first year. Be brave–you will do fine.2. It is probably true that you don’t know that much–at least within the very specific narrow confines of what is considered knowledge of that particular area that you will eventually discover new knowledge in.This HAS to be the case. If you already knew and understood everything here–then you wouldn’t have to be in grad school.You are there to learn more and bump your head against walls. You are, in many ways, a freshmen again.. that is part of the deal. Every professor you meet was also there at one point.. and you will survive this also.3. You still know more than 99% of all the people that ever lived. Do not forget this fact.. or well.. just think about it. You are judging yourself from a framework that obscures such things–but it is good to step out of that framework and view yourself from a much more reasonable whole. Grad school and academia is warped. I think it can be a good kind of warped (I mean, I stuck it out to get the Diss done–and I’m glad..)–but it is NOT reality.4. You seem to have had and still have a real life outside of grad student stuff.. This is good. It will serve you later when things actually get rougher–like, say, prelims–and will serve you even more after that. You are more than this.. and although that breadth may require some sacrifices and make you feel more like an imposter at times–in reality–it just makes you a more capable human–and that’s what real scientists are.. 5. Good luck.

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