Well, I feel less isolated in my stupidity now

Thanks for all of the nice comments you guys left on my post last night. Thanks to your comments, I’ve learned two things:

  1. I have a lot of well educated blog readers. Seriously, I was amazed at how many of you guys have pursued PhDs, are professors, etc… We’re definitely not the average American demographic. I guess that could make me feel even more intimidated, but I’m going to try to think positively about it – you guys stuck around even though I’m just a 22 year old starting grad school, so I must have something intelligent to say. Or at the very least, something entertaining to say. I’ll take that.
  2. My woes seem to be pretty common. I think the better question now is if anyone hasn’t experienced impostor syndrome.

But I also feel better after attending class and reading more papers. My Monday class is a three hour discussion of multiple related papers, and it actually went really well. Our professor guided us through the discussion without giving away the answers, but still explained parts that we were confused about instead of letting us totally flounder – aka, he did an excellent job. I realized I understood a lot more than I gave myself credit for, and even more light bulbs went on during the discussion.

Then I read even more papers for my class tomorrow (seeing a theme here?). At first I felt doomed, again. But then tonight I was in a little study group with some of the other students, and:

  1. Everyone seemed just as confused and lost as me. And
  2. I actually got to explain a concept to a couple people! A concept that seemed simple to me (gel electrophoresis of DNA segments) only because that’s basically what I spent the last three years doing, not to mention teaching. That really helped make it clear that we all come from such different backgrounds, that sometimes you’re going to feel completely in the dark, but other times you’ll actually know what the heck you’re talking about.

I’m still tired, but I feel slightly less doomed. I think I’m partially writing this post so I can come back and read it when I’m feeling completely idiotic again.

…Like tomorrow when I try to fix my Python code. *gulp*


  1. d'Armond says

    Hey Jen,I remember feeling exactly the same way when I started my Ph.D. coursework. Like everyone else had a headstart and I was already behind. Then I took a class in my 2nd semester that I absolutely loved (Chomskian syntax) and it clicked for me. Suddenly I felt like I was the one understanding everything and explaining it to my classmates. You’ll find your place, and rediscover your passion.It took me a long time, but I did finish my Ph.D. It is so worth it! It’s changed my life in so many positive ways, given me opportunities I wouldn’t have had otherwise. Stick with it!!

  2. says

    I want to give you a huge hug.I was recently suffering Impostor Syndrome myself. I’m still an undergrad, but I recently transferred into a four year university from a local community college. I was going to the cc because of health and monetary reasons, but I’ve always felt very secure in my own intelligence. That was backed up by the fact that I was more or less the darling of all my cc profs.My major is International Relations (minors in History and Anthropology) and my first poli sci/ir class at the university made me very nervous at first because it felt like there were so many things that I missed out on because the community college didn’t really have many political science classes that dealt with anything beyond US government. Even though I won a couple school scholarships and got into their honors program, it still made me feel like a complete idiot. I still participated in discussion though, even without knowing all the jargon.Recently, I’ve spoken with that professor and the department head and that made me feel a little more secure, but what really helped was when a classmate came up to me and said something like “You seem like you know everything!” I bet if you put your knowledge out there, like you did with the study group, you’ll feel more secure. Once your ideas are on the table and people can discuss them, it makes them feel more valid to yourself. You can refine them, maybe have an epiphany about them.

  3. says

    Wow, I wish I could be better at IR! Seriously though, IR I think is the hardest subfield of Political Science…I’m studying comparative/behavioral (American).

  4. chutz says

    Python isn’t hard at all if you have any programming experience, there is a great free online book called “Dive into Python” that is a _really_ good quick tutorial.

  5. MsLeading says

    Ah, there is truly nothing on earth like object-oriented programming to make one feel like an utter moron. I’ll think of you tomorrow when I’m banging my head against the wall while writing stats analyses in R. :)

  6. niiseh says

    It’s actually nice to read this as well, I’m doing the last year of my bachelor and while I have not heard the term impostor syndrome before, it sums up how I feel pretty well. I imagine it’ll get worse when I pursue my master and so on.Soo… I guess I’m just happy everyone else has the same issues as I do!

  7. says

    You know, I think that everyone goes through that at some point. About once a week I have about five minutes of fear that my boss will discover that I’m vastly under-qualified, and that I have no idea what I’m doing (I’m winging it about 90% of the time). Then everything snaps into focus and I realize that my boss likes me and the qualities I bring to the job.It’s not that you’re the impostor, you’re just not done becoming that person. And you never will be. That’s the best part of the journey, no? Constant discovery and learning?

  8. says

    I’m still in high school, so I guess that means I still have a long way to go before facing this…. or not, considering this is (or rather, should be) my final year.Python really isn’t that hard. I find it one of the more fun programming languages myself. But I suppose that may really depend on how much experience you have with it. What are you making in it, if I may ask?

  9. says

    Ever since elementary school I used to read the end of my math textbooks at the start of the year and find them indecipherable. I didn’t know how, but I knew that in several months time it would make sense as impossible as that seemed. It was exciting and scary all at once.The unknown is always exciting and scary. Some healthy respect for both those emotions is a good thing.

  10. Dan says

    Hey Jen! As someone wrote yesterday (or before?), just look forward to the “click” moments, when everything is suddenly there. When I taught flying and groundschool, a student asked me a question, and in formulating the answer I had a click moment that made 5 different areas align. Just hang in there, know you’re not alone, and HAVE FUN WITH IT!

  11. Serenegoose says

    I’ll alleviate it for you. I don’t have any degrees, have only ever done the university thing for 3 months, and I’m unlikely to ever acquire one! :P

  12. BoneGirl says

    Recently-minted PhD here, and I love your blog! In fact, you’ve inspired me to write more on mine (http://killgrove.blogspot.com), even though I’m done dissertating and even though I’m on the big scary job market and even though writing more undoubtedly means answering questions about the blog during job interviews. I hope you can keep it up through grad school – I found that it was a good release for my non-academic thoughts.To tell you the truth, I’d never heard of Impostor Syndrome until you and Female Science Professor both blogged about it this week. It’s nice to know that I’m not alone in these feelings. Wish I could tell you that it gets better, but I still sometimes feel like the stupidest person in the world. It’s what academia is about: the desire to learn more, to challenge yourself, to push yourself beyond your safe and secure little box of knowledge. Some people climb mountains and skydive to get their rush, I attempt to figure out what life was like in ancient Rome.

  13. hippiefemme says

    I’m not sure if I can describe how relieved I was to read your entries on Impostor Syndrome. I’d never heard of it before! This semester I began my master’s in library science (which is somewhere between an art and a science, depending on your concentration), and I’ve felt like I would eventually get called out by one of my professors or a classmate. In one class, the professor told us to stop her if we couldn’t digest any more information, and no one did. After class we talked about how we wished we had stopped her, but no one wanted to be *that* person.I also noticed that I knew more than that I thought I did, particularly in my technology classes. Most of my friends are advanced technogeeks, so I thought I was way behind the average. It’s hard, but I keep reminding myself that the program is competitive and that they wouldn’t have accepted me if they didn’t think I could complete it. That might help you, as well.

  14. chicagodyke says

    ah, yes. i remember this. it’s happened to me several times in my various careers. i switched from backwater rural public to ritzy urban private high school soph year, and that was a shock. i did my undergrad degrees at a big state school, and my master’s and phd work at a school widely considered to be in the 10 most academically difficult/challenging in the nation. again, my eyes were opened to what i hadn’t been getting at the state school. all these rich kids (or lucky ones) who had always had the best of the best educationally, and only a few like little old scholarship student me (it also didn’t help that my grad school only has an african american student population of 2%). i’ll tell you what tho: my anger was helpful. i’m going to tell you the biggest secret in a challenging grad program when you feel you’re at a disadvantage when compared to other students: ask “why?” a lot. about everything. ask “how are you sure that X is true/relevant/whatever?” to everybody. profs. students. brainy undergrads who may be sitting in one or two of your seminars. visiting scholars and students from other countries. i learned to really be unafraid in this habit, and it won me a lot of respect, and helped me learn more, and learn faster. never be silent in seminar. if you think something doesn’t make sense or the explanation isn’t clear, say so. i guarantee you other students in your classes are thinking the same way. never be ashamed to say, “i don’t understand.” if you think there’s a better way you could be learning something, suggest it. profs respect students who take an active part in their learning. and never forget that everyone was once as ignorant as you, on any subject. one is not born with a PhD sized headful of knowledge on the discipline. and also never forget that there are professors who mostly “fake it” too. they are paid to act confident and knowledgable, even when they are not as sure as they appear. as a woman in science, it’s going to be really important for you to not tolerate being thought of or treated as an inferior intellect. i’m sure i don’t have to tell you how many males in that community still really do think “chicks can’t do Science.” being assertive about learning helps you be assertive and confident later on, when you’re presenting your research or challenging someone else’s. my own lab days were pretty brutal when it came to sexism, but that was a long time ago so i hope it’s much better now.

  15. Dae says

    Hurray, you can do eeeeet! Glad you’re feeling better. =DAlso, I’m kinda jealous of the paper-reading classes. My classes are all problem sets, all the time. :x s’what I get for being in engineering, I guess.

  16. Jeff says

    Way to go Jen!Hopefully things improve for you! (Seems like they already are)I start grad school next year, I’d like to think it wont be too nightmarish

  17. the_eye says

    Seriously? I’m only a third year undergrad, but we’ve been doing agarose gel electrophoresis since second year in various labs (mostly genetics and biochem courses). I’m astounded that some Ph.D. students didn’t understand it. But hey, good on ya for explaining it to them!And yeah, I was going to make the “we’re not all American” comment, but someone beat me to it. I know quite a few fellow Canadians who read you. :)Anyway, best of luck, I’m sure you’ll do wonderfully once you get over the newness of it all.

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