This is how I began my graduate studies at Texas A&M University. I applied to the Educational Psychology M.Ed. program in the summer of 2018, and with a Bachelor’s degree in Microbiology, I knew I was making a decent-sized change from the hard sciences of growing bacteria to the more flexible philosophies of Piaget and Vygotsky. The month I found out I was accepted was also the month I excitedly found out I was expecting, so needless to say I was walking into a lot of new territory, but I was looking forward to pursuing and exploring my degree. That August the department held an informal gathering at a local park, complete with iced tea, creamed corn, brisket, and barbecue sauce. I invited my husband to come along with me, hoping his familiar face would ground me as I ventured into new social territory. Within minutes of arrival, my husband received an important phone call, and I was left to fend for myself. What resulted was me, alone, food in hand, quickly scanning the rows of people while knots formed in my stomach. It was reminiscent of those days in the middle school cafeteria as young and gangly students eagerly searched for a face that looked safe, someone who wouldn’t make fun of your nerdy fascination with viruses like Ebola.
Eventually I chose a seat, and eventually I made it through this anxiety-inducing encounter with painful small talk. But even as I have taken courses, acquainted myself with professors and students, gained field-specific knowledge, and proved myself academically, feelings of isolation and inadequacy continue to pry their way into my graduate school experience. I know I did well academically, and I guess I wrote something convincing in my application essays, but part of me still feels like a fake - an imposter.
Imposter syndrome is just that – feeling like an imposter, like you’ve got on a disguise and at any moment someone might pull it off and exclaim, “Oh no! A fake graduate student!” Or you’ve got Radiohead running through your mind and you keep telling yourself, “I don’t belong here.” It happens a lot in academia, to students and professors alike. We all, in the past or present or future, run around with glasses and mustaches on our faces, thinking we’re pretending to be someone or something we’re not. Here’s how I’ve tried to keep my own imposter syndrome at bay:
Leaning on and giving to my community. I’m more than a graduate student, so when that part of me is being attacked by the mentality that I’m not a good graduate student or a “real” graduate student, I go back to the other roles and people who provide support. For me, this is my church, my friends, and my husband. I provide service to these people in the forms of volunteering, game nights, baked goods, and hot meals. Giving of my time and my skills makes me feel good – and I’m ready to get back in the ring with imposter syndrome and show him who’s boss.
Talking to another graduate student or faculty member. This can feel intimidating at first, but can be really helpful. You’re essentially going to feel like you’re taking off your own disguise, which can make you feel really vulnerable and exposed, but if who you decide to talk to is being honest with you, they’ve felt imposter syndrome, too. Build each other up, particularly if you’re both graduate students. You can become a team effort against the blows of crippling doubt as you praise each other on your good work.
Forgiving myself if, ahem, when I make mistakes. We all have rough days. We each have made blundering errors – deleted important files, failed to study for a test, contaminated samples, forgot to put the batteries back into our measuring instruments. When it happens, hop on the next mental train and move on instead of beating yourself up over it. Even Nobel Prize winners made mistakes on the way to glory and greatness – we are no better than they.
Remembering my “hard things.” This one is close to my heart. “Hard things” are difficult experiences you have gone through in the past. Once, I walked one and a half miles with twenty-five pounds of groceries strung up and down my arms. Twice, in high school, I overcame eating disorders, and once, self-harming tendencies. During my undergrad, I hiked to the top of an 8,520-foot mountain – a big deal for a girl from Flatland, Florida. I keep a mental list of the challenges I have overcome, and reviewing it assures me that I am resilient, and I have worked hard to get to where I am in life. It’s no fluke.
Write your list down and tuck it into your pocket or pin it up in your study cubicle. You can do hard things – you already have. And you’ve reached this point, this “You Are Here” on your map of life fair and square. Come, sit down, bring your barbecue – there are no imposters at this table.
Ally Miyazaki is a Masters student in the College of Education and Human Development