During our graduate orientation, our program director told us, “You may feel like comparing yourself with each other throughout your time here, but let me assure you: compare your success with yourself and no one else. Your success depends on you and you alone.” Even though I remembered this advice, I still found myself comparing myself to others in my program. There always seemed to be the “golden boy” or “golden girl,” whose words were infallible—always prompting praise from professors. I felt I could never measure up to those people, and soon became discouraged. I thought that I didn’t deserve to be in graduate school, and it was sheer luck (or misfortune) that I was there. Sound familiar?
One of my undergraduate advisors encouraged me and told me I was suffering from “the imposter phenomenon” (Clance & O’Toole, 1988; Leary, Patton, Orlando, & Funk, 2000). She said it involves feeling that one’s success was obtained by luck or some other external circumstance. The person feels like they are posing as a successful person, but they do not truly have the credentials to succeed. They are also afraid of the day when their “fraud” will be exposed. These feelings perfectly described how I felt!
Once I put two semesters under my belt, these feelings waned, and I felt like I could legitimately succeed in my program. Although I had difficulty with feeling like an imposter as a first-year student, I know now those feelings were not predictive of my success. I am currently scheduled to defend my dissertation in the spring and graduate in May!
I can assure those of you who feel like an imposter that you absolutely belong in graduate school. You are now in the elite company of those who have demonstrated academic excellence and a motivation to advance your field. Your success in graduate school, furthermore, has nothing to do with your intelligence and everything to do with your attitude. Know that there may be rough patches ahead, but with enough willpower and positivity, you can get past those times and learn from them. If you ever find yourself feeling like an imposter, remember that you’re not a fraud and that these rough times are great motivators to be at your best. My program director was right: measure yourself by your past successes, and then set your goals even higher.
For more on the Imposter Phenomenon, check out Dr. Pauline Rose Clance’s work:http://paulineroseclance.com/impostor_phenomenon.html
You can take the Clance Imposter Phenomenon Test http://paulineroseclance.com/pdf/IPTestandscoring.pdfand see how you compare yourself to others.
Clance, P., & O’Toole, M. (1988). The imposter phenomenon: An internal barrier to empowerment and achievement. Binghampton, NY: Haworth Press.
Learney, M. R., Patton, K. M., Orlando, A. E., & Funk, W. W. The imposter phenomenon: Self-perceptions, reflected appraisals, and interpersonal strategies. Journal of Personality, 68, 725-756.