Posted by: Jeremy Fox | April 30, 2012

Advice for grad students: overcoming the feeling that you’re an imposter (UPDATED)

Grad school can be daunting, especially for new grad students. It’s a totally different experience than undergrad, and it’s easy to feel like you don’t belong, like you have no idea what you’re doing, that you somehow fooled everyone to even get this far. In short, it’s easy to feel like an imposter. Over at The Contemplative Mammoth, Jacquelyn Gill has a very nice post on how she got over her own “imposter syndrome”. I particularly like the suggestion that acting as a mentor can be as helpful as receiving mentoring. Also the need to draw a line between generalized, ungrounded feelings of inadequacy, and specific respects in which you need to improve (a good adviser can help you draw this line). Some of her advice is less universal, but that’s only natural–to an extent, everyone needs to find their own source of strength.

UPDATE: For a massive compilation of grad students and profs blogging about imposter syndrome, go here. If you’ve ever felt like an imposter, you are definitely not alone!

Did you ever feel like an imposter? How did you deal with it?


  1. I just read Jacquelyn’s post too and am I relieved to find that this feeling is something a lot of other people experience too. I too am beginning my grad studies and have no background in Math, and most of the times cant remember what I learnt in undergrad classes mostly because of panic, and the feeling that I’m just ‘not good enough’.. although mentoring isn’t something that might work for me.. ‘coz I just blank out when asked a question

  2. Athene Donald also has an excellent post (and comment discussion) about the impostor syndrome and how it can follow people through their careers. It’s not just limited to students.

  3. Sure, of course. I came into an ecology PhD with almost no ecology or biology background. In fact, before I even applied, I suggested to my to-be-advisors that I delay a year, in order to do coursework and “catch up” to my peers. They (and others) said, “no, no, you’ll be fine. Apply now.”

    And so every time the first couple years I felt particularly ignorant, I would just assert that I had been upfront about my ignorance and yet had been admitted and assured that the ignorance was okay. And I would follow up that thought with the thought that this was graduate *school*. I was here to learn; if I already knew everything, I wouldn’t need to be in *school* at all anyway. And all along, I did (am doing) my best to learn as much as possible. Good mentors and a collegial department help a lot.

  4. I got my acceptance letter to grad school last Friday. I felt like an imposter every time I drafted my letter of interest, probably from a mixture of general trepidation and also, I think, because of advice like: “You’re probably interested in lots of things and are having a hard time narrowing it down. One way to do it is do decide to change the way scientists think about (canonical ecological idea X).” (I paraphrase *very* loosely from How To Do Ecology, a book I really do love.) The way I was introduced to ecology left me with a deep interest in the field but not a sense of mastery, which, from my current perspective, is perfectly realistic for an undergrad.

  5. I told the university ‘counsellor’ I felt like an imposter.

    He laughed, and said that every prof told him the same thing.

    That cured me.

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