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From Self-Doubt to Self-Assured: Overcoming Imposter Syndrome as a Master’s Student

Are you experiencing imposter syndrome in grad school? You’re not alone. Many graduate students struggle with self-doubt at some point. This guide provides actionable steps to help you overcome self-doubt and achieve success.

Author: Megan Harrington

Editor: Staff Editor

A young woman and man, seated and smiling at each other in a library, with the man holding a tablet. they appear engaged in a pleasant conversation surrounded by books.

If you’re struggling with self-doubt, it may feel like you’re the only one feeling that way. Imposter syndrome is incredibly common, though. In fact, a recent review of over 60 studies suggested that up to 82% of people meet the criteria for imposter syndrome. Imposter syndrome can be difficult to navigate, but it’s important to recognize how it can hold you back, particularly in grad school. Research also suggests a correlation between imposter syndrome and symptoms of depression. If left unchecked, it can lead to serious mental health issues and burnout.

This guide breaks down what imposter syndrome is, where it comes from, and the specific strategies for overcoming it. Making the necessary shift in your thoughts and behaviors is a process, so the sooner you start the faster you can overcome the self-doubt that is holding you back from achieving your goals. To avoid its pitfalls, you first need to understand where imposter syndrome comes from.

Imposter Syndrome: Where Does It Come From?

Several factors create breeding grounds for imposter syndrome with personal experiences informing which ones contribute to your unique challenges. Five common factors that can contribute to this phenomenon are outlined below. Some individuals experience only one, while others are influenced by multiple factors. Knowing the root cause of your feelings is the first step in addressing them head-on.

High Competition in Academia

High competition in academia can lead to imposter syndrome for several reasons. Academics are constantly evaluated and compared to their peers, especially when it comes to published articles and funding. This can lead to feelings of self-doubt and a lack of confidence in one’s contributions. Additionally, the academic world can be very insular since individuals often work in isolation. This can make you feel like you’re the only one who is struggling, which can exacerbate feelings of anxiety, depression, and self-doubt.

Low Self-Esteem

Having low self-esteem can lead to imposter syndrome because it can make you feel like you don’t deserve your success and that others will discover you’re a fraud. When you have low self-esteem, you may constantly doubt yourself and your abilities and think your success is a result of luck. Fear of being exposed as a “fraud” can lead to feelings of anxiety or depression. It’s possible to build self-esteem by challenging negative self-talk and reminding yourself of your strengths.

Individual Personality Traits

Specific characteristics and personality traits can also lead to imposter syndrome. Common traits include perfectionism, over-achievement, and neuroticism. Perfectionism is discussed a bit more below, but over-achievement is closely related. Overachievers are often driven to succeed with high goals. However, this can also lead to feelings of inadequacy when they do not reach those goals. Additionally, anxious individuals tend to be easily stressed and more susceptible to imposter syndrome.

Perfectionism

Perfectionists often feel like they can’t make mistakes, which can lead to feelings of inadequacy and low self-esteem when they do make errors. Because graduate students are beginners in their fields, not knowing everything and making mistakes are part of the process. Unfortunately, this can lead to imposter syndrome in some individuals who feel like they can’t compare to their peers or don’t have anything to add to the conversation. This can be a tough one to move past, but it’s helpful knowing that many driven and successful individuals struggle with it.

Existing Mental Health Struggles

If you’re already dealing with anxiety, depression, or another mental health diagnosis, the high-pressure environment of grad school can be a perfect storm for imposter syndrome. Many of these traits (e.g., perfectionism and anxiety) are closely related. The good news is that with the right support system and tools, you can overcome imposter syndrome. Later in this article, you’ll find tips on how to move past feelings of self-doubt and get the help you need to succeed in grad school.

5 Types of Imposter Syndrome: Profiles & Traits

According to Dr. Valerie Young, a preeminent imposter syndrome researcher, there are five known types of imposters. Dr. Young conducted research on many individuals in a wide range of occupations from entry-level positions to senior executives and found several distinct profiles, each with its own set of traits and triggers. While all types of imposter syndrome result in feelings of self-doubt and inadequacy, there are some differences among the types worth exploring.

The Perfectionist

Imposter syndrome and perfectionist tendencies are commonly seen together. Individuals with this profile strive for perfection. Anything less than that (e.g., a 95% on an exam, making a small mistake during a speech, etc.) is perceived as a failure.

Symptoms/Traits:

  • Hold unrealistic expectations of themselves.
  • Possess overachiever tendencies.
  • Are too hard on themselves for lack of perfection, even if mistakes are small.
  • Obsess over the small things they wish they had done differently, even when they did a good job and received praise.
  • Tend to catastrophize and see any error or shortcoming as a complete failure.

The Natural Genius

Individuals in this group are often seen as naturally gifted or smart (e.g., valedictorians, accomplished child musicians, Olympic athletes, etc.). They are used to having things come easily to them and struggle when they don’t automatically pick up a new skill or learn new information.

Symptoms/Traits:

  • Have a lot of natural talent or high IQ and believe their value is wrapped up in their natural abilities.
  • Are easily frustrated or have self-doubt when something doesn’t come naturally or if they struggle to learn something.
  • Believe they should be able to learn things on their own and struggle when they need help.

The Soloist

Individuals who fall into this category often believing asking for help or collaborating with others invalidates or lessens their contributions. They see asking for help as a weakness and try to do as much as they can on their own.

Symptoms/Traits:

  • Have unrealistic expectations of how much they can handle, which often leads to burnout.
  • Take on more than they can manage because they are afraid to be seen as incapable.
  • Struggle asking for help, whether it’s from a colleague at work or a tutor for a class.

The Expert

This type of imposter syndrome manifests itself in constant learning and the desire to know every piece of information. Unfortunately, in life and especially in academia, it’s almost impossible to know everything. As best practices change or new data is published, experts may feel inadequate and unprepared.

Symptoms/Traits:

  • Never feel like they are “expert enough.”
  • Are in constant learning mode and striving to be the smartest person in the room.
  • Have huge amounts of self-doubt no matter how long they’ve been doing something.
  • Self-sabotage (e.g., don’t speak up when they have information to contribute) their success because they don’t believe in their value.

The Superperson

The superperson strives to always be doing “the most.” This is slightly different from the perfectionist who wants to do things the “best.” Individuals of this type often overcommit themselves, which can lead to burnout.

Symptoms/Traits:

  • Believe they’re the hardest workers and feel like frauds if they don’t meet those expectations.
  • Push beyond their limits and struggle setting boundaries.
  • Have something to prove and attempt to be the hardest worker.
  • Seek a lot of external validation.

Battling Yourself: What Imposter Syndrome Looks Like

At its core, imposter syndrome is usually an internal issue. In other words, no one else thinks you’re an imposter. Hearing that and believing it are two very different things, though. If you’re experiencing imposter syndrome, you’ll likely exhibit some specific behaviors. Most of them have to do with your inner dialogue (e.g., “I’m not good enough. I don’t belong here.”). Let’s dive into some of the most notable symptoms and explain what some of these behaviors look like.

Unrealistic Expectations for Yourself

Individuals experiencing imposter syndrome often have unreasonably high expectations of themselves, leading to feelings of inadequacy when they don’t reach their goals. Even when they meet goals, it might not feel like enough. For example, a student may score 90% on an exam but feel crushed because they expected or hoped to get 100%. Unrealistic expectations can lead to a vicious cycle of inadequacy and low self-esteem.

Attributing Success to External Factors

One of the hallmarks of imposter syndrome is assuming that any success is due to chance, luck, or perhaps the contributions of your collaborators. It’s difficult to accept that your success results from your hard work and talent. Individuals with this trait may also have a tough time accepting praise for their accomplishments.

Being Too Hard on Yourself

Thinking they should be able to do it all and do it perfectly is extremely common for individuals with imposter syndrome. They want to take on the most and do it the best. When something doesn’t go as planned, it’s hard to deal with. Individuals with this trait often beat themselves up for small mistakes rather than looking at what they did right. They fixate on what they did wrong and struggle to enjoy success.

Overachiever Tendencies

There are a lot of similarities and overlap with perfectionists. Like perfectionists, overachievers aren’t satisfied with “average.” They have high expectations for themselves and tend to compare their traits and accomplishments to others. Despite busy schedules and impressive academic and professional accolades, they feel like they are never doing enough.

Self-Sabotaging Your Success

Because they don’t think they deserve success, individuals experiencing imposter syndrome may self-sabotage. This might look like poor time management, procrastination, avoiding work, or submitting assignments late or not at all. It may also manifest as severe anxiety. Some individuals even skip lectures or class meetings to avoid being exposed as a fraud. They’re worried they won’t reach their goals, so things like procrastination or avoidance can result in a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Self-Doubt & Insecurity

Individuals with imposter syndrome experience low self-esteem and low self-efficacy. They don’t believe they can act and complete the necessary steps required to achieve their goals. Because they don’t think they have the skills to succeed, the result is often intense anxiety and avoidance. If an individual feels like they aren’t good enough at something, they might not even try in the first place. This characteristic may also feed into the comparison trap, furthering feelings of low self-esteem.

11 Key Strategies for Beating Imposter Syndrome

Have you heard the quote about it being better to be the least knowledgeable person in the room? It’s the idea that it’s much better to be the person who has the most to gain from a situation than the person with the least to gain. This idea is key to overcoming imposter syndrome, but it’s not easy for those with imposter syndrome to understand. Being comfortable recognizing and accepting what you don’t know takes dedicated effort and inner work. Ultimately, it is possible to get to a place where you can recognize and stop imposter syndrome in its tracks. The following strategies can help you get started.

#1 – Acknowledge Your Feelings and Thoughts

Acknowledging your feelings and thoughts is the first step in overcoming imposter syndrome because you must first be able to accept it before you can dig in and figure out where the feelings are coming from. It’s important to recognize that you aren’t the only one who feels this way, too. Many high-achieving and successful individuals experience imposter syndrome.

#2 – Learn to Take Constructive Criticism

This is so key. When people offer constructive criticism or feedback, it’s an opportunity to learn and grow. It’s not meant to make you feel bad about yourself. When you are experiencing imposter syndrome, though, constructive criticism can exacerbate feelings of inadequacy and self-doubt. Retraining your brain to accept feedback positively is an important step.

#3 – Celebrate Your Own Wins

Those experiencing imposter syndrome often look for external validation. Learning to celebrate your wins on your own is so important in healing from imposter syndrome because you learn to build yourself up without waiting on others to do it for you. When something goes right, take a moment to celebrate and reflect on your success. You deserve it.

#4 – Focus on Positive Self-talk

Your internal dialogue is the key to overcoming imposter syndrome. From telling yourself you did a good job on a paper to reminding yourself you are capable of conquering challenges, focusing on the positives is important in shifting your mindset. Consider keeping a list of all your strengths and accomplishments to refer to when you’re feeling insecure.

#5 – Learn New Skills

Acknowledging your skill deficits and actively working to grow your skillset is a good step toward gaining confidence. For example, if you feel your writing skills aren’t as good as your peers, take a writing workshop or hire a tutor instead of stressing about your shortcomings.

#6 – Ask for Feedback

This is a brave step, but it shows openness to growth. Ask a trusted peer or mentor for feedback on what you can improve or strengthen. Before you do this, mentally prepare yourself for constructive criticism and remind yourself that it’s an important part of the process.

#7 – Stop Comparing Yourself to Others

This important step helps maintain your internal peace. If you focus only on yourself, you won’t have time to focus on what others are doing. Your unique experiences are what make you valuable. The same is true for your peers. They may be experiencing issues that you can’t see because we all tend to put our best face forward. Remember, you mainly see their highlight reel. If certain things like social media make the comparison trap worse, take a break from it.

#8 – Build Positive and Supportive Relationships with Peers and Colleagues

Working to actively contribute to a supportive environment with your grad school peers and colleagues can help break down the competition and release some of the pressure. You can even be each other’s support through the highs and lows. Isolation worsens imposter syndrome but connecting with others and finding your community can combat it.

#9 – Accept and Embrace Both Your Strengths and Weaknesses

No one is perfect. We all have strengths and weaknesses, and we need to learn to celebrate both and acknowledge areas for growth. Letting go of perfection is an important piece of this. When you have success, be sure to celebrate it. When things don’t go according to plan, see it as a learning opportunity. What can you do differently next time? Which skills can you work on?

#10 – Find Trusted Mentors to Coach You

Having a mentor is invaluable in grad school because it helps you better process your struggles and gain insight into how you can be successful. A mentor should provide constructive criticism that can improve your grad school experience and outcome.

#11 – Get Mental Health Support

If after putting all these strategies into action you are still struggling with your self-confidence and experiencing self-doubt, clinical support may be needed. Find a mental health counselor or therapist who can help you find what will work for you to overcome imposter syndrome.

Resources to Help Overcome Imposter Syndrome

Below are some practical resources to help you deal with imposter syndrome. Often, the first step in overcoming it is knowing you’re not alone. Others are dealing with imposter syndrome, too, and there are resources to help you work through it. Whether you need to vent in an online forum or utilize a stress management technique, the following resources can help.

Interview with an Imposter Syndrome Expert

Dr Richard Shadick

Ready to hear from an expert? We recently interviewed Dr. Richard Shadick, director of the Counseling Center at Pace University. Dr. Shadick deals with graduate students daily and had a lot to offer when it comes to dealing with imposter syndrome. Dr. Shadick earned his PhD in Clinical Psychology at Pennsylvania State University and a certificate in psychoanalysis at William Alanson White Institute. In addition to serving as the Director of the Counseling Center at Pace University, Dr. Shadick is an adjunct faculty member in the Psychology Department. He also serves as a board member of the Association for College Counseling Center Directors.

Q: How can graduate students identify their strengths and accomplishments and use them to combat feelings of inadequacy?

A: Feelings of inadequacy often come from a tendency many have to focus on the negative and ignore the positive. One of the best approaches to combatting feelings of inadequacy is to identify successes in one’s life. Students benefit from focusing on their strengths and accomplishments by journaling, in conversation with trusted others, or through social media. Another approach is modifying expectations about accomplishments; being a new student means that strengths and accomplishments take time to cultivate, so students should be patient for those to develop. Another effective approach is to be forgiving and understanding of one’s errors. Rather than ruminate on mistakes made or weaknesses, accept that one is human and that mistakes are normal. Treat the error as an opportunity for learning rather than an indictment of one’s character.

Q: What role do mentors or advisors play in overcoming imposter syndrome, and how can students best utilize their support?

A: Mentors and advisors are in a perfect position to help students overcome imposter syndrome. They have worked with students who have struggled with the same feelings and have witnessed them succeed in school. They have specific guidance for students on how to overcome academic challenges and insecurities. Finally, they are invested in a student’s success and should be understood as an advocate who wants them to succeed.

Q: How can someone build confidence and self-esteem as a graduate student, and what are some practical steps to do so?

A: Students who are struggling with self-esteem should take advantage of the academic support opportunities that are available to them to help build confidence. Most graduate schools have built-in resources for their students – mentors, advisors, and fellow students – who have knowledge and understanding of the challenges graduate students face. They can be leveraged to help them build skills and confidence, too. Schools often have study resources available through departments, libraries, or tutoring centers. Finally, colleges have counseling centers staffed with experts who know how to address these issues and can provide specific guidance in therapy and augment the process with additional self-guided resources.

Q: What are some common misconceptions about imposter syndrome, and how can students avoid falling into these traps?

A: One common misconception about the imposter syndrome is that the student is the only one dealing with it. Chances are that in each graduate program, there are a large number of students feeling quite similarly. Another misconception is that imposter syndrome goes away only through academic success. In fact, imposter syndrome is more likely to go away faster through getting support from colleagues, mentors, and advisors. Another misconception is that the presence of imposter syndrome means that you have a psychological disorder; most often it is due to being new to the school or program and with time, and some support, the feelings often diminish.

Q: How can students manage the fear of failure and the pressure to succeed in grad school without succumbing to imposter syndrome?

A: Students can manage their fears and pressure to succeed in grad school by normalizing the stress experienced. It is normal for a student to experience stress when beginning a program. Right-sizing self-expectations is important. Additionally, challenging inappropriate thoughts is key, too. For example, just because a student is dealing with stress about their academic program does not mean they are an imposter and should be removed from their program. Active work on those feelings, either through confiding in trusted peers or advisors or visiting the counseling center, can go a long way in preventing imposter syndrome.