Battling Imposter Syndrome: Graduate School Edition

Vulnerable lessons from my journey towards a Ph.D. in psychology.

Posted Sep 13, 2018

Allef Vinicius/Unsplash
Source: Allef Vinicius/Unsplash

My heart was racing. The room was spinning. I was on the verge of collapsing. It suddenly hit me—I couldn’t sustain this pace for much longer. My imposter syndrome had crept in like a slow decay before completely knocking me down, and this realization came after nearly a year of quietly suffering. 

Imposter syndrome is something we all experience at some point in our lives. It’s the intrusive feeling that you don’t belong. It makes us believe we aren’t capable or smart enough, whether it’s for a higher degree or a new job, or even a new family role. Imposter syndrome is a feeling I am all too familiar with.

When embarking on my doctorate journey, I arrived in my new college town bright-eyed and ready to work. I couldn’t wait for walks around campus and late night study sessions holed up in a quiet corner of the beautiful library. I imagined wearing my new school gear to the gym where I quickly signed up for personal training sessions. I couldn’t wait to teach my own undergraduate classes, and I looked forward to the independence a Ph.D. program would offer. I found a dreamy loft apartment in the liveliest part of town, eagerly waiting for the next chapter of my life to begin. My hard work was finally paying off.

Instead, I felt more isolated than I could have imagined. My transition into graduate school was far from smooth. I was immediately thrown into a rigorous academic schedule. I was drowning in stacks of essays to be graded, emails from disgruntled students, and my own papers which had yet to be written. 

I looked around me, wondering if I was alone. Every student seemed brilliant and successful. Their intelligence appeared to far exceed my own. I kept thinking, when will they catch me? When will they find out that I don’t belong here? These messages played through my mind nonstop. I was certain I would be asked to leave, even though I had little evidence to support this. 

I felt so uncomfortable that my usual extroverted personality hardened and collapsed, and I reached a point where I didn’t want to interact with anyone. My loft, which once represented freedom and independence, turned into a massive workspace I couldn’t escape. I felt my unique luster diminishing, no matter how much I tried to bring it back. 

In an attempt to return to my usual social self, I hosted a dinner at my new place for some of my oldest childhood friends. When everyone had to leave, I curled up on my couch and cried for hours. I had been too embarrassed to tell them that my dream was far from what I expected. I was too ashamed to share that I had missed several assignments and project deadlines. Instead, I pretended everything was okay.

What I didn’t expect was the wave of anxiety that followed. My responsibilities were operating at full speed, but I wasn’t. I was catching up on sleep between classes. I was eating cereal for most of my meals. I stayed awake through the night trying to complete my insurmountable workload. I was chasing coffees with red bulls to artificially conjure the energy I no longer possessed. I was tired constantly. My friends would invite me to movies and dinners, and I solemnly declined each time, feeling further and further away from my old self. And when I could spare a minute to hang out with my friends? I couldn’t bring myself to go because I felt like I didn’t deserve to have fun.

It all came to a head one day when I went to the gym on an empty stomach after several sleep-deprived nights. I started to lift weights with my trainer, and I immediately started gasping for breath and panicking. This led to my painful—yet much-needed—"aha" moment.

So what helped? I stopped hiding so much. 

Imposter syndrome may not be a real diagnosis, but the pain and anxiety that stems from feeling inadequate packs a heavy punch. Being honest with ourselves when we need help is key, and so is opening up. 

I slowly started to reach out to my classmates, family, and friends for moral support. It turns out the people I thought were handing academia so well were actually struggling in their own way, just like me. We were all in the same boat. Every student was sacrificing something to be in our program. Everyone felt lonely and insecure, though we all somehow felt alone together. 

We also felt determined. We were connected to the meaning of our profession and the lives we would someday impact. We reminded each other to keep pushing and trying. This is what we held on to. 

Today, I've reached candidacy and I’m a just a few milestones away from achieving my Ph.D. dream. I’m finally opening up about my imposter syndrome because it’s something I share with so many of my clients. While I continuously battle that familiar feeling of inadequacy, I have become a lot more honest with myself and my support system about what I need, whether it’s a fun outing, a little space, or a shoulder to lean on.

© Megha Pulianda

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