Defeating Imposter Syndrome

“I don’t belong here…I’ve fooled everyone into thinking I’m capable…they’ll be so disappointed once they find out I’m a fraud and get rid of me…” – sound familiar? These are some of the most common thoughts that graduate applicants and students have. I had them throughout my own application process, my admission, and even now, five years into my doctoral program.

These are all hallmarks of Imposter Syndrome, which is the nagging belief that one doesn’t deserve success or is in some way not enough (e.g., not smart, capable, or hard working enough) despite a lot of evidence that says otherwise. So how do you tackle it? Below are some of my top tips to defeat imposter syndrome and get out of your own way:

Reframe your perspective

  • Remind yourself where you are in your graduate journey – at the very start! It is normal and expected to not know everything as a beginner, and you are pursuing a degree to learn (which requires not knowing things)
  • Practice gratitude – relatively few people pursue graduate study. You are already very capable and smart if you are considering applying, or accepted
  • Separate achievements from your identity – apart from graduate school, you are a whole person who is valuable whether you are admitted or not
  • Focus on yourself – comparison is the thief of joy, so avoid comparing yourself with other applicants or students as much as possible. Everyone completes graduate degrees very differently, so it’s like comparing apples to oranges

Seek support and share

  • Share with peers – the majority of academics experience this feeling at one point or another (as high as 82%; Bravata et al., 2020), so you are not alone. Ask classmates or peers if they’re feeling similarly or ever have in the past to feel less isolated
  • Share with advisors – early on in my program my faculty shared with me that they still experience imposter syndrome! If that’s the case, then those thoughts likely aren’t based in reality after all, so consider asking your advisor or professors about their experiences and advice
  • Ask lots of questions – imposter syndrome has roots in feeling like you don’t know enough, so take actionable steps to know more. This will reinforce your belief that even if you don’t know something, you are fully capable of figuring it out. Plus, research shows that people like to help others (Curry et al., 2020)

Accept the lows and celebrate highs

  • You will make mistakes; not only is it inevitable, but research also shows it helps us learn better than if we had done something correctly (e.g., Huelser & Metcalfe, 2012). Spend just enough time to figure out why you made the mistake, how it can be prevented in the future, and then stop thinking about it
  • Focus on big and small successes and acknowledge how far you’ve already come. Did you write a sentence in your personal statement? Reach out to a faculty member? Add a line to your CV or resume? That’s progress and it all counts

Believe the experts

  • You may have sought letters of recommendation for your application – these people would not agree to write a letter attesting to your skills and capability if they did not believe in you. Trust them
  • As an applicant, your only task is to present yourself professionally and truthfully. It is the job of the admissions committee to decide if you are a good fit for the program, so leave them to it!
  • As a student, your supervisors and faculty are there to guide and train you – let them identify the areas you need to strengthen so you aren’t spending excessive time and energy criticizing yourself; focus instead on doing your personal best one day at a time. A mantra I have personally found helpful is: “I am going to show up and do a good job until they kick me out”


Bravata, D. M., Watts, S. A., Keefer, A. L., Madhusudhan, D. K., Taylor, K. T., Clark, D. M., … & Hagg, H. K. (2020). Prevalence, predictors, and treatment of impostor syndrome: a systematic review. Journal of General Internal Medicine, 35, 1252-1275.

Curry, O. S., Rowland, L. A., Van Lissa, C. J., Zlotowitz, S., McAlaney, J., & Whitehouse, H. (2018). Happy to help? A systematic review and meta-analysis of the effects of performing acts of kindness on the well-being of the actor. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 76, 320-329.

Huelser, B. J., & Metcalfe, J. (2012). Making related errors facilitates learning, but learners do not know it. Memory & Cognition, 40, 514-527.

By Mary Avery
Mary Avery