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  • Writer's pictureHolly M. Fruehwald

The Elephant in the room....

Whether you admit it or not most, if not all graduate (and/or undergraduate) students have felt impostor syndrome this at least once during their studies. Recently I've been feeling major impostor syndrome so I wanted to talk about it and how I cope.

For me, I first felt impostor syndrome when I started grad school and was going to conferences. Often myself and other colleagues would get asked "what do you do" and my colleagues would promptly respond with "organic chemist" "inorganic chemist" "chemical biologist" etc. and it made be feel like an impostor because I felt like I didn't belong in one area of chemistry, and never would. I felt like I was a generalist and would never be specific to one field. It made me feel like I wasn't a good enough chemist in one specific area and that if I didn't have it figured out now I never would. So feelings like this kept coming up:

"did my supervisors make a mistake accepting me"

"did I make a mistake"

"I don't belong here"

"I'm not going to be good enough in any chemistry and then I won't be able to find a job anywhere"

I am happy to announce that I now scientifically identify as an electrochemist as I hope you can guess by now!

These feelings always resurface especially when I am doing academic writing. I know that it is something that I am still working hard to improve on. When I don't get it right on the first, second, or third try it brings up all those feeling of I don't belong here (I first have to admit that I am a tiny bit of a perfectionist too so that doesn't help). I can't help comparing myself to my colleagues and think:

"They probably don't have this much trouble writing a manuscript"

"I bet my supervisors wish they had someone else instead of me"

I know we are our own worst critics, are often too hard on ourselves, and that we should never compare our journey to others. It's hard when you're in this environment and these feelings come up.

For me these feelings are constant because of how I felt throughout my entire schooling career. High school teachers didn't think that I could do science and I had a really rough time in my undergraduate degree. It took me longer to finish my undergrad than normal and I failed a lot of courses in my second to fourth year. I got caught up in the "I just turned 19 and I'm living on my own for the first time" and naively thought that university would be "easy". So it is embarrassing to talk about why my undergrad took 5 and a half years and send my transcripts out for scholarship applications. When I do have to send my transcripts those feelings come back:

"I'm not smart"

"why would they give me a scholarship"

"I don't deserve to be here"

"how did they just let me into a graduate program"

I know those things are not true. Once I got my stuff together I was able to become a straight A student and get a few scholarships in undergrad, a graduate entrance scholarship, and I just won one this year.

How do I "cope"

When I feel like this I know its time for a break, a little me time if you will. I always try to remind myself that everyone, even profs might have felt like this once in a while. I can't compare myself to others and that this PhD is still a work in progress. I am not going to be perfect in everything I do the first time, but that does NOT mean I don't belong here because I worked so hard to get here. So here is a few things I like to do when these feeling take over:

- Stop working for the day. This is a sign I need a night off of whatever I'm doing to clear my head. I catch up on my favourite shows and snack. Currently I'm watching the Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, it is very good

- I LOVE makeup. Watching videos of people reviewing makeup, tutorials, doing my own make up etc.

- Doing my nice long skin care routine. This involves masks, oils, serums, a variety of creams, and cleansers. This might sound silly but it just completely changes my mood.

- Cooking. I like to experiment cooking new things so I'll find a recipe in one of my books and try it. When I'm cooking its hard to concentrate on other things so I can usually forget about those feelings

- Reading a good book. I love reading books about space and astronomy. I'd still like to think that one day I will be an astronaut and can go to the moon. It's nice for me because it is still scientific but it is not in my field so I can remove myself from my work but still stay immersed in science. I'm currently reading Death by Black Hole and other Cosmic Quandries by Neil deGrasse Tyson

I hope sharing my experiences and coping mechanisms help someone else share and normalize these feelings since they are so common.

Do you feel impostor syndrome? How do you deal with it? Let me know, if you have any suggestions on how to better deal with these feelings.


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