and the Graduate
Youngah (Karen) Kwon, Ph.D.
candidate, Department of Chemistry,
When I first entered my Ph.D. program, I noticed that most
of the other students there were from
prominent schools, had impressive
research experience, or both. Not only
that, everyone except me looked and
sounded like they knew far more about
chemistry and research than I did.
Even though I had extensive research
experience and a list of published
papers to back it up, I felt like the
dumbest one out of the bunch. I started
to doubt myself and think that the
program must have made a mistake
in picking me, and that I’d somehow
fooled them into thinking I’m qualified.
It was only later that I learned this
feeling had a name: “impostor syndrome.” The term was coined by Pauline
Clance and Suzanne Imes, appearing
first in their 1978 journal paper, “The
Imposter Phenomenon in High Achieving Women: Dynamics and Therapeutic
Intervention.” They documented that a
lot of the women they studied felt like
frauds in their positions, thinking they
were there because of luck or a mistake.
Traditionally women, people of color,
and first-generation college students
have been known to suffer more from
the consequences of this “internal ex-
perience of intellectual phoniness” than
others, although recent studies suggest
that both women and men experience
impostor syndrome equally. As graduate
students living in the in-between stage
of learning and professional develop-
ment, it certainly seems as though we
are more susceptible than we might be
at other times. Here, I am going to talk
about my own experience of feeling like
a fraud, how impostor syndrome can
impact your life, and how to combat it.
Impostor Syndrome Is More
Common Than You Think
When I first started to feel like I was not
cut out for the program I am in now, I
tried to hide the inadequacy I was feeling.
But then, as I talked to my peers whom
I trusted, I realized that I wasn’t the only
one who felt this way. I even got an e-mail
from my school’s Women in Science
group promoting a seminar on fighting
impostor syndrome. That’s when I learned
that what I was experiencing had a name.
When I showed up for the seminar, I saw
that the room was packed with graduate
students feeling the same way I did.
Just realizing that the problem is
common to many people can help you
combat it. According to a 1985 survey,
about 70 percent of people experience
impostor syndrome at some point or
another in their lives. A lot of success-
ful people have also admitted to having
suffered from it. The list includes former
First Lady Michelle Obama, actress
Emma Watson, and Supreme Court
Justice Sonia Sotomayor. One Pulitzer
winner recently told me that he, too, suf-
fers from the phenomenon, even since
winning the prize. This means that it
is not an actual inadequacy or lack of
achievement that causes someone to feel
like an impostor.
As a graduate student, it is totally ok
if you feel inadequate. You’re just beginning your journey as an academic and
a researcher. Even though your peers
seem more advanced and qualified than
you are, I bet most of them, too, feel
insecure. Remember, you’re a beginner.
You’re in graduate school to learn.
Impostor Syndrome Can Hurt
When I first joined my research group,
I felt like I knew nothing. I couldn’t
follow the progress of the project or
understand the papers that I was supposed to digest, as they were in an area
I was not familiar with. However, I was
too ashamed to admit my ignorance to
anyone and too afraid to ask questions,
thinking that others would assume I
was not smart enough. So I thought to
myself, “I’m going to start asking questions once I’m all caught up with the
studying.” Of course, that moment never
came because I lagged even farther behind from not getting the help I needed.
The belief that we are inadequate
can actually make us that way, as it can
prevent us from asking questions and
thus take away our learning opportunities, making impostor syndrome an
actual self-fulfilling prophecy. A bit of
a self-doubt doesn’t hurt anyone, as it
leads to being well-prepared for upcoming tasks such as exams. However, since
feeling as if we don’t really belong where
we are makes us worry too much about
being exposed as an intellectual fraud—
and sometimes leads to procrastination
or perfectionism—it prevents graduate
students from actually getting the job
done or taking chances when the opportunity presents itself.
In hindsight, I regret all the opportunities for growth I have missed.