I'm An Imposter Just Like You

By: Josh Mesfin

Person 1: “Oh god, I’m so tired. I have to help my group finish this final project report in a couple of days, but I need to finish looking into a couple of different molecular targets for a meeting tomorrow.”
Person 2: “Oh dang, that sucks. I need to also grade these homeworks by the end of the week and start prepping slides for my lab meeting. I only slept 5 hours last night, but somehow I feel great.”
Person 3: “Rip, yeah my team is doing our project on computationally modeling the population of certain immune cells after being infected with the common cold and tracking how different strains affect those populations. We got the code running in one shot yesterday so all we need to do is just do the write up. Not sure if that’s enough to do well on the final project though so we were thinking of also modeling the flu as well.”
Me, internally: Fuck, I feel like I need to be doing more. Everyone’s doing so much more than me and I feel like I have so much less on my plate. I kinda gotta run some experiments later myself, but damn, maybe I should take on more responsibilities.
Me, externally: “Yeah, same. i got so much to do. I’m like running on 4 hours of sleep for the 3rd day in a row, got a bunch of meetings to attend and also run a couple of assays for the next 5 weeks.

Weirdly enough, this kind of banter has been in my daily life for more than eight years now (you ask me about my experiences at an all-boys high school on the Upper East Side in Manhattan another time). Even though these conversations happen so often in my life (and probably yours as well), I can’t help but just leave those conversations slightly more anxious.

I shouldn’t excuse myself; I’m also guilty of contributing to those conversations. I constantly find myself saying things along the line of what Persons 1, 2, 3 said,. I now realize I do this partly as a way to vent about me feeling OVERWHELMED, but also because I constantly feel the Imposter’s Syndrome. Everyone is aware of this, especially if you’re in grad school, but if you’re not, it’s the feeling of self-doubt and sense of feeling like a fraud. And the wild part is: it’s super easy to feel like an imposter because of the amount of talented people surrounding you.

Now you might be saying, “Well, how do I stop feeling inadequate? Get to the life lesson here, Josh.” Obviously, as a grad student, I know I have a lot on my plate already and I try to focus on my own problems and tasks. Unfortunately, I don’t have an answer to cure your Imposter’s Syndrome, but I do have a couple of solutions that I’ve tried with extremely varying success.

One answer could be to remove yourself from those conversations and limit the amount of conversations involving comparing work. I tried this at one point, but then people keep on finding you anyway to converse and compare workloads, found it was a touchy subject to vent about work, or talk about work in any way. This approach led me more towards general isolation, which wasn’t good for my mental health because I love talking with other people. Another answer would be directly admitting you’re an imposter to everyone you know and indulging in self-deprecating behavior. This is satisfying in lowering the expectations for you (if they actually believe you) and seem like you’re telling jokes (but actually telling how you feel) so this can just really confuse everyone. Up to you if you think this is entirely a good idea, but I’m a fan of self-deprecatory humor. Or, you can use those feelings to fuel you into being more productive and determining your self-worth. This was a high-risk, high reward idea for me when I tried it, because I definitely had more productive days, but once I accomplished my goals, it didn’t alleviate the Imposter’s Syndrome.

Unfortunately, fighting Imposter’s Syndrome is hard because we always feel like we’re comparing ourselves to our peers and we constantly are trying to prove something to them, like intelligence, competition, and so on. Maybe the comparisons and the Imposter’s Syndrome will never stop. But, when it comes again, you can be ready to fight your Imposter’s Syndrome.

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