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  • Writer's pictureIsabelle Johnsen

Applicant or Imposter? Experiencing imposter syndrome during graduate applications

Today, I want to discuss something extremely relevant to graduate school applications: imposter syndrome. Although to an outsider, it might not seem like imposter syndrome is sometimes a part of graduate applications. However, if you are writing apps yourself, you know how hard it is not to compare yourself to all those all-star Einsteins that we imagine our co-applicants to be. From my experience and listening to other graduate students who went through the application process, I know how imposter syndrome can negatively affect your mental health during app season and sometimes even negatively impact your statements. As someone struggling with this, now might be a good time to pass on more information and resources.

The term imposter syndrome refers to a pattern of self-doubt amongst individuals "who fail to internalize their accomplishments, experience persistent and unmerited self-doubt, and fear being recognized as an imposter" (ASU 2022). It's widely prevalent in higher education (ASU 2022). Natural transitions can trigger it in an academic career, for example, from a master's student to a Ph.D. applicant (Waterloo 2012). Feelings associated with imposter syndrome include self-doubt, fear of being found out, difficulty taking credit for your accomplishments, frustration with the inability to meet self-standards, and lack of confidence (Waterloo 2012). Several suggested strategies for managing imposter syndrome symptoms emphasize recognizing your accomplishments and practicing self-forgiveness.

Some of my favorite tips to overcome imposter syndrome include:

  1. Identify your thoughts: when do you feel like an imposter? Why do you feel that way? (University of Michigan 2022). Catching these negative thought patterns and recognizing them is the first step to stopping them!

  2. Recognize when it’s normal to feel like a fraud (Waterloo 2012). This is a huge one for people applying to PhDs because, most likely, you have already fantasized about what it is like to have a Ph.D. and idolized people who already had them. It’s common to compare self-critiqued versions of ourselves and hold them up to the pedestal we put other researchers on. Still, we have to remember they are human, just like us!

  3. Try to separate feelings from facts… everyone feels stupid from time to time. Just because you feel stupid doesn't mean you are stupid (Waterloo 2012).

  4. Reward yourself and celebrate your accomplishments (Waterloo 2012).

  5. Talk to other students; it is likely they are feeling the same way (University of Michigan 2022).

  6. Reframe failure as an opportunity to learn, grow, and improve (University of Michigan 2022)!

My experience with Imposter Syndrome

Imposter syndrome is something I struggle with daily in multiple facets of my life. As a Ph.D. applicant, every once in a while, I find myself thinking, "who am I to apply to a Ph.D." or "why would they ever pick me compared to all the other applicants." Ironically, I even got imposter syndrome writing this blog and thought, "Well, who the heck am I to discuss imposter syndrome." Sometimes I feel like a fraud posting TikTok's discussing the field and think, "who am I to talk about archeology on a public platform?". However, when I feel like this, I try to remind myself that I don't have to be the "best" to be qualified or for my voice to matter. I don't have to be at the top of the class to be prepared for a Ph.D. I don't have to be an imposter syndrome expert to share my experience with it. And finally, I realized that my voice isn't valuable because of my medals and honors; instead, it's valuable because I am being honest about my experiences as I go through them. Also, I realized that just because I experience imposter syndrome doesn't make me less of an archeologist. Reminding myself of this shift in perspective and practicing self-forgiveness has improved my imposter syndrome effects, even if they haven't disappeared. With time, experience, and growth in my confidence, I know it will continue to improve.

More Resources


APA. “Grad Students with Impostor Feelings Speak Out.” Https://Www.Apa.Org.

ASU. “Best Practice: Developing Resilience and Overcoming Imposter Syndrome | Graduate College.” .

Healthline. 2021. “Imposter Syndrome: What It Is & How to Overcome It.” Healthline.

University of Michigan. “Graduate Students - Imposter Syndrome | U-M Counseling and Psychological Services.” .

University of Waterloo. 2012. “Impostor Phenomenon and Graduate Students.” Centre for Teaching Excellence.

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Very insightful. Thanks for sharing!


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