I’m a Scientist… But Wait, Am I?

An orange kitten looking into a mirror and seeing a lion.

Feeling like a fraud is a phenomenon than can affect people from all walks of life. In fact, it’s so common that it has its own name: impostor syndrome. Look online for information and you’ll find definitions, self-help articles, ted talks, and more. It’s a concept we’re all familiar with yet most refrain from identifying themselves as such due to the vulnerabilities that come with. A study at the University of California at Berkeley found that 10% of graduate and professional students had contemplated suicide. A study done ten years later at the same institution found that 47% of PhD students were clinically depressed, while that number dropped to 37% for master’s students.

With such high rates of mental illness in graduate students, the dialog surrounding mental health issues in higher education needs to improve. The fact is most if not all of us feel like a fraud from time to time, and many of us are suffering from depression and anxiety as a result.

Many definitions of imposter syndrome attribute it solely to high-achieving individuals. It’s easy to forget that pursuing a higher education is in itself an accomplishment and that your self-worth isn’t solely based on this alone.

In the spirit of being vulnerable, I have to admit I have had my own struggles with anxiety. I entered grad school after college with a love of science and curiosity for the world. Many times it crossed my mind that they made a mistake accepting me, that I just somehow slipped through the cracks. The energy I have unwillingly put into worrying about things I cannot control has been exhausting, as I know it is for many other graduate students.

As scholars and teachers, we can start to change the climate that promotes mental illness in higher education. Graduate school is a time to learn, to become an expert in your field. Making sure criticism is constructive, supporting your peers, and realizing that everyone comes from different walks of life is a good place to start. We are not imposters, we are high achievers always looking to improve and grow.

In the wise words of comedian Amy Poehler, "You will never climb career mountain and get to the top and shout, I made it! You will rarely feel done or complete or even successful. Most people I know struggle with that complicated soup of feeling slighted on one hand and like a total fraud on the other." So know that you are in good company and lean on each other when you’re feeling like a fraud because you’re not, and it’s always comforting to know you’re not alone.