Imposter Syndrome: Balancing Personal versus Academic Identity

I’ve heard the term “Imposter Syndrome” since the first semester that I arrived on IUB’s campus as a Ph.D. student. Essentially, “imposter syndrome” references the tendency that most faculty and students develop to perform their knowledge and proficiency in subjects of interest. It seems that “imposter syndrome” can even be performed involuntarily, with some prospective and new graduate students adopting this persistent intellectual performance in order to validate their presence in their respective programs to their faculty and peers.

My personal identity is not one that is rooted in ego, or the necessity to always be right. However, when I first began my graduate experience as a Ph.D. student, I felt the need to come up with something “smart” to say in my core classes with peers in order to please the professor, and to also prove that I had earned the right to be amongst the best and the brightest minds that surrounded me everyday. It was taxing and exhausting to say the least after the first year of doing it, and I realized that I needed to work on blending my personal identity with my academic identity more thereafter.

The truth is, many prospective and new graduate students are tempted to “prove” themselves and perform their intellect as soon as they arrive in their departments. But, what if each of us, the best and bright minds who earned acceptance into our programs, decided to celebrate the transitional moments and learning curves that come with beginning a graduate program? What if we dared to answer, “I don’t know the answer to that, but I’ll look into it,” instead of “Well, if you consider…or insert author once said”? Don’t get me wrong, I strongly encourage everyone who knows a little bit about something or everything to share their knowledge, so we all can become better informed from it. As a tidbit though, as I’ve learned, you don’t have to start off as the “know-it-all” scholar in your programs, because most people have the same questions as you do, or at minimum hold similar anxieties about starting something new with new people.

I firmly believe that we become better learners when we decide that a good source for knowledge is important, even if that source is not us. Remaining teachable and authentic as a person will take you far beyond your graduate degree. And sometimes wisdom and temperament are more important to demonstrate on a regular basis than knowledge.