Impostor Syndrome

  • This has become our largest and most active forum because the physics GRE is just one aspect of getting accepted into a graduate physics program.
  • There are applications, personal statements, letters of recommendation, visiting schools, anxiety of waiting for acceptances, deciding between schools, finding out where others are going, etc.

dak213
Posts: 11
Joined: Sat Sep 27, 2014 2:17 pm

Impostor Syndrome

Postby dak213 » Tue Mar 03, 2015 12:05 pm

I am wondering if anyone else has had any troubles with this throughout their undergrad or even grad years. I have suffered from anxiety/depression ever since high school and have always been a bit of a perfectionist, but it has been coupled with a lot of trouble focusing enough to really do well (I have only recently been diagnosed with ADD, even though I don't like to tell people about it because taking adderall feels like "cheating" to me). I had a lot of trouble transitioning to college after high school and severe depression sort of took over and I took a year off. It ended up being a good thing in the end because I don't think I would have been as motivated to do well had I not returned with a blank slate, but I still have a lot of anxiety about my degree. I know that I am intelligent and capable and I interact really well with other people, but I feel like I'm just not smart enough most of the time. All of the friends I've made (really really great people) in my classes are so much smarter than I am and I feel like they have accomplished so much more. They always had to help me with homework and concepts from class and I would feel very inadequate.

I graduated and took another year off because I really wasn't sure if I could do it but after starting up with a therapist and doing some more research I really couldn't bring myself to just give up after working so hard. I know that my grades are pretty good since I made Dean's list every semester but my physics and math classes all pretty much hovered around 3.6. I never got below a 3.0 in a physics class but I feel like it's mostly because my friends helped me out and I had a grad student as a tutor. I also took electives that were not in the physics/math area. I could have taken upper level physics and math but I also wanted to learn other things so I took organic chemistry with the lab along with a few other things. Actually, since being diagnosed with ADD and seeing a psychologist and exercising, I am able to focus on studying much more and I actually learn things on my own and understand my undergrad courses a lot better now (but obviously that doesn't show up in my transcripts).

I guess the biggest problem is that I know I can be a great grad student and I really like to do research and even teach as a TA (I actually learn much better by teaching and researching), but I feel like I look like a failure on paper. My PGRE and GRE scores are actually crap, more of that standardized test anxiety stuff, and I know it's what killed me on most of my applications. I guess I just want to know if anyone else has had feelings like this. I looked it up and apparently it is a thing and it's called impostor syndrome. People will tell you that you're impressive and you work really hard but you can never actually take credit for it and count it as luck and not ability. If anyone else has this, how do you work through it every day and does it ever go away?

Little bit of a side note: basically everyone I know in physics has been exceptional in some way. People would come it with a billion AP credits and double major in math and physics and be at a sophomore level in their first year and be taking differential equations already and I didn't even take calc 1 until my second semester (started out as a completely different major). I really worked my butt off though. I would take the pre-req for a class and the class in the same semester just so I could graduate on time and I also took classes in the summer. I hope that this all counts, but I just feel like the natural intelligence isn't there most of the time and no matter how hard I work and how far I get, one day someone is going to come up to me and tell me I am clearly not as smart as everyone else and I shouldn't be there and then I will be calmly escorted out while everyone else stares at me and thinks to themselves "how did you even get this far?".

PathIntegrals92
Posts: 190
Joined: Tue Oct 07, 2014 12:42 pm

Re: Impostor Syndrome

Postby PathIntegrals92 » Tue Mar 03, 2015 12:24 pm

First look at my profile and look at my previous posts before decisions started coming out. You'll see that I was doubting myself. My gpa is mediocre and my pgre+gre are also mediocre.

Apply smart and you can get in somewhere.

Highlight your strengths! If you don't know what that is, figure it out!

So I realized that I am not so good with timed exams ( my grades were lower in classes that contained those). However, I also realized that I am pretty damn good at physics. My research experiences are very strong despite not having a publication. I have great relationships with my advisors.

You will wonder how do I know my research experience is strong if I don't have a publication? Well I am not a genius and getting a publication ( especially first author) in high energy theory is pretty damn tough. However, I have proven it to my advisors and big shots in the field that I know what I am doing. The point of me telling you this is not to brag, but to tell you my strengths. I have become more confident when I became more aware of my capabilities.

I also took a year off and I took grad level qft at near by University ( top 10). The prof let me and I took the class and did the problems and had fun. I am pointing this out because if you want to boost your confidence in physics then DO PHYSICS. DO research, problems fromr textbooks, talk to physicists, whatever. Oh and I also highlighted that it was a top 10 because I went in thinking i was going to be the dumb person in the class. I wasn't =P. I was just as smart as some of the students, smarter than some, and ofcourse there were students smarter than me. However, it's not about comparing yourself at this point.

When you apply, apply smart! Do not apply to all top 10s etc. I am pretty happy with the offers I have so far and my career goals are different than yours. I also applied to professional master's programs, but no point in talking about that or listing those I guess...


Last thing: If you want to be a physicist, then you HAVE to want it. DO not expect anyone to tell you that "you can do it" every step of the way. It won't happen. So first make sure you really want it. Next, do PHYSICS. Boost your confidence by doing it more and more and more. STOP asking for help everytime you hit an obstacle or get stuck. FIRST, figure it out on your own. That will take some time. If all else fails, then ask for help ( there's nothing wrong with this). Just not all the time.

Edit: Last Last thing. Believe in yourself. You can do it if you really want to.

dak213
Posts: 11
Joined: Sat Sep 27, 2014 2:17 pm

Re: Impostor Syndrome

Postby dak213 » Tue Mar 03, 2015 12:52 pm

PathIntegrals92 wrote:First look at my profile and look at my previous posts before decisions started coming out. You'll see that I was doubting myself. My gpa is mediocre and my pgre+gre are also mediocre.

Apply smart and you can get in somewhere.

Highlight your strengths! If you don't know what that is, figure it out!

So I realized that I am not so good with timed exams ( my grades were lower in classes that contained those). However, I also realized that I am pretty damn good at physics. My research experiences are very strong despite not having a publication. I have great relationships with my advisors.

You will wonder how do I know my research experience is strong if I don't have a publication? Well I am not a genius and getting a publication ( especially first author) in high energy theory is pretty damn tough. However, I have proven it to my advisors and big shots in the field that I know what I am doing. The point of me telling you this is not to brag, but to tell you my strengths. I have become more confident when I became more aware of my capabilities.

I also took a year off and I took grad level qft at near by University ( top 10). The prof let me and I took the class and did the problems and had fun. I am pointing this out because if you want to boost your confidence in physics then DO PHYSICS. DO research, problems fromr textbooks, talk to physicists, whatever. Oh and I also highlighted that it was a top 10 because I went in thinking i was going to be the dumb person in the class. I wasn't =P. I was just as smart as some of the students, smarter than some, and ofcourse there were students smarter than me. However, it's not about comparing yourself at this point.

When you apply, apply smart! Do not apply to all top 10s etc. I am pretty happy with the offers I have so far and my career goals are different than yours. I also applied to professional master's programs, but no point in talking about that or listing those I guess...


Last thing: If you want to be a physicist, then you HAVE to want it. DO not expect anyone to tell you that "you can do it" every step of the way. It won't happen. So first make sure you really want it. Next, do PHYSICS. Boost your confidence by doing it more and more and more. STOP asking for help everytime you hit an obstacle or get stuck. FIRST, figure it out on your own. That will take some time. If all else fails, then ask for help ( there's nothing wrong with this). Just not all the time.

Edit: Last Last thing. Believe in yourself. You can do it if you really want to.



Thanks, I'm glad I'm not the only one who feels like this and I feel like I can get over it. I think I have been getting better especially with doing physics problems and studying on my own over this past year. I definitely didn't apply to all top 10s, I went a more practical route but still threw in a some reach schools. I guess it's just a little disconcerting seeing all the applicant profiles (even though I know I shouldn't be looking at them because only the top-notch people post most of the time). I do want to go to grad school and I want to be a professional and then hopefully encourage other students to boost their confidence. Thanks.

Also, at least I know I'll get farther in life with my people skills than Roberto up there.

TakeruK
Posts: 817
Joined: Mon Jan 02, 2012 3:05 pm

Re: Impostor Syndrome

Postby TakeruK » Tue Mar 03, 2015 12:55 pm

Imposter syndrome is a real thing and it does lessen over time. However, it affects large numbers of academics, especially those who are minorities!

For me, it helps to hear about other people feeling the same way because it reminds me that this is a silly (but real) thing that a lot of people are facing, not just me. It also helps to remind myself that all these impostery feelings are not true and I really do deserve to be here.

Here are some of my experiences with imposter syndrome that I hope will help you too. (By the way, I also had not-so-great PGRE scores..640 and 690 on two tries!).

1. On my first day of grad school (in my first program in 2010), one professor talked to all the new graduate students about their first day as a professor in Canada (they were from the UK). They told us how much they were worried about teaching their very first class and how they practiced and practiced and how they stayed up all night worrying about it. They told us how they felt that they would be a complete failure as a professor and they had no idea why they were hired and that as soon as they tried to teach the first class, the students will "find them out" and the other professors will fire them. Although they didn't say "imposter syndrome", it really resonated with me because I was feeling those exact same feelings starting graduate school for the first time.

From this experience, I learned that, holy crap, this person has a PhD and they are stilled worried about this. I somehow/naively thought professors magically gain the confidence and ability that I've seen in all of my professors. I learned that this feeling is normal and successful academics have it too, so my worries are not well founded, and it does not mean that I am not qualified. Because if you think about it, all the people that supported you and chose you all the way up to now are very smart people.

2. On the visit day for my current PhD school, everyone introduced themselves with their major and undergrad school. This was my very first time setting foot in a top 10/elite program coming from equivalent of second tier state schools. I started feeling very out of place when I heard everyone else mention top 10 schools as their undergrad schools. I thought I would be found out by my peers as someone who didn't belong.

However, when I actually got to know other people, they were very nice and no one thought I didn't belong at all. In addition, it turns out that not that many of my peers were from elite schools. For some reason, I started to internally panic when I started hearing a few school names and then only the top school names stuck out in my head. While a large fraction (around 40%?) were from these schools, my perception was that 90% were from the top schools! I guess this is another case where your mind can play tricks on you and convince you that you don't belong!

3. Finally, another helpful experience was talking to professors at my current grad schools--all people I really look up to and see as leaders in the field. They tell me and/or write about their experiences with imposter syndrome too! I think hearing about other people's experiences really help me understand why I feel this way, why it is "silly" to do so, and really puts things in perspective. That is, these feelings don't stem from actual inability, but because it's a fairly common human reaction to challenges.

From my experience and from talking to others, I think imposter syndrome lessens over time, but not because you do more so that you feel more confident in yourself (obviously if superstar professors have the same feelings, it's not something you just overcome by achieving more). I think we just learn to manage our symptoms/feelings better, and gaining more experience with how we and others deal with it is helpful.

Also, there will be some days where despite all of the above, I still feel like I don't belong. I think everyone has bad days, and they suck but they will eventually pass. Reminding myself of how I got here and doing something fun really helps on these bad days. Sometimes it's hard to realise how much knowledge you really have when you're surrounded by brilliant people too, so I get a lot of motivation from volunteering with outreach projects. It helps gives me a better "big picture" understanding, helps develop my communication abilities, and I feel good from being able to help someone else understand something cool!

PathIntegrals92
Posts: 190
Joined: Tue Oct 07, 2014 12:42 pm

Re: Impostor Syndrome

Postby PathIntegrals92 » Tue Mar 03, 2015 1:48 pm

TakeruK wrote:From this experience, I learned that, holy crap, this person has a PhD and they are stilled worried about this. I somehow/naively thought professors magically gain the confidence and ability that I've seen in all of my professors. I learned that this feeling is normal and successful academics have it too, so my worries are not well founded, and it does not mean that I am not qualified. Because if you think about it, all the people that supported you and chose you all the way up to now are very smart people.



^^ This! + All of TakerUK's post.

I learned this too. Before I always thought I didn't belong. Then I realized my advisors+other profs who have supported are all very smart people too (like TakeruK said). Each of them have faced different struggles to get there. One of my advisor even told me that he had doubted himself three different times (more, but these were relevant to my convo with him). First time when he was applying to grad school, second during grad school, third during post doc, and then he says it still happens now and then.

My other advisor got rejected by all schools, but one! This advisor had a low pgre but otherwise great credentials+, but was applying for hep-th! This advisor initially thought that hep-th might never happen, but it did.

We're not alone. =) I agree that you should talk to more people about how they achieved their goals or did they achieve? You'll learn something cool!

PhysicsIsCool
Posts: 31
Joined: Wed Jan 14, 2015 9:01 pm

Re: Impostor Syndrome

Postby PhysicsIsCool » Tue Mar 03, 2015 6:38 pm

I know how you feel! I spent the first two years of my undergrad extremely depressed (relatively under control now), and although technically my grades were fine, I definitely did not develop as a student or a scientist as I feel like I should have. I don't always have great recall of things I've learned in previous classes, and I have terrible conversation skills.

Even now that I'm about to graduate, I still sometimes feel like I don't deserve the opportunities/scholarships/etc. that I've gotten. The whole "impostor syndrome" thing comes in for me when I compare my CV to how I actually see myself. On paper, I'm successful/accomplished/whatever, but I don't feel like I am. So I feel like I'm lying to everyone because really I cannot be that person I am in my CV.

Although I cannot make these bad feelings about myself go away, I do like the motto "fake it 'til you make it." I don't go around sharing with everyone that I don't think I'm good enough to succeed, and that I don't feel like I deserve the experiences I've had. That would be ridiculous! If other people want to think I'm awesome, that's awesome, and I just will keep working towards feeling like I am the person people see me as!!

Best of luck to you :D lock those impostor feelings in a box and go be the awesome physicist you are!

dak213
Posts: 11
Joined: Sat Sep 27, 2014 2:17 pm

Re: Impostor Syndrome

Postby dak213 » Tue Mar 31, 2015 11:56 am

Thanks for the replies, everyone. I just need to get through the rest of these next couple of months. The feelings I've had have been multiplying since submitting my applications and receiving rejections. I applied to more than 10 schools and have been rejected from nearly all of them, except my undergraduate institution. I knew a few schools would be reaches, so it was not terribly upsetting to see the emails from them, but as the weeks went on and I received more and more rejections, I just started to feel worse. I expected to get into at lease one non-safety school. I didn't think my credentials were all that bad either. I've had a few research positions, including an REU, a great senior thesis project, and a pretty decent GPA. But every time I look at the accomplishments of those who have been accepted to the same schools I applied to, my accomplishments pale in comparison. It looks like I should have done more research and tried for better grades, more scholarships (only one small one for research), and taken more physics/math classes. Now I am wondering if I should just stay at my undergrad and get a masters or if I am even capable of making it through grad school. I'm afraid I'll fail miserably and I'm just fooling myself for even trying. It's only more disappointing because going into this, I really thought I could be a fantastic grad student and that it showed in my applications, but these rejections are just telling me that I'm just not smart enough.
There is a very small part of me that is holding out hope for the two schools I have yet to hear from, but the rest of me is, of course, just thinking that I'm not even worth sending a rejection email to.

uhurulol
Posts: 79
Joined: Wed Aug 27, 2014 12:38 am

Re: Impostor Syndrome

Postby uhurulol » Tue Mar 31, 2015 4:35 pm

Hey Dak,

First and foremost, let me just tell you that you're not alone---not in the slightest. In reading your post, I couldn't help but think that if I replaced a few words here and there it'd essentially be a perfect description of myself. You can look up my profile if you want more details, but I'll give you the gist here: 500 PGRE (9%), 155 Q (60%), and a 3.11 GPA (3.22 PHY). Clearly not a strong profile on paper. I know I could have tried a bit harder to get better grades, but I've also struggled with very bad ADD throughout my entire education, and, like you, I thought that medication was cheating. I didn't start adderall until this (my final) semester, and that was only because I'm in 6 classes + 2 research projects, and I knew I couldn't keep being ignorant of my disability. I know I'm a smart guy, smarter than your average college student for sure, but everyone has their own struggle and focusing on my homework/studying has been mine.

Just the same as you, I'm surrounded by students who are your typical "achievers." I suppose those are the students that the physics major tends to attract. They all have great grades, and many of my good friends are doing an honors thesis, which is something I didn't even know existed when I came to this school. Still, I busted my ass to find research opportunities, and in doing so I found two research experiences in the field I want to be in (astronomy) that have been incredibly helpful to me as an aspiring scientist. Most importantly, both of my advisors seem to believe in me and my ability. Every time I get down on myself about my future, or the fact that I'm swimming in rejections right now, I think about the work I've done and how proud I am of it, and how good my research has made me feel. Nobody wants to do hours of QM problem sets (well, maybe some people do). We're all in this for the research, not for the coursework. I've spent many nights procrastinating my problem sets and instead sitting around playing video games, and then being depressed that I wasted all of my time, which only further inhibited my motivation to do my coursework. It's a vicious cycle.

Because of all this, I've struggled with depression myself---sometimes it's so severe that I don't even want to get out of bed. There are nights (even weeks) where I wonder if I am one of those "imposters" you describe. Someone who has just ridden the coattails of smarter men and women up until now. But all I have to do is open up the PDF file for my most recent poster, or open up the LaTeX file for the paper I'm working on (it's pretty much already been accepted), and I think to myself "this is work that I did." Surely I didn't do it alone, and without my advisors and colleagues I wouldn't be where I am right now, but there is work in each of these projects that I actually did myself that contributed to our progress. And when I'm doing that work, there's no greater feeling in the world. Even when it's just overcoming one nasty bug in a code that's kept me up for a couple of hours, it feels great. It feels like you've achieved something, because you're working on a problem that you can't just Google the answer to. It's what being a scientist is all about, and from my research experiences I've learned that I have what it takes to do that work. I can be rigorous and strict about what I claim to be a result, and I can use my intuition as a physicist to solve problems that nobody has solved before. So what if I don't have great scores? I'm not publishing a paper on my PGRE results, or how I got into a good school on my first application cycle. The same goes for every aspiring physicist. You're doing what you have to do to become something better, to become a mind in our society that brings advancement to our understanding of the world around us. Don't feel downtrodden if you can't find the center of mass of a weirdly shaped object in under 1.7 minutes. That's not what this is all about.

To close, and sort of sum things up, it's not unusual to feel the way you do, but it is unnecessary. Those kids who are "smarter" than you in your classes---I'm sure they have the same dumb questions you do. They're probably just afraid to ask them. I realized this when I started asking those dumb questions in class and in study groups, and all of those students I thought were "smarter" didn't have an answer either. I'm feeling pretty glum right now about receiving rejections on nearly all of my applications and only waitlists on the others, but there's always next year. You're in it for the long-haul now, and my recommendation is that you keep at it. If you love doing research as you say you do in your original post, then this is where you're meant to be. The profiles on this website can be really intimidating---just remember, the fraction of the graduate applicant population seen on this website is not an accurate representation of the entire pool. It's mostly the biggest achievers that spend the time posting on forums like this. Don't be fooled into comparing yourself to the profiles you see here. You just have to do what it takes to make your next step, but before you know it the hardest part will be behind you. Keep at it, and always believe in yourself.

If you ever wish to speak privately with someone to whom you can relate, please shoot me a message. I'm in an even crummier situation than you are, and it's always good to know that you're not alone. We're scientists, and we all look out for each other.

danterafaal
Posts: 3
Joined: Sat Mar 28, 2015 2:46 pm

Re: Impostor Syndrome

Postby danterafaal » Tue Mar 31, 2015 8:07 pm

Hey Dak,

I just wanted to say thanks for being brave enough to post this. I am definitely going through the same thing right now; I actually joined this forum because I don't know what to do. I applied to 10 schools and got rejected from all of them except one that only offered me an unpaid masters program. I am pretty much feeling like a moron right now...

I don't have a lot of options, but what I do know is I'm not going to give up. I'm not doing physics because I'm necessarily good at it; I'm doing physics because I love it. For me, the most important thing is that you enjoy yourself most of the time. It's always good to want to excel at something, but it is another thing entirely to make your supposed "success/failure" at physics the whole basis for your self-worth. I used to be that way in undergrad, I felt like a complete failure as a person if my grades weren't up to my standard (which was arbitrary). At the end of your life would you rather be the person who thinks they are the smartest or the person who says, "I had an awesome time in life"?

If you truly love doing physics then keep doing it!




Return to “Prospective Physics Graduate Student Topics”

Who is online

Users browsing this forum: Google Adsense [Bot] and 1 guest