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You Didn’t Get Dumber, You Just Went to Grad School

As we begin the second month of the semester here at MSP, and as I get to know my new PsyD advisees better, I am reminded of the beginning of my own educational journey. Or, perhaps I should say “beginnings,” as there have been a few! I am reminded of what it feels like to be a new student, and what it feels like and means to adopt a new identity of “master’s student” or “doctoral student.” As the anxiety and excitement of the orientation process begin to subside, a new concern arises: imposter syndrome.

Imposter syndrome, or the tendency for graduate students to begin to engage in self-doubt and question their abilities. The experience of imposter syndrome is mark by the questioning of one’s abilities, believing one was “lucky” to receive (rather than earn) a passing grade, feelings of worry that faculty will “realize they’ve made a mistake by granting me admission into the program,” and believing one’s peers are intellectually superior to oneself.

One might be led to believe that such a syndrome is rare or that those who experience such self-doubt are somehow unwell or irrational; however, it is quiet common for graduate students (especially doctoral students) to report signs of imposter syndrome. What causes otherwise healthy, successful, rational individuals to believe they do not possess the requisite skills and talents to progress through their graduate programs? While some have suggested that gender plays a key role, others have suggested the abstract nature of graduate training are partially responsible. What I have come to believe, however, is that the previous successes of graduate students play a role.

In social psychology, we accept that people are always placing themselves into categories and engaging in comparisons of the self-to-others (i.e., “Social Comparison Theory”). I suggest that because graduate students have often stood out from their classmates, their success and “high achiever” identity becomes a foundation for other aspects of identity. However, in graduate programs, because most (if not all) students have a history of success, being a high achiever is no longer a distinctive trait. Furthermore, because bright individuals are often interested in studying various sub-disciplines within a field or who have had different preparatory training, they may know more than what is offered in a textbook, article, or lecture on a topic. It is easy to become intimidated by the knowledge of one’s peers. For perhaps the first time, high achieving students come to realize that they are among many who have specialized knowledge. What these students may fail to realize is that they, too, come to the educational environment with a unique set of talents, knowledge, and abilities!

What is one to do when everyone seems so smart! Here are 5 things graduate students can do to combat imposter syndrome:

  1. One of the most helpful (and possibly one of the hardest) steps students can take is to talk to their advisors about their fears about succeeding in graduate school. While it may seem like calling attention to your perceived inadequacies, you may be surprised to learn that your advisor not only understands what you are experiencing, but may have had similar feelings in the past!
  2. Start a discussion with your classmates. You are not the only high achieving person who now finds himself, herself, or zirself in a group of high achievers and you are not the only one experiencing self-doubt or other signs of imposter syndrome. Talking with students further along in the program is also a good idea. They have been where you are!
  3. I am not saying faculty never make mistakes – we do; but trust that granting you admission into your respective program of study was not one of them! You were selected from a pool of applicants because of your strong educational background, your passion for learning, and your potential to make contributions to the field and to society. Remind yourself that you are talented, knowledgeable, and skilled in many areas!
  4. Don’t take feedback too personally, and remember, the paper you submit is not you! Students are sometimes surprised at how much feedback graduate level faculty provide. We provide this feedback to help you grow as a writer, assist you in developing critical thinking skills, and challenge you to engage in self-reflection or independently pursue further knowledge about a topic. It is not that your paper/exam/project was bad, it means we see areas for continued growth. Also remember that just because we see areas for growth does not mean we don’t already appreciate you as a person!
  5. Approach learning with curiosity and know that it is okay to not know everything. You are starting a new journey and you will learn what you need to know along the way. When peers or faculty are engaging in a discussion about a topic you know little about, ask questions! Your faculty and peers enjoy being able to contribute to your personal and professional growth just like you enjoy contributing to theirs!


Dustin Shepler, PhD psychology associate

By: Dustin K. Shepler, PhD, Core Faculty at MSP