“You’re not qualified enough to be in this degree program. You don’t belong in this office. People won’t take you seriously in class. The only reason you got offered this job is luck.”
These are just some of the thoughts that ran through my mind both when I started my first full-time role in higher education two and half years ago as well as my graduate program in student affairs last year, and they have continued to crop up throughout my academic and professional career. As a first-generation female-identifying student coming from a low-income background, I have often doubted my sense of belonging in academic and professional spaces despite the previous successes I’ve encountered in those realms. Clinical psychologists Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes defined this phenomenon of self-doubt and insecurity as imposter syndrome, and research has shown that these feelings are more likely to occur among people taking on new ventures in life (Weir, 2013) - for example, graduate students and new professionals. First-generation students and people of color in higher education are particularly affected by imposter syndrome (Gardner & Holley, 2011; Ewing, Richardson, James-Myers, & Russell, 1996), and while there is not a one-size-fits-all approach to combating it, I have found the following strategies helpful in graduate school and my workplace.
Recognize your own imposter syndrome and use it to connect with your peers, coworkers, and students:
In a one-on-one meeting, a young doctoral student in the department where I work disclosed their concern over not being able to keep up with their older and more educated peers in class discussions. After listening to and validating their concerns, I took the opportunity to talk about the imposter syndrome I’ve also experienced in the classroom to show the student that they are not alone. It’s important to note that being vulnerable in this way may not be possible for everyone depending on both the context and the marginalized identities one holds. However, if you are in a space where you feel able to do so, it can be helpful to be open about the difficulties you may be facing with imposter syndrome, not just as a way for you to process your own thoughts and emotions but also for others who may be experiencing similar difficulties.
Reframe what makes you feel like an imposter to take ownership of your own narrative:
In my conversation with the student mentioned above, I noted how their age doesn’t have to be something they’re insecure about but instead can be proud of, as it speaks to the strength of their application that they beat out older individuals with multiple degrees in securing admittance to a doctoral program. Likewise, despite the lack of social capital my first-generation identity affords me and the very real challenges I have faced because of it, I can take pride in what I’ve been able to accomplish and the resilience I’ve gained through being first-gen. Often times the identities that cause us to feel like imposters are approached from a deficit model, but reframing them as strengths can be a powerful way to take control of our own narratives and develop more confidence in our own abilities, especially in academic and professional spaces.
Identify your support system:
As some researchers have found, imposter syndrome can correlate with perfectionism (Corkingdale, 2008), which is something I struggled with as a new professional afraid to make mistakes as I learned the ropes of my job. However, I was fortunate enough to be mentored by a mid-level coworker who never made me feel inadequate or inferior just because I was new. It is a relief to know that when imposter emotions make me feel out of place at work events, there is always at least one friendly face I can turn to for support. Identifying these individuals in one’s academic and professional journeys is often an integral part of how we keep ourselves going when we experience self-doubt that would otherwise hold us back from striving for the promotions, raises, and overall successes that are in our reach.
I’m not sure if I will ever fully overcome my imposter syndrome, especially as I seek to transition into higher-level positions and potentially a doctoral program down the line that will undoubtedly continue to test my feelings of inadequacy in the stratified environment that is higher education. However, even if those feelings never completely go away, learning how to navigate my imposter syndrome and practice self-care has allowed me to at least distinguish between normal insecurities and unwarranted ones so I can challenge the latter and prevent them from getting in the way of my future success and happiness.
Corkingdale, Gill. (2008). Overcoming imposter syndrome. Harvard Business Review. Retrieved
Ewing, K. M., Richardson, T. Q., James-Myers, L., & Russell, R. K. (1996). The relationship
between racial identity attitudes, worldview, and African American graduate students’ experience of the imposter phenomenon. Journal of Black Psychology, 22(1), 53–66. https://doi.org/10.1177/00957984960221005
Gardner, S. K., & Holley, K. A. (2011). “Those invisible barriers are real”: The progression of
first-generation students through doctoral education. Equity & Excellence in Education, 44:1, 77-92, DOI: 10.1080/10665684.2011.529791
Weir, K. (2013). Feel like a fraud? American Psychological Association. Retrieved from
Tara Hardy (she/her/hers) works in graduate student services at New York University, where she is also pursuing her master’s degree in Higher Education & Student Affairs. She is a member of the 2019-2020 NASPA Graduate Associate Program cohort and a proud first-generation student. Her areas of interest include academic advising, college access, and diversity, equity, and inclusion in higher education. She lives in Brooklyn, NY and can be reached at [email protected].