I’m going to let you in on a secret: I’m a total imposter. I was admitted to MIT even though I’m not nearly as smart, driven, or successful as any of my peers. I can only tell you this now because I’ve passed my qualifying exams, so they can’t kick me out now. Although I can’t be sure, I believe there may be a few other imposters out there as well. So, if you find yourself admitted to an MIT graduate program even though you think you don’t belong, here are a few tips to make it through the next few years so you can swindle a PhD from one of the greatest universities in the world.
1. Answer the few questions you can in class (it’ll fool the non-imposters into thinking you know all the answers too)
So, you’re in class — surrounded by your genius peers — and the professor asks a question that you can barely even comprehend. One of the prodigies in your class raises their hand and answers the question in stride. You think: “Wow, it’s amazing that all of my peers know the answers to these seemingly impossible questions”. Or maybe it’s possible that your peers have a massive set of collective knowledge and that perhaps just one person's expertise aligns with this question?
You know how this works: everyone knows all the answers, but most of them don’t respond. This keeps the professor from being confused by too many raised hands. It must be that for each question that comes through, the non-imposters randomly select a different person to answer, so that the lecture can continue on.
So how do you fool them into thinking you also know all the answers? The trick is to wait until a question comes through that you comprehend (it may be a very long time considering you’re in an MIT graduate course and you’re a complete dolt). However, when that question finally comes around, make sure to raise your hand high and answer it as coherently as you can. The non-imposters will look at you and think: “Oh hey! They know all the answers too! They’ve just been pretending to be stupid!”
You’ve done it.
2. Ask questions when you don’t understand something (it humors the non-imposters)
So, you’re having a conversation with one of your brainiac peers, and they say something that you don’t quite understand. Sure, this lack of comprehension could be due to the fact that you may have had a brief lapse in concentration. Or maybe the person you’re talking to might have a different background, and they explained the concept poorly?
You didn’t understand because you’re some sort of halfwit who is completely outclassed by their peers. You should really be instantly comprehending everything said to you by people who have spent years deeply studying their incredibly niche subjects.
So how do you get through this without revealing that you’re an imposter? It may be tempting to let this moment pass and shy away from further conversation on the subject, but you cannot do that. You must assimilate some of their ideas, so that you can continue to fool the non-imposters. You may feel that asking for clarification might illuminate the fact that you’re a total idiot, but your peers won’t even care! Instead, they are often delighted at the opportunity to expound their ideas in greater depth and in different ways. So, don’t let those moments go by. Ask your idiotic questions. You’ll be smarter because of it, and the non-imposters will be able to entertain themselves.
3. Talk about these feelings to people (you may find an underground clan of fellow imposters)
This one is the most important. It’s very alienating to be the only imposter in a room of non-imposters. So, about a year into my PhD, I admitted to a few close friends that I was a total imposter. Amazingly enough, they didn’t recoil at my admission. Instead, they all confided that they were imposters as well! They had all felt some of the same feelings of inadequacy: “Why can’t I answer this question?”, “Why can’t I comprehend this concept as quickly as others?”.
Realizing I wasn’t the only imposter out there was incredibly comforting. Given that these feelings of inadequacy must be incredibly rare across MIT students, I consider myself lucky to have stumbled upon other imposters in my close friend group.
But on the rare chance that we’re not the only imposters at MIT, here’s some of our advice to other imposters out there. Don’t feel bad when your peers collectively know more than you. Don’t be afraid to stop and ask questions when something goes over your head. And most importantly, don’t keep these feelings to yourself. If you talk about them with your peers, you may be lucky enough to find your own community of fellow imposters.