At this time two years ago, I was considering not applying to graduate school.
That is not to say I did not want to go to graduate school. On the contrary, the better part of me wanted to go to graduate school to mentor students through teaching and research while earning the qualifications to do it even more in the future. But there was another part, mean and lurking, and it would whisper:
“How presumptuous of you.”
“You do not have what it takes.”
“What difference do you think you could make?”
That year, a struggle ensued. I would stand in front of my advisor’s door, and my hand would not knock. Professors would ask me about my plans after graduation, and the words I wanted to say would not come out. Every day I had a half-dozen windows and documents open - “personalstatement1”, “lettersofrec_emails.docx”, “gradschoolappnotes.xlsx” – and the cursors would blink and blink without moving.
“Impostor syndrome” describes a mindset of self-doubt and a lack of belief in one’s own accomplishments. It can be accompanied by a fear of being exposed as an intellectual “fraud”. Several other graduate blog writers have shared their insights about navigating impostor syndrome as students at MIT. As testified by the “whispers” above, for me, these feelings existed before I even arrived here. I was hit hardest at the time when I needed confidence to succeed; a time when I needed faith in my accomplishments and the ability to sell them.
There are people like you here
One night I came across a profile of the late MIT biologist Susan Lindquist’s journey through graduate school. “I didn’t even tell my friends I applied to these schools because I thought it was so presumptuous,” she wrote. My eyes froze on that last word. And it occurred to me that if people like that could thrive at graduate school and beyond, then I could belong, too.
Starting my doctoral degree at MIT has introduced me to the thrill of breathing exciting science just about every day, but the conversations I treasure most are those centered around the vulnerabilities that so many of us share, and yet are so afraid to talk about.
I share my story to let you know that you are not alone and that you belong here. I have experienced the power of this message, even if delivered informally: I am here.
Getting through the application process
There is no magical solution to impostor syndrome. There are ways to acknowledge and manage it, and fortunately more institutions, including MIT, are recognizing the value in equipping students with these tools. In my own experience, I stumbled into the following three strategies while writing my personal statement and applying to graduate school.
Share your feelings with someone who will understand. At first, I was not prepared to share my feelings aloud, because I was uncomfortable with the idea of losing my composure. Instead, I wrote. Then I either shared my writings directly, or spoke what I had processed with the pen. Impostor syndrome is incredibly common in academia, so I shared these thoughts with professors and peers – people who I respected and trusted, but not necessarily friends.
Their responses kept me afloat. They were not an incredulous “You? You feel this way?”. Instead, they showed me that my feelings were grounded in common experience:
“You are not alone.”
“You do deserve.”
“I believe in you.”
“Hang in there.”
And while believing in myself could be a daily challenge, I would not let someone else’s belief in me go to waste.
Think of your personal statement as a letter of recommendation for someone else (who happens to be you).
It is important to acknowledge characteristics that make you a strong candidate in your personal statement. I struggled with speaking highly of my accomplishments. However, I would happily recognize the same accomplishments in someone else. By depersonalizing the personal statement, I found writing about my experiences and accomplishments much easier.
Show, don’t tell.
This strategy makes for stronger writing in general. But if I was especially struggling with acknowledging my abilities and accomplishments, I stuck with the facts: I explained my experiences and what I gained from them.
I read several personal statements that referenced a lifelong love of science or a salient childhood experience that sparked an awe of the natural world. If that doesn’t feel authentic, don’t worry, and don’t feel compelled to shape your statement to conform to such a narrative. But do know your motivations, and do state them clearly. For example, I didn’t think about majoring in science until I got to college, and even then, my drive came from a sense of duty to society. But my motivations have compelled me to work just as hard, with as much integrity, and with as many contributions as the motivations of the “born scientist”, and I have the experiences as evidence. You do, too.
Does it get better?
For me, managing impostor syndrome has gotten better in graduate school. That’s not because there are fewer triggers of impostor syndrome in graduate school (on the contrary). Rather, after the experience of applying, I have confided in people with my doubts more, and more quickly, than I did in earlier years. And so I hope that if you are reading this, you will one day be the person to say, “You are not alone. You do deserve, and I believe in you.”