The Plight of the Budding Researcher

  • You spend the majority of your final years of college preparing for graduate school applications. You study for standardized tests, keep up with your school work, get letters of recommendation— the works. If you're lucky, all this effort pays off, and you get into a good program.

     

    You would think that acceptance would come with some validation. After all, you've just passed an overwhelming hurdle that deters the majority of the population. But once inside graduate school, you begin to feel like you don't belong there. Like someone has made a huge mistake.

     

    You look at everyone around you and believe that they aren't struggling with the coursework and research at all. That they have a natural aptitude that has solidified their worthiness in being here, a quality that you're not so sure you have.

     

    This feeling persists throughout graduate school and into the rest of your research career. You chalk up every success to "just a fluke," or you're like me and think, "yeah, but they haven't seen how terrible my data is." It invalidates every accomplishment, like one more rung in the ladder you will eventually fall off of when they find out how inadequate you are.

     

    As David Foster Wallace once warned against in his famous This is Water speech, "Worship your intellect, being seen as smart — you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out."

     

    Imposter syndrome is so pervasive throughout the academic and STEMM communities that it makes you wonder; does this line of work attract people who are vulnerable to this syndrome, or does academia actively nurture it?

     

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