Jane has just been accepted into her ideal graduate program with full funding to work alongside an admired supervisor. But she’s having a hard time accepting her achievement. Did the admissions committee make a mistake? Jane is nervous that she now has to present as a successful graduate student, when really, she feels like a fraud.
Does this situation sound familiar? That’s because graduate students around the world experience the same thing as Jane: imposter syndrome, feeling like a fraud due to an inability to internalize accomplishments. This is closely related to perfectionism, when someone sets high standards for themselves and strives for flawlessness while being highly self-critical. Both traits include the pursuit of excellence and the discounting of success. Unfortunately, many graduate students often experience both imposter syndrome and perfectionism, which can lead to harmful emotional and professional consequences such as depression, anxiety, burnout and low job satisfaction.
Here are 6 helpful tips you can use to overcome imposter syndrome and perfectionism in grad school:
Set realistic goals.
Use SMART goal-setting and the WOOP technique to help you set and achieve realistic goals. If you have multiple goals, rank them in order of importance and start with the ones you are most committed to. Sometimes, a goal may be unrealistic not because of the skill it requires, but rather because of the time it would take away from your other commitments. When setting your goals, think about how they fit into your current schedule and whether you will be able to balance your responsibilities. Which goals are time-sensitive? How much time, energy and money will they cost? Setting realistic goals can set you up for achievement without leaving you feeling overwhelmed or incapable.
Be “good enough”.
Just as it sounds, strive to be “good enough” in graduate school. Perfection is impossible (that’s right!), and aiming for 100% in everything can hold you back instead of pushing you forward. When we are good enough, we do what needs to be done, and we do it well, without overextending ourselves. For example, try to submit an essay when it is done, even if the deadline is still some time away; an extra three hours of tiny edits likely won’t make a huge difference to the final product – and, despite what you may think at the time, they won’t make you feel better. Viewing yourself as good enough can combat a black-and-white attitude of “I am either perfect or a failure”.
Practice acknowledging and celebrating your accomplishments.
When you accomplish something you’ve been working towards, big or little, take the time to first acknowledge your accomplishment. Yes, Jane, you made it into graduate school, congratulations! Think back to all the hard work you put into achieving this. Then, take some time to celebrate your accomplishment – go out with some friends, eat a special meal, take that spa day, enjoy it! By practicing these things, you are honouring your efforts and internalizing your success instead of discarding it.
Recognize your strengths.
Knowing what your strengths are can help you make the most of your work habits – and using them can actually increase your overall happiness! Find out what your character strengths are using the VIA Character Strengths Survey and weave these into your schedule and your goals. For example, if one of your strengths is love of learning, find a new TED talk to watch on your lunch break every day. Recognizing your strengths and their roles in your success can help you take responsibility for your achievements.
Challenge your thinking.
Practice challenging your negative thoughts about being an imposter in grad school. What evidence supports these thoughts? What evidence contradicts them? Be aware that we can tend to weigh negative evidence (i.e., rejections, failures) more strongly than positive. Remember to objectively weigh the negative and positive evidence for each thought.
Practice self-compassion and be kind to yourself – grad school is hard. Set aside time for self-care activities and avoid judging your emotions. Ask yourself, how would you treat a friend who was feeling the way you are now?
In brief, you and Jane are not alone in feeling like a fraud in graduate school or thinking that perfection is the only acceptable standard. Although high standards and detail-oriented work likely helped you get to where you are, too much emphasis on these can be damaging. GradProSkills also hosts an Imposter Syndrome in Graduate School workshop (GPWL970) to teach grad students effective strategies and skills to eliminate imposter syndrome.