Non-expert? Not an Issue! – Coping with Imposter Syndrome

20 Jul

Pic courtesy of J.Mulik

As a grad student, one of hardest things that I’ve had to wrestle with has been ‘imposter syndrome‘ – that anxiety provoking sense that sooner or later someone will realize I’m hopelessly incompetent and, in fact, unworthy of higher education.

What makes it even worse is that as a grad student, people ALWAYS assume that you know more than you actually do. Sure, it sounds totally reasonable that a nutrition student should know what kinds of things to eat and what to avoid. But seriously, I feel far more expert about Jersey Shore than I do about nutrition (please don’t judge me).  Heck, I still sometimes try to rationalize nachos as being a well-balanced meal seeing as they have something from each of the four major food groups.

Needless to say, feeling overwhelmingly NON-expert does absolutely nothing to curb imposter syndrome. Although various coping strategies have been suggested, such as accurate self-assessment skills and seeking out others to share experiences (because evidently, almost everyone at some point feels the exact same way), I’ve found them to be relatively small comforts when I’m sweating profusely because I’m feeling especially imposter-esque (gross, I know).

That being said, one thing that I have found to be particularly effective has been the discovery that grad school isn’t just about learning more (though I certainly hope I am), but also about learning to be less scared about the things you don’t know.

When you’re starting grad school, no one really tells you that it’s okay to not know something. I was often too scared to participate in discussions even when I had something to contribute, never mind to admit when I was completely lost.  And what’s more, neither your expert supervisor nor your uber confident peers will seem to share in your lack of knowledge.

But that is all TOTALLY okay. Knowledge attainment is a process and we all have to start from scratch. Even the most expert scientist can admit that as much as they do know, they certainly don’t know everything. Rather than being afraid about not knowing, we should embrace it as a challenge that needs exploration. And the great thing about grad school is that it gives us the tools to help make the process of figuring things out more effective.

Two of the most salient tidbits of advice I’ve received since being in my program have been to: (1) be unafraid of ambiguity, and (2) accept that my areas of expertise will only grow as I endeavour to tackle the unfamiliar.  Both of these acknowledge that feeling non-expert is totally acceptable.

Eventually, we will all figure out what we need to because our time in grad school has provided us with the tools and resources to do so. There’s absolutely nothing incompetent or imposter-esque about that. In that sense, I’ve come to appreciate how we shouldn’t sweat the unknown (figuratively … and sadly in my case, literally as well).

Cheers to Alison Duncan and Amanda Wright for the words of wisdom.

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2 Responses to “Non-expert? Not an Issue! – Coping with Imposter Syndrome”

  1. Amy 08-Aug-2011 at 7:16 pm #

    Great post. I honestly didn’t know that there was a term for this type of anxiety and it’s comforting to know that other people share the same experiences. Loving the blog so far, very informative 🙂

    • Marisa Catapang 09-Aug-2011 at 12:17 am #

      Thanks for reading, Amy. Glad to hear this particular post resonates with you, and that you’re enjoying the blog in general. Rest assured, it’s definitely much more common than anyone expects!

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