What is Imposter Syndrome in Graduate School?

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Updated: February 29, 2024, Reading time: 8 minutes

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While there are many reasons and purposes for attending graduate school, a common one is boosting lifetime earning opportunities. You’ll have exposure to advanced job positions, which pay better.

According to, 14.3% of adults had a graduate degree in 2021, compared to only 10.9% in 2011. This data shows how Americans value advanced studies and high educational attainment. 

What is Imposter Syndrome - fact

However, grad school is more than just attaining your personal and academic goals. Some students experience anxiety and stress during their journey. One-third of young people come with imposter syndrome, and 56% to 82% of graduate students have somehow experienced it. It’s essential to understand what it is exactly and to find ways to surpass it.

Grad School Center is an advertising-supported site. Featured or trusted partner programs and all school search, finder, or match results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other editorially-independent information published on this site.

What is Imposter Syndrome?

“Imposter syndrome” refers to a psychological pattern of self-doubt that affects great achievers who struggle to absorb their successes, harbor unjustified self-doubt, and worry about being exposed as frauds or imposters.

Many graduate students experience imposter syndrome in the form of unfavorable peer comparisons, feelings that they are unfit for graduate work or the academy, or the belief that they were only accepted into graduate school by accident and don’t deserve to be there.

There are several symptoms to detect this. It could be imposter syndrome if you frequently question your abilities and achievements, regardless of what other people may believe. However, this may not fall under the mental illness category. But this psychological term characterizes an individual who fears being revealed as a fake and believes they aren’t as talented as other people believe them to be.

Imposter syndrome is probably caused by a variety of things, such as family history and personality qualities like perfectionism. According to some experts, families who place a high emphasis on accomplishment are the source of imposter syndrome. Some also think that it starts when families exhibit high levels of conflict and little support.

Imposter Syndrome is Real Among Graduate Students

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The internal sensation of doubting one’s ability despite achievements is what characterizes imposter syndrome. Because they are always questioning how they got to where they are, some people who suffer from this think it’s unreal. 

The truth of the matter is that imposter syndrome is becoming more and more prevalent among young adults, especially grad students. In higher education, imposter syndrome is a common occurrence. Faculty and graduate students both report having considerable experience with the condition.

Imposter syndrome is thought to affect over 70% of academic professionals at some time in their careers. Faculty and students from marginalized or underrepresented groups are particularly susceptible to imposter syndrome in higher education. 

People can experience imposter syndrome at any stage of their lives, from starting graduate school to pursuing positions in senior leadership.

According to Brigham Young University, a 2019 study revealed that 20% of college students had imposter syndrome at some point in their academic careers. That represents one in five college attendees. Students who suffer from imposter syndrome sometimes think that their success is a result of chance rather than hard effort.

Prevalence of Imposter Syndrome in Graduate School

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Graduate students can easily develop mental health problems just by contemplating possible failure. For instance, medical students are anxious about perfectionism. Perfectionism has several definitions in the literature and is considered a multidimensional personality construct. A person’s superego is believed to demand superior accomplishments and behaviors, which leads to perfectionism.

It has been noted that imposter syndrome can create anxiety in a person who fears failure when performing achievement-oriented activities. And this has kept recurring among medical students. Imposter syndrome can make people worry about others’ expectations even when they achieve their goals. The fear is that they will have to keep achieving or that they will have to raise the bar even higher to succeed.

In addition, when a person suffering from imposter syndrome succeeds in achieving a goal, they usually credit outside forces for their achievement. They could also feel guilty or undeserving of praise for their achievement. These kinds of things can exacerbate sadness and poor self-esteem.

Research also shows that those who experience imposter syndrome are more likely to experience perfectionist issues and low self-esteem. These individuals have a strong concern for the caliber of their output and the significance of their efforts. They are constantly doubtful of their skills and talents despite attaining good scores in grad school.

What Triggers Imposter Syndrome?

What Triggers Imposter Syndrome - Image

There are many underlying factors in imposter syndrome. And it helps to ask the question as to what triggers it exactly. Imposter syndrome sufferers frequently feel plagued by self-doubt and think they are unworthy and incompetent. Although sometimes unacknowledged, imposter syndrome is quite prevalent—even among the most well-known, gifted, and prosperous individuals. 

There are a variety of feelings, thoughts, and symptoms associated with imposter syndrome. Here are some common triggers:

A graduate student’s personality plays a huge role. This negative feeling also arises as a result of the individual’s traumatic experiences as a child. Parents who put intense pressure on their children to achieve academically develop the syndrome early on in their lives—and manifest even more in the intensely competitive environment that is grad school. 

Dealing with Imposter Syndrome as a Graduate Student

Dealing with Imposter Syndrome as a Graduate Student - Image

The phenomenon known as “imposter syndrome”—particularly among students questioning their capacity to perform in graduate school—creates a feeling of helplessness that affects the way they perform academically.

Here are practical tips for managing imposter syndrome:

Affirm its existence.

Denying or ignoring that nagging feeling of self-doubt isn’t going to help. If you want to learn to overcome it and move forward, knowing and validating that your emotions are real is a step in the right direction. 

Acknowledge your strengths. 

It’s important to build your confidence while you’re in grad school. One way is to know your strengths. Make a list of your accomplishments, abilities, and improvements over the years in your academic and life journey. When you take the time to honestly and purposefully evaluate yourself, you will be able to identify your strengths and areas where you may have potential for growth.

Create reminders.

Recognize the small steps you are taking to battle imposter syndrome. If reminders keep you organized, make a list of your proudest achievements. Keep compliments and positive comments on your accomplishments. Look to these resources when you find yourself questioning your value.

Stop comparing yourself with others.

If there’s one thing you shouldn’t do in graduate school, it’s to compare yourself with other grad students. Every journey is different. You don’t lack the skills or intelligence to succeed in graduate school; chances are, you are comparing yourself with individuals with distinct timeframes for completing graduate school and different career trajectories.

Conversely, remember that you’re not alone in doubting yourself. It happens to everyone! At some point, you’ll wonder if you’re as competent as the others who, in fact, doubt themselves just the same!

Control your emotions.

You can’t help but be emotional sometimes, especially in the face of overwhelming graduate school demands. Mentally prepare yourself for the massive academic work that’s coming your way. Recognize that the intense feelings of self-doubt are only that—feelings—and you have control over them.

Practice mindfulness.

Mindfulness can go a long way in your graduate school journey. Pay attention to the circumstances that make you feel like an imposter, and refocus! Meditate, practice yoga, and perform other activities to remain calm and mindful.

Get to know the syndrome more.

Before you start doubting yourself and possibly entertaining the idea that you may be a fraud, know that the imposter syndrome does not affect actual fraudsters. Real fraudsters don’t have this tendency at all. Having imposter syndrome does NOT mean you’re a phony!

Find support to overcome it.

Graduate students experiencing imposter syndrome often make the mistake of ignoring or hiding it. Many suffer silently when, in fact, the most helpful way to end the imposter syndrome loop is to discuss it with reliable peers or mentors. Find a graduate student support group if it helps to share your emotional vulnerabilities. Get one-on-one therapy services on campus if you want encouraging mentors or experts.

Celebrate your successes.

Putting a spotlight on your achievements helps you battle imposter syndrome. Celebrate your wins no matter how they may seem insignificant to you or others. Did you complete a chapter in your dissertation or thesis? Pat yourself on the back. It is a realistic way of getting affirmation from the person whose approval you need the most—yourself!

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