Imposter Syndrome & Me

As a pre-med student completing my undergraduate degree, I was used to standing out amongst my peers. My GPA was high, I was already working in the medical field, and I had pursued many extracurricular opportunities including physician shadowing and student research. Up until this point, I had been able to objectively measure my successes and I took pride in my accomplishments that led me to the next step of my academic career: medical school.

The first week of medical school was a wild ride. COVID-19 had caused my first semester to be completely online, so I was attempting to watch lectures the night prior while also attending Q & A sessions held by my professors the next morning. This was equating to about 6-8 hours of my eyes glued to my computer screen. I was so exhausted from the videos, that I barely had time to study the material I was watching. During week two, I attended the molecular cell biology Q & A and I could not answer a single question during the review. I was shaken and overly frustrated. I began to doubt my abilities and compare myself to the students that were answering the review questions so quickly and correctly.

Why were my classmates adjusting better than me? Did I not belong here? Did I get to where I am now by luck? I felt completely deflated.

Before I fell too far down the hole that is self-pity and self-doubt, I reached out to the AUC academic support advisors. They helped me reconstruct my study schedule and informed me of the psychological phenomenon Imposter Syndrome (IS).

Imposter syndrome is the mindset that one has succeeded by luck and not by their own aptitudes. IS was identified by Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes in 1978. These two psychologists determined that IS commonly affects graduate and professional students and those who have pursued a promotion or career change. Imposter Syndrome often preys on those that define themselves as high achievers. Perfectionists may fall victim to IS if they make a small mistake, experts may feel fraudulent when certain skills do not come naturally, and autonomous workers may feel inadequate if they ask for any sort of help. Another group of people that may be targeted by the characteristics of Imposter Syndrome is medical students.

As a medical student myself, I had been fearful of being “found out” by my peers. This has caused me to back out of study groups, watch tutoring videos after the fact, and to study the material on my own without the fear of judgement of others. My thoughts have been: are my fellow classmates going to wonder how I got here since I can’t answer this question on this particular subject?

Will they question how I was accepted into medical school in the first place?

Since perfectionism is intimately related to Imposter Syndrome, there are certain behaviors that many students have personally succumbed to, myself included. For example, an imposter may procrastinate by delaying working on an important assignment due to the fear that they may be unable to complete it to the highest of standards. Another scenario may also occur: an imposter may overprepare by spending too much time on a particular task in worry of seeming unintelligent regarding a particular topic.  These behaviors are dangerous and can greatly affect one’s education or career.

IS can be detrimental to mental health, and can affect a student’s studies and confidence. It is important to identify if Imposter Syndrome is something that you may be struggling with so you can take the proper steps to overcome the syndrome.

Below are 6 useful steps medical students may use to help overcome Imposter Syndrome:

  1. Talk to someone. Whether it’s a friend, a colleague, or the AUC academic support advisor- discuss what you are going through with someone else. Speaking an issue into existence can give light to a different point-of-view during a discussion with another individual.
  2. Make a list of 5 things that support the fact that you are qualified to be in the situation you are in. Remember completing your medical school applications? What are some items off of your resume that you are proud of? What personality traits do you take pride in that compliment your future doctor status?
  3. Use mistakes/shortcomings as a learning opportunity. If you aren’t understanding a certain concept in your molecular cell biology course, dive deeper. What parts are you understanding? Can you ask for help? Can you use your resources (books, internet) to help you find the answer you are looking for?
  4. Change the script. Scripts comprise of expected behaviors in a given situation. Instead of feeling like a fraud after watching a pre-recorded lecture video and not being able to accurately answer the review questions (negative script), change the situation by acknowledging that new information takes time to learn and apply (positive script). Every student has a unique learning style.
  5. Celebrate small wins. You got an B on your embryology/histology lab quiz? Give yourself a high five and keep up the good work!
  6. Visualize success for yourself. For medical students, it is important to refer to yourself as a “doctor-in-training”. Make a habit of picturing yourself ten years later working your dream job.

Imposter Syndrome occurs more commonly than one would think. The best takeaway if you are feeling the effects of IS, is to approach the issue head-on and talk to a trusted individual about your feelings and fears. Know that you are not alone, and despite how you may feel, you most likely belong right where you are because of your very own qualifications and accomplishments.  

Additional resources:

Imposter Syndrome test and scoring

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