Part I: The Breakdown
What’s the most challenging aspect of writing about Imposter Syndrome? Feeling like an imposter while doing so. I know… it’s very meta. So, let me begin by establishing my story and gaining some credibility.
Be warned: this is not a success story—it is a quest for success.
A little about me (that may resonate with you)
I was the first person in my family to be born in the USA. My grandfather emigrated from Colombia to New York City in the early 1970s, in search of opportunities that would get him and his family out of poverty and to have a chance at the fabled "American Dream." Growing up as a first-generation American was challenging because I had to navigate often inconsistent cultural messages about my gender and my identity, such as an ideology of equality that conflicted with limited—and limiting—gender and ethnic values and role expectations. It was also challenging to be the first person in my family to pursue higher education, which was possible as a result of plentiful need-based scholarships to enroll in undergraduate programs. This was also difficult without a support system that understood what university life entailed. After earning two Bachelor of Arts degrees in Psychology and Anthropology, I continued onto the highest possible degree in the latter to grow expertise on human understanding and cultural diversity.
Being a first-generation college student was especially challenging as a graduate student, where the achieved status of pursuing a PhD was at odds with cultural perceptions of humility in terms of both intellectual recognition and socioeconomic success. Upon applying to graduate school at Texas A&M University, I was awarded a three-year Graduate Diversity Fellowship to begin my doctoral studies. I was awarded numerous internal and external grants to support my research, as well as a year-long Graduate Writing Fellowship to finish writing my dissertation. I have conducted research in four countries, presented my work at 10 international conferences, and published my work in numerous peer-reviewed articles, encyclopedia entries, and book chapters. I have taught over 2500 students in the USA and Australia. And I have been awarded four National Science Foundation grants, two as a graduate student and two as a postdoctoral researcher.
These accomplishments are all impressive. They convey a great deal of meaning about my abilities, intelligence, ambition, and tenacity. They also make me a poster child for affirmative action programs and initiatives aimed at increasing diversity in higher education, sciences, and leadership.
The unfortunate truth, however, is that earning a PhD was not a cause for pride and celebration for me. In fact, it felt like a hollow victory—and I am not alone in that sentiment. I have yet to frame my diploma, seven years after I earned it. I feel no more successful as a scholar now, despite these and many other academic accomplishments. It has only been in the past few years that I felt comfortable including “PhD” in professional signatures, and I sometimes still cringe when introduced as Dr. Serrato.
The onset of this pervasive feeling of self-doubt began during the dissertation writing phase. It was not the writing itself that was the cause, but an overwhelming and paralyzing feeling that I did not know what I was doing, I did not know enough about my topic, and someone was bound to find out and realize that I was not worthy of a doctoral degree. I started second-guessing why I was admitted into graduate school to begin with, doubted how I earned any previous opportunity at all, felt guilty at the thought that someone else could have made better use of the scholarships that I was awarded, wondered why my committee members never harshly criticized my writing when I clearly did not know how to write, scrutinized myself for not moving forward, felt like an absolute failure, and was horribly afraid that I would not finish my degree. It’s not surprising that I considered quitting numerous times. The emotional and financial burdens of quitting were as difficult to consider as those of not quitting. I struggled in isolation, suffocating in daily torment, for two years. Although I eventually finished writing what still seems (to me) like the most imperfect, poorly written 300-page dissertation ever, the self-doubt did not cease.
The feeling of being a fraud went with me to my next academic appointment and to my subsequent postdoctoral position, exacerbated with every letter of rejection for academic positions. When writing was involved, whether a publication or a grant proposal, the relentless and paralyzing fear became insurmountable. It culminated into anxiety attacks and panic attacks that became more frequent and serious after, as a Senior Research Scientist, I was physically assaulted while writing a grant proposal, which specifically occurred in the context of my perceived productivity as a contributor to grant writing. Months later, my position was terminated and my mental health plummeted.
I began to question much more than my achievements and abilities; I questioned my entire worth as a person. I questioned whether I deserved to live in the house that I was no longer financially contributing to. I felt undeserving of love, undeserving of friends. I felt like a complete failure. I did not realize it at the time, but the assault triggered deep childhood trauma that was, poignantly, related to academic performance. That realization was a gift from my first cognitive behavioral therapy session; it was a gift because that understanding, in itself, created a shift in me that led to healing myself and overcoming the pervasive self-doubt—which I finally acknowledged as a severe case of Imposter Syndrome.
If this sounds like an academic horror study, then I concur. If you think that this is an isolated case, then you are mistaken. But, this fate does not have to be your own. You can thrive with the right tools and support.
In Part II of these blog posts, I will share what I learned about Imposter Syndrome, as well as strategies for you to identify, address, and overcome this epidemic in graduate school.
Margie Serrato, PhD
Dr. Margie Serrato is a traveler, anthropologist, writer, educator, speaker, professional coach, performer, bodybuilder, martial artist, baker, and mother. Her personal expertise is in transcending boundaries and embracing nonconformity, and her research focuses on gender in non-traditional contexts and minority representation in STEM and business.
Motto: “Be Powerful. Live Powerfully.” Superpower: Self-mastery.
Kryptonite: Food, wine, and dancing.