Published by the Students of Johns Hopkins since 1896
May 26, 2020

Handling impostor syndrome in my career and graduate school

By JASON HELFER | April 18, 2020

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Have you ever felt like you are faking it? More often than not, I find myself deeply concerned that someone will find out who I am really am. Not that I am bad, but rather, not as intelligent or as talented as someone would initially believe. This has affected the way that I see myself as a parent, a member of the military and as a graduate student at a top-tier university.

My success should be measurable to a certain extent, yet I often find myself feeling like I am in a position that I don’t belong in. I’m a Hopkins graduate student, an Army non-commissioned officer and a parent. I know what to do in each of these roles and yet, I compare myself to other parents and students. 

When I was 18, I graduated Marine Corps recruit training, arguably the toughest basic training in America. There are intense physical, emotional and mental demands. The training is designed to test you and weed out the weaker recruits. Despite this accomplishment, I felt like other Marines were more deserving. It always seemed like they knew more about drill and ceremony or more about basic Marine combat tactics than I did.

I’ve experienced the same feeling in my Army career. I am now a Sergeant First Class in the Army, which is a senior non-commissioned officer. A Sergeant First Class is supposed to know how to take charge, accomplish the mission quickly without failure and be an example of what a soldier should look like. 

I rarely feel like I am this shining example. No amount of evidence helps me either. I am told that I am a good soldier, a good leader and that I am going places. Despite that, I always seem to spot the best soldiers around me and compare myself to them.

My sister casually tells me that I suffer from something called “impostor syndrome.” I looked up impostor syndrome, and I have to admit that I meet the criteria. Feelings of self-doubt? Fraudulence? Definitely. Despite having my bachelor’s degree and being in a master’s program at an elite university, I often feel that others are more intelligent than me. 

Some of this is because I am quiet and don’t raise my opinions very often. If I think I will mispronounce a word that I fully understand, I will leave it out of a conversation. If I am not sure that I will fully articulate my point, I will simply stay quiet. In my eyes, intelligent students at great universities are the confident, witty and talented. 

I have heard that others at elite universities feel this way. Leaders in every imaginable position can suffer from self-doubt. How people deal with impostor syndrome differs. Some managers or leaders become aggressive to hide any signs of weakness. In my case, I clam up and become quiet.  For some reason, the higher up I make it, either academically or in my career, the less I feel I know. 

Dealing with impostor syndrome isn’t easy. I’ve had colleagues who tell me that I am a valuable teammate and that I’m good at what I do. My family is my absolute best support system. I am trying to recognize that someone will always score slightly higher on a quiz than you, will run faster than you or get promoted more quickly than you. 

This doesn’t mean that we don’t belong in the class, the job or the sport. We often see flaws in ourselves that no one else can see. We are our own worst critics. Sometimes simply getting out of our own little bubble for a while can do wonders to alleviate the feeling of not belonging.

I am in the midst of my first semester at Hopkins. I have good weeks and less-good weeks with regards to my decision to enroll. I am proud of being accepted, and I love that I attend such an amazing institution. On my bad weeks, I feel that I can’t keep up and everyone will see that I somehow slipped through the cracks. Mostly though, I pull it together, breathe deeply and do the work, one task at a time. 

I don’t like to offer much advice. But if I was offering my two cents to someone, it would be something like this. Know who you are and stop worrying about everyone else.

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