You Deserve To Be Here: Imposter Syndrome and Mental Health in Graduate School

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(Photo credit: http://berkeleysciencereview.com/article/mind-grad-school/)

I did something either very brave or very stupid when I came to graduate school. I changed fields. I have an undergraduate degree in Physics with a minor in English, and I switched to Materials Science for a PhD, which does not sound too different until you consider that the material scientists at the University of Minnesota take classes with chemical engineers. As I learned, sometimes chemical engineering is quite different than Physics. One of my favorite stories about the switch is probably the sixth or seventh lecture in thermodynamics when the professor drew the following figure on the board:

valve2

“What is he drawing?” I thought to myself.

The professor continued: “Now we need to consider the entropy and the enthalpy of the valve…”

“VALVES HAVE ENTHALPY?”

“…as we open and close it on the line to the tank.”

“GAS TANKS HAVE THERMODYNAMICS TOO?!”

I learned a few things during my first year. One of the things I learned is called “Imposter Syndrome.” The term was first coined in 1978 by Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes “to designate an internal experience of intellectual phoniness.”[i]  People suffering from imposter syndrome “maintain a strong belief that they are not intelligent” despite any evidence to the contrary (pg. 241). This study specifically studied high-performing women, but some of the causes of this syndrome also apply to men.  This syndrome is problematic because it can become a paralyzing fear and sends people into a tailspin of depression and anxiety or prevents them from pursuing their dreams because they think someone will discover that they are a fraud and kick them out of their program. Imposter syndrome appears in graduate school because it is the first time many students (who are generally the top few percent of college students nationwide and worldwide) fail while trying to do something they are passionate about.

I encountered imposter syndrome in my own thinking during my first year. I remember sitting in the departmental graduate student lounge and listening to people discuss how they had completed homework problems. They made it sound so simple and straightforward. What was I doing wrong? Why was I struggling so much completing homework problems? The faculty were going to figure out that I was not as smart as they thought I was and expel me.

Imposter syndrome is just one of the mental health problems graduate students face; graduate students also report depression, anxiety, stress, and even thoughts of suicide. Major depressive disorder is clinically defined as experiencing five or more of the following symptoms for at least two weeks – “depressed mood most of the day, irritability, decreased interested or pleasure in most activities, significant change in weight or appetite, change in sleep, change in psychomotor activity such as either agitation or sluggishness, fatigue or loss of energy, feelings of guilt or worthlessness, changes in concentration and recurrent thoughts of death.”[ii] Most graduate students tend to face mental health issues alone because they are not aware of the resources to help them, do not have access to resources, or are too afraid of being seen as “weak” or “inadequate.” In a study comparing responses from undergraduate and graduate students on their mental health, “about 40% of graduate students reported feeling hopeless during the previous year, 78.5% said they had felt overwhelmed, 27.3% said they had felt depressed, and 54.5% said they had felt stress over the past year ranging from ‘more than average’ to ‘tremendous.’”[iii]

Men experience depression differently and are less likely to report symptoms. Men tend to concentrate on the physical symptoms of depression – numbness, insomnia, stress, and loss of energy. These symptoms can make them irritable and cross. And masculinity stereotypes (“men should not be emotional” and “real men don’t cry”) put more pressure on men than on women not to discuss their emotions or admit there might be a problem for fear of appearing weak. Seeking help for depression is equated with failure, and thus men dealing with depression usually isolate themselves socially and even from their significant others.[iv]

The good news is that graduate students are more likely than undergraduates to seek help. The next question then is the best way to help them.  Graduate students face different issues than undergraduates, academically and socially.  Some are married or have children.  International students face cultural barriers. Thus, expecting graduate and undergraduate students to need the same resources is unrealistic.

Many schools– like the University of Minnesota– offer meditation classes. The University of Minnesota even offers PAWS (Pet Away Worries and Stress), in which you can hang out with therapy animals once a week, even including Tilly, the therapy chicken. One of the bigger things that we as academics need to do is to remove the stigma of admitting stress, anxiety, and depression. We need to emphasize, especially to men, that dealing with mental health issues is not a sign of failure or weakness. Different types of therapy exist, and not all of them are necessarily about discussing feelings.

I was discussing this issue with a fellow (male) graduate student, and his thoughts were, “Where does it end? What is talking about feelings ultimately going to do? Won’t it just make people work less?”

This discussion is not about getting people to work less, but rather to work smarter. Ernest Rutherford (of chemistry fame) once saw a student working late one evening and asked if he worked in the morning as well. The student, thinking to impress Rutherford, said yes. Rutherford responded, “But when do you think?” He actually restricted the hours his students worked, and many of them went on to win Nobel prizes. There is no substitute for hard work. And sometimes, long hours are required. But Rutherford had many good ideas; perhaps this is another example.

So really, sometimes it is just better to sleep, run, play that instrument, or spend time with your family/significant other. Sometimes, you need to talk to a therapist or a support group. I have found comfort, resources, and perspective in talking with the other female graduate students in my department’s women’s group. And sometimes, you need to talk to your peers and find out that you are not alone.

After the first exam in that thermodynamics class, my classmates and I filed out and headed out to lunch together. We were silent. And then somebody said, “That was awful.”

“Oh my gosh, that was probably the worst I have ever done on an exam.”

“I need a beer.”

I sighed quietly in relief.  Maybe I just might be in the right place after all.

[i] Clance, P. R., & Imes, S. A. (1978). The imposter phenomenon in high achieving women: Dynamics and therapeutic intervention. Psychotherapy: Theory, Research & Practice15(3), 241.

[ii] http://www.wsj.com/articles/in-men-depression-is-different-1474305429

[iii] Arnold, C.  (2014).  Paying graduate school’s mental toll.  Science, <http://www.sciencemag.org/careers/2014/02/paying-graduate-schools-mental-toll&gt;

[iv] For some suggestions on how to help men deal with depression, see the Wall Street Journal article:  http://www.wsj.com/articles/in-men-depression-is-different-1474305429

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One thought on “You Deserve To Be Here: Imposter Syndrome and Mental Health in Graduate School

  1. As an senior undergraduate in chemical engineering, I say that most of my classmates are experiencing impostor syndrome. It is not just the graduate students. There are a lot of issues with mental and physical health in these high-intensity majors. We, on average, pull at least one all-nighter per week, not because we are behind, but because there are not enough hours in the day to do what is expected of us. And we do it just to scrape by with a 50%, and hope we pass.

    Our peers are definitely our best resources at this point, as it helps knowing that we are not in it alone.

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