Success at U of T can sometimes feel like a game of chance. Any good grade or accomplishment feels like a really bad muffin recipe — one part preparation, one part execution, and 1,000 parts luck.
In my first semester at U of T, I did extremely well on a test. Everyone huddled around, waiting to refresh Portal to see the posted marks. Many sets of eyes probed my laptop screen. I hit refresh and the numbers glowed back at me. My friends congratulated me with hugs and smiles.
I immediately felt that I just got lucky. Then I wondered if I would be able to pull off another success in this course. Within a matter of seconds, I went from feeling the thrill of acing a test to doubting whether or not I could even pass.
It is not uncommon to hear in the hallways leaving Exam Centre that the test was only bearable because it was identical to homework or because the professor went easy. There is this toxic need to undercut our own achievements and minimize our successes, even when there are already many people judging our generation of young scientists as lazy, technology-obsessed, and vapid.
This pushback against praise and minimization of achievements in many science students has shifted from cordial modesty to the manifestation of imposter syndrome — a term generally used to describe individuals who feel phony and unworthy of credit.
While imposter syndrome is not recognized by the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual as a psychiatric disorder, it can have suffocating symptoms like anxiety, perfectionism, self-doubt, and fear of failure. It makes one dread evaluation, fear that others will discover that one is less valuable than one seems, and assume that the great talents of others are normal skills they should possess.
These symptoms are exacerbated in high stress and high performance environments like universities, where any flaws and mistakes seem to signify incompetence.
We are graded and critiqued constantly. It is the norm to measure yourself against someone else’s idea of success. Vulnerability seems to be widely encouraged, but no one seems to air their dirty laundry. I often find myself camouflaging my obstacles and keeping my struggles private to feel worthy and on par with others who are seemingly always in control.
Everything is a means to an end, and this makes failures feel more impactful. Any missteps in my academic life lead to anxious feelings about graduate or medical school admissions. Imposter syndrome is this gnawing thought in my head that someone like me could never succeed.
Young scientists need to have their entire lives together very quickly, with resumés full of experience as undergraduates. For an imposter, it is even harder to justify that your knowledge is valuable, which is a key portion of applying to any lab research position.
Initially, it was believed imposter syndrome only occurred in women, and that their self-doubt arose from filling the apparently huge shoes left by men who used to assume certain professional roles. More recently, however, it has been shown to affect individuals from a variety of backgrounds, including some minorities.
As an international student, I feel extremely pressured to assimilate in order to be successful and hireable. It is hard not to feel that I was invited simply so that administrators can check off the diversity box.
It seems that international students must leave behind those important to them in order to be exceptional. Our roots must be hidden during our time here to prevent others from discovering that we’re not right for this type of expensive, prestigious institution.
I think of my family at home often and how each mistake I make hurts their investment in me — financially in terms of all they’ve spent for me to be in Toronto, but also emotionally, in how much I feel that I will disappoint them.
Around 70 per cent of people face imposter syndrome. It’s reassuring to see a statistic like this, but it’s also terrifying. It affects a wide range of people, from students to politicians to CEOs.
It helps me make that leap of faith that my flaws are not uniquely my own, that even my heroes may not have been as perfect as I thought.
The way to beat imposter syndrome is to surround yourself with positivity and remember that your successes are your own. You truly cannot compare your backstage pass to someone else’s highlight reel.
As more midterms approach and final exams start to loom, I will try to remind myself that I am more than my grades. My mom sent me a card this week with a message inside saying how proud she is of me. I pinned it up on my wall by my desk and look at it when I study to remind myself that I belong here.