Grad Women of Color Discussion Group: Conquering the Impostor Syndrome


On Thursday, February 4, Anika Green (Assistant Vice Provost for Graduate Education and Director for the Diversifying Academia, Recruiting Excellence (DARE) Fellowship) facilitated a discussion event about the impostor syndrome.

What is the impostor syndrome?

The impostor syndrome is a term which refers to the inability of some people to internalize their achievements. The impostor syndrome is characterized by thoughts and feelings like:

  • What if people find out that I’m a fraud and they kick me out?
  • The only reason I got that job/fellowship/scholarship is because I filled some quota requirement.
  • Even though my advisor said I did good work, she was just being nice.

What each of these have in common is attributing achievement, not to personal work and merit, but to other people’s mistakes or good intentions.

How can we manage impostor feelings?

Reframe the “What if?” questions

  • When we ask ourselves “What if?” it’s almost always bad. Some examples: What if my advisor doesn’t have good feedback? What if I fail this test? What if my students ask me a question I can’t answer? Instead, Anika suggested, look at “What if” in a positive way. What if my advisor gives me great feedback? What if I do really well on this test?

Tell the “Negative Committee” to be quiet!

  • Anika shared an article by Dr. Fanuel Muindi, a former DARE fellow and PhD who graduated from Stanford, about dealing with the negative thoughts that followed him throughout his time at Stanford. Fanuel ends his article with the positive results of gaining confidence and perspective: “I know how and when to shut it up. And when I can’t shut it up, I just prove it wrong.” Learning how to tell your committee to be quiet and paying attention to the reality of what’s going on around you is an invaluable skill that requires daily practice. You might feel like you did horribly at a conference, but if you pay attention to reality, you may remember that there were people at your talk who responded well and wanted to follow up afterward. That is evidence that perhaps you didn’t do poorly after all.

Find a “hype person,” build your support team

  • Finding a person who will encourage and support you and remind you of your accomplishments and skills is a great way to combat the impostor syndrome. If you can’t always be vigilant about keeping negative thoughts at bay, recruit mentors, friends, and colleagues who can lift you up when you don’t feel like you can. Sometimes you need a person to remind you how amazing you are.

Pay attention to the way you talk to and about yourself.

  • Don’t downplay your amazingness! Instead, own your brilliance. There is a huge difference between saying, “I’m just a PhD student,” and, “I’m a PhD student.” The first example downplays the effort it took to get into a PhD program and the work you are doing within the PhD, neither of which are easy.

You are amazing!

While it may feel like it to many of us, there is no way that you stumbled and bumbled and accidentally made it to Stanford. Getting here takes a lot of hard work and time and energy. This is true of many aspects of your life. It takes work to have successful relationships with friends, family, partners, children, coworkers, supervisors. It takes work to do well at your job. It takes work to ask for help when you need it. If any of these are true of you even some of the time, own that. Be proud.

Reach out for help when you need it

Reach out to family, friends, and colleagues when you need help. Mental health professionals are an invaluable resource when struggling with confidence and the impstos syndrome. At Stanford, Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) are always available, so call 650-498-2336  if you need help.

– Vanessa Seals, Graduate Program Coordinator


Relationships in Graduate School… And Beyond

Graduate school is a challenging time for many reasons – teaching, mentoring, designing research projects, managing advisors, spending hours writing and/or in the lab – and romantic relationships can be a source of respite or source of stress on top of all of that. In fact, they are often both at once!

Inspired by the part of graduate school that people don’t often talk abouthaving a romantic relationshipwe, the graduate program coordinators of the WCC, decided to host an event to promote open and honest conversation about pursuing a career while thinking about a partner. On November 4th, several graduate students were joined by two therapists from Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS)Meag-gan Walters, post-doc, and Sheila Levinto approach the topic of relationships. The conversation was deep and insightful, and we thought we would share a couple of takeaways from the evening. 

Flyer for relationship discussion event, Nov 4th

Communication is key:

This might sound cliche, but many of the issues that arise in relationships can be addressed or at least alleviated through honest and open conversation. This is especially true when agreeing upon expectations and values. Knowing your respective priorities can alleviate issues in the long run, especially when the personalities within the relationship are opposite. A partnership between a Type A person who prefers to plan and a Type B person who prefers spontaneity requires a communication strategy that takes into account the different needs of each partner as well as the needs of the relationship. It takes a certain amount of honesty and vulnerability to have an effective conversation, which might not be comfortable for everybody involved, but it is important to the health of a relationship.

Be aware of gender biases/implied relationship roles that may influence your relationship:

We are all influenced by societal pressures (including pop culture and our families) when it comes to expected roles and responsibilities in relationships. Sometimes, our own ideas about how things should be can get in the way of how things are. Locking ourselves or our partners into inflexible roles–for example, what roles we expect a person to fulfill based on his/her/their gender–can also be the root cause of frustration and miscommunications. If people don’t or can’t fulfill the roles we have set aside for them, it can be an unnecessary source of contention.

Being whole and happy on your own is the best foundation for being in a healthy relationship:

In the words of RuPaul, “If you can’t love yourself, how the hell are you gonna love somebody else?” Finding ways to know yourself, to make yourself happy will give you a fuller life and a better sense of self. If you don’t put all your “happiness eggs” in your “relationship basket,” you can appreciate the multiple ways in which you function and live in the world. It is important to remember that your romantic relationships consist of more than one person. It is not your job to fix your partner, and it is not your partner’s job to fix you. If there is something seriously wrong, seek out professional assistance.

The two-body problem is real, and requires both parties to know what they want for the future of the relationship and what they want for their personal development:

The “two-body problem” refers to the task of managing both partners’ careers in a way that maintains a cohesive life together while allowing each person to have a fulfilling career and opportunities for advancement. Some jobs within and outside of academia will negotiate contingencies for partners. If living in the same area is one of the values that you and your partner share, check with your employer to see if they can help you make the transition easier or more predictable for your partner. They may provide help with a job search or allow you to accept a position with the condition that your partner can find satisfactory employment in the same geographical area. Another aspect of the two-body problem is planning for a family. Figuring out how to bring up questions of relationships and children can be tricky when seeking employment. One thing you can do is find people who have similar experiences and ask them about their lives in a company or institutionit helps to go into a job or negotiations for a job knowing the kinds of experiences you should be prepared for.

TL;DR – Talk to your partner about your respective values, and pay attention to the way you treat them and yourself in a relationship. You will be happier for it.

If you need to make an appointment with CAPS, call 650-498-2336.

-Valerie Troutman and Vanessa Seals