Dealing with Imposter Syndrome in Graduate School

In my post of recommendations for first-year students, I discussed some tips and viewpoints to help the practical, pragmatic aspects about being a first year student. In this post, I'd like to discuss the common misconceptions/viewpoints that are destructive to new students.

The Dunning-Kruger effect

I know something, so everyone else is dumb

You just learn about p-values and their problems. OMG someone over there uses them? They are so dumb and don't understand anything. Why can't everyone be as smart as you? Whey can't people just “get it”? Have you ever felt this or known someone who sounds like this?

Let me introduce the Dunning-Kruger effect. In short, it describes that the unskilled are unable to:

recognize their own ineptitude and evaluate their own ability accurately.

Therefore, you learn something new about a field (e.g. statistics), and you feel pretty confident when talking to others. I'm not saying you're unskilled, but you may not know what's common in practice or the merits/pitfalls of a method or other methods. Many times new students will learn one thing, usually not that in-depth, and incorrectly think they've mastered that area. Moreover, they usually cite the same piece of information over and over, as they have few pieces of information to draw upon. This sometimes happens with newer students, but fades relatively quickly.

Everyone else is a genius

The equally important converse to the Dunning-Kruger effect is that:

highly skilled individuals may underestimate their relative competence, erroneously assuming that tasks that are easy for them also are easy for others.

After the first feeling fades, a student realizes how out of depth they were. This is the more damaging effect because then you start to feel like…

You are an Imposter; So am I

You are not good enough for your program. Everyone is better prepared and smarter than you. You don't deserve to be here. You're stupid. You are never going to get it. You should quit. Everyone is going to find you out. Then they'll make you leave your program.

If you read all of these statements and some rang true, let me introduce you to Imposter Syndrome. Most students feel this way their first year. I felt this way. Many of my classmates felt this way. Some of us may still feel this way.

Why? Many new students have done previous programs with relative ease. They have been, or at least felt, like the smartest person in the room before. Now, in this new and highly-selective program, you are not the smartest. You may not even be close to the smartest.

Aside: when I say “smart”, I mean whatever criteria you're using for self-worth with respect to intelligence. I think work gets done by banging your head against the wall until something comes out. Being talented is helpful, but hard work gets results. But talent before may have been enough.

Also, if you have tied your superior intelligence to your identity, you've now lost it. If people are smarter than you, then who are you compared to them? How can you combat this feeling? Spoiler: stop comparing to the wrong people.

Comparing Yourself to the Correct Distribution

Many times, people forget what got them there. They worked hard (even relatively) to do the prerequisites, fill out the forms, do the undergraduate research, and make the move to the new department. Much of that hard work is overlooked by new (and even some more senior) students. They are much like Ricky Bobby: “If you're not first your last”. But that's ridiculous “you can be "second, third, fourth, hell, even fifth”.

The wrong distribution

I'm not saying to not strive for being the best. Strive for that, but compare yourselves to the right distribution. Many students compare themselves like this:

plot of chunk unnamed-chunk-1

As seen from this, you are at the low end of the distribution. You are likely not the best first year, feel miles behind a 5th-year student, and a lifetime behind a faculty member. How can you ever become like these people?

There's this saying “if you see it you can be it”. Conversely, if you can't see it, then you don't think you will be it. This is important because if you want to be a faculty member, you must realize every year you are getting one step closer to that role. You have to see yourself in that role.

But right now, you feel like you don't know anything about your field. But this is the WRONG DISTRIBUTION for comparison.

The correct distribution

As said above in the plot title, this is a conditional distribution of knowledge in your field. This distribution compares you as a brand-new first-year student to those who have worked in the field for an entire undergrad degree (the top first-year students), at least 5 years of work and research (5th-year student), or for > 10 years/a lifetime of work (most faculty). Of course you're going to feel inadequate. By construction, you are near the lowest part of the distribution. You're setting yourself up to be the worst.

You should compare yourself to full distribution:

plot of chunk correct_distribution

That's more like it! This is more representative comparison of your skills. The average graduate student likely knows a bit more about your field than everyone else, but notice where YOU are in this distribution. Now yes, the faculty is still out there, but it's relatively closer. With each year, you get closer to that upper tail of the distribution. Also, most people keep concentrating on the right-hand tail whereas they forget about the majority of the distribution is to your left. You know things about your field, more than the majority of people.

At the end of the day, you need to compare yourself to the full distribution, not the conditional one. Just because you are not the smartest/best when you start, that's to be expected. You can't know everything over night. The most important message is to not get discouraged when you first start. Things are confusing and hard, but they get better. Just keep going.

And remember one thing about this whole mental exercise of comparison:

It's not to make you feel better than others. It's to make you feel adequate about yourself and your skills.

Making others feel less worthy or make yourself feel as though you're “better” than another will inevitably cause this same crisis of self when that identity is challenged. Stop doing that. Just do you.

Adapt a different mindset

Many of the issues above are discussed in the book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. I have some copies of the book if you'd like to read it. I highly recommend it.

The long and short of the book's message is that overcoming ideas such as imposter syndrome comes out of adapting a new mindset. Here are some examples of how the mindsets differ: link 1, link 2 from here, and link 3

In a fixed mindset, someone believes that talents are fixed and unchangeable. Either you are smart or your not. If you aren't smart, then sucks for you because you can't change it. The other, and recommended viewpoint of the author, is the growth mindset, where one believes:

their qualities as things that can be developed through their dedication and effort.

You're not good at one area? Well try hard and change it. Stop worrying you're not good enough and get to work.

Andrew Gelman had an interesting post recently about the book's replicability, so I suggest reading over there for some details. If the books helps you cognitively break down some walls I think that's great, but I always would like to see the evidence. If you want to track your progress post reading, I'd love to hear it!

The battle is not only with new students

Let me be clear that this is not an issue for only new students. Although older students get better at determining their position in the distribution, they then fall to the same issue comparing themselves to faculty in the tails.

I hear students claim many times that they're not ready to become professors. I've spoken to many tenured professors and a lot of them say that a post-doc position is a great gig (at least in biostats). The arguments are that you get the freedom that a assistant faculty has, but not as much of the responsibilites. I agree with this sentiment, and think those are great reasons to do a post-doc.

But I feel as though some students do not think they can be a faculty member because of their CV and number of publications. Not wanting to advise students, not ready to build a class, not ready to write grants, not sure about a new city for long-term – these are great reasons to not want to become a faculty member. Not having “enough” publications is not necessarily a good one. Yes, some places may not invite you to speak based on your CV. Some will invite you but not give you an offer. If there is a penalty for trying to get an interview, not getting it, doing a post-doc, and then re-applying in 2 years, then that system is broken. The only penalty should be that there are no positions and the timing was no longer right. (Assuming you didn't do something off the rails the first interview).

Compare yourself to the correct distribution

One of the reasons I feel that people say they do not have “enough” publications is either because they are 1) comparing themselves to people other than assistant professors, or 2) they are comparing themselves to assistant professors NOW compared to when they started.

Here's an exercise I like to go through. Go to a website of a place you want to apply to, find some assistant professors. Go to their CVs and look the year they graduated with their PhD. Go to their publications and look at those that came out in that year + 1. That's them when they graduated with their PhD, including published, in-press, and current work. If you are greatly behind them, then yes, you may not have compared well against them. But remember, that's them compared to you on the same playing field. And remember, they were like you and they got the job. So give it a shot if that's what you want, but don't let your incorrect comparison cripple you with feeling inadequate. That's not what you do, that's some imposter.

Recommendations for First Year Graduate Students

This blog post is a little late; I wanted to get it out sooner.

As new students have flooded the halls for the new terms at JHU Biostat, I figured I would give some recommendations to our new students, and biostatistics students in general. Some of these things may be specific to our department, but others are general, so the title should be fitting. Let's dive in!

First Term Things

Don't buy books

Some books are good for a reference, many are not. I say this because much of the information is available on Google or the internet and you will check that 98% of the time compared to going to a book. That being said, many students have these good reference books and will be willing to let you borrow them. Also, the library in your department or school will likely have them.


The full recommendation for books is this:

  1. Borrow books you need for class, especially from current (not new) students. Sharing books with current students is good except if you both need it during crucial times (like exams/comprehensive exams). Everyone has Chung or Billingsley.
  2. Of those you can't borrow, go to class for a week or two and see if you actually need it. Some professors go straight off their lecture notes. Your school bookstore doesn't just go and send back all their copies when school starts, so you can still get it. Also, I heard this new website Amazon has books.
  3. If you think a book is a really good reference, buy a copy. Better yet, buy a digital copy so you can digitally search and annotate it.

Get new gear/electronics

You will be spending the majority of your time on your laptop, so it better work and be fast. Most new programs will have some money for books and a laptop. If you read above, you saved some money on books, so use it to buy a new laptop. If your laptop is less than 2 years old, you can save that money (if PhD) or buy other electronics such as an iPad for notetaking (if Master's).

Have the tools to make your work easy because nothing is worse than you not getting work done due to other factors than yourself.


Get a Unix-like machine (aka Mac). Others say you can do stuff in Windows, but it's easier for some software in Unix. Cluster computing (see below) will be easier as well.

Side note: if you buy a new computer, do not open it until Friday afternoon/Saturday as you will likely spend a whole day playing with your new gear.

Learn who the staff is

I find many students know who the faculty are and what research they do, but have no idea about who the staff is. These people know almost everything you need to know for non-research help. They schedule meetings with the chair, organize events, schedule rooms, and, very importantly, know how to get you paid/your stipend. These people are the glue that makes everything run and are a great resource.


Go into the office and introduce yourself and ask what you should go to person X for. They will know you then when you email.

Research and Organizational Tips

Start doing research NOW

If you want to learn what research is all about, get involved early. Even if you don't feel like you know anything, waiting to get involved on a research project will not help. It can hinder you. I'm not saying work 10 hours per week on a project; you have classes.

Recommendation: Visit all the working group meetings before choosing

Attending research meetings of a few working groups can help you 1) get information on the group and how it's run, 2) meet the group members, 3) choose what you may want to focus on, and 4) get you a small-scale project to start on.

This small project is not set in stone. It is not your thesis. The project contact doesn't have to be your thesis advisor. You will likely be working on this “for free” (unless it's under a training grant mentor, technically). Therefore, you don't “owe” anyone anything if you decide in a month you hate that field or project. Don't take it lightly to abandon a project, but do use it as a feeler in that area.

Let me reiterate (at least in our department): Your academic advisor doesn't need to be your research advisor.

Recommendation: Learn how to code

Learn how to program as soon as possible. Some good resources are codeschool or code academy. If using R, I recommend first Try R from Codeschool. I would then move on to Swirl. It will never be a waste of time getting up to speed or learning how to do something new with programming. If you already feel great with R, you can try Python or move deeper into R.

Learn how to use a computing cluster

This may be necessary later in your program, but try to do it before it's “necessary”.

You are going to work on some project invariably that 1) will use simulations or 2) requires intense computation. As such, a computing cluster is made specifically for these scenarios. Learn how to use it. If you're not going to use it now for research, at least get your login and try it briefly for a class project.

Learn Modern Note-Taking Utilities and Back up your work

Condense your note-taking into one app. I like using Evernote as it syncs with my phone and Mac.

Use Dropbox or Google Drive to have a “hands-free” syncing service. Also, think about investing in an External Hard Drive, maybe as your new gear, to doubly back-up your system/data. Laptops can (and have been) stolen. Although Google Drive/DropBox are likely to be around for some time, you always want something in your control (external HDD) in case something goes wrong on a server. GitHub is great for version control, and some people use it as a back up of sorts, but it's not really for that and not a “hands free” rsync-based solution.

Learn a Markdown/Markup Language

Learn a Markdown language. Yihui has a good description of Markdown vs. LaTeX. You will need to know both. Think about learning some basics of HTML as well.

Make a Webpage

With your newfound HTML skills from above, build a webpage for yourself. Some use GitHub or WordPress. Many options exist, depending on your level of expertise, blogging capability, level of control.

Why do I need a webpage? You work on a computer (after classes) like 98% of the day. You should have a web presence.

What about my LinkedIn profile? That's good for a resume-like page, but not great for your opinions, picture uploads, general ideas. Also, your webpage allows you to control completely what you put out there. Remember, if you don't make the content, Google will pick what people see.

Check out student websites and ask the student whose you like best how they did it.

Student Life

Ask other students questions

One of my rules is to never be scared to ask a stupid question. I ask questions all the time. Some of them are stupid. I know that I won't get an answer if I don't ask though.

We have offices. Students are in those offices. Ask them questions. It's that simple.

Many students say “well I don't want to bother them”. I learned how to code by bothering people. I bothered them very much so. I thought I was annoying, but I didn't care because I didn't know what the hell I was doing.

Does that mean I want questions all day by new students? No. Read that again. No. But I do try to pay forward information to new students just like others paid towards me. If a student is curt or makes you feel stupid about asking a question, stop talking to them. They forgot what it was like when they were lost and confused and are likely now severely delusional.

Your questions are usually not new. We've asked them likely ourselves. We either have the answer or know who does. Ask.

Go to student-lead meetings

No one in my office knows anything!!? Who do I ask now? Well there are student-lead meetings. These have a lot of information and … other students! Go there, ask questions. If the topic is not what you need to know, wait until the end of the meeting when the structure breaks down and ask someone then.

Student-lead meetings have a lot less pressure to ask the “stupid questions” in a safer environment and will likely lead to answers that you understand. Because they are from other students.

Work with your cohort

Get chummy with your cohorts. You don't have to be best friends forever, but you will talk with them, have class with them, and likely work with them. Stop doing things on your own, that's not leveraging other people's brain for you as well.

These are other smart people (they were smarter than me). Why not work with them and grab some of that brainyness floating around. You will feel dumb for a while, but you'll figure it out. If you don't work with a group in the beginning, it may be too late later when people have grouped up.

They are not your competition, though many departments make it seem like that. The next stage of your career will be mixed with projects on team and the rare projects where you are alone (aka thesis). Learn how to play with, and more imporantly listen to, others.

Grades don't matter that much, learning the material does

“I came to grad school to get a 4.0” said no one ever. Grades are important for somewhat narrow things such as if the comprehensive exams go badly, are “an assessment” of your learning, or if you apply to a job with a Master's and they ask for your transcript (and for some reason care).

But good grades are not the goal of grad school. It's learning. Learn and understand the material. Learn how to learn new material. That's the goals. Grades matter in the sense they will let you know quite glaringly when you really don't know something. Remember learning is improving yourself and that should make it easier to do a project than just doing it “because someone told you to”.

Update: As pointed in the comments below, grades can matter greatly if you plan to apply to another program after your degree (e.g. PhD after doing your Master’s). If this may be in your future, make sure to keep an eye on your grades as well.

Life Recommendations

Take at least one day off per 7-day week

You need rest. Take it. A day off can clarify things later. Sometimes it's only when you stop hitting your head against the wall when you realize that what you're doing doesn't work. That's not to say you still won't work like 60 hours a week for a while, but make sure you have some protected time for your banging head.

Explore restaurants/food/night life

One of the best pieces of advice I've ever gotten for grad school was: “find a place you want to spend the next 5 years of your life” in reference to your department AND city. Whatever city your in has fun things to do. Find them. Explore your city and area. People tend to hate places they live in grad school if they don't associate anything with it other than working in a hole. Which leads me to…

Don't work in a hole; Find a happy place to work

Find a place where you are productive and like to go. I like the office; others don't. Find a coffee shop near you for days without class or when you are done classes. Use the reading room or other areas as your go to. Again, working somewhere you don't like is one more hurdle to getting things done. Get rid of such hurdles, you will have enough of them to make your own.