Embracing Imposter Syndrome

One of the first things I do when I wake up is check my calendar. Then my flagged emails, my list of reminders, and my sticky notes. These first few moments are usually spent in a panic because I dread forgetting something. I usually think to myself that something is going right if I can't find something going wrong. It's probably clear by now that I overthink this kind of thing.


Mental health is something I have always been aware of. When I was a year old, my father committed suicide. Instead of going to work he drove to a view of my hometown in Northern Ontario, took out his rifle and shot himself. Growing up, I watched how broken my mother and sister were from his death. And to be honest, I wasn't sure how to process this myself. It was just always something I knew that happened when I was young.

It took many years — even decades — to start breaking this down. I didn't want to lose anyone else and I was scared that, at any time, it could happen again. My mom's depression terrified me. I was worried about my older sister. I made sure to take care of everyone around me because I thought I could avoid something bad from happening if I tried hard enough.

Growing up, this worry I had spilled into me not trusting in myself at school. I finished a college program, then a bachelors, a masters, each time shocked at how it somehow worked out. As soon as I entered my PhD program and learned the phrase "impostor syndrome", I was both shocked and relieved. I was surprised that the feelings I had of fear and self-doubt had a name. Impostor syndrome is described as believing that what you achieved was by luck while carrying an impending worry that you will be caught as a fraud and exposed. I wondered if it were true that I had this instead of being simply incapable of being a PhD student. I soon realized there were a lot of other students who felt this way.

A year later, I still wasn't sure if I actually had impostor syndrome or if I was just not good at what I was doing. If you asked me, I would tell you that my performance wasn’t good enough. However, I started fighting those feelings with a blind hope that school will work out. On a given day I'd still feel like I don't actually know what I’m talking about. When someone asked me a question and I knew the answer, I'd think "wow, what are the chances?!" Even though I wanted to study alone, I put effort into studying with my officemates and classmates. I started admitting to people how embarrassing it was — all the theory I didn't understand — and the response would be: me too.

And at the end of the day, I was still here. I could have said no to this program, but I said yes. I owed it to myself to keep going whether or not I thought I'd make it through, so I decided to have fun with it. I joined a running group with amazing people. I got more involved with social events. I got involved with my student union. It felt great helping others and being around people who had the same goals I did. I soon realized how much I love it here and how grateful I am to have ended up here.

I am nearing three years in and I still think that I do not fully fit into this PhD program. I still worry about failing out and not being good enough. However, it feels like I am chasing a better version of myself. Even if I never reach him, I am always getting closer.