Impostor Syndrome vs. the Scientific Method
My strategies for fighting the idea that I don't belong at MIT
I received my acceptance letter to MIT a few days after the 2017 Oscars – shortly after a human error led to the wrong film being announced as Best Picture winner live on national television.
The mix-up loomed large in my mind.
As I slowly read the email informing me that I had been admitted to MIT, I became convinced that some similar dreadful mistake had been made. The admissions committee had accidentally switched their email templates and I would soon be receiving an apologetic follow-up message informing me that no, of course MIT had not actually accepted me into graduate school. Of course not.
But hours turned into days and that email never came. And so I found myself on campus in September, warily making my way to class with a cohort who I was sure would quickly identify me as an undeserving outsider.
I succeeded in carrying this shame as a secret until the full force of Imposter Syndrome hit me at the beginning of December. I hadn’t slept properly in weeks, and I had isolated myself from my friends. I felt overwhelmed by the sheer magnitude of everything that I didn’t know in my research field. My work was piling up faster than I could dig out from under it, and I often wondered what the point of grad school was, if I only had the time and ability to do what was required of me, and nothing more.
Late one night, I was studying with a friend for an exam in economics, a class I found difficult and abstract, but which was apparently intuitive to my classmates. I was stuck on a problem and as my friend tried to explain it to me, I realized I couldn’t do it anymore. I couldn’t do economics, I couldn’t do my exam, and I couldn’t force myself any longer to pretend I belonged here. I was a strange little blip in a constellation of much brighter and shinier stars. My eyes blurred with tears and I stopped listening.
Suddenly, a tiny problem took on infinite symbolic importance. If I couldn’t understand a basic equation, how was I ever going to pass my exam, let alone make any new and meaningful contribution to more difficult problems in this world? In that moment, the future was vast and imposing and hanging precariously by a thread, and I felt in control of nothing. I left the library and cried openly as I walked down a deserted Mass Ave, feeling very melodramatic and alone.
The next morning I made an appointment with the MIT mental health clinic. I needed advice, and I wanted to talk to someone who wasn’t equally consumed by the same pressures and problems I was facing.
The counselor I spoke to was understanding and made no effort to delegitimize the stress I was experiencing as “just part of what I signed up for by coming to grad school,” as many other people had done. Among other things, he advised me to start talking to my friends again. So I did. I realized I wasn’t alone.
Until I started really talking to my classmates about my experience at MIT, I didn’t realize just how many of the people I viewed as truly exceptional apparently felt that they were also below average. At least 50% of the people I’ve spoken to in my cohort believe themselves to be in the bottom of the class. (I may question my math abilities, but even I know that this is statistically improbable.) “I don’t know how I got in” is a phrase that everyone says, but I always assumed it was just a phrase that everyone says, like “I love New York but I could never live there,” or “my friends are all getting married but I can barely manage adulthood on my own!” – just some words people arrange in a particular order to signal to their peers that they fit in and can totally relate to the shared millennial experience.
Here I may try my very best at something, and I may well fail. And so? Personal progress is not so different from the scientific progress we work towards in our labs every day. We fail and struggle and things get broken down because we’re working at the border of what we know to be possible.
So now I’m trying to apply principles of basic research to my personal life. I’m trying to not be excessively preoccupied with the ultimate outcome, to accept the very real possibility of failure despite good preparation, and to take new paths rather than force my way down one that isn’t working. I rationalized to myself that along the spectrum of all possible outcomes in life, failing an economics course at MIT would still rank in the “okay” category. I try to remember that one class is not of infinite importance, and failing it won’t cause a chain-reaction of all my future hopes and plans coming crashing down like cosmic dominoes.
(For what it’s worth, I ended up passing the exam and the class. I learned new and wacky things. I’m not very good at economics, but I remember reading problems from the beginning of the semester and feeling as though I had been dropped in the middle of a very dense and opaque forest. Now when I return to them, the forest is still there, but there are trails and paths out that I have worn through the trees. It’s navigable.)
Like any other formative process, grad school takes and it gives. Sometimes, when the workload approaches the unmanageable, I think a lot about the things that MIT has taken from me. My free time, my multi-year streak of not crying in public, my warm, sunny afternoons outside with friends. I miss being able to go to sleep at night without experiencing some degree of existential panic. I miss being perceived as relatively… good at things?
On most other days, however, I’m constantly reminded of the things this school has given to me. On the other side of the imposter coin there is deep inspiration and fulfillment in being surrounded by people I admire for their brilliance and humanity. I have the opportunity to learn (and get paid to learn) about things I deeply care about. I am surrounded by the best and brightest professors and students who are building and thinking about amazing things, everywhere, all the time. I have found friends more accepting and more humble than any others I have known. The things I have been given are a collection of little qualities that when viewed together, make up a picture that is at once challenging and beautiful and impossible and maddening and satisfying. It’s home.
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