Managing Imposter Syndrome in A New Culture

By Maria LaMonaca Wisdom
Director of Graduate Student Advising and Engagement for the Humanities


It was my first day of orientation for my Ph.D. program in English, and I was eager to meet the rest of my cohort. As we assembled in the auditorium, I turned around and faced the student sitting right behind me. At the tender age of 22, I was mindful of the fact that most of my peers had taken at least a couple of years off before starting a Ph.D. program. This particular student was one of the older ones, and I remember thinking, “How nice, he’s making a big life transition after quite some time away.”

I shot him my most winning smile: “Hi, I’m Maria, from New Jersey. Where are you from and what are you studying?

He flashed me an equally winning smile. “I’m Ken, and I’m the chair of this department. I study the Renaissance.”

I felt like an idiot. At my very traditional undergraduate institution, professors did not walk around calling themselves Ken or wearing faded blue jeans. They did not sit in the back of the classroom, doing weird progressive stuff like trying to “fit in.”

And I immediately thought to myself, “I’m already not fitting in.”

That intense desire to fit into a new culture—and the searing pain we feel when we think we’re not getting it right—is a symptom of what has come to be known as imposter syndrome. This form of vulnerability can strike at various points of our lives, but it is especially prevalent when we venture out of our comfort zones, trying on identities that still feel new and foreign to us.


Maria LaMonaca Wisdom co-leads a group discussion during last week’s mentoring workshop.

Not surprisingly, imposter syndrome was a popular topic at last week’s Cultivating a Culture of Mentoring Workshop, hosted by The Graduate School. Working in small groups, facilitators discussed with students how they might find advice to support them through a variety of challenging grad school scenarios. The participants in our group eagerly discussed imposter syndrome as the first challenge many new students face when they begin a Ph.D. program.

What do you do when you feel out of place in your new Ph.D. cohort, have trouble keeping up in the first couple of seminars on postcolonial theory, or secretly wonder whether the grad school admissions committee sent you the wrong decision letter? Will your new friends still invite you to happy hour when they discover you haven’t read the complete works of Frederic Jameson? Or if you mispronounce Slavoj Žižek? Or (if you make it to happy hour) you aren’t into the trendy local microbrew?

Yes, these are exaggerations, but only slightly so. I promise that years from now, you will be able to look back on this period and recognize how much anxiety can distort perception. In retrospect, you may even see some humor in your more awkward moments. But for now, the best remedy for the genuine discomfort that you may encounter will likely be the passage of time—the chance to settle in, to find your feet, to gain occasional reminders that you actually do have talent and insight, and so much to offer your fellow students and the wise faculty who have chosen to take you on as students.

In the meantime, I offer a few suggestions that emerged in our recent mentoring conversation, and one very powerful online resource.

Don’t leave your old mentors behind. Although it’s important to find mentors at Duke who will support you in your graduate training, at this stage it may be easier to lean on established networks of trusted teachers, advisers, and friends from other institutions. They will likely remind you of all the reasons you are a perfect fit for graduate study at Duke. Just because you’ve moved on to a new stage in your life doesn’t mean that you can (or should) neglect important relationships formed in the past.

Remind yourself of what you’ve accomplished. It’s great when friends are around to remind you of all your stellar qualities, but resilience also requires engaging in positive self-talk. It only works, however, if your inner voice is telling the truth. So make a list (it doesn’t have to live on the fridge) of some impressive things you’ve accomplished over the past year—external awards and accolades, longtime goals achieved, people whose lives you’ve touched. Remind yourself about them frequently.

Ignore “that guy.” Even more importantly, don’t become “that guy.” In the first year of graduate study in the humanities, every seminar you attend will have at least one guy (sorry guys—it’s usually a guy) holding forth on every topic under discussion, exhibiting a capacious knowledge of most of the books on the secondary reading list that no one else bothered to read. A few of these people are just genuinely brilliant, but more often (especially in the first year) they are just showing off. It’s another way of managing imposter syndrome; it annoys or intimidates everyone else; and most professors see right through it.

Remember that everyone feels it sometimes. Even brilliant people who intimidate you (in a nice kind of way). Like Harvard professor Amy Cuddy, who ought to win a Nobel Prize for improving the mental health of high-achieving personality types. View her now-famous TED talk on imposter syndrome, or check out her book, Presence: Bringing your Boldest Self to your Biggest Challenges (FYI: This book is also a lifesaver for anyone preparing to interview for jobs, academic or otherwise).

Finally, be aware that you can take advantage of advising outside your department. Drop me an email sometime; I’m happy to talk, and I promise not to regale you with any more anecdotes from my graduate years.