“You are wonderfully you. You deserve every bit of success that comes your way. Every paper, grant, fellowship. Even that amazing cup of coffee! You worked your butt off for it, you earned it, and you should celebrate. Be proud of even the smallest accomplishments.” I recently saw an Instagram post from an account I follow that post cartoons related to PhD research. This post showed a cartoon of an ideal vs. a realistic scenario on receiving a fellowship. On one side it said: “How I should feel” with a person celebrating and on the other sides it said: “How I actually feel” and showing a character with thought bubbles of self-doubt. The person was telling themselves they are not worthy, they are a fraud, and they can not accomplish the task. (Adapted version of the cartoon shown.) It is clearly the point of the person behind the Instagram account to show this images as a statement that “you’re not alone” and evoke others to write about their experiences. They also include hashtags such as #youcandoit. After seeing this this post, I went on to read some of the comments from PhD or graduate school students. I was shocked how many were saying that they felt like the doubtful character in the cartoon when they received an award and comparatively only a handful indicated that they were proud of their accomplishments.
Scrolling down the rest of my feed, I couldn’t get that post out of my mind. It still bothered me the following day. Why were we, graduate student, so hard on ourselves? We graduated at the top of our classes in undergrad with many of us already holding master’s degrees. We have spent countless hours in the lab and the other countless hours reading about our research topics. Were we somehow less qualified than someone else to do our research? Were we not practically experts on our research niche? So, why were we so doubtful of our abilities, especially when we had just been rewarded with a fellowship, grant, or paper publication. These thoughts have been on my mind for a while even before I had seen the Instagram post, but now it frustrated me more than ever.
It seems to me that most of the self-doubt and feeling of being an impostor stem from the graduate student or PhD culture. You don’t really hear your friends in the industry jobs complaining that they don’t think they deserve to get payed for their works or don’t deserve that raise or promotion. So, why did we?
I think the impostor feeling manifests in part from our peers, but mostly from ourselves, at least from my experiences. Most of us started graduate school excited with the prospect of research we were going to do with boundless opportunities ahead of us. However after some time in the graduate program and talking with most graduate students, you typically get very negative responses when they talk about their work or rewards. The negativity of your peers can eventually reflect on your own thoughts and opinions of yourself. I touched upon this in a previous blog post about staying positive in grad school. But much of the impostor syndrome stems from ourselves. It likely isn’t contributed to any one thing, but when a seed is planted it grows over time.
While it is an incredibly difficult task of changing the graduate student culture, which is a whole blog post of its own, we can start to make those changes in ourselves and those around us. If there is one thing I want you to leave this blog with is this:
You are wonderfully you. You deserve every bit of success that comes your way. Every paper, grant, fellowship. Even that amazing cup of coffee! You worked your butt off for it, you earned it, and you should celebrate. Be proud of even the smallest accomplishments.
I hope with social media we can slowly chip way current state of the graduate student culture and make positive changes. Social media can bring us closer together, communicate about science, and realized that we are not alone in our fears, but most of all realize that we are worth it. This is only the beginning of this conversation!
Use the hashtag: #GradHappy on your social media to help celebrate your accomplishments and promote others to do the same!