Fighting the Imposter Syndrome in Graduate School

Two months into the second semester of my clinical psychology Psy.D. program I opened my email like I would on any normal day. Only this time, there was an email from the community mental health center based at my university. The email said that after careful consideration, I had been assigned a client. I couldn’t believe it. I was finally going to have my first opportunity to provide individual psychotherapy. Since I was 15, I had wanted to become a psychologist. I took all of the psychology classes offered at my high school, and then went on to major in psychology in college. I had made it to graduate school, and now eight years after declaring my love for psychology, I could finally call myself a student therapist.

After a brief moment of elation, an uneasy feeling swept over me, and my stomach sunk. Intense thoughts were swirling through my head. “What am I going to do? I don’t know how to be a therapist. My client is going to think I am a total fraud”. Sure, I knew psychology from an academic perspective, but now that it was time to apply my knowledge, I was terrified. Fortunately, I wasn’t alone in this emotional state. These thoughts and feelings of inadequacy and anxiety are common in budding therapists and other professionals. The phenomenon has been called The Imposter Syndrome.

People who experience the Imposter Syndrome feel incompetent and unable to perform their occupational duties despite having a sufficient level of knowledge and capability. So now that you know what The Imposter Syndrome is and can probably relate to it, how can you go about managing and alleviating these feelings?

Bringing this issue to the attention of a supervisor or advisor can be immensely helpful in building confidence and gaining insight into your own abilities. Supervision is a constant reminder that you are not doing this alone and that no one is expecting you to do it alone. It is crucial to use supervision time not only to discuss what is occurring with your clients, but also to discuss what thoughts and feelings you are having in relation to your clinical work. Chances are, if you are having strong internal reactions in the therapy room, your client will notice and react to it!

Another helpful skill I use to overcome feeling like an imposter is admitting to my client when I do not know the answer to a question. This appears to be a simple task, but it is something many students, myself included, struggle with. Sometimes as graduate students, we may believe that others expect us to know all of the answers. We see it as a blow to our egos when we can’t find the answers, consequently pushing us further into the depths of the Imposter Syndrome. When I do not know the answer to a question, I acknowledge it. Then I take steps to remedy the situation through consultation with supervisors or reviewing recent literature on the matter. Letting go of that need to be the perfect therapist can free you from those feelings of inadequacy.

One final tip for managing the Imposter Syndrome is simply talking with peers. You may be worried that everyone else knows what they are doing and that sharing your feelings of incompetency will make your peers look down on you. However, once you start talking with others, you’ll soon realize that everyone experiences similar feelings. You may find that in those areas you feel confident in, others struggle with, and vice versa. We can help each other. This understanding will foster communication with others who are in similar situations as you and ultimately will lead to professional growth. Don’t be afraid to speak up!

The Imposter Syndrome is a common phenomenon experienced by many graduate students and young professionals. Even with these skills, I still find myself questioning my abilities at times, but this is normal. Overcoming the Imposter Syndrome isn’t about eradicating all feelings of inexperience, but rather understanding that being a clinician is a never-ending learning experience and a constant opportunity for growth and development.


Discussion Questions

  1. What are some ways you have been able to overcome the Imposter Syndrome?
  1. What was the most helpful advice you got from a supervisor/advisor about managing feelings of incompetency?
  1. In what ways can your clinical work be affected when you don’t acknowledge these feelings?


Guest Blog Bio


MargaretMargaret Edwards is a second year doctoral student in the clinical psychology Psy.D. program at Marywood University in Scranton, PA. Before attending Marywood, Edwards obtained her bachelor’s degree from Frostburg State University with a major in psychology and a minor in Spanish. Edwards’ clinical interests include schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and eating disorders.