How to Adjust to Graduate Writing | The Imposter Phenomenon

woman studying in library

When I started graduate school, I felt like I did not belong in my program at all. I found myself surrounded by individuals who had high-level positions in different companies, years of applied experience, and some had published articles and books to their name. Being in a classroom with these accomplished people made me feel like I had somehow been admitted by mistake. I surely did not belong in the same program.

The Imposter Phenomenon

The imposter phenomenon is often described as a successful person’s fear of being revealed as a fraud or imposter (Castro, Jones, & Mirsalimi, 2004). Doctoral students are said to be particularly prone to this experience (Horne, 2011). There is a significant body of literature on what causes many of us to experience this often uncomfortable existence (i.e. Sonnak & Towell, 2001; Want & Kleitman, 2006). However, what is likely more important is how this experience really impacts us as students. From personal experience, one of the most difficult aspects was feeling confident sharing my perspectives through my writing. If you’re a graduate student feeling like an imposter, you may also struggle with adjusting to graduate-level writing expectations.

The Imposter Phenomenon and Writing

As a graduate writer, you’re expected to find your own voice; you’re supposed to move away from just reporting out the work of others, and really take positions on topics, provide analysis, and become a true scholar. This kind of task is not easy, and it’s particularly scary when you feel like an imposter.

My mentors and instructors would tell me to “add your own analysis” or “take ownership.” As someone struggling with imposter feelings, these comments were terrifying. I would think, “Who am I to comment on this topic?” or “Nobody would be interested in what I have to say on this; I’m not an expert.”

I struggled with my writing, often spending hours trying to perfect a short discussion post. I would get myself stuck in what is often dubbed the imposter cycle (Caselman, Self, & Self, 2007). I would put a lot of time into preparation, stress out about all the details, put off sharing my work until the last minute, and then ultimately do well. When I did well, it just reinforced my negative cycle.

Change Perspectives

Finally, a mentor explained that my courses were the place for me to take chances and practice writing with ownership and authority. They didn’t expect me to get it right the first time -- nobody did. This change in perspective, along with some other strategies, helped me to relax a bit about details. If you’re struggling with overcoming imposter feelings when it comes to your writing, here are some tips:

Look at the Big Picture

One of my tendencies was to stress over every single thing I wrote in the classroom, from responses to my peers in the discussion board to literature reviews. Every sentence I wrote stressed me out. I eventually learned to look at the bigger picture. Nobody was going to judge me based on one single thing I wrote; how I was viewed as a graduate student and professional would be based on the larger collection of my work. Taking this perspective helped me to reduce the stress associated with individual pieces.

Own the Praise

Because of my imposter feelings, I struggled with accepting praise from instructors and peers. I believed they had somehow confused my work with another student or that they possibly didn’t read the entire assignment. To change my thinking, I had to start owning the praise. When I received a positive comment from an instructor on my writing, I would post it above my desk or on my desktop. When I was stressing about the next assignment, having this encouragement nearby helped me to remember that I was doing just fine.

Fake It

As a student, I stumbled on a TED Talk from Amy Cuddy (2012), who famously told viewers to, “fake it until you make it.” I took this idea and ran with it. I started presenting myself as confident, and I noticed that I actually started to feel confident. This confidence spilled over into my writing.

I won’t lie to you – I still struggle with feeling like an imposter professionally. I sometimes find myself stressing out over writing an email, or I’ll edit a single sentence in a blog several times, but I am in a far better place. Remember that changing your thoughts and behaviors will take time, and you will have days when you still experience those imposter feelings. It’s okay -- the key is to be aware and take action to change those feelings.

 

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Written by Christy Fraenza, Learning Services Writing Center

 

References

Caselman, T., Self, P., & Self, A. (2006). Adolescent attributes contributing to the imposter phenomenon. Journal of Adolescence, 29(3), 395-405.

Castro, D., Jones, R., & Mirsalimi, H. (2004). Parentification and the imposter phenomenon: An empirical investigation. American Journal of Family Therapy, 32(3), 205-216.

Cuddy, A. (2012). Your body language shapes who you are. TED Conferences. Retrieved from https://www.ted.com/talks/amy_cuddy_your_body_language_shapes_who_you_are

Horne, M. (2011, August). The imposter phenomenon: The doctoral student experience. Paper presented at the APA Annual Convention, Washington, D.C.

Sonnak, C., & Towell, T. (2001). The imposter phenomenon in British university students: Relationships between self-esteem, mental health, parental rearing style and socioeconomic status. Personality and Individual Differences, 31(6), 863-874.

Want, J., & Kleitman, S. (2006). Feeling “phony”: Adult achievement, behaviour, parental rearing style and self-confidence. Journal of Personality and Individual Differences, 40(5), 961-971.

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