Experiences With Impostor Syndrome

Within the last seven days, my life has encountered two major milestones:

– I took the longest, most intense, high-stress exam in my life thus far—the Qualifying Exam.

– Two days later, I found out the results of that exam. I passed, apparently without a bit of of debate. I officially became Nicholas Hunt-Walker, Master of Astronomy.

I think the news of my success still has yet to fully hit me. Honestly, I have a hard time believing that it’s actually true—that I managed to pass the qualifying exam at the “doctoral” level. The first thoughts that come to mind even now are, “how is this even possible? Are they sure that they graded the exam correctly? Knowing what I know about astronomy, there’s no real way in which I could be viable to move forward to the next stage in my graduate career.”

It’s not as if I hadn’t made a serious attempt to prepare for it. Any one of my friends (hell, even my recent ex-girlfriend) could be asked about the extent of my prep work, and they’d be able to confidently rattle off some double-digit number of hours per week that I had spent working toward this goal. There was rarely a day that wasn’t spent studying, and those that weren’t were spent working in some capacity so that I’d have more time later TO STUDY. Weekends became cherished not for breaks from work, but for opportunities to study without daily interruptions. Evenings became working nights, where I could let the Sun drop below the horizon while I tried to fill my brain to capacity with facts about the universe. Meals became brief breathers between pages of my notes. The few hours where my mind wasn’t occupied with thoughts of astronomy (or imminent failure and the consequences of it) could be counted amongst hours of sleep and…physical recreation (capoeira being one of my principal physical outlets). As time went on, even that decompression time became shorter and shorter. I say all that to say that, intellectually, I know that I put in the hours.

However, when I reflect on my knowledge of astronomy and astrophysics, it doesn’t seem to be sufficient. The volume of information that I’ve packed into my skull seems underwhelming when I think about what it should take in order to qualify as a true Ph.D. candidate. Yes I know some things about planets, stars, galaxies, and the universe as a whole. I know about some of the astrophysics of the universe, and can tell you any number of things about the mechanics of the universe and the little bits within. Hell, even if I don’t know explicitly what physical laws a particular phenomenon might follow, I can probably make some sensible assumptions about how it might work and derive my way toward something resembling the truth. But…I don’t know. Master of Astronomy? It just…doesn’t quite seem to fit.


This, however, is not a new feeling.

Ever since I had begun taking graduate classes at the University of Washington, I’ve felt a little out of place. This is not because of any deficiency in the astronomy department, I just felt a little behind the pace of my peers locally and nationally. My years of intellectual training seemed to fail me, as I wasn’t always able to calculate or make conceptual connections as quickly as most of my classmates. Long and involved derivations seemed to loom before me like dark, foreboding mountains in the distance, insurmountable with whatever I had been equipped with. And forget about anything computational. Everyone else seemed to see coding instructions as sensible and straight forward, while I always felt like I might as well have been trying to build a fusion reactor with instructions written in Sanskrit (damn you Hydrodynamics!).
With these feelings in my gut, as well as the apparently tangible examples of my incompetence (I never did figure out that shock tube…), I couldn’t imagine how I’d make it in this field. Never mind all of what I had managed to retain from my classes, and all the moments where my undergraduate training actually served to demonstrate my conceptual understanding. Every success was merely me doing what it was that I was supposed to do. Every misstep seemed to be the stumbles of someone walking in shoes made for someone else’s feet.


I was in a seat meant for someone else.

The impostor phenomenon is characterized by an individual’s inability to internalize their accomplishments. Instead, the individual feels like any success that they have thus far experienced has been a function of the circumstances, pure luck, pity, or some inexplicable blindness in those evaluating their ability. Worse yet, the individual oftentimes feels perpetually fearful of their perceived incompetence being uncovered and that they’ll be exposed as the fraud that they “truly” are. Hell, I know that I listened to my advisor’s voicemail of congratulations at least 5 times to make sure that there wasn’t anything in her message that I was misunderstanding. I had to make sure that the message was real, that she was talking to me, and that she was talking about me.


In the end, my ability got me into grad school. Two years later, that same ability secured my place.

It was me sitting for that exam for two sets of 3 hours. Sure, my other classmates took theirs at the same time, but it was me in front of my exam. It was me that answered 10 questions pretty well and two more pretty crappily (is that even a word?). I wrote those words on the submitted pages. I made the calculations. My pseudonym is on the top-left corner of every page, and in the end that proclamation of success came to my phone.

So at least I know that I am where I deserve to be. Perhaps, now that I have the time for this sort of thing, I can work toward realizing emotionally that the shoes in which I’m walking are my own. After, maybe I can work on taking bigger steps forward, becoming that model scientist that I know I can be.