Impostor Syndrome

What gives me the right to be here?


This is a question that I have asked myself MANY times since starting graduate school (and to be honest, even before that). I mean, seriously, at some point people will start to figure out that I don’t actually know what I’m doing. Why am I allowed to continue to go through the motions of this academia business when there are truly smart people all around me who are infinitely more productive and accomplished? I am, after all, just a fraud. I am only an impostor in this school.

If this thought cycle seems familiar, you too may be suffering from something called Impostor Syndrome. According to the American Psychological Association, although Impostor Syndrome isn’t found in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), it is a very real form of intellectual self-doubt that is often accompanied by anxiety and depression (Weir, 2013). It is more common among people who are starting a new endeavour, which means that graduate students, like us, are particularly susceptible (Weir, 2013).

Before we continue exploring Impostor Syndrome, please note: it is also important to recognize that graduate school can be a really stressful time. If you are feeling overwhelmed, anxious, or depressed, please reach out for help. Nipissing has counselling available to students who are struggling or even just need to talk. This is a free service and available online for students who are studying from a distance. 

Here’s the thing: each of us is researching something unique. Inevitably, we will become experts in our respective fields. So how do we overcome these feelings of being an impostor?

This is one idea:

But in all seriousness, overcoming impostor syndrome takes time. You need to challenge the negative thoughts and misconceptions that you have about your work and yourself. It might even be beneficial to seek help from someone (psychologist, etc.) who can help you identify cognitive distortions and engage in cognitive restructuring to correct them.

The University of Waterloo published a helpful online guide for Graduate Students regarding Impostor Syndrome. In it, they suggest various strategies that might help students overcome these feelings. These include:

Strategy Description
Break the silence Speak out about your feelings. Knowing there is a name for these feelings and that other people suffer from them can be very reassuring.
Separate feelings from fact Everyone feels stupid from time to time. Just because you feel it doesn’t mean you are.
Recognize when it’s normal to feel fraudulent When something is new to you, you may feel like you don’t fit in. These feelings are natural response for any novice.
Accentuate the positive Don’t obsess over everything. Do a great job when it is important, don’t persevere over routine tasks.
Develop a new response to failure and mistake making Learn from your mistakes and move on. Don’t dwell on what has happened in the past.
Right the rules Don’t feel like you always need to know the correct answer. Recognize that you have just as much right as the next person to make a mistake or ask for help.
Develop a new script Rewrite your mental script from “I am an impostor” to “I may not know all the answers but I am smart enough to figure it out.”
Visualize success Instead of thinking of worst case scenarios, imagine yourself conducting an excellent presentation or answering questions with the correct reply.
Reward yourself Learn to pat yourself on the back when you deserve it. Don’t hide from validation!
Fake it ‘til you make it Take a chance and “wing it;” this is not a sign of ineptness, but rather a sign that you are intelligent and able to rise to a challenge.


As I move through this process of graduate school (and let me be the first to say that I am by no means an expert – I am just another student feeling my way through this academic venture, hoping to emerge on the other side relatively unscathed), I am continually learning. I am learning how to take chances, how to recognize my limits, and how to be proud of my accomplishments and abilities. Every once in a while, I catch myself reflecting and I think, “How cool is it that I am here right now, doing this?” I still have moments where I feel like a fraud or like I shouldn’t be here. In those moments, I remember a line from one of my favourite T.V. shows (the West Wing):

Act as if ye have faith and faith shall be given to you. Put another way, fake it ‘til you make it.

I think I can do that.

We are not alone in this. What are your experiences?

If you’d like to read more about Impostor Syndrome, feel free to check out these great links!

University of Waterloo. (n.d.). Impostor phenomenon and graduate students.

Retrieved from:

Weir, K. (2013). Feeling like a fraud. American Psychological Association. Retrieved from:

Zellner, A. (2011). Banishing impostor syndrome. Retrieved from:

Today’s blog post is courtesy of Catherine Giroux, a second year Master of Education student at Nipissing University. Huge thanks to Catherine for writing about this incredibly relevant issue that can affect so many students at the graduate level.


Which Route? Three Pathways to the Master of Education

“So are you doing thesis, major research paper, or research project and seminar route?”

The first time you hear this question as a grad student, you may have the urge to panic, run away, or play dead. Many graduate students enter the program unsure of their area of interest, let alone if they wish to pursue that area of interest down the long and winding road to a thesis.

Although initially intimidating, being able to choose your path to the Master’s is ultimately a sheep in wolf’s clothing; it may seem frightening at first, but the ability to customize your path to the MEd is designed to serve your long-term career plans. Are you interested in eventually pursuing a PhD? Or are you acquiring your Master’s to attain a new level in your chosen professional field, with no plans to further your academic studies? Knowing this will help you determine the best route for your lifestyle and goals.

Which door will it be? 1, 2, or 3?

In order to attain your Master of Education degree, you must complete the equivalent of 30 credits, and complete the two designated mandatory courses (Research Methods and Understanding Education). Each course is worth 3 credits. However, if you choose to pursue the thesis (worth 12 credits) you need only complete a total of 6 courses. If you choose to pursue the major research paper (or MRP, worth 6 credits) you will need to complete 8 courses. Choosing the research project and seminar route means taking a total of 10 courses, with a research component within the context of a directed course.

Thesis and MRP

Image credit: XKCD comics

Image credit: XKCD comics

If you have any plans or interest whatsoever in pursuing your doctorate down the road, it is strongly advised that you consider the thesis or major research paper (MRP) routes. Many doctoral programs will not even consider granting admission, let alone any kind of funding, without published work under your name. Alternately, they could ask you to submit a qualifying research paper as part of the application process.

PhD work is incredibly rigorous, and proving you’re already capable of focused research and advanced technical writing will demonstrate to prospective programs that you’re ready for the challenge (and hopefully deserving of some funding).

Even if you’re not 100% confident that you do want to consider PhD right now, contact your faculty advisor to discuss your options. You don’t necessarily need to know what you want to write about in advance, but odds are high that you can puzzle it out through consultation with a Nipissing mentor.

What’s the Difference between a Thesis and MRP?

On the surface, very little: were you to go to the library and pull both a thesis and MRP, aside from the different coloured bindings, you probably would have a hard time telling the difference. The different lies in the scope; a thesis is very specific and concentrated in nature, while an MRP can be broader. Pursuing these routes will require fulfilling all the necessary steps to proceed with research; this will include ethics submissions, research proposals, establishing contact with potential research participants, and a lengthy data collection/analysis process.


Research Project and Seminar Route

That being said, many students choose to pursue the research project and seminar route, which allows you to complete your degree through ten structured courses, one of which guides you through the research proposal process. For some, the Master’s is the only graduate degree they wish to pursue; an MEd often opens professional doors and enables you to pursue higher positions in your career. Depending on lifestyle, or limitations such as remote locations or time, courses provide the opportunity to become exposed to a wide range of professors, teaching styles, and information. Perhaps one course will speak to you and capture your attention and passion, develop a relationship with the professor, and deepen the work you’re submitting to be able to count towards the research project and seminar component of your degree.

For more information, see the degree requirements page of Nipissing’s Graduate Studies’ site, and look under option e.

Image credit: Bill Watterson

Image credit: Bill Watterson

Written by Marianne Vander Dussen; validated by Michelann Parr .

Call for Submissions

Attention all graduate students!

We are currently seeking bloggers and contributors for the 2014-2015 year!

As a community separated by distance, we are seeking stories that unify by speaking from the heart about the graduate school experience. Whether discussing the excitement of the highs or frustrations of the lows, we would love to share in your experience, discover inspiration, and stand in supportive solidarity.

Not sure what you’d like to write about? That’s okay, we’d love to help you identify a topic and provide you with any resources you’d need. We know how busy you are, and that this time is year is particularly frantic, but the open nature of the content will leave you room to play and explore, and will (ideally) be a joyful process.

Submissions need only be between 500-1000 words, images and video content are supported. The piece does not need to be heavily academic – personal anecdotes are more than welcome.

As a thank you for contributing, you will receive acknowledgement for your work, which can be added to your CV. Your writing will also be broadcast to our growing audience of readers.

We are currently aiming to establish a schedule for the remainder of 2014 and the beginning of 2015. If you would like to participate, please identify a preferred week to write and we will schedule you in.

Contact Marianne Vander Dussen ( or Michelann Parr ( for more information, or to let us know if you’d like to contribute.


“This isn’t what I thought it’d be!” (Expectations vs Reality, and the Journey of Self-Discovery)

I remember being an undergraduate student taking a research course overseas. It was a research methods course, and we were paired with a faculty member from our host university in our host country. At the end of my time abroad, I remember my faculty supervisor turning to me and asking, “so, you’re coming back here for graduate school, right?”

That moment was pivotal, because previously I’d never even considered graduate studies! In fact, I’m quite certain that my initial reaction to her question was (badly) suppressed laughter. I was stopping after my undergraduate degree. No more school for me.

Little did I know then that I’d find myself on this crazy journey of self-discovery and redefinition that would ultimately result in an M.Ed in progress (with the crazy thought of pursuing doctoral work as well). When I reflect on where I have been and where I am now, I can weigh the expectations that I held for this process against my actual experiences. Graduate school is a process of self-discovery. Everything you thought you knew and understood about yourself, your work habits, and your working and personal relationships with others will be challenged. You will dance on the edge of your comfort zone until you feel ready to spread your wings and fly…but don’t be alarmed if you come tumbling down a few times as well. It is all a part of the process.

I came into the program bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. I was excited to start researching my topic and eager to use my research to make a difference in the world. I had visions of, research, travel, conferences, grants, and publications. Ambitious? Probably.Lifeplan

As I’ve gone through the process, I’ve begun to better identify what I expected and appropriately adjusted my expectations to match the reality of graduate school. Here are my top five examples:

Expectation 1: I need to know exactly what I will be researching before I enter the program.

REALITY: This is not the case here at Nipissing. Luckily, you don’t need to know your whole thesis outline before you apply to the program. You don’t even need to know what route you plan on choosing (thesis, MRP, or course). I changed my mind a few times before landing on a thesis topic that truly felt right for me.

Expectation: I will be free to study EXACTLY what I’m interested in and this will lead me to finding meaning in my life.

REALITY: This can be partially true. In graduate school, you spend a lot of time focusing on what interests you. I’ve also found that it is sometimes helpful to explore other topics of interest in your courses (not just your thesis or MRP) because sometimes your brain just needs a little bit of a break and there’s something to be said for being well-versed in a variety of subjects. As for finding meaning, in my journey I have discovered that there are so many different parts to me and all of these need attention. My family and friends, my participation in sports and activities, my love of music and strange historical/political events and trivia are all things that make me unique and are meaningful. My thesis is important but it’s just one part of the larger picture.

Expectation: I will easily make friends and we will do all sorts of grad-school stuff together. 

REALITY: Ha (insert laughter here). The friend-making process has been interesting to say the least. To be fair, I have made some very solid friendships in graduate school. I still did not realize just how isolating the whole experience would be though. In my undergraduate degrees, I almost took it for granted that friends were the people who were in your classes with you. Graduate school is a whole other experience; friendships have gone online. Even though I opted to do my Masters onsite in North Bay, it has been hard to meet the other graduate students who are here as well. It takes a concerted effort to get together but believe you me that effort is well worth it.

Expectation: I will be smart and confident in Grad School. I will totally know what I’m talking about. I will be attending conferences and I will be publishing!

REALITY: Again, this one isn’t actually untrue. You CAN do these things in Grad School. You really can. For me, this one has just been a particular struggle with Impostor Syndrome (The American Psychological Society likens it to feeling like a fraud. Read more here). That pretty much sums up my first year – keeping my head down and working hard, hoping against hope that Nipissing wouldn’t find out the major mistake they made in           accepting me because there’s absolutely no way I can be working at this academic level, after all. In my second year, I’m recognizing that Impostor Syndrome is a cognitive distortion (yay, psychology?) and that I actually do belong here and I can make a valuable contribution to my field. I can attend conferences and I can publish. I just wish I could have a little more faith in myself from the get-go. (editorial note – this blog will be posting on Impostor Syndrome again in the future!)

Expectation: The thesis defense is the scariest thing in the world.

REALITY: Seeing as how I haven’t gotten there yet, I can’t speak to the reality of this one. I have heard from former students here and at other institutions though that your thesis team will not send you in for your defense if they do not think that you’re absolutely ready. I find that reassuring. I’m not going to lie; I still expect it to be the scariest thing in the world.

Needless to say, I’m very grateful for that day back in my undergrad where my faculty supervisor planted the graduate studies seed in my mind. Never in a million years would I have pictured myself here doing this but I would not change it for anything. I’m learning how to frame my expectations in a way that they might actually line up with the reality of the situation and that certainly helps. It is still good to have expectations, in my opinion, because they help to excite and motivate. Excitement and motivation are necessary in graduate school; they are what help carry you through to the finish line.


Thanks to today’s blogger, for her thoughtful and honest contribution:

Catherine Giroux

November 4, 2014