I am an impostor. I am a total fraud. I am not as smart as people think I am. I can’t do this. I will show my true self one day and everyone will see me for what I really am – not a true scientist. Not the best at anything no matter how hard I try.
I spit these phrases at myself day after day. No matter the degrees, awards, peer-reviewed publications, committees – no level of success or achievement is enough to convince myself that I am what everyone else says I am.
After my 3.5 hour oral qualifying exam – not-so-delicately ripping to shreds the fake grant I had spent a month agonizing over – I stood in the hallway. Pacing. Holding back tears. Waiting for the inevitable tap on the shoulder to tell me that, while I had clearly prepared and given it my all, I had failed and would need to leave my program with a Masters. My heart is racing even as I type this, more than a year and half later – some feelings stick with you forever.
But that’s not what happened. The tap on the shoulder came and, instead of a look of disappointment, I was greeted with a handshake and a satisfied “Congratulations, Candidate Hartshorn!” I was baffled. I had spent the last 10 minutes replaying every stupid thing I said and convincing myself that I was about to drive to the nearest Starbucks and apply for a barista position (the ongoing joke throughout my Ph.D.) Surely they had only felt sorry for me. These people watched me struggle through every answer, squirm in my seat, shake with every word. They knew – so why did they pass me?
A little over a year later was my defense. There I stood, in front of my friends, mentors, and brand new husband (right out of the packaging) – ready to quickly run through the past four years of my life. Before handing over the floor, my advisor did the typical mentor spiel running through all my accomplishments – and my response was an awkward thanks while lamenting over how much I hate hearing these accolades. And just like that it was over. We were in the next room with coffee and cookies running through an hour and a half of unanswerable scientific questions. Then to a different hallway but with the same feeling. And again, a tap on the shoulder, a handshake. Only this time my advisor greeted me with “Congratulations, Dr. Hartshorn!” And yet again I was blown away. How had they really not figured it out yet? Maybe these guys are the dumb ones – they keep passing me along like I’m fit to be in their club when I’m clearly not.
A week later a job offer – after turning down two others, one of which was a faculty position at a major university (a.k.a. the job every Ph.D. student talks about being unreachable immediately after graduating). But this time it was the job I really wanted. We visited. I accepted. And a month later we hit the road to move 860 miles north. And the feelings persist. I am now the person people come to with questions. I am the one running my own program. I have been handed the reigns and still feel inadequate. Like I’m still not meant to be here.
These feelings, because I have left them unchecked, have now become pervasive in all aspects of my life. My social circles. My job, of course. And now, after decades of feeling like I am not worthy of the things I have I am taking action. It’s time to stop looking at my amazing life and telling myself that it “just happened”. It didn’t just happen. I made it happen. I will continue to make it happen. It will not be easy. This bully inside my mind has been in control a lot longer than me and will continue to fight me every day. But maybe if you read this now, and you feel this way, too, maybe you can start fighting back sooner. Maybe you can go into your exams and defense feeling confident instead of fraudulent. Maybe you can internalize your accomplishments earlier than me and take the time to bask in them instead of creating excuses as to why you got those accomplishments in the first place. You did the work and you deserve the pay off, I promise.