I'm a second-year PhD student at a well-ranked university, and am seriously beginning to feel that I'm an imposter in this place. My lab group is filled with people who ranked in the top 0.01 percent of examinations in their home country, have won olympiads and international competitions, and published an insane amount while maintaining a 4.0 GPA during grad school, while here I am with a scrub 3.5 GPA in undergrad and no publications.

I honestly think that admissions screwed up somewhere with my application and that I really don't belong here. I really want to get a PhD and I love academic research, but feel that I just can't compete against such people.

Has anyone ever gone through these feelings? I feel that I can't speak to anyone else about it because everyone seems so accomplished, and it'd only reinforce my feelings of inadequacy.

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    I feel that I can't speak to anyone else about it: What about a counselor, or someone else experienced in helping grad students but who is not directly connected to your program? Commented Apr 23, 2019 at 2:12
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    Another question: to what extent are you "competing"? Just because they do well, how does this prevent you from also doing well? Commented Apr 23, 2019 at 2:12
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    The problem is, you aren't in any position to determine if you are an impostor vs having the syndrome. I would suggest discussing your concerns with faculty to see if you're meeting the expectations of the program, and if not come up with a plan.
    – Kimball
    Commented Apr 23, 2019 at 6:11
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    Forget all this. You say "I really want the PhD..." and this, providing that is not merely a dream but you love research and put effort on it, it suffices. If they really mistakenly took you, see it as their mistake. During PhD you are still learning, not the basis but a lot. So relax and do your best.
    – Alchimista
    Commented Apr 23, 2019 at 7:52
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    As someone who has - in full awareness - accepted people to ones group which started out from less optimal situations who have since done exceedingly well, trust me that we look for a lot more than just "prize-winning thoroughbreds" when we seek young scientists. They saw something in you - now you need to see this, too. Commented Apr 23, 2019 at 10:03

4 Answers 4


Own it. Channel these feelings into finding what makes you competitive and happy.

As an impostor that continues to 'make it', I have accepted that I bring something different. My undergrad GPA was 3.6, exactly, at a no-name school. I was accepted to a very good school for my PhD, and opted for a lower ranked school on the basis that I would 'have a better chance'. Likely, that was an error: I have since held a postdoc and now a faculty position at a high ranked school, with offers from other high-ranked schools. People puzzle over my CV, which is all kinds of nontraditional, but they also see evidence there that I do some things very well. I do, and these things make me competitive with the 4.0-olympiad-never-made-a-mistake crowd. Indeed, the fact that I continually make mistakes is itself a competitive edge; I'm inherently more fearless than my well-heeled peers. This strategy has led to a career that some of my 'perfect' classmates have openly wondered at. I wonder at it. I mean, I'm still a scrub, just a highly effective one. ;)

So, go do that.


"My lab group is filled with people who ranked in the top 0.01 percent of examinations in their home country, have won Olympiads in international competitions, and published an insane amount while maintaining a 4.0 GPA during grad school, [...])"

Yes, those people exist. But they probably aren't representative. That you think that "everyone" else is cleverer is likely a symptom of the impostor syndrome.

Here are is a task for you: Take a large enough, unprejudiced sample of PhD students around you. Then, count the proportion of those who you certainly know to have two of the distinctions you just mentioned, i.e. gold medal at a competition and top 0.01 percent, or 3 peer-reviewed publications over 10 pages long and 4.0 GPA during all of grad school. Be scientific, hearsay doesn't count, nor does your gut feeling.

Now look at the many people who are "normal". Very likely, those are actually a bigger proportion. Don't compare yourself to the few highly successful ones. Actually, as a rule of thumb, don't compare yourself to anyone at all. If you really need to compare yourself to others, compare yourself to the median of the distribution.

But instead of comparing yourself to others too much, just look at your work you are presently doing and ask yourself whether you're doing solid, good work. Don't worry about not having published anything yet. You're a PhD student, you're not expected to have published yet.

You don't need to compete during your PhD. Just do your work well. This is all that one can reasonably expect from you.


You need to look at the future, not the past.

You suggested that admissions may have made a mistake in letting you in. I doubt they have made a mistake if the institution is highly ranked: it is possible that your CV stands out for something else than purely the grades. If they indeed did a mistake then that's your golden chance to prove that you deserve to be there. By the way.. Probably no one will ever know they did a mistake (if indeed they have).

You need to look at what you can gain from your situation. You say you are among very smart people.. Possibly smarter than you. That's excellent, you can only improve from there by staying with them, understanding what they do better than you and why. If you stay positive, humble and willing to learn you can surely improve your weak spots.

Do not try to compete immediately face to face with people in their area of expertise but rather try to learn from them. If you are in a position where you are forced to compete, then try to steer the evaluation to your strong points until you improve your weaker ones.


Pff, what you describe is not being an impostor. Lots of skilled PhD students come from mid-range or what some people would claim "no name" universities.

Being an impostor would be dressing suspiciously well, not showing you have any deeper understanding but knowing very well what hip words and phrases to use. Knowing the names of the cool algorithms but not showing understanding. Not showing any actual work or theory but lots of fancy pre-made professional-level poster pictures. If you are good you could probably pull it off with a bachelor in behavioural science or psychology.

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