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A lot of graduate students/applicants, it seems, suffer from "imposter syndrome." Typically, these are bright, high-achieving students, who nonetheless doubt their ability, and this most likely stems from the competitive and selective nature of grad. school and academia. However, how can one tell if they're suffering from "imposter syndrome" or if they're really not cut out for graduate school/academia?

The difference that I see (between myself and these students) is that their professors believe in them, wrote them letters of recommendation, plus they have good research skills (even if they don't see it in themselves, others do). Despite doing well in my coursework (which doesn't even indicate much given rampant grade inflation), I could tell that most of my professors lacked confidence in me (at least I think). For example, when I initially applied to grad school (unsuccessfully), one of my professors wrote me a letter of recommendation that seemed almost sarcastic in its praise. For example, he described a paper I wrote as being among the "top 10 papers he's ever seen from a student in his 20 years of teaching." The paper, however, was only around 10 pages (that was the requirement), plus I used some dubious sources (i.e. newspaper and online articles etc.) because I was in a rush. (There were no requirements on sources, and I received an A on the paper, but once one gets to upper division classes, they should know to only use scholarly sources.) Thus, this couldn't have been one of the top ten papers he's ever read. (Or he's taught some pretty weak students!) (And he didn't even qualify it with "top 10 undergraduate papers," which also confirms that he was probably being sarcastic.)

This is only one example, but I can tell that others don't believe in me. So I wanted to ask if I could be suffering from imposter syndrome or if I'm one who really isn't cut out for academia? That might be too much of an individualistic question, so I'll instead ask: how can one tell if they're suffering from imposter syndrome or if they really are an "imposter?"

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  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – cag51
    Sep 16 '20 at 1:39
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We can’t tell from what you write how promising you really are. But I can say you’re showing many classic signs of impostor syndrome.

Believe the assessments you receive from instructors.

At least in my experience (the US and NW Europe), “sarcasm” is very rare, and considered quite unprofessional. I would certainly be shocked to see it used in a letter of recommendation, or a formal course report, or anything like that. It might be used in informal personal feedback, but this would be unusual, and considered by most academics today as inappropriate and unprofessional, or (at best) regrettably old-fashioned.

Grade inflation is a realistic concern to some extent, as is “praise inflation” in letters of recommendation. But it sounds like you’re taking this concern far over the top — don’t discount grades or praise entirely. If your instructor praised the paper, it really does mean he was impressed by it. Sure, you are aware of the flaws in it — but he saw those flaws, and nonetheless remembered it as very impressive overall. (Incidentally, it isn’t at all unusual for a paper to have some sloppiness, but still be extremely impressive by showing good insights, knowledge, or exposition.) Which brings me to:

Don’t judge yourself by a double standard compared to your peers.

There’s a saying: “We compare our own behind-the-scenes to everybody else’s highlight reels.” Everything you write sounds like what that describes: When you get praise or positive feedback, you are looking for reasons to discount it; but you are taking your peers’ positive feedback at face value. At the same time, you say you see lack of confidence in you from professors, but everything concrete you mention is positive.

These are all massive red flags for impostor syndrome. It’s always hard to judge our own capabilities, but when in doubt, look at the most concrete feedback you’ve received from people whose judgement you trust, and take it at face value, especially compared to the feedback they give your peers. If you look for specific reasons to discount it, you’ll always find some, because you know your own life and flaws better than anyone else. (Just like when an arrogant person looks for reasons to discount criticism, they can always find some good excuse.) So, fight any tendencies to discount feedback, either positive or negative. Try to believe your professors’ assessments and feedback, praise and criticism, and take both on board. Good luck!

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  • 17
    Re sarcasm - I once saw "You will be very lucky if you get this person to work for you" in a reference from a previous employer. Sep 14 '20 at 17:45
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    @user2768 Indeed two readings. In Germany, people never write negative references (this can lead to lawsuits), so they encode problems in superficiously positive language ("sociable" -> "drunk"; "always give their best" -> "which is not good enough"; "always on time" -> "little else positive to report"; "hard-working" -> "yes, but with any results?"). The present formulation is a piece of genius, never saw that before. Sep 15 '20 at 16:30
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    @user2768 It's country-dependent. "You will be very lucky if you get this person to work for you" can be read as if that person is one lazy bum who will not do any work. Of course, if they have lots of papers and the rest of the reference is fine, this reading variant can be excluded. This does not transfer to Anglo-Saxon countries - here the model of writing references is different. Sep 15 '20 at 18:05
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    @CaptainEmacs: "I cannot recommend X too highly," "We are always looking for job applicants who remind us of X," "X's real talent is getting wasted," "I am honored to say X is a former colleague of mine," "X was fired with enthusiasm," "Nobody would be better for your position than X."
    – KCd
    Sep 15 '20 at 22:13
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    @CaptainEmacs In the USA, at least, writing a sarcastic referral letter would be dangerous and unprofessional, even if using encoded/ambiguous terms. It could prompt legal action. Much safer to say nothing. Sep 16 '20 at 18:13
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"top 10 papers he's ever seen from a student in his 20 years of teaching."

That is not them being sarcastic, for one thing the professor should know that sarcasm does not translate well between cultures (and translates very badly when written down, hence why we are even having this discussion as different people believe differently as to whether it is sarcasm or not). Besides the reference gains nothing from sarcasm, if they didn't believe in you then the reference would be a much weaker "I know this person and taught them XX and they scored YY in my class", or they wouldn't have even agreed to write a letter for you.

That is a typical statement I see in reference letter written by American professors, to place the applicant in context with others they have taught. They are simply trying to give their expert opinion on you compared to your peers.

As to applying elsewhere, that's just good practice. Applying for anything in academia is hard and there is limited space. If anything applying to extra places helps you to write better applications, which can then help when you apply to your "dream" location.

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  • That's a good point; if they don't believe in you ,they don't write a letter at all (as I unfortunately found out with the professor I admired most). I just thought the praise seemed disproportionate to the actual paper, but I didn't realize that was typical in LORs.
    – Gemini
    Sep 14 '20 at 10:34
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    This is an important point. Reference letters can contain a lot of coded language and not quite mean what one would first think they mean. But they don't contain sarcasm or irony. This just doesn't work in this setting.
    – quarague
    Sep 15 '20 at 13:28
  • @Gemini Besides, if he wanted to really be sarcastic, why not do it properly? "This is surely the single best paper I have ever read, not just among my students, but by anyone in the history of the world!" Sep 16 '20 at 18:16
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Compare to your peers.

If you plot the performance of all your peer group, you'll find it looks like a Gaussian because of the Central Limit Theorem. Then see where you are on that curve. If you're above average, you are suffering from imposter syndrome.

If you scored an "A" on that paper, you should be above average (I can almost guarantee that the average grade is below that, especially if you are in a class that is grading on a curve). In turn that makes your professor's statement that your paper is among the top ten he's seen in the past 20 years more believable, and more likely that you are suffering from imposter syndrome.

By the way, about citing newspaper and online articles, check out reference 1 in this paper, which according to Google has 24,099 citations as of time of writing.

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    How would one "plot the performance of all [their] peer group", in practice? And what is the definition of "peer group" for which "above average" means "imposter syndrome?" This student wants to know whether they're well qualified for graduate school, and presumably the people considering graduate school are already well towards the right end of the theoretical bell curve...Do you really think there is a random sample of enough such people for whom the OP has fine-grained grade information (they all get A's!), either all at the same institution or with easy access to normalization factors? Sep 15 '20 at 20:13
  • @KevinArlin you pick the metric you care about and plot that. So for example if you care about grades, you plot the grades (or get your percentile in the class); if you care about graduate admissions then you plot the universities your peers are accepted into vs yours, etc. If one is below average then imposter syndrome doesn't apply, since one is genuinely below average (from my point of view that is almost a tautological statement). As for acquiring the data, if one cannot get it from one's institution, there is still standardized exams.
    – Allure
    Sep 16 '20 at 3:07
  • The variable of interest (suitability for grad school) is not quantitative or directly measurable. GRE scores don’t count. Grad school admissions are, obviously, not good enough since the characteristic impostor syndrome sufferer is already at a good department. Further, one has to define an appropriate comparison group, and these students compare themselves to the most successful peers they can find. Your suggestion requires picking a reasonable peer group and comparing on objective indicators of quality, which is just the suggestion “don’t have impostor syndrome.” Sep 16 '20 at 4:03
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As an additional important point: whatever your current state of scholarship and maturity, it is not static.

If nothing else, having observed literally 1000+ grad students in math over the last 40+ years, huge changes occur in people in that 20-28 year-old range. I've seen people who seemed silly and unfocused do amazingly good things a few years later.

And, as always, "failure" is only a temporary state... unless you give up.

Another: if, regardless of what other people are saying about you, you can buy groceries and pay rent by doing what you like, you are a success.

Don't over-think it. I know, academe pointedly makes us doubt ourselves... Not the best feature.

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  • To add to that, I've noticed that it's hard to predict who in a grdmaduate program will even finish, at least at my former grad program. Sometimes the students who seem very promising end up dropping out of the program, and the students who don't follow the standard "approach" end up finishing.
    – Mehta
    Sep 16 '20 at 20:09
  • What really bothered me in grad school was the insistence on following a prescribed, structured set of instructions: Going to class, doing specific exercises, etc.
    – Mehta
    Sep 16 '20 at 20:13
  • @Mehta, yes, the strangely rigid rules... which, yes, some people think are the essence of math? But, in reality, "rules" are often a clumsy approximation of "sense/good advice", which, of course, is much more nuanced. Sep 16 '20 at 20:34
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I have Impostor Syndrom and I wanted to share a bit on it.

I was considered really brillant during primary school, I had really good grades, but it all went crashing down until I had to retake a year in IT engineering school.
During the duration of this school, I was always on the brink of having failling grades, sometimes I did have some really bad, failing grades. I never had a project which could have made me proud.
Nonetheless, I obtained my diploma and went to work 3 months later. I was fired 5 months later.
I went into depression after 4 month of not finding back any work, despite having multiple interviews. I came to believe I shouldn't have had my diploma.

Even with all I said, now I know. I am worth it.
If you are not sure, ask your former teachers. They don't have any reason to lie to you. Do not look too deep into why you had such or such grades, why others reacted such or such way. As I understand it, it's your own doubt that you see reflected into others.

To be sure, I can only recommend you go see a coach whom you can talk this issue with. I did not answer the question (how to recognize...), but I wanted to share my feeble experience with someone who might be going by the same phases.

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    How did you know you had this syndrome?
    – user111388
    Sep 15 '20 at 17:10
  • I talked about how I felt to those around me, my parents, my girlfriend... They told me that I was wrong in believing I had nothing of worth. I was not diagnosed by a doctor if that is what you want to know. But the crippling lack of confidence and self-doubt led the coach I went to see to tell me she had seen many people like me, who iknew things but were too blinded to recognise it. That is when she told me about the Impostor Syndrom.
    – Saurazim
    Sep 15 '20 at 17:59

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