The end is in sight. You can see the finish line where you finally achieve your dream of graduation and are out of school forever to start a career of your own.

“Not so fast!” you tell yourself as you experience the uncertainty and ambivalence of being independent and on your own. “But I’m not ready, there is so much I still don’t know!”

The phrase “imposter syndrome” was coined by Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes in 1978 [1] to describe the feeling that you are not the professional who everyone thinks you are, or worse yet, someone will out you as a fraud. Clance and Imes’ research focused on women in professional life, but the phenomenon is often applied to any new professional facing self-doubt.

In my own graduate training, I struggled in research. There was always another study I thought I had to read, another method I needed to better understand to make sure I was doing my own research the “right” way. My advisor hounded me to turn in that first dissertation draft, but I struggled to even start it for fear I would overlook some important knowledge base and fail the moment I turned in the first draft.

I struggled with my writing style and was easily overwhelmed by the length and depth that I knew was expected of a dissertation. I really questioned how I was able to get as far as I had in graduate school and wondered if the dissertation was the end of the road for me.

Although my writing was not up to his standards, my advisor let me propose. I passed. I passed because he said I was a great speaker and I was able to demonstrate that I knew what I was talking about. My dissertation committee was made up of experts with many years of experience and they said I knew what I was talking about.

It can be hard to imagine yourself as any kind of expert, especially when it is so easy to identify those with greater expertise than us. Throughout our training, we are always under the supervision and guidance of others who have already graduated, been licensed, and have more years of experience than we do. We become accustomed to deferring to others’ expertise and spend our time reading and listening to the experts in our field.

It can be strange and perhaps uncomfortable to think that your own name could be included in a list of experts.

Embrace Your Knowledge

You did not get to this point in your education and training by luck. You worked hard through undergrad to get into graduate school and you continue to demonstrate your abilities as you progress to a graduate degree.

You are completing projects and passing classes, and grades are not just given away as consolation prizes in graduate school. You are also likely engaged in a dissertation project which has required many hours of reading, research, data collection, and analysis. No one else has committed this much effort to your topic.

You have put in many hours studying and practicing psychology. Even in your early career, you will find yourself interacting with others who have not devoted as much time to understanding human behavior and mental illness as you have. You now have your degree, and with it, a new level of authority.

Contribute to the Team

Psychologists are more and more often included in interdisciplinary teams. Whether as a part of clinical treatment, an interdisciplinary research project, or serving on an organizational leadership team, psychologists provide a unique understanding of human behavior and systems. When functioning in these work groups, you may be the only one with an extensive psychology background; thus, you are the expert in psychology within that given workgroup.

Don’t be afraid to speak up and share what you know. Demonstrate confidence in your education and be an advocate for psychology by giving good input. Odds are the other group members will not have breadth or depth of training that you have in the field of psychology. Show them how psychology can contribute to the group’s goals.

Know Your Limitations

Part of being an expert is awareness of the limits of your competence. You can’t know everything about psychology and mental health. Don’t be afraid to say you don’t know something. Acknowledging your own limitations is healthy and even expected as an ethical psychologist.

The APA ethics code states that it is the individual psychologist’s duty to be aware of the limits of one’s competencies [2]. The people you work with will have greater respect for someone who acknowledges the limits of their knowledge than for someone who provides poor information that is inaccurate. However, offer to research the topic to find the correct information. You may not be an expert on a specific topic, but your literature review skills allow you to find the answer to a given question through research.  

It can be strange to think of oneself as an expert. We can all easily identify others who we believe have greater expertise than we do; however, you can still be an expert in your own right. In time, you will develop your own professional identity. Others will recognize and value this, and they will turn to you for your expertise. Be confident: you know your stuff.

Be proud of your accomplishments in a way that conveys your passion and desire to help others. Most people who enter the field of psychology do so because they want to be of service and contribute to something bigger than themselves. As you pass through these final steps before you begin your post-graduate career, don’t let self-doubt interfere with the reasons you entered graduate school. Embrace your expertise and take ownership of your growing knowledge.

 

References

[1]  Clance, P.R., & Imes, S.A. (1978). The imposter phenomenon in high achieving women: Dynamics and therapeutic intervention. Psychotherapy: Theory, Research & Practice, 15(3), 241.

[2] American Psychological Association. (2002). Ethical principles of psychologists and code of conduct. Washington D. C.: American Psychological Association.

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Paul T. Korte, PhD

Paul T. Korte, PhD

Paul T. Korte, Ph.D. earned his clinical psychology doctorate in 2011 from Palo Alto University. He completed his clinical internship at the VA St. Louis Health Care System and post-doctoral fellowship at the Louis Stokes VA Medical Center specializing in addictions. Dr. Korte is currently employed at the Harry S. Truman Memorial Veterans Hospital in Columbia, MO where he serves as Team Lead of the Behavioral Medicine and Neuropsychology Service and has clinical responsibilities in the Primary Care-Mental Health Integration program. Dr. Korte maintains membership in several professional associations including the Missouri Psychological Association, having served as President of the Association in 2016-2017 and currently as the Federal Advocacy Coordinator.
Paul T. Korte, PhD

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