Impostor no more! How one Ph.D. engineer bested her impostor syndrome
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I am currently a researcher at the Tufts Center for Engineering Education and Outreach. I completed my Ph.D. in mechanical engineering, worked as a product design engineer for Apple, founded my own business, and pursued my research passion combining textiles and electronics.
Despite my accomplishments, I often felt like a failure, not believing that I truly belonged in engineering.
This is imposter syndrome.
[Note from Steve: Fay (a long-time friend of my wife Courtney) reached out to me after reading a post I had published about lying to yourself. The post resonated with her because she's felt the effects of impostor syndrome, but through perseverance and help from her support network, she was able to overcome the worst of what she felt as a Ph.D. student and engineer at Apple.]
This is the story of how one Apple engineer bested her impostor syndrome
In the beginning
I didn’t always suffer from impostor syndrome. In high school, I took eight AP classes, ran track, played violin in the orchestra, served as secretary in Mathletes, and painted scenery in theatre. I didn’t know much about engineering, but a three-week summer engineering program piqued my interest. My group tested toy cars in a wind tunnel to measure drag - it was so fun! I had done well in my high school physics classes, so I chose to major in mechanical engineering.
You don’t belong here
Starting in my freshman mechanical engineering course, I struggled. My class had 100 students and I felt nameless in a sea of faces. I enjoyed the class projects but performed terribly on problem sets and exams. Classmates made comments, planting the seed of impostor syndrome:
“You haven’t had the experiences in your childhood necessary for you to become a successful engineer. I have.”
“You only got in because you’re a girl.”
And so I began to build a narrative that I didn’t belong and that my experiences didn’t count.
In the meantime, I played frisbee, made friends, and later became co-captain. I took more physics classes and enjoyed learning about relativity. I ended up doing undergraduate research in the physics department, examining friction on a bowed violin string. I enjoyed robotics classes, programming robots to navigate mazes, stack cups, and flip pancakes. I had enough coursework to earn minors in both physics and robotics.
However, my grades remained a disaster. Near the end of my undergraduate coursework, my academic advisor told me: “It seems like you’re not taking your classes seriously.” I internalized this feedback; it confirmed what I already believed. There is something about impostor syndrome that lets in all the negative talk, compounding it and blocking out the positive.
After I graduated, I worked in various labs on campus for a year. I was accepted into graduate school despite my less than stellar grades.
It has a name
In graduate school, I started my first term taking three classes, TAing, and playing frisbee. I slept four hours per night and would fall asleep through all my classes. This didn’t bode well for my grades. I remember learning about impostor syndrome for the first time at a luncheon hosted by a female professor. She told a story about how she would compare herself to others in grad school, but every now and then, she was able to muster confidence. “How?”, I asked.
"By pretending I was someone else", she admitted. She would pretend to be a female labmate whom she found to be very capable. Knowing the name of impostor syndrome was only the first step. It took many years to dispel it.
This is a test
In my department, the qualifying exam included a 6-hour written component and a 1-hour oral component. Half of the students failed their first time. I was one of them. For the first time, I felt noticeably different from my male lab mates. I would want to talk about the difficulties of quals prep. I’d cry and be loud. I wanted to talk about my feelings. My male lab mates would quietly hunker down and study harder. I felt alone.
I started meeting other female graduate students from various engineering departments. We talked about classes, relationships with advisors and partners, taking qualifiers, and the various hurdles of grad school. We called ourselves Ladies in Engineering Graduate Studies (LEGS).
In graduate school, people often emphasize the importance of a good relationship with your advisor. I feel that peer mentoring is the least emphasized support; people don't talk enough about the importance of peer support. These women were not just any peers, but standouts in our very male-dominated fields. They were instrumental in helping me complete my Ph.D. About a decade since its inception, I still keep in touch with many of them.
In preparing for my second attempt at quals I put more supports in place. My partner is a man of few words and understandably didn’t know what to say when I was upset. I wrote him an index card of the things that helped. It sounded like this:
“You have been studying for months. You have been studying as hard as you can. You even studied on vacation. I know you are taking this seriously, and you will do the best you can.”
This worked for me because I needed to hear something concrete. I chose words that were grounded in evidence. That felt far more reassuring than “don’t worry, you’ll do fine, you’re smart”; in contrast, those words felt unfounded and based on belief.
For my advisor, I brought him a tissue box and said, “This tissue box is for you, for me, for when I come and cry in your office.” I still needed them for the second time I took quals - when I passed. Sometime later, he had another student who needed them. The student smiled and noted, “This is Fay’s tissue box.”
There came the day I finally finished my Ph.D. I delivered my defense and passed. Surprisingly, this achievement did not make my impostor syndrome go away.
It made it worse!
The night after I gave my defense, I was awake all night replaying my words and wishing I had said things differently, even though I had passed. Later, when I met people who had done amazing doctoral work, I felt like they had done far more work than I had to graduate. I believed I had tricked my committee into signing my paperwork. It didn’t help when people said: “You don’t know this? You have a Ph.D.?” It stung. I truly felt that my Ph.D. was not good enough.
Years later, my impostor syndrome finally started to unravel when my partner’s family said something truly remarkable to me:
“Impostor syndrome is based on the belief that you are good at nothing except fooling the people around you. In a sense, you believe that the people around you are idiots because they can’t see past the facade.”
This struck a chord. How many people had I thought I had fooled? The list was long: my quals committee, my dissertation committee, every interviewer for every job, and then all my supervisors and colleagues. With this reframing, I could believe they were good judges of character with regards to me. I started to hear positive feedback and believe it.
The day it changed
One day, I was home alone, lamenting, “I’m not a real engineer. I don’t like CAD.” And then it clicked: "I'm a product design engineer at Apple. If I'm not a real engineer, then who is?"
Armed with these thoughts, I was finally able to turn impostor syndrome on its head.
What made this a breakthrough for me was the ability to challenge the impostor syndrome narrative on my own, without an outside prompt. I had strengthened a narrative of my capabilities and used it as evidence to fight a 15-year-old lie. This empowered me to see myself for who I was, including both my capabilities and limitations. I realized that there will always be people who are better than me at anything. Interns are better than I am at CAD. It’s okay. It means that I can learn from anyone. I know I can do hard things, hard things that I’ve never done before, and teach myself the skills I need in order to accomplish them. That’s what got me through my Ph.D. and various jobs, running my own business, and it’s how I approach my research interests.
I can’t say that I’m “cured” of impostor syndrome, but its narrative is largely gone. Going through this journey has taught me a lot about myself. I have better clarity of what kind of work I enjoy (and don’t), what I’m good at (or not), and what resources I have (or not). It has taught me how to value my story and use that story to fuel my direction. It inspires me to share my story with others. You don’t need to be an engineer at a high-profile Silicon Valley company to dispel impostor syndrome, but these things helped me along the way:
- Reframing. Impostor syndrome is paradoxical. You must simultaneously hold the beliefs that you are both good at nothing and the world’s best illusionist. How do those two beliefs sit with you?
- Build the support you need. You are not alone in your narrative. What are the kinds of words you might need to hear from others?
- Build a narrative as evidence against impostor syndrome. I started by collecting thank you cards and emails from dear friends. Now when I get an exceptional email, I flag it and print it out. It can be hard to listen to oneself, so hearing from others can help. Don’t know where to start? Ask trusted friends and family for three words to describe you.