MIT is a school that belongs to someone else, though to whom I’m not sure. When I got accepted here, I was fairly certain it was a mistake. Even days after the acceptance e-mails went out, when science writing program director, Tom Levenson, called to confirm that I actually got in, I had to put him on hold so I could freak out. Months later, I still haven’t told many of my friends, mainly because there’s a small piece of me that believes that a highly knowledgeable group of admissions reps somehow switched my application with someone else’s and will one day swoop down to take it back.
Here are some things I’ve learned about Impostor Syndrome since being at MIT—I.S. disproportionately affects women, it’s rampant at nearby Harvard Business School where about 75 percent of students felt like they were accidentally admitted, and it’s a thing that affects an almost intimidating number of top achievers in their field, from Fortune 500 CEOs to Supreme Court Justices to Pulitzer-Grammy-Tony Award-winning badasses. Even the phenoms feel like phonies.
“The key to getting past [Impostor Syndrome], experts say, is making accurate, realistic assessments of your performance,” reports Science magazine. “Perhaps equally important: knowing you’re not alone.” I’m grateful to MIT for their efforts to make students feel like they’re not alone. The graduate and science writing orientation programs directly addressed this as has both student and institution-driven media. It would be best to somehow sidestep Impostor Syndrome feelings entirely, but in lieu of that happening, it’s comforting to know that enough people here feel like Mr. Ripleys to justify acknowledgement from MITs administration.
The theoretical astrophysicist Edmund Bertschinger, a guy who teaches here years after being rejected from MIT as an undergrad, says that the secret to dealing with Impostor Syndrome is “Persistence matters.” That’s also comforting because while I might not be able to out-brilliant anyone on campus or understand a damn thing about theoretical astrophysics, I can keep showing up day after day, like a science writing version of the disenfranchised children’s baseball team in the epically awful 2001 Keanu Reeves film, Hard Ball.
And that seems to be everyone else’s plan too—keep showing up. I was, and still am, surprised at how much of a fraud I’ve felt like since being here, but I’ve also been shocked at how many conversations I’ve had with others here attesting the same. MIT undoubtedly has amazing facilities and an incredible faculty. The student-to-robot ratio is good and the number of hand-built roller coasters on campus is supremely satisfying. But my favorite part of being here, thus far, is the weirdly wonderful feeling of being an impostor among impostors. I wonder if Edmund Bertschinger feels the same.