By Kate Rahbari
Even if my high school self could teleport to the future to witness my accomplishments with my own eyes, I would still deny what I see today. I am one of only a handful of Native Americans in medical school, and I am in my third year of a dual MD-PhD program. For many, these are marks of hard work and success. But for me, they are marks of luck and circumstance.
My insecurities have followed me for as long as I can remember, but they became more apparent throughout college. During this time, someone suggested that I received scholarships because I was a member of a minority. Others told me that any medical school would accept me because I am a Native American and a woman.
These comments left me feeling undeserving of the success that I had worked so hard to achieve. If I had been born a white male, would I have gotten this far? Maybe minority outreach was the only reason for my success. My insecurities grew, and I felt like a fraud.
My thoughts became malignant:
You are not smart enough.
You don’t belong.
You are here because of luck.
Someone will find out about you.
In retrospect, it is clear to see how people’s comments changed my perception of my worth and my achievements, but for the longest time I felt like a fraud without recognizing or understanding why. I felt alone in these feelings until my junior year of college. During a talk at the SACNAS National Conference I felt out of place and not smart enough to be among all the brilliant, accomplished professionals who surrounded me.
Unexpectedly, the speaker described that she still feels exactly how I was feeling in that moment. She and several others explained how frequently throughout their careers they have felt like frauds waiting to get caught. She explained that this phenomenon, called imposter syndrome, is common among high achieving individuals and especially women and people of color.
I was shocked. How could experts with doctoral degrees still feel like imposters? Learning that people I admire and view as successful also experience doubts encouraged me. I finally felt optimistic that I could succeed, despite my insecurities. However, it was disheartening to realize that if they still have these doubts, then I would probably battle with them for the rest of my career, too.
Years later, I continue to work on rejecting imposter thoughts nearly every hour of every day. They still happen frequently, especially when I succeed or when others compliment me. The only time I do not feel like an imposter is when I tell myself that I am not one. Keeping a “Win List” as a physical record of my proudest accomplishments helps as well. Sometimes I even read old emails from mentors who have given me encouragement along the way.
Over time, I have become alert and responsive to my imposter feelings. Whenever doubts arise, I give myself a pep talk in my head:
You are smart.
You work hard.
You are more than a score on an exam.
You are qualified.
You deserve to be here.
Now, several years after sitting in that audience and feeling like a fraud, I can proudly say that I belonged there. I graduated college with honors, I presented my research at several national conferences, I worked at the National Institutes of Health, and I was included as an author on three publications, all despite my imposter syndrome. I was not immune to setbacks along the way, but I got through them all because someone was brave enough to share their story at a conference. I am thankful that the courage and vulnerability of others let me know that I am not alone.
If I could teleport to the past and, without any imposter thoughts, see what I accomplished, I would see someone who is intelligent no matter what her exam scores show. I would see someone who is humble and hardworking. I would see someone who finds learning exciting and is not afraid to ask questions, someone who is more capable of success than she knows but will come to see her worth more and more with time. She is not defined by her doubts and insecurities nor is she alone in them. She is not an imposter. She is brave.
About the Author
Kate Rahbari is a Haliwa Saponi tribal member. Ms. Rahbari grew up in West Chester, PA, and studied biology at Temple University in Philadelphia. She is currently in her second year of medical school in an 8-year Medical Scientist Training Program at the University of Illinois at Chicago. She will be pursuing a PhD in Microbiology and Immunology.