Overcoming imposter syndrome at medical school

Have you ever looked around yourself in a class and been in such awe of the talent of the people you’re among and begin to wonder how you even slipped through? Begin to doubt your own abilities? Begin to think you were just an anomaly that made it through by luck? Medical school is an exhilarating endeavour but no doubt many of us will find ourselves grappling with a completely normal feeling termed ‘imposter syndrome’. In this article, we will be exploring what imposter syndrome is as well as providing tips on how to address it so that you can thrive on your journey into higher education.

Imposter syndrome: ‘The persistent inability to believe that one’s success is deserved or has been legitimately achieved as a result of one’s own efforts or skills.’ Every now and then, I feel that wave of imposter syndrome that makes me doubt my abilities as a medical student.

I come from a widening participation background where my parents never went to university and I grew up in a neighbourhood where there was poor progression to higher education. Having taken part in a widening participation programme, I received a reduced offer for medicine. The disruption of COVID-19 to my A level studies meant I was awarded grades that allowed me to scrape through and just make it onto my course. Those turn of events had already made me feel like I’d been ‘lucky’ with making it onto a course as competitive and demanding of its applicants as medicine. The lack of belonging I felt was amplified when I began attending small group teachings and I watched on as my classmates made such insightful contributions to class discussions. Looking back, I definitely wish I could have reassured myself that I was still just as much of a medical student as my peers.

Acknowledge how you are feeling

The first step to addressing imposter syndrome is recognising these feelings and acknowledging that this is a common experience that even the most accomplished individuals will sometimes struggle with. By giving yourself time and space to feel whatever it is you’re feeling, you can then begin to implement changes to deal with these feelings of uncertainty and doubt.

You deserve to be there

What I had failed to do at that moment is recognise my own strengths. It’s easy to get trapped in the idea of comparing your progress and journey to others, but it’s exactly that – it’s your journey. Your journey will look different to mine, as will mine to yours but that doesn’t mean that your place in medical school is any less deserving. When you have admiration for a trait you see in others, remember the same exists towards you – someone out there is in awe of something you do!.

You’ve already overcome so many obstacles

To even get to the point that you are at, you’ve most likely had to get some sort of volunteering experience, read books, study and complete any admissions tests. The application process can be gruelling and tiresome and to have even made it to the point of receiving an interview is an achievement – celebrate them because they are a testament to your hard work and dedication! If you can, try to keep a record of any accomplishments, positive feedback, etc, so you can monitor your journey through medical school and remind yourself of what you’ve already accomplished to reach that point, particularly when you’re feeling doubtful.

Failure is part of growth

I failed some exams in my first year of medical school and so inevitably, I began to doubt whether I was apt for this course and whether I had the qualities and academia within me to develop into a competent doctor who was able to care for my future patients. The truth is that, yes, failure is unpleasant and it can feel like a knock to your self-esteem but it is also an inevitable part of any learning process – failure is evidence that you tried! Try to avoid seeing failure as a reflection of your abilities but rather as a learning opportunity to guide your studies and contribute positively to your development as a well-rounded medical professional. 

Reach out and speak to someone

Sometimes it might not be enough simply repeating positive affirmations to yourself and you might find it helpful to reach out and speak to someone, whether it be a friend, a peer or a member of your wellbeing service. They can offer guidance and reassurance and might be able to signpost you to appropriate services that can offer further support. 

Medical school is an extraordinary endeavour but no one is expecting you to go into this and be perfect at what you do nor are they expecting you to do this solely by yourself. Imposter syndrome can be a daunting experience but by acknowledging it and taking the right steps to address it, you can cultivate a positive headspace that will give you confidence to know you are able to tackle whatever lies ahead in your journey and thrive!

Written by Elizabeth Ung

Hi! I’m Elizabeth and I’m a third year medical student studying at the University of Birmingham. Having emerged from a widening participation background, I am passionate about promoting inclusivity by broadening opportunities for underrepresented communities to access medical education. I have keen interests in respiratory medicine and neurology and in my free time, I like to learn new languages and go for runs.

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