Imposter Syndrome in Medical School  

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Imposter syndrome describes high-achieving individuals who, despite their objective successes, fail to internalise their accomplishments and have persistent self-doubt and fear of being exposed as a fraud or impostor.

Bravata D, 2020

Starting Back At University

After 5 months off university due to COVID, I started my third year of medical school in September. It was a weird experience for more reasons than I could list, but I found myself surprised by how nervous I was to start the course again. I’m used to low-level imposter syndrome, but this felt a lot worse – as if I was back to being a fresher.

I had passed my second-year exams and worked the summer as a healthcare assistant, but still, I was terrified I wouldn’t know anything at all when asked by a consultant, or that I wouldn’t know how to speak to patients. I really thought I’d managed to kick those feelings, but apparently not! I felt so out of practice, but the reality was that all the medical students around me are in the same boat.

What imposter syndrome means to me

I think imposter syndrome is something that most, if not all, medics experience at some point in their lifetime. The competitiveness of entry into medical school then going through medical school and training unfortunately can foster an environment in which you always feel like someone is ahead of you and that you’re not doing well enough. Coming from a family where we didn’t know any doctors and my parents weren’t in professional/managerial roles, it felt like a huge struggle to learn everything I needed to get into medical school.

The reality is that a lot of people grow in environments where they have the contacts and resources they need at their fingertips, and that’s what I hope every applicant will have in the future as we make information more freely available. At first, I genuinely thought I had been given a place by mistake, that someone was going to pop their head around the door of my seminar room and want to speak to me about something important, then tell me I have to leave.

Imposter syndrome can be incredibly isolating

Exams- my ultimate trigger

Whether they be GCSE exams, A-level exams, or medical school exams – test certain knowledge on a certain day under certain circumstances. They aren’t an accurate measure of how ‘smart’ you are, and they won’t tell you whether you’re going to be a great doctor or not. The real factor that makes a good doctor is the slow accumulation of clinical experience.  Without consciously doing so, we’re always learning and improving these skills, but our imposter-obsessed brains don’t realise it.

It can be hard to get rid of this feeling, although I found that deliberately and consciously talking myself through my own logic helped me to identify where my stress was originating from. I used to get upset seeing other people from my year group in the library studying because they were definitely much smarter and harder-working than I was, then I realised that I was also in the library studying. It sounds so silly, but it honestly didn’t occur to me that they could have been thinking the same thing about seeing me there.

How I get past my imposter

Meeting people in my year group and learning about the diverse backgrounds we came from really helped me to make peace with my imposter syndrome. We all have different experiences and different traits which may lend themselves to general practice, A&E, medicine, psychiatry, or any other specialty. None of those specialities is the same and they all need different skills sets.

Every single person who applies to medical school can offer something unique to support their patients – lived experience, empathy, kindness, whatever it is that person excels at. We have a moral responsibility to each other as students and colleagues to support each other and cheer each other on. It’s a hard application process then a hard degree and we don’t gain anything from trying to intimidate or outdo others. Most of us will struggle with confidence at some point in our careers, but everyone has a place and purpose in medicine.

In summary

      • Imposter syndrome is common and affects almost all medical applicants and medical students at some point – remember this.
      • No matter your background, everyone has something to give to medicine that is unique.

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