We’ve all been there.

Staring at the socks and Birkenstocks of the 30-something professor, wondering how they can contain that much genius every day. He’s saying something about how the test “went better than I’d expected,” but even his geniality does little to calm my inner gymnastics. He moves around the room, shuffling papers. It’s easy to hand back the tests when there are only twelve students in the class. And with the talking in the grad hallway after class, it’s just as easy to figure out who got which grades…

He moves my way, hands me a paper, my stomach does another somersault… The red ink with the huge circle at the top says 58/60. My stomach starts somersaulting for an entirely different reason. Until I see the name next to the number. Not mine. I hand the paper to my classmate with a sinking sensation, listening to him exclaim his surprise at how well he did.

Finally the right paper lands in my hands, with the lowest grade in the class circled in red at the top. I quickly and quietly tuck the first page behind the rest, and pretend to study the bleeding pages as my mind races in despair. Now the smartest prof in the department knows how stupid I am. And I just asked him to write a reference for me, I’ve totally lost that fellowship now…

We’ve all been there. But I’m the only one who has failed.

I don’t know about you, but my department is full of exceptionally bright people, students and faculty alike, who do the best planetary science research in the country. (At least, that’s what the department head says at the yearly awards ceremony.) They must not have read my application too closely, because they admitted me last semester, even though both of the professors I might work with are on sabbatical. I met briefly with one of them, and totally messed up what the Hamiltonian was, and there’s no chance that professor would want to work with someone who can’t figure out basic celestial mechanics. So my research isn’t going anywhere, unless you count the bi-weekly meetings I have with an emeritus professor teaching him how to use keyboard shortcuts to cut and paste.

It’s only a matter of time before they figure out that I’m really a net loss to the department. The clock is counting down to this little test called “orals” coming up in a year. Five professors (each glowing in the light of their awesome intelligence) spend three hours asking me questions covering topics that I’m supposed to learn from taking two years’ worth of their classes. I stumble through the questions while they wince inwardly at my ignorance (without marring the glow of personal awesome). And when the test is done, the whole department knows that I’m an imposter.

Sure, they handed me a fellowship when I walked in the door, but there were only three people in my incoming class, and they had to put the fellowship somewhere. They’ll probably take it back, now that they know I’m not nearly as good as they thought. And okay, I did get my paper published in that journal with a nine percent selection rate, but they probably get a lot of junk submitted, and I just barely made it.

There’s a lot of power behind my throne. I’m standing on the shoulders of giants whose genius I can’t live without. I’m the fancy fondant—looks good, but don’t try tasting it, and if you take out the cake underneath it falls flat. I’m just waiting for the one failure that will take the cake…


Epilogue: Three years later

I got a “B” in the class. The professor got my reference letter in on time, and I was awarded the fellowship. I am working with one of the professors who was on sabbatical, publishing papers as fast as I can write them. I passed orals. I’ll probably graduate with a Ph. D. in a year.

Unless they figure out what a lousy student I am.


Author’s note:  This story is based on true events from my life. I’ve learned about the “imposter syndrome,” and I am beginning to realize that my worth is not measured by my achievements (thank Heaven!).

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