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Imposter Syndrome and Self-Selection

Hi Theory Girls readers!

I'm Jason, currently in the Netherlands on a Fulbright Open Study/Research Scholarship. I originally intended to talk about imposter syndrome in this blog post, but as I'm still struggling with it myself, I thought I would talk about imposter syndrome's (just as dangerous) cousin, self-selection.

Note: I am not a medical professional, just someone who has dealt with overcoming self-selection and is currently battling imposter syndrome.


The Goldwater, the Marshall, the Rhodes, the Gates Cambridge, the Mitchell, the Fulbright, the Knight Hennessy, the DAAD, the Schwarzman, the Yenching, the Churchill, the NSF GRFP, the Hertz ...

The names of the scholarships above may be unfamiliar when you hear about them on online forums, when you are told about them by an adviser who believes in you, or when you read the school newspaper/mass email article about a student who just won one of them. This leads you to Google. You then click on their Wikipedia entries because ... well scholarships are free money and free money is awesome!

Now you scroll down to the eligibility/ admission/etc. section. Yipes! Here is where you catch your breath at the single digit acceptance rate. You end up telling yourself that applying would be stupid because of the low chance of success. You think that there is no way that you would win given how amazing the other applicants must be.

The toughest barrier that applicants cross in applying to these scholarships is surprisingly not the single digit acceptance rate. It is self-selection. The process of looking into these scholarships (looking at the admission statistics for the school you want to get into, reading the "features of an ideal candidate" for an internship that could land you the job you've always wanted, etc.) and telling yourself that you aren't competitive, contributes much more to the culling of the pool of applicants than the actual selection process.

Instead of trying to convince you that you absolutely have what it takes to be competitive in whichever selection process lies ahead for you, I want to try to convince you to let go of that self-doubt in the most pragmatic way I can think of — exposure therapy.

Exposure therapy — Apply to everything!

I cannot express how helpful applying to things has been in building my confidence. The introspective process of writing essays about both my background and my future goals, updating my resume (and in particular taking the time to look back at my resume from last year, or two years ago and appreciating the changes), reading the work of professors I'd like to work with and cold emailing them, and ultimately answering the question "Why am I applying for this?" has done so much more for me in dealing with my feelings of inadequacy when looking into a new scholarship/opportunity than any amount of hyping me up my friends/family/advisers could have achieved.

Recognize you're being a role model

Only now that I'm dealing with imposter syndrome more have I realized something that distinguishes self-selection from imposter syndrome — the community you reside in. One common trigger for imposter syndrome in the literature is new circumstances - a new job, moving to a new city, getting into graduate school, studying abroad. These marks of achievement trigger the far too humble reaction of imposter syndrome directly, but I also suspect another reason for the change in community triggering imposter syndrome.

When you are applying to aforementioned scholarships (barring the NSF GRFP or similar early graduate student scholarship) you are an upperclass undergraduate. Thus, something that I think triggers a feeling of inadequacy in a new environment is a subconscious realization that you are no longer looked up to as you were before. Whether you realize it or not, by virtue of being an upperclassmen considering these scholarships, you have been viewed as a role model by younger students. Your actions/words could make a younger student hope that they could do/say things like that one day. Yet, each time you move up in the ladder of achievements, you become the least experienced in your new role and wonder once again whether or not you belong.

Although I think it would have been hard to convince myself of this last year, I really wish I had considered my potentially being a role model while I was in a position of seniority, and used it as a tool to overcome feeling of inadequacy while considering these scholarships.

I hope that my sharing these experiences can help you to be the best version of yourself!

Remember that others may have the same struggles and keep on trying for your goals.


If you would like to know more about imposter syndrome, here is some extra material:

Episodes from a podcast, Self-care with Dr.s Sarah (run by two female astrophysicists), on imposter syndrome:


Author: Jason Bennett

NAF-Fulbright Scholar

Van Swinderen Institute for Particle Physics and Gravity

University of Groningen


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