Students, faculty offer advice for overcoming imposter syndrome

November 23, 2021

by Cristy Lindberg

First Generation Boot Camp Classroom

When first-year J.D. student Julia Awad received her first semester’s grades at the St. Mary’s University School of Law in Fall 2020, she thought they were a fluke.

But they weren’t. After earning good grades her first two semesters of the part-time program and being part of numerous registered student organizations, including the Student Bar Association and the Middle Eastern Students Association, Awad still struggled with doubt. Sometimes the doubt made her feel a bit like an imposter.

Thankfully, being in student organizations has shown her she is not alone.

“Being in organizations forces you to meet people and realize how many people struggle with imposter syndrome,” Awad said.

Imposter syndrome goes beyond the feeling of undeserved successes or feelings of self-doubt and personal incompetence. It also includes the fear of being exposed as a fraud by others.

“People who have imposter syndrome tend to be pretty high-achieving,” said Robin Thorner, J.D., the School of Law’s Assistant Dean for Career Strategy.

 In a forthcoming Dayton Law Review article, The Phantom Menace to Professional Identity Formation and Law School Success: Imposter Syndrome, Professor of Law David Grenardo, J.D., discusses the effect of imposter syndrome on the legal community, particularly in law students.

But the reality is law students earn their position, Grenardo said.

“Once you are accepted into law school, then you belong at that law school.”

Professor of Law David Grenardo, J.D.

Though anyone can have imposter syndrome, minority students may experience it more intensely, he said.

“You see yourself as a student, but it’s hard to see yourself cross that line into practice,” said third-year St. Mary’s Law J.D. student Jasleen Shokar. “There are aspects of law school that leave students, including myself, feeling as if we don’t really belong.”

Like Awad, being part of student organizations and talking to peers has helped Shokar. Ways to address to imposter syndrome vary but there are a few common ideas, Grenardo wrote. The following suggestions can help students face their own imposter syndrome:

  • Talking with peers or professors about imposter syndrome
  • Creating a list of accomplishments
  • Recognizing people naturally have differences and you can learn from others
  • Acknowledging that it is okay to make mistakes
  • Treating yourself fairly
  • Choosing to be confident

Afton Cavanaugh (J.D. ’13), Assistant Dean for Law Success, said imposter syndrome is not only a problem for students at St. Mary’s, but is also an issue in the legal profession at large.

“Imposter syndrome is a symptom of a larger issue: the stress that exists in law practice,” Cavanaugh said. “As legal professionals, we’re the ones capable of making changes in the profession that don’t lead to some of those stressors people are going through.”

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