From Resident to Faculty, Coping With Imposter Syndrome

Alexa M. Mieses, MD, MPH


September 06, 2019

Minorities in Medicine

There are many ways, both big and small, in which members of minority groups are made to feel like outsiders in medicine. One common example is the way in which female physicians are often mistaken for nurses. Today, despite women often comprising the majority of a medical school's graduating class, that mistake is rooted in bias about the type of profession a woman can have.

In his book Black Man in a White Coat, Damon Tweedy, MD, a black psychiatrist and associate professor at Duke, discusses being mistaken by his professor for custodial staff upon entering the classroom as a medical student. As a medical student, I remember always having to show my ID to enter my school's gym, whereas my white friends did not. I have had patients tell me that I don't look like a doctor. Whether that was related to my age, gender, or color of my skin, whatever the reason, I can assure you that there is no shortage of instances in which medicine makes you feel as though you don't belong.

Minority undergraduate and medical trainees, and even minority faculty, experience imposterism. And these feelings can take a toll on one's health. In a study published in the Journal of Counseling Psychology, Kevin Cokley, PhD, and his colleagues found that imposter syndrome among black college students increased levels of depression and anxiety.

Although different minority groups have different experiences, one thing we all have in common is that we are resilient. Research published in Critical Studies in Education examined students who were the first in their families to enter the profession of medicine. The study found that ultimately, these students overcame imposterism through "an appreciation of the worth their 'difference' brings to their new destination, the medical profession."

However, getting to that place of comfort is difficult without the right guidance.

Mentors Matter

I know the power of mentorship firsthand.

In college, I was part of an educational opportunity program that paired me with an advisor who helped me plan my undergraduate studies. This allowed me to hold a job without sacrificing educational exploration and academic success.

As a college sophomore, I became involved with an organization called Mentoring in Medicine (MIM). MIM provides mentorship and professional development opportunities for underrepresented minority students interested in the health professions. I met my most inspirational mentor there. He guided me through the logistics of applying to medical school and studying for the MCAT and was my cheerleader when times got tough.

I was a Jeannette K. Watson Fellow, a program that provides funded summer internships and unprecedented opportunities to promising New York City undergraduate students. In medical school, I found a home (and mentors) in the office of multicultural and community affairs. I say all this to demonstrate that mentorship was integral not only to my success but also to my sense of belonging.

Now I find myself, on the day before I start my new job, excited and ready to go! After a month of vacation and a lot of time to reflect in solitude, I realize that anxiety about a new chapter in life is always normal. I also realize that I deserve to be where I am, not because of all that I have accomplished, but because I worked hard to get here. I have more than earned my spot as a physician, without question.

I am focused on my purpose. In my role as medical school faculty and clinician, I know I'll continue to work hard to provide outstanding clinical care and help shape the next generation of physicians. I'm committed to mentoring others, as impassioned as my mentors were about helping me. Just as important, I will work to create an inclusive environment for students and colleagues.

Life as an attending and assistant professor will certainly be uncomfortable at times. Beyond adjusting to a new institution and work environment, I will have new responsibilities. I will be responsible for not only patients but also the education of students and residents. I will be responsible for my own professional development in an entirely new academic arena. But it will also be fun and rewarding.

We may all struggle with imposter syndrome at some point in our lives. The important thing is to know that a time will come in which you look back on that self-doubt and laugh.

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