One of the challenges of grad school is being confronted with the sense that you are not good enough. This might give you the sense that you are an imposter. Imposter syndrome has been written about in various ways, including how to overcome it. Imposter syndrome is one of the themes we’ll touch on this summer in our series about challenges grad students face.
I believe that not feeling good enough is something all healthy grad students, if the program is good, will be confronted with. However, this seems counterintuitive to most of us. After all, to get into grad school, one has to be very good at the whole academic thing. Nonetheless, if you combine that level of success with the constant praise many growing up today experience, this does not prepare one well to deal well with the tremendous amount of negative critique found in academia or the pressure to succeed. Furthermore, grad school, if it is done well, involves pushing oneself (and being pushed) to one’s uttermost intellectual abilities. The only way to know what those limits are is to touch the boundaries of where you can actually fail. And those boundaries present distressingly honest indications of where you are not good enough.
So what then? Do the Bible and Christianity have anything to say about not being good enough?
The Bible is also distressingly honest. Take, for instance, Moses’ speech to the Israelites in Deuteronomy 9. He reiterates the people’s rebellions so that, when they finally arrive in the promised land, the people cannot claim that they deserved it – that they cannot claim that it was because of their own righteousness that God gave this land to them.
Those of us from the Calvinist tradition would reiterate that we are indeed not good enough. We are people so contaminated by sin that even our good works are filthy (cf. Isaiah 64:6 and Heidelberg Catechism Q&A 5, 8). Believing that we are not good enough points to our desperate need for God. However, it is not as if through God we become immediately good enough in all areas, including grad school. It is more that with and through God, the issue of good enough becomes less important. Instead, we are presented with a different task: “Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.” (Philippians 4:8). That is a picture of excellence and good enough that all of us can live up to, irrelevant of how much we might feel like we are imposters.