Feel like an imposter during residency? Here's how to cope

By Kirstin Bass, MD, PhD
Published April 19, 2022

Key Takeaways

  • Many residents experience imposter syndrome during their training—the feeling of doubting your skills, talents, or accomplishments despite evidence of competence.

  • Realizing that most, if not all, residents feel this way during residency can be key to coping with this phenomenon.

  • Feeling unsure is normal for residents, but imposter syndrome takes doubt a step further and can lead to burnout; it's important to reach out to colleagues and mentors for advice and feedback.

Read Next: Adopting a growth mindset during residency

Imposter syndrome is the experience of doubting your skills, talents, or accomplishments—despite evidence of competence. When you experience this phenomenon, you usually fear being exposed as a “fraud” and do not believe you deserve to be where you are—often feeling like you are not as intelligent or experienced as you are perceived to be.

Know you are not alone in your feelings

Most residents experience this feeling, or a variation of it, during their training. As a freshly minted doctor, you are constantly questioning yourself and your skills.

You may have a series of running refrains in your mind: "Did I remember to do everything I needed to before rounds? Did I order the right labs? Did I order the right medication? Did I forget something?" Which can turn into “Do I belong here? Everyone else makes this all looks so easy. They get done with pre-rounding so much faster, and get all their orders in on time! I’m so far behind everyone else my year.”

It's worth repeating: Most, if not all, residents feel like imposters at some point during their training. They question their worthiness of being called a doctor and their ability to handle the responsibilities given to them. If you are feeling this way, rest assured, you are in good company.

Imposter syndrome tends to rear its head at the beginning of new jobs, projects, or careers. Any transition to a new and unfamiliar area can make you feel unsure and start you doubting. Some doubts about your abilities are normal—after all, you are still in training, and chances are that you have, indeed, forgotten something or made a mistake at some point. Everyone does!

Imposter syndrome takes doubt a step further, however, and is a risk factor for burnout.

The tell-tale signs of imposter syndrome

The following are features of imposter syndrome[]:

  • Inability to accept or internalize success

  • Tendency to attribute success to luck or chance rather than ability

  • Difficulty accepting praise about intelligence or accomplishments

  • Discrepancy between self-evaluation and external evaluations

  • Fear of being revealed a “fraud”

  • Tendency to recall mistakes and not accomplishments

  • Disappointment with accomplishments

  • Hesitancy to take on new challenges due to fear of failure (despite previous success)

  • Frequently comparing self to others and believing they are more accomplished/successful

What to do if you feel this way

First, realize you’re feelings are normal and nearly universal among residents. As trainees, it is common to feel like you don’t know enough, question your decisions, and feel overwhelmed at some point (or at several points) during your training.[]

There is a huge learning curve for all residents at the beginning of a medical career.

The next step should be to talk to someone about how you are feeling. Do you have a mentor? Another resident you trust? It can be helpful to talk through your feelings, and hear that others have experienced them as well.

It is also important to think through exactly what you are feeling unsure about. Is there any specific thing (or things) you can identify? Once you have, it is time to reach out again!

Ask someone for specific feedback. Have a senior resident watch you perform that skill you are most worried about the next time you have to do it. Block out time to actually read through all of that article your attending recommended during journal club—and then set up a coffee date to discuss it with another resident.

Sometimes when the worry becomes overwhelming, it is best to separate it out into smaller pieces and attack them one by one. 

Finally, once you have overcome your own fears about a particular issue, don’t stop there! Make a plan to take what you’ve learned and teach it to someone junior. Whether that's showing an intern what you’ve learned about suturing or keeping an eye out for someone who simply looks overwhelmed, paying it forward will help them and you!

What this means for you

Nearly all residents experience some form of imposter syndrome during their training. Feelings of uncertainty are normal. But if you are constantly doubting your skills, talents, or accomplishments despite evidence to the contrary, you may be experiencing imposter syndrome—which can lead to burnout. If you feel this way, it's important to tell someone—a colleague, mentor, or advisor—who can help you get to the root of your feelings, and hopefully channel them into more positive responses.

Related: Adopting a growth mindset during residency
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