Students, faculty talk impostor syndrome and academic culture at Duke

When students come to Duke, they are met with a new set of expectations — and a high-pressure environment along with it.

“We have a group of very strong, very capable performing students, and that sometimes can overly color our glasses where we just see so much greatness around us that it can sometimes make us feel not as great by comparison,” said Elizabeth Bucholz, Graduate School ‘08 and Claude B. Williams and David M. Hesse associate professor of the practice in the biomedical engineering department. 

Sophomore Courtney Butash believes that the academic prestige of Duke makes students anxious about their ability to keep up with their classes before even arriving on campus. First-years who were often at the top of their class in high school begin fearing that they will find themselves in the middle of the pack, often for the first time. 

“Many people [in high school] were defined by their intellect, so coming here where that’s kind of stripped away from you is a really unique experience for a lot of us … You have to find something else to define yourself by,” sophomore Forest Rudd said. 

With many classes releasing exam averages, students can easily compare their performance to that of their peers. Scoring at or below the average for the first time can come as a shock for students who were overachievers in high school.

First-year Cami Toussaint recalls being terrified of not being the “smart one” anymore, a title she held for as long as she can remember. 

“To come here where I would be average, I was terrified about that. Who would I be if academics is [no longer] my leading factor?” she asked. 

Despite her initial fears, Toussaint soon realized that being average at Duke does not take away from how smart someone is. 

“Everyone is smart in your friend group. It’s not like I thought [that] the standard would change doesn’t mean you fall lower, [but] everyone is higher,” she said. 

Academic collaboration

Despite anxieties at the start of their first semesters, many students believe that Duke is academically more collaborative than it is competitive. 

“Comparing myself to people has never been a goal. I was always focused on how much I can learn,” Butash said. 

Butash also noted that Duke’s collaborative culture was something she was looking forward to. Toussaint echoed this sentiment, adding that although Duke students naturally want to do well in classes, “we’re all still learning and we all still need help.” 

Several introductory courses and math classes were described as stepping stones for fostering early collaboration. First-year Ryan Si, who is currently taking Economics 101, Economic Principles, said that students quickly realize that it will be difficult to complete homework quizzes quickly without learning from other students. 

“When there are things that people are struggling with, it’s a communal thing. Everyone struggles with the same things and I’ve gotten a lot closer to a lot more people,” Butash said.

Bucholz also noticed this community in her higher-level classes, with harder content that she feels brings students together. 

“I love seeing our graduates come back and, and, you know, reach out when they're in town, and they just, they're excited to be back,” she said. “When [students] done with it, they'll look back with this fondness of, ‘look what I did, it was really hard, but I'm glad I did it.’”

However, there are some barriers to creating this community. Bucholz said that introductory classes sometimes put newcomers with no background in the subject in the same courses as students who come to Duke with experience, making “some students feel behind even though they are right on track.” 

Junior Almira Bowo added that although students do not tend to directly compare themselves to their peers, conversations about grades are prevalent on campus and are often unintentionally used as ways for students to emphasize that they are stressed. 

“It’s like a competition for who’s studying the most [or who got the least amount of sleep],” Bowo said.

Extracurriculars and internships

Looking back at her first year at Duke, Bowo believes that she’s become more secure in her classes, but now feels pressured to do more outside of the classroom. 

Bowo expressed concerns that she “should be doing more” and feels pressure to get a prestigious internship, whereas first-year Sarah Jane Schulze questioned if she is doing enough to get into medical school, despite knowing that it is far down the line.

“You’re trying to balance your personal self-care needs … but you have all these people around you that take on so much. You feel like you’re inadequate, like there’s something wrong with you,” Schulze said.

Duke has a wide range of extracurricular offerings and service opportunities for students, some of which require a rigorous application process, which Rudd believes makes students “feel really inadequate.” The attitude towards internships and summer experiences is similar, he said.  

“As a Pratt student, if you don't get a sophomore internship or have some really cool experience over the summer, it really does feel like you're already behind or even after freshman summer, it already feels like you're behind,” Rudd said. 

Bucholz noted that imposter syndrome “permeates every level of our group [of students].”

“You may look at someone and may think ‘Oh they are so amazing,’ but I guarantee you they struggle from the same things that you do,” Bucholz said. “You’re not alone.”

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