Not a lot of people know this, but when I decided to write GATE, I did it with mostly just IISc in mind. However, I tried to keep my expectations very realistic (read: low), to the extent that I didn’t even look up pictures of the campus until results came out, wanting to not have an image to go along with my disappointment if things were to go south. I spent five months telling myself to be ready to embrace the plan Bs and Cs instead, while doing whatever I could to ensure I wouldn’t have to resort to them.

And so, with everything that happened after, I felt strangely uprooted for a while. I constantly floated between telling myself on one hand that it’s not a big deal, and on the other, thinking: this sounds too good, when is the bad news going to drop?

Main Building

Main Building

For a while, more than being excited about classes starting, I was terrified.

There’s this image of a person in my head who gets to go to places like these, here or abroad. She doesn’t look like me, and I imagine she doesn’t feel the way I do. A voice inside me kept whispering that such a colossal heap of luck just happened to favour me, that I’ve managed to trick everyone and sneak in, that I don’t have any of the skills required to do good research, or the brain to accommodate complicated math. That I’m going to make a fool out of myself soon enough. And mostly, in the sort of cruel way that we can only be to ourselves: that I didn’t deserve any of it.

Despite all the articles I’ve read about imposter syndrome, all the discussions I’ve facilitated on it myself - this feeling felt dizzyingly true, to the extent that I wasn’t sure if what I was feeling could even be dismissed as imposter syndrome. The voice kept me on my toes: what if you are well and truly inadequate?

It’s a vicious thing, your inner voice. It’s not easy to admit this thinking to others either, knowing it comes from a deeply flawed place, and all logical evidence speaks to the contrary. I spoke to a lot of people about this - friends, family, mentors - people who have more faith in me than I have in myself. They told me that I might truly be an idiot - but just not in the way I think I am. So I nodded along for the most part, knowing how much they truly mean what they say, all while feeling the dread grow stronger on the inside.

My first semester, funnily enough in hindsight, turned out to be all my fears personified. I sat blinking throughout the first lecture in computational methods of optimization, trying to stay awake at 8am, feeling like perhaps the language my professor was speaking was not the same language I knew (little did I know, this feeling would be the first of many to come this semester). We were dumped headfirst into multivariate probability distributions, optimization techniques that required more calculus than I ever remembered learning, and proofs - endless and endless mathematical proofs. Dealing with assignments felt like whack-a-mole: one down, two up, down in time for midterms to pop up, and so the cycle continued - until one day I woke up and it was finals week.

After I slowly came back up from the post-semester haze in late December, I realized something: by the end, I had learnt to follow the language my professors were speaking. And turns out, as with any language, all that was needed to understand it better was learning a few more words - along with the patience, time, and effort required to learn them, ofcourse. (Apologies for the extended metaphor, but you get where I’m going with this?)

In the end, the thing that actually helped me with my imposter-like-syndrome was being reminded that everyone around me was good at something not because they were born with it or had some innate talent that was cultivated over time, but something simpler: they showed up consistently, and did the work even when it felt gibberish and frustrating, chipping away day by day until one day the clouds in their brain started to shift and the satisfaction began to feel like no other. That’s what it takes: going through the grind, not taking your failures personally, and continuing to show up the next day regardless.

(Maybe that’s not all it takes. But surely, that’s where it starts? A discussion about the structural issues ingrained within academic institutions in India, and the question of merit and who gets their doors kicked open and who has to claw their way in is beyond the scope of this particular issue - but that is something worth keeping in mind.)

With the rollercoaster that was last semester, I think I’ve found some mantras - an action plan? - to keep my head up this semester. Condensed, they kind of go like this:

  1. Remember why you chose what you did.
  2. Invest in learning, and sit with the discomfort that comes with it as much as necessary.
  3. Realize that everyone is just winging it.
  4. Put systems in place to keep going when days get hard.
  5. Take each day one at a time.
  6. And if you’re such a good imposter as you claim to be, then keep being a damn good one.

I’ve held my breath for long enough. Maybe it’s time to release it a bit and just see what happens. So before shit hits the fan with the highly packed second semester, I’m trying to soak in this calm feeling, this moment, for a bit longer.

But until then, I’m all armed with my action plan.

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