The great competition

Adding Up

Last semester, the Math Undergraduate Student Association, or MUSA, held a seminar called “We’re All Imposters.” The seminar aimed to address “imposter syndrome” — a complex commonly suffered by many math majors, including myself.

Those who suffer from imposter syndrome often question their own ability in their major. For my part, when I struggle to understand certain concepts or can’t seem to succeed in a class, I naturally question my own mathematical ability.

During the panel, professors discussed their own experiences of feeling like imposters in their undergraduate or graduate careers — even as professors. After listening to the speakers, I began to think about all the times that I felt like a mathematical imposter.

Judging by the number of seminar attendees, I was not alone. The professors assured us this feeling of insecurity was a normal part of developing as mathematicians, but I wondered if the UC Berkeley environment has a tendency to make students feel like imposters in their respective majors.

This campus is competitive no matter your major or your interests. We have A-list clubs that are interview- and application-only. Many majors have GPA caps, because there are too many students who want to major in computer science or psychology. Admission into the Haas School of Business is far from guaranteed for all the aspiring pre-MBA students.

As a freshman, when I saw the size of my Chemistry 1A and Computer Science 61A classes, I quickly realized just how many students have the exact same ambitions as I do. This was intimidating, especially when the professors discussed the grading and curves. In high school, my grades were based on if I understood the material, but at UC Berkeley, what would matter was my competency relative to my peers.

Competition among ambitious undergraduates fuels the never-ending cycle of the hypercompetitive environment that we all live in — and the STEM departments are no exception.

But when do competition and ambition translate into exclusivity? At what point does the overwhelming pressure to compete with your classmates become something negative?

When I walk into a midterm, I immediately try to “size up” the room. I eye those who look nervous or those studying last minute. I try to get a feel for the level of understanding that my classmates have and then compare it to my own.

This pre-midterm ritual is something I’ve developed as a way to cope with the knowledge that my peers will essentially determine if I succeed or fail in my classes. For midterms, “beating the average” seems to be the only way to ensure that you will get a somewhat decent grade.

With the thousands of intelligent students here, it seems that “beating the average” student in any class would be a challenge. I can be hard on myself when I don’t live up to my own expectations with a grade on a midterm or in a class. I sometimes forget how many amazing students that I am competing with to receive those good grades.

What attracted me to UC Berkeley was the fact that every one of its undergraduates are so accomplished. What I once saw as a benefit, now often feels like a burden as I compete with my peers in every class.

GPAs in STEM departments are notoriously lower than those in others subjects. In 2015, The Daily Californian reported that the average math department GPA was 2.92 — the third-lowest departmental GPA, with the first- and second-lowest being biology and statistics.

I often feel frustrated when I don’t do as well in my upper-division math classes, because as a senior, I want to feel like I belong in my major. But with so many STEM departments doling such low average GPAs, it is harder for those “average” students to feel like they really do belong in their department.

In many of my STEM classes, I have seen a move towards collaboration that, at times, lessens my own feeling of being an “imposter.” Labs in my electrical engineering classes often require lab partners, which has helped me learn how to communicate with and learn from my peers.

In many of my computer science classes, there have been scheduled “homework parties” run by TAs where a room is reserved for a period of two hours so we can work together on the assigned homework.

These are all excellent starts to move Berkeley’s STEM students towards an atmosphere of collective success. But professors and TAs can only do so much.

We STEM students need to be more open to collaboration.

When I came to Berkeley, instead of reaching out to my peers, I tended to work alone because I was overwhelmed by the huge class sizes and large workloads. Looking back on my four years, I wish I had seen the benefits of working with my peers sooner.

Post-graduation is a world of unknowns, but whether you go into research or industry, no one works alone. We STEM students should actively prepare ourselves for the world of collaboration that exists after graduation by creating opportunities to work together.


Clare Egan writes the Monday blog on her experience in STEM departments at UC Berkeley. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @cegan_dailycal.