First Year PA Student Blog: Ben Garfinkel

Thursday, March 21, 2019

Ben Garfinkel
Ben Garfinkel, PA-S

The plant was passed down to me from a graduating Duke PA student only days after I first arrived in Durham. Its tortuous limbs and countless vibrant green leaves caught my eye. I requested plant care instructions. “Just water it once a week!” she suggested.

I took the plant home and placed it on my desk. Only shortly thereafter, it started to lose leaves. Just a few at first, but soon they started to fall off in droves. The leaves would accumulate on my desk overnight, quickly turning yellow and curling up. I tried adjusting the watering schedule, but the leaves kept falling. I started to feel guilty about the plant. It was in perfect condition when I received it, so why was it dying? What had I done wrong?

Imposter syndrome: It is a feeling that I had become well acquainted with at this point in my didactic-year, and on that had inadvertently spilled into my houseplant-care! Most health care professionals have encountered the feeling of imposter syndrome at some point in their education and career. It begs the question, what can be done?

First, normalize the feeling. As Duke PA faculty member Betsy Melcher told us during first-year orientation, imposter syndrome results from a natural transition from unconscious incompetence to conscious incompetence. Therefore, PA students must not be ashamed of their lack of knowledge. In order to progress to consciously competent, one must first recognize room for improvement.

Second, embrace challenges. Everyone encounters challenges or obstacles in their education or career. In order to grow, a PA student must be ready to persist through challenges. If a test or assignment does not go as planned, do not dwell on any perceived fixed shortcomings. Instead, try to see setbacks as a natural part of growth.

Third, learn from criticism. Multiple times a semester, first-year PA students at Duke collect a patient history from and perform a physical exam on a paid actor. The encounters are filmed so we can give feedback to our classmates and ourselves. Watching myself on video can be painful. However, I am grateful for the opportunity to give and receive honest feedback in a low-stakes environment. Criticism will always come your way, and it will not always be as tactful as you want it to be. Try to recognize that most criticism holds valuable ideas for improvement that will help you in your career.

Lastly, learn and embrace the success of others. Since I first stepped onto the brick patio outside the public entrance of the Duke Physician Assistant Program for my interview, my fellow classmates have inspired me to be a better student, friend, and health care provider. It is natural to rank yourself against your peers. I try to be aware of this tendency in myself, while striving to appreciate the diversity in life paths my classmates and I have walked. In the end, the experience of encountering differences makes us better providers for our patients.

As we overcome imposter syndrome, the feeling of belonging is what remains. As one fades, the other slowly unfurls. In the first few weeks of my second semester, I noticed that it had been a while since I had cleaned up the dead leaves of my houseplant. Upon closer inspection, dozens of new leaves had formed on the branches. Had they been there all along?

This blog post was inspired by the work of psychologist Carol Dweck, Ph.D.

Ben Garfinkel is a first-year student with the Duke Physician Assistant Program. Email with questions.
Editor’s note: Duke Physician Assistant Program students blog twice a month. Blogs represent the opinion of the author, not the Duke Physician Assistant Program, the Department of Community and Family Medicine or Duke University.