Impostor Syndrome: When your accomplishments make you feel like a fraud!

This is a guest post by Assistant Prof. Devasmita Chakraverty, at the Ravi J. Matthai Centre for Educational Innovation, Indian Institute of Management Ahmedabad. She focuses on understanding why highly accomplished people feel like impostors. If you have an impostor story, she would love to hear from you. You can connect with her on Twitter @DevasmitaTweets. See her podcast here.

A woman with long auburn hair, wears a coat, wooly hat and mittens outdoors. She hides her face with her grey mitten clad hands.
Photo by Dmitry Ratushny on Unsplash

Doctoral students are experiencing impostor feelings more than ever before. Or maybe they are simply talking about it more due to increased awareness of the term. My recent study interviewed 90 PhD students in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) in the United States to find out more. My findings suggest that doctoral students feel like impostors while developing key skills such as public speaking at conferences and academic writing. Those who feel like impostors tend to compare themselves unfavourably with their peers, hesitate to collaborate or ask for help, and are reluctant about applying their knowledge or skills. And of course, they are terrified of public recognition.

The term ‘impostor phenomenon’ was coined in 1974 by two psychotherapists, Drs Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes. During interviewing successful and accomplished women in their fields, they discovered that many of the women did not believe in their success and feel like intellectual frauds. The term ‘impostor syndrome’ is used more popularly in media, but Dr Clance cautions against the use of this term since ‘syndrome’ denotes a medical condition. Through research spanning multiple decades, we now know that impostor phenomenon (experiencing imposter feelings) is not something specific to women. People of all genders are vulnerable to these feelings. Research shows that the impostor phenomenon could be related to depression, anxietyfear or ridiculeacademic under-preparedness, and mental health issues

So what can be done? Is it as bad as it sounds?

In order to answer these questions, we need to share a deeper understanding of how the impostor phenomenon works. In my experience of interviewing hundreds of individuals, here are some of the insights I have developed, that may help supervisors to understand and reduce imposter feeling for their postgraduate researchers:

Many of those I interviewed openly shared that they did not even know that what they were experiencing is a recognised phenomenon, until very recently. If our students experience a discomfort but do not have the vocabulary to describe it, how are they going to process it or talk about it with someone they trust? Help your PGRs realise that these feelings are widely experienced. Help them to self-evaluate (for example through the Clance Impostor Phenomenon Scale).

The impostor phenomenon is not a constant chatter in the heads of those who experience it. It is triggered typically following an achievement, public recognition, or success. Additionally, the nature of triggers may vary across individuals. For example, I might feel like an impostor while presenting my research in front of a large gathering at conferences, but may not feel like one while writing papers for a journal. So it is important to support your students to reflect and acknowledge the specific activities or situations that trigger the impostor phenomenon for them. Most people describe it as something that comes and goes, so support your students by reminding them, these feeling will pass.

There are many support groups on social media, on Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook and the Future PI Slack group where active discussions happen. As a supervisor or researcher development professional, think about how you can increase awareness about the networks of support available for coping with impostor feelings. You could even organize periodic talks or seminars where faculty, successful alumni, and others can share their impostor-experiences. 

The impostor phenomenon can start as early as high school. However, most people I talked to shared that entering a PhD program is when they either experienced the impostor phenomenon for the first time, or their impostor phenomenon peaked. What is it about a PhD program that triggered the impostor phenomenon for so many? Participants reported that a key trigger is the nature of PhD training, where students had to get used to transitioning from structured to unstructured learning. The benchmarks for a PhD are always not clearly defined. How many papers should you publish to be deemed successful? What if your experiments don’t yield results? What if you do not get along with your PhD supervisor? There are a lot of unknowns in the PhD degree that trigger anxieties. Students often talk about the transition from undergraduate to graduate school as moving from being a ‘big fish’ to now a ‘small fish in a sea’ – expressing feelings of being invisible or being an outsider. Students who were star undergrads suddenly find themselves among other stars and sometimes, this is unnerving. 

While the impostor phenomenon is often viewed as an internal voice, one also needs to acknowledge the role of the academic environment in feeding this voice. If a student is the only ethnic minority student in class and feels invisible because of that, they might be likely to feel like an impostor too. If a student is female but does not see successful women in higher positions such as faculty, chairs, and deans, they are likely to question the odds of making it. If a student feels unsupported in or doubtful about their research topic and if their supervisor belittles them or questions their likelihood of succeeding, they are more vulnerable to feeling like an impostor.  

Existing within a toxic academic culture where rejections are labelled as ‘failures’ also increases imposter feelings. Do you know about the CV of failures? Go through this and you will realize that people who succeed in something have been failing at it for a long time. Try writing your own CV of failures and any one of us will realize that it is ten times longer than our actual CV. It puts things into perspective for those who doubt their abilities and feel like impostors and normalizes fears about being judged for one’s failures. Why not share your CV of Failures with your doctoral researchers? Or write one together?

Lastly, remind your students that it’s not only PhD students who feel like impostors. Postdocs feel like this too. Faculty feel like it too, and often, for similar reasons as students. Data that I am currently analysing shows that some faculty feel like impostors due to self-judgment of how good they perceive they are as academic writers and public speakers. Precisely the same reasons that many PhD students feel like impostors. 

A phrase popularly used in workshops that teach us to deal with our impostor feelings is, “Fake it till you make it.” I say, don’t fake it. When we pretend or fake something, we sub-consciously reject it. Instead, why not help your students work towards becoming more familiar with, and more confident in the task that triggers imposter feelings? Give them constructive, positive feedback on a job well done, and let them know when they have made a good point, or shared a good idea. Tell them the positive qualities and capabilities you see in them. 

Recognize when they are hearing that voice in their head in response to those external triggers, and ask them if they can, Change the narrative’. Remind them of their track record of achievements and success, and their dedication to producing good work. 

Chakraverty, D. (2020). PhD Student Experiences with the Impostor Phenomenon in STEM. International Journal of Doctoral Studies15, 159-179.

Chakraverty, D. (2019). Impostor phenomenon in STEM: occurrence, attribution, and identity. Studies in Graduate and Postdoctoral Education,10(1), 2-20. 

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