Feeling Like a Fake: Impostor Syndrome in Academia

impostor syndrome in academia

So, you’ve been accepted as a PhD candidate at the university of your dreams. You’ve fought hard through a gruelling application process, secured just enough of that ever-elusive funding, and finally, after all your toils, you’re there. But something isn’t quite right. You don’t feel the way you expected to.

As the months pass, instead of feeling more and more at home, you get the nagging feeling that you don’t quite belong. Taking a look at your colleagues, especially your seniors who make up the establishment of your discipline, only compounds the problem – ‘they seem so intelligent, so accomplished, so secure! Is this really my world? Am I good enough to be here? Do I actually belong here after all?’

Ladies and gentlemen, say hello to impostor syndrome – an unwelcome presence in the hallowed halls.

What is Impostor Syndrome?

First appearing in 1978 under the guise of ‘the impostor phenomenon’, its discoverers, Pauline Clance and Suzanne Ames, considered it ‘an internal experience of intellectual phoniness’. Observing over 150 academically successful women as part of their study, Clance and Ames saw again and again that ‘despite outstanding academic and professional accomplishments’ the women believed ‘that they are really not bright and have fooled anyone who thinks otherwise’. Sound familiar?

The authors of this original paper carried out their research under the auspices of Georgia State University and, interestingly, focused generally on women, believing that this feeling of academic ‘falseness’ or ‘phoniness’ was essentially unique to them and indeed fairly uncommon in men. In fact, a great deal of their paper is devoted to explaining why that might be so.

You can read and listen to that paper in full here (upload the PDF and listen to it on Audemic 🎧). We’ll leave it up to you to decide what to make of their findings, but we will observe that today, impostor syndrome, which has since been more formally recognised by the medical world, is definitely not confined to female academics. In truth, anyone in the academic world can be susceptible to it. For a clear and concise outline of the syndrome’s symptoms, we recommend this piece by Verywell Mind, but fundamentally, if, despite your academic achievements, you continue to feel ‘dumb’ or like an ‘intellectual impostor’, then you may be grappling with impostor syndrome.

Why is Impostor Syndrome So Prevalent in Academia?

To succeed in academia is not an easy thing. From undergraduate level, to master’s, PhD and beyond, each rung of the ladder requires ever more intelligence, persistence, focus and drive. So it seems odd that a career path demanding so much basic intellectual ability should foster so much insecurity in those who follow it with success. And yet it does. So many of our guest researchers on The Research Beat podcast know all too well the doubts that come with impostor syndrome, and speak about with a grim and knowing familiarity. Impostor syndrome manifests itself as an unwelcome guest that just about everyone in the academic world seems to have come into contact with.

As molecular biologist Chahat Suri put it in our recent interview,

“I’ve been in touch with a lot of virtual scientific communicators that say the exact same thing, that when they started their PhDs, when they started their master’s, they started to feel dumb.And they couldn’t talk about it for the longest time to anyone because they thought that it’s not the right thing to talk about with your colleagues.”

Ultimately, academia’s intellectual nature may be the very thing that invites self-doubt into so many of its children. After all, in one sense, intelligence itself is the currency of the academic world. If we constantly feel compelled to prove ourselves the brightest and best, it’s little wonder that we feel inadequate when we believe we are failing in our quest to do so. Perhaps we believe that we should ‘get’ everything straight away – ‘surely a successful and intelligent person wouldn’t make mistakes!’ we insist – and so when we do encounter a failure, our sense of adequacy takes a significant dent.

Chahat explained this sensation to us:

“I never knew about it before I started doing my thesis. Because I always thought that I have to be this perfect person in everything. Like I have to do everything perfectly or I’m not good enough. It’s either a hundred or nothing. And that’s not possible. It’s not humanly possible to be perfect at everything.

And I started to fail when I came here, for instance, even writing an internship report, I used to fail terribly. I thought I did perfectly. And when I sent it to my supervisor, it came back with a hundred thousand red marks. And I asked myself, ‘what just happened?’”

What Can We Do About Impostor Syndrome?

Clance and Ames believed that impostor syndrome can often be reinforced by early childhood experiences – the way that we are perceived by friends, family and peers, as well as ourselves, particularly in connection with our intellect. As with many such psychological phenomena, the researchers strongly recommended ‘a group therapy setting or an interactional group’ as a way of confronting the issue. This lines up with what Chahat told us about her experiences. Simply replace the words ‘interactional group’ with ‘chatting openly to your peers’, and you realise the simplicity of this solution:

“I started to talk about it really openly with everyone in my lab, and I found out that everyone feels the same, be it a postdoc, be it a PhD student, be it anyone, they feel exactly the same. And that’s because we’re all trying to learn where no one knows everything.”

Opening up and talking about the problem reveals that we are not alone in the way we feel. There are others like us, who have had similar experiences, and gaining that awareness is the first step towards calming down those internal voices of doubt.

Final Thoughts

As always, we want to know what you think. Has impostor syndrome affected you during your academic career? And how did you deal with it? Perhaps if we follow the advice of Clance and Ames, and simply start talking about this curious phenomenon more openly, we can take a bold step towards defending ourselves against it.

If you want to listen to Chahat’s interview in full, you can find it here.

Keep striving, researchers! ✨

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