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The Impostor Syndrome

 

Moushumi Nath

Imagine this ...

A student with stellar grades, undergraduate research experience, and several awards enters graduate school. But little did the graduate community know that...this student was an impostor! That’s right, an impostor. Those grades weren’t that great. I mean, there were a few A-’s here and there. The extensive research experience? Yeah right, an experience full of gaffes you might say. And the awards? All flukes. Yet this student had made it. But for how long can they fake it? Will the impostor graduate student be uncovered? Or, will they make it out with a PhD...

Tune in five to seven years to find out! Does this scene sound familiar to you?

——

The Impostor Phenomenon

The impostor phenomenon, commonly known as the imposter syndrome, was originally described by clinical psychologists Suzanne Imes and Pauline Clance in 19781. They were examining high-achieving women who failed to internalize their successes. These women felt like their successes were undeserving and that they were actually frauds within their respective positions. These feelings actually resounded with people from all walks of life – men and women2.

The impostor phenomenon may be associated with:

  • Self-doubt (“I can’t do this.”)

  • Undermining of achievements (“I am not deserving. It’s all a mistake.”)

  • Fear of being unmasked (“It’s only a matter of time before they find out I am a fraud.”)

  • Perfectionism (“Everything must be perfect!”)3

70% of people will experience the impostor phenomenon at least once during their career4.

The Impostors of Our World

From graduate students to research chairs, the impostor phenomenon can occur to anyone at any stage of their career.

Take for example Richard Felder, a professor emeritus of chemical engineering at the North Carolina State University in Raleigh. In elementary school, Felder was placed in remedial classes due to disciplinary issues. Despite his later academic achievements, he still experienced a persistent feeling that his previous self might re-emerge.5

Or meet Science Woman, a blogger and assistant professor, who felt most fraudulent while applying for academic jobs. Today, she often doubts her ability to compete with her peers for grants5.

“I’m not sure why my existence is being subsidized by government money. I feel like a fraud all the time...”, says a graduate student from McGill University.

Even famous people have experienced this.

“I have written 11 books but each time I think ‘Uh-oh, they’re going to find out now”6 said Maya Angelou.

The Birth of an Impostor

So, how do these fraudulent feelings come about?

The One That Doesn’t Belong

The impostor phenomenon is thought to be widely experienced, by men and women, and across cultures. However, being different from the majority of your peers – by gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation – may contribute to the development of the impostor phenomenon. For example, certain ethnic minority groups may feel like their successes are a result of affirmative action2.

Achieve! Achieve! Achieve!

Individuals from environments in which a huge emphasis is placed on achievements are highly susceptible. These backgrounds may be laden with heavy criticism, over-praise, or both2.

According to Susan Imes, “Self-worth becomes contingent on achieving.”2

In a 2013 study conducted by the University of Texas, Asian-Americans were found to be more likely to experience the impostor phenomenon than Latino or African-American students7. This may be associated with the highly achievement-focused culture of Asian- Americans.

The Impostor vs. You

What can the impact of the impostor phenomenon be on you?

Mental Health

The impostor phenomenon, left unchecked, can be a significant source of distress. In ethnic minorities, impostor feelings were a stronger predictor of mental health issues than stress associated with their minority status. These mental health issues may include anxiety, stress, and depression2,7.

Productivity

One feature of the impostor phenomenon is perfectionism. This perfectionism can be associated with two general outcomes: procrastination or overwork. Either outcome can cause a lot of stress to the individual2.

Careers

A 2016 study conducted by the University of Salzburg in Austria showed that impostor feelings were associated with decreased career planning in students and decreased motivation to lead in working professionals8.

Beating the Impostor

For a phenomenon that is experienced by numerous people of various backgrounds, how can we prevent this impostor from taking over us?

Speak!

So many have felt a form of reassurance when they found out other people have experienced the same things that they have! Speak out – to comfort yourself and others3.

Professor emeritus of chemical engineering, Richard Felder, describes how he felt liberated when he first heard of the impostor phenomenon. He then went on to write an article titled Impostors Everywhere with advice on how instructors can accommodate those experiencing impostor symptoms5.

Visualize: I foresee success in your future!

When Dora Farkas began to question her ability to complete her thesis, with a little encouragement, she began to visualize what she wanted. She visualized herself getting her PhD diploma at graduation while her family cheered her on the loudest they could3,9.

Separate fact from fiction (REAL vs. FAKE news)

Those who experience the impostor syndrome tend to exaggerate their faults and diminish their successes. It is important to have a realistic view of your abilities4.

Despite having worked as a lab technician for four years prior to graduate school, Abigail would often blame herself for experiments that went wrong in the lab. Eventually, she began to log each incident that occurred at the lab and the root of the issue. She soon discovered that the majority of the time, the issues were simply due to equipment failure and not her5.

Change your mindset

Easy to say; hard to do. But it is important to be aware that we are not perfect, that it is okay for us to make mistakes, and that it is okay for us to be proud of our achievements3.

Impostor or Not

So, let’s return to our original scene. The audience has no idea what’s going on in the graduate student’s mind. If the graduate student is an impostor, that’s one successful impostor! If the graduate student is themself, then again, that’s one successful graduate student! Either way, that PhD is waiting for you to claim it.

References:

  1. Clance PR, Imes SA. The imposter phenomenon in high achieving women: Dynamics and therapeutic intervention. Psychotherapy: Theory, Research & Practice [Internet]. 1978 [cited 2017 Aug 7]. Available from http://www.paulineroseclance.com/pdf/ip_ high_achieving_women.pdf
  2. Weir K. Feel like a fraud? American Psychological Association. American Psychological Association [Internet]. 2013 [cited 2017 Aug 7]. Available from http://www.apa.org/gradpsych/2013/11/fraud.aspx

  3. Impostor Phenomenon and Graduate Students. Centre for Teaching Excellence. University of Waterloo [Internet]. 2017 [cited 2017 Aug 7]. Available from https://uwaterloo.ca/centre-for-teaching-excellence/ teaching-resources/teaching-tips/planning-courses/ tips-teaching-assistants/impostor-phenomenon-and

  4. Gravois J. You’re Not Fooling Anyone. You’re Not Fooling Anyone. The Chronicle of Higher Education [Internet]. 2007 [cited 2017 Aug 7]. Available from http://www.chronicle.com/article/Youre-Not- Fooling-Anyone/28069/

  5. Laursen L. No, You’re Not an Impostor. Science. Science AAAS [Internet]. 2008 [cited 2017 Aug 7]. Available from http://www.sciencemag.org/ careers/2008/02/no-youre-not-impostor

  6. Rhiney D. The Imposter Syndrome - Syndrome or Mindset? HuffPost UK. The Huffington Post [Internet]. 2017 [cited 2017 Aug 7]. Available from http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/dr-diahanne- rhiney-/the-imposter-syndrome-syn_b_10160942.html

  7. Cokley K, Mcclain S, Enciso A, et al. An Examination of the Impact of Minority Status Stress and Impostor Feelings on the Mental Health of Diverse Ethnic Minority College Students. Journal of Multicultural Counseling and Development. 2013;41(2):82–95.

  8. Neureiter M, Traut-Mattausch E. An Inner Barrier to Career Development: Preconditions of the Impostor Phenomenon and Consequences for Career Development. Frontiers in Psychology [Internet]. 2016 Feb 4 [cited 2017 Aug 7]. Available from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4740363/#B29

  9. Farkas D. How to Crush the Impostor Syndrome in 20 Minutes or Less. Finish Your Thesis [Internet]. 2015 [cited 2017 Aug 7]. Available from https:// finishyourthesis.com/impostor-syndrome/

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