David Murray discusses the imposter phenomenon and how it can impact academic life.
The Imposter Phenomenon is a complex topic. During the 1970s, a psychology professor at Oberlin College noticed that, despite strong academic records, female students often felt that they didn’t deserve their success, with many students attributing their success to luck. Profs. Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes began interviewing these women and wrote up their findings in a paper called “The Imposter Phenomenon in High Achieving Women”. The innocuous use of the term ‘phenomenon’ is where the complexity of the topic begins. Although it was initially referred to as ‘imposter phenomenon’, since the 1970s it has been relabelled as ‘imposter syndrome’, the use of the new term ‘syndrome’ implying that this is something people have or suffer from. Despite the implication, imposter syndrome doesn’t fit the clinical criteria for a psychological syndrome, which is defined as a cluster of symptoms that causes intense distress or interferes with a person’s ability to function. Even Prof Clance is unsure when it began to be called a syndrome instead of a phenomenon, but stated during a recent interview, “If I could do it all again, I would call it the imposter experience, because it’s not a syndrome or a complex or a mental illness, it’s something almost everyone experiences”. Despite Prof. Clances assertions that it is not a mental health issue, numerous papers and articles have been written and discussed within both the British Psychological Society (BPS) and the American Psychological Association (APA).
Almost everyone is affected by imposter syndrome
Whether you call it a syndrome, phenomenon or experience, articles written on the subject seem to agree that almost everyone has experienced it. In a recent book on the issue, Dr Cuddy of Harvard University reviewed numerous studies and noted that researchers have found imposterism in dozens of demographic groups. Even the initial premise of Profs. Clance and Imes seminal paper, that this was a female only problem, turned out to be false. Subsequent studies have since noted no significant difference in self-reported imposter feelings among male and female college students, professors and professionals. A quick google search revealed quotes from world-renowned artists, Nobel prize winners and all round amazing human beings, suggesting that, intermittently throughout their careers, they too have felt like they had ‘tricked everyone into believing they were good at their jobs’ or they ‘just got lucky to have people support them and prop them up’. However, from a purely academic perspective there still appears to be a stigma associated with imposterism. Because of the highly competitive nature of academia, those people suffering from fraudulent feelings might believe that admitting publicly will affect future job prospects. However, to those within academia who experience feelings of being an imposter it is important to understand that you are not alone.
My own experience
My own experience with imposterism started during my very first post doc position, I had problems getting a particular technique to work in the lab. At the time, I clearly remember thinking to myself “This is it, it was only a matter of time before I reached my limit”, “Literally thousands of scientists must be doing this technique right this moment and getting it to work, so I must not be good enough! Right?” and “maybe I should just give up science and academia”. The scary thing for me looking back at this was that I never even gave myself much of a chance to problem solve, think of solutions or even ask for help. I dreaded coming into work, withered at the thought of lab meetings and struggled to socialise outside of the work place. Up until that moment I had considered myself a relatively confident individual, but my whole world was turned upside down in the space of a couple of weeks. My failure in the lab and the thought of being discovered as a fraud was all I could think about. Thinking back, it was impossible for me to separate fact from fiction and even harder to remember any of my accomplishments.
Many academics can feel like imposters
My example is a very narrow experience among what can be a very broad condition. A conference I recently attended had an excellent talk on Imposter Syndrome by Professor Isabelle Côté. This highly accomplished scientist discussed the changes that many scientists experience during their career progression, and in particular described a common trajectory among PhD students who often start with high levels of confidence but low competence. However, as competence increases, confidence often decreases due to feelings of inadequacy. This situation is certainly something to which most people suffering from imposterism can relate. Within science, we share offices and departments with some of the best scientists in the world and a lot of us constantly fall into the trap of comparing ourselves to our colleagues, but strangely enough only comparisons that we see as negatives. It’s an ‘apples to oranges’ comparison to begin with, but those experiencing feelings of being an imposter are often unable to acknowledge the different backgrounds that each scientist has or even any favourable comparisons, which inevitably leads to a downward emotional spiral.
How can we stop feeling like frauds?
So, what about prevention and support? Is prevention even the right word to use? Maybe it’s better to say mitigation, because at the end of the day imposterism is a feeling and it is often impossible to prevent yourself from feeling a certain way. There are many different ways of dealing with imposter syndrome but, from my own experience, talking with close friends and colleagues really brought me out of the downward spiral. The APA recommend the following:
1) Talk to your supervisors; often supportive, encouraging supervision can help those experiencing these feelings understand that they are both common and irrational.
2) Recognise your expertise; don’t just compare yourself to your peers, and sometimes tutoring and demonstrating other students can help you acknowledge how far you’ve come and how much knowledge you have to impart.
3) Remembering what you do well; writing down the things you’re truly good at and the areas that might need work can help you recognise where you’re doing well and where you might legitimately need help.
4) Realise that no-one is perfect; stop focusing on perfection and take time to appreciate the work that you do. It is important to develop and implement rewards for success and learn to celebrate.
5) Change your thinking; most people with imposter feelings have to reframe the way they consider their achievements, which is best done incrementally. For example, let a colleague read a draft that you haven’t yet perfectly polished. 6) Talk to someone who can help; for many people a psychologist or therapist can give you tools to help you break the cycle of feeling like an imposter.
Having recently attended a workshop on PhD supervision it’s noticeable that our own university is beginning to place a great deal of importance on the mental health of early career researchers. It is vital to note that mental health is just as important as physical health and that nobody I’ve spoken to or any of the articles I’ve read believe that a so called ‘fake it until you make it’ strategy is an acceptable or sustainable coping mechanism for dealing with feelings of being an imposter. Common coping strategies I have heard of include having a file on your computer containing all the emails or messages you have received where you have successfully completed an important task or been praised for your work. Alternatively, Prof Côté suggests keeping a jar containing some nice things that people have said about you as reminders. The point is to have something on hand that you can immediately go to if you begin to feel like an imposter. If none of these suggestions float your boat just google ‘imposter syndrome/phenomenon/experience’. There are loads of great blogs and websites offering some really nice, simple ways to acknowledge and deal with imposter syndrome. Two websites I thought were really helpful can be found here are here. Finally, feelings of being an imposter are still too often something that is whispered about in the halls of academia, which can lead to a vicious cycle encouraging anxiety and fear in those experiencing such feelings. Luckily, more and more people are willing to talk about their experiences, which will hopefully help us all to understand and cope better with this common situation.
David Murray is a senior research associate working on aquaculture and fisheries related research. Having graduated from the University of Glasgow with his PhD he has subsequently worked as a post-doctoral researcher at the University of Vienna, Austria and Leibniz Institute of Freshwater Ecology and Inland Fisheries, Germany, before joining the University of East Anglia.