It’s not just you: Impostor syndrome in academia

  • October 29, 2020

By Helena Mello

When I was finishing high school, I had to pass a University Admission Exam in order to start college. I come from Brazil, where universities accept students based on how well they score on the exam compared to everyone else applying for the same major. It is not easy to pass on the first attempt, especially if many people compete for it. At age 16, I applied for the biology major. It was a subject I enjoyed studying in high school and it was not a college major competitively sought after by many exam applicants. To my absolute surprise, I passed and started college at 17 years old.

I worried that people would find out that I wasn’t as invested in biology as they were – after all, I had never dreamt of being a scientist! I spent many years in college with the constant fear that my more qualified, smarter peers would uncover my unpreparedness. Right after starting the Ph.D., the same feeling surfaced. Thoughts as “When are they going to find out that I haven’t really thought about being a scientist until I started college?”; “How long until they say there was a mistake and that I was wrongfully accepted into the program?” would come to my mind every day. It wasn’t until I started therapy in my third year of the Ph.D. that I was introduced to the concept of impostor syndrome.

First described by psychologists Suzanne Imes, Ph.D. and Pauline Rose Clance, Ph.D. in the 1970s, impostor syndrome (or impostor phenomenon) occurs among those “who are unable to internalize and accept their success", according to this article by the American Psychological Association. As an exercise, my therapist asked me to list the objective reasons why my peers deserved to be in the program and I didn’t. She asked me to concretely identify why I didn’t think I could be a terrific scientist even though I hadn’t planned to become one. Why would people say nice things about my work and professionalism if they really didn’t believe in it? No, they were not saying it just because I am nice. I started to understand that my thoughts were not rational: I am not faking my abilities; I am qualified, and I possess skills that have brought me where I am.

In academia, we are surrounded by highly accomplished individuals. People who have spent years deciphering important aspects of life and have made groundbreaking contributions to the world as we understand it today. It is absolutely expected that we feel overwhelmed in this environment. It may help to remember that they were also juniors some time ago. Most of them will relate to your discomfort and guide you to realize that you are exactly where you are supposed to be: in a place to learn and develop professionally. Although these senior researchers have gone through most of their academic training, they also face impostor fears from time to time. Professionals in transition stages (from Ph.D. to postdoc to faculty, from academia to industry, for example) tend to experience these fears as well.

Impostor symptoms range from avoiding questions in meetings (“this would be a dumb thing to ask”) to thinking you got where you are by being lucky and not seeing the worthiness of contributions. Regardless of how many times your peers and supervisors say you are important to the team and your contributions are relevant, you simply cannot see the value of it – and you firmly believe they only say that because they like you. To address that at an individual level, there is no better approach than therapy. Specialized therapy will help you unravel your own reasons for not being able to see your worth. If you are a student at Rutgers University, you are eligible for the Student Wellness Program, where you can find specialized counseling free of charge. You may also be able to attend therapy sessions through your health insurance provider.

However, at a community level, we can take a few action steps to lessen the burden of these fears collectively. First, we should acknowledge that most of us have impostor fears: sharing our thoughts and experiences with peers and people we trust will put things in perspective. Second, we should promote an environment that is diverse and inclusive for everyone. Many individuals face impostor fears because of lack of representation – i.e., they don’t share an identity with other members of a given group. This is especially true for minorities and needs to be addressed institutionally. For instance, departments, workgroups, and classrooms should strive to build an environment where everyone feels safe and welcome. Third, peer mentoring programs are great tools to welcome new members to the team. It will show them that their presence is valued, and their contributions are taken into account.

In order to deal with my impostor’s fears, I have been more open about it (for example by writing this piece!), and I have started to assess my accomplishments more rationally. If I feel discouraged in the lab, I look back at my old notebooks, and I realize how much I have grown as a researcher in the past five years. Likewise, I compare old and new posters to see how far my thesis research has come. When this bigger picture approach doesn’t do the trick, I get more specific: I look at microscope images from three years ago and compare them to my latest ones, and quickly realize that I have come a long way in this particular technique. I also like to identify activities that I know I am good at. Take cell culture, for example: I know how to take proper care of cells, I can quickly learn new cell-based experiments, and I rarely have contamination issues. This reminds me that I am skilled in the lab; therefore, there is a reason why I was chosen to be there.

Finally, remember all the steps you went through: graduate program interviews, interviews with PIs, CV evaluation, and much more. In each step, there were qualified individuals who evaluated you and concluded that you have what it takes to be where you are. They also did the same thing to your peers – whom you tend to think are far better than you. How do you rationalize that they did a good job by hiring your peers but made a mistake by hiring you?

I don’t intend to lecture you how to completely overcome impostor fear, or how to shut this inner voice (because I haven’t learned that yet, either). I do want you to understand that most of us experience it, though, and that everyone has a different underlying reason for it to surface. It might be insecurity, low self-esteem, perfectionism, fear of judgement, or other reasons. I just want you to know that this is perfectly common and talking about it is a great first step to make you feel better about yourself. If you’d like to talk about it but are unsure of where to start, you can reach out to me on our blog’s twitter page. I will be happy to chat with you. I hope you enjoyed this article and that it has helped you in some way!

This article was edited by Junior Editor Janaina Cruz Pereira and Senior Editor Samantha Avina.