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How to Identify and Overcome 'Imposter Syndrome'

October 8, 2015
By GradProSkills

“I thought that all of my fellow grad students were more together, [...] more articulate, less doubtful. I felt like I’d somehow fooled everyone into thinking I was qualified to get into graduate school, and couldn’t shake the anxiety that someone would ultimately figure out the error. When something good would happen– a grant, or an award– I subconsciously chalked it up to luck, rather than merit.”

What ecologist and biogeographer Jacquelyn Gill describes here is a classic case of imposter syndrome, defined by Caltech's Counseling Center as "a collection of feelings of inadequacy that persist even in face of information that indicates that the opposite is true.”

Sound like you? You’re not alone. The phrase has been around since the 70s, according to Assistant Professor Alyssa Westring (writing on the phenomenon for Inside Higher Ed). It was originally used “to describe successful women who felt like ‘phonies”’ despite evidence of their intelligence and accomplishments.” It’s important to note that anyone can harbour these thoughts patterns - although women tend to be more susceptible, according to economist Kate Bahn, who wrote about imposter syndrome for Chronicle.

If you’re experiencing imposter syndrome, here are some possible avenues to pursue:

  • Find (or create) a support group. “Feminist groups can bolster women’s self-esteem by providing safe spaces for discussion and affirmation that yes, they do belong in academia. In fact, a number of female academics from my own economics program meet occasionally to discuss our experiences,” Bahn shares.

  • Westring writes about “stereotype inoculation,” where “exposure to women experts in a typically male-dominated field serves to ‘inoculate’ women against the self-doubt and isolation that often accompanies being the member of a minority.” Following this model, engaging with other successful women (in your field or not) can help you ‘inoculate’ yourself against these fears.

  • In a similar vein, Stephen J. Aguilar (a doctoral candidate in education and psychology at the University of Michigan) suggests that “one way to feel like a genuine member of a community (and not an impostor) is to actually get to know a lot of members in that community in an informal setting,” like asking your peers or professors to lunch or coffee.

  • The importance of mentorship (whether as a mentor or mentee) in overcoming imposter syndrome was mentioned in several articles. “The very act of mentoring forces you to put on a confident face, and there is some value to faking it until you make it,” Gill wrote. “When my first mentees opened up about their secret fears, I was shocked with how familiar their concerns were.”

  • Bahn notes that professors can affect change in the classroom by encouraging female students to speak up, or simply by “opening up about your own academic insecurities.” “Knowing that professors feel like fakers from time to time, too, might help the rest of us feel a little less self-conscious—and a little more like we belong,” she writes.


imposter syndrome inforgraphic Image courtesy of Jason Alderman on Flickr, used via Creative Commons license
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