The Impostor Syndrome

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It has become increasingly clear that academia is rife with a condition known as the ‘impostor phenomenon’. The term was coined in 1978 by psychologists Clance and Imes in describing a sample of high-achieving women who were not able to internalise their many successes. Like many others today, these women felt that they had gotten to their place in life only by a series of flukes. The so-called syndrome can be debilitating; those with it feel like frauds and, worst of all, that at any moment they could be found out and exposed (Gravois, 2007). Recently, more and more people in academia have ‘admitted’ to having the impostor syndrome.

 

Although the phenomenon was first observed in a sample of women, men experience it, too (Kaplan, 2009). In fact, surveys have found no gender differences in the degree to which people experience it (Langford & Clance, 1993). Feeling like an impostor can be especially problematic for students unable to see outside the academic bubble (Gill, 2013). Clarke, Knights and Jarvis (2012) point out that academic life can impose many demands and set a high standard for quality expected not only by oneself but by others. Further, these standards can be ill-defined; thus success, when achieved, is not easily recognised (Knights & Clarke, 2014). No wonder researchers have difficulty internalising success.

There is another, major problem with experiencing the impostor phenomenon. People who have it cannot easily identify it in themselves. Clance and Imes (1978) noted that the women in their sample did not realise or admit they felt like impostors until after several sessions of therapy. Regrettably for people with the impostor phenomenon, there are no clear-cut symptoms. Despite being occasionally labelled as a syndrome, it is not actually a syndrome. It cannot be found in diagnostic handbooks. Consequently, it is difficult to tell if other people feel like an impostor, too. Clance (1985) devised an ‘IP scale’, a 5-point Likert-type scale which tests for, among other attributes, feeling less capable than peers (cited in Langford & Clance, 1993). For instance, one item is ‘I often compare my ability to those around me and think they may be more intelligent than I am.’ Thus, an inherent problem with the syndrome is the fact that people experiencing the phenomenon can feel like the only ones struggling in a sea of successful peers.

One possible outcome for some people can be resorting to fraud to make their results as good as everyone else’s results. Not feeling successful, despite being successful, can lead to dishonesty in research. While falsifying data might seem like it only happens in the worst places by social outcasts, it is no stranger to prestigious institutions. The relatively recent case of Diederek Stapel has cast some eyes toward psychology, but academic dishonesty has led to retractions from journals of a variety of fields (Bhattacharjee, 2013). One of Stapel’s former colleagues noted that he never “saw a study [of Stapel’s] failed, which is highly unusual”, yet “even the best people … have studies that fail constantly.” Perhaps the moral of the story is the need to recognise just that: even the best can fail. Students should not try to make their career a series of non-stop successes, but rather accept their failures as they go.

Being in academia necessarily imposes elements of self-doubt. In particular, new students can second-guess their results, their conclusions, and the significance of their research. Undergraduates, upon receiving their first independent research projects, may feel lost without strict guidance. Postgraduates, upon encountering their first difficulties, can wonder why they were accepted. These worries are not reason to be dishonest. Consider: however mystifying it may seem, students are purposely chosen based on their success and potential for success.

It so happens that academia is quite dissimilar to many other work environments. Not often is it the case elsewhere that a group of highly scholarly and intelligent individuals is gathered to tackle a yet-unanswerable research question. In fact, that almost necessarily describes research groups or even undergraduate cohorts one may find in an academic institution. The problem is that individuals in these groups can be so blinded by their position in relation to their peers that they can be unable to see their place in the ‘wider world’. These individuals may be all unquestionably smart and successful in their field, and they may be based at some of the top institutions in the world. Nevertheless, they may feel that they have achieved this only by luck, whereas their peers are far more skilled. Further, young researchers may have been in the top of their class in secondary school or their undergraduate programme. In striving for perfection, such individuals can lose sight of the accomplishments they have made along the way. Stoeber, Hutchfield, and Wood (2008) found that after success feedback, perfectionistic striving in individuals “predicted increases in aspiration level”, That is, perfectionistic striving predicted an increase in the feeling of wanting to do ‘even better’. Thus, people struggle take stock of their achievements, because they always feel there is more to be done.

The important thing to remember is that the impostor phenomenon is neither rare nor recent. Clanes and Imes (1978) suggest therapy, and emphasise the importance of being in a group setting. Therapy can be left to the discretion of the individual, but it needs to be known that people with impostor phenomenon are not alone. However, there is one caveat: engaging with a group is good, but individuals should not look too closely at their peers. Success can be measured in different ways and equal measures of success can be achieved at different paces.

In academia, people can suffer from insecurity as a result of overly-high aspirations and impostor feelings (Knights & Clarke, in press). Interestingly, Harvey (1981) found a low correlation between self-esteem and the impostor phenomenon (cited in Langford & Clance, 1993). Thus, feelings of being inadequate or a ‘fake’ may be distinct from general feelings of negative self-worth. Schwartz (2008) notes that, particularly in science, feeling ‘stupid’ is natural. It may even be necessary. Not feeling comfortable or secure means not being stagnant, either. Feeling out of place is probably the right feeling, because in academia no one knows everything. Everyone should feel out of place in the big world of knowledge, because that means there are more answers to be found. Insecurity creates job security in academia. The only path to take is to trudge on.

In the academic circles of social media, the #overlyhonestmethods hashtag has recently enjoyed popularity. Searching the Twitter trend finds dozens of researchers ‘confessing’ to slightly unscrupulous research methods. While some veer dangerously to fraudulent, most are small blunders. If there is anything that trend has taught the academic community, it is that people can make mistakes in science. No matter position or prestige. The impostor syndrome is not fake, nor is it an epidemic to worry about. It is just a part of academia, and something to find ways to cope with. Don’t feel like an impostor; feel at home.

 

References

Bhattacharjee, Y. (2013, April 26). The Mind of a Con Man. The New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2013/04/28/magazine/diederik-stapels-audacious-academic-fraud.html

Clance, P. R., & Imes, S. (1978). The Imposter Phenomenon in High Achieving Women: Dynamics and Therapeutic Intervention. Psychotherapy Theory, Research, and Practice, 15(3), 1-8.

Clarke, C. A., Knights, D., & Jarvis, C. (2012). A Labour of Love? Academics in UK Business Schools. Scandinavian Journal of Management, 28(1), 5-15.

Gill, J. (2013, June 16). How I Cured My Imposter Syndrome. Inside Higher Ed. Retrieved from http://www.insidehighered.com/blogs/university-venus/how-i-cured-my-imposter-syndrome

Gravois, J. (2007, November 9). You’re Not Fooling Anyone. The Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved from http://chronicle.com/article/Youre-Not-Fooling-Anyone/28069/

Kaplan, K. (2009). Unmasking the impostor. Nature, 459(7245), 468-9. doi: 10.1038/nj7245-468a

Knights, David and Clarke, Caroline (in press). It’s a bittersweet symphony, this life: fragile academic selves and insecure identities at work. Organization Studies.

Langford, J., & Clance, P. R. (1993). The impostor phenomenon: Recent research findings regarding dynamics, personality and family patterns and their implications for treatment. Psychotherapy, 30(3), 495-501.

Schwartz, M. A. (2008). The importance of stupidity in scientific research. Journal of Cell Science, 121, 171. doi: 10.1242/jcs.033340

Stoeber, J., Hutchfield, J., & Wood, K. V. (2008). Perfectionism, self-efficacy, and aspiration level: differential effects of perfectionistic striving and self-criticism after success and failure [Abstract]. Personality and Individual Differences, 45(4), 323-327. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.paid.2008.04.021

About the author

Julie Lee Julie Lee (@synapticlee) is a second year psychology undergraduate at the University of Bristol, United Kingdom. Her research interests are in psycholinguistics and cognitive neuroscience.

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