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Overcoming Imposter Syndrome in Academia

 

Dr. Zachary M. Wilmot, Associate Editor

April 2022


Many academics, especially those still in their early careers, feel that they are not as talented, intelligent, or hard-working as their peers and mentors. This feeling often persists, and sometimes intensifies, despite evidence to the contrary, which can result in a fear of being unmasked as a fraud. If you have ever felt this way, you might suffer from imposter syndrome.

What is imposter syndrome?

The “imposter phenomenon” was first described by psychologists Clance and Imes in a 1978 scholarly article. They defined the phenomenon as when people, “despite outstanding academic and professional accomplishments […] persist in believing that they are really not bright and have fooled anyone who thinks otherwise.” Since then, the concept of “imposter syndrome” has become increasingly prominent in public discourse.

Imposter syndrome is a persistent feeling of self-doubt and incompetence despite—or perhaps because of—one’s accomplishments. Though it can be found in people from all walks of life, imposter syndrome is especially prominent in academic settings, where it manifests as an intense lack of confidence in one’s skills, a feeling that one does not deserve their position, and a deep-seated fear that one will be exposed as a fraud by their colleagues or mentors.

Who suffers from imposter syndrome?

One systematic review found that up to 82% of professionals, including academics, suffer from imposter syndrome. People in all stages of their career, from graduate students to tenured professors, suffer from this feeling, though it might manifest in different ways. A graduate student might worry that they will be kicked out of their program for not being smart enough, a post-doctoral researcher might feel that the results of their research do not merit their funding, and a tenured professor might feel out of their depth when teaching or presenting.

What are the effects of imposter syndrome?

Imposter syndrome has many negative effects on those who suffer from it, including anxiety, an increased risk of depression, and a lack of self-confidence that can lead to missed opportunities. It can also act as a self-fulling prophecy by harming work performance and increasing burnout. For these reasons, it is important to find ways to overcome imposter syndrome.

How do I move past imposter syndrome?

Though imposter syndrome can sometimes be overwhelming, it is possible to move past it. Here are five ways to overcome insecurities related to imposter syndrome and regain your academic confidence:

1. Be aware of your thoughts and experiences.

The first step in overcoming any problem is to acknowledge it. If you frequently feel like a fraud, take a moment to reflect on why you feel that way. Did someone say something that made you feel unintelligent? Did you read something that made you doubt your research? Did you attend a seminar where everyone else seemed to know more than you? Think about what concrete experiences are undermining your confidence, and then take the appropriate steps below to overcome your negative feelings.

2. Reinterpret criticism.

Academics are frequently subjected to intense critique, which can be damaging to their confidence, especially when projects that have taken years of careful planning and research are dismissed seemingly out of hand. However, criticism can be turned into a source of confidence. Whenever someone criticizes your work—especially if they are a respected scholar—remember that they felt your work was worth criticizing; something in it compelled them to respond in a way that recognizes you as belonging to a community of scholars. If a critique was particularly harsh, it can also help to reinterpret the critic; many critics themselves are suffering from imposter syndrome, and excessive criticism of others is one way that they try to cope with it.

Though sometimes painful, critique is fundamental to the scientific process. Remember that the purpose of criticism is to help you improve your work, and that critiques are about your work and not you. Reinterpret the criticism and the critic, and then incorporate any helpful insights into your future work to grow as a scholar.

3. Avoid comparison and focus on the positives.

Today, it is all too easy to constantly compare your achievements with those of others. If you find that you are doing this, remember that you are only seeing their successes and not their failures. Your colleague may have just published an article in Nature, but their countless previous rejections are likely invisible to you.

It also helps to focus on your own work instead of that of your peers. Everyone does things differently and works at a different pace. Different subfields even have different expectations in terms of number, length, and type of publications. Comparing your own career progression to those around you is often counterproductive, and instead focusing on your own work can help you overcome imposter syndrome.

It is also important to focus on the positives in your own work, rather than dwell on the negatives. Instead of letting your failures drag you down, instead remember your successes in whatever form they may take: an award or grant, a kind word from a mentor or student, or a particularly well-written passage in one of your papers. Keeping a tangible record of the compliments you have received and of your successes can create an archive that you can review to overcome negative feelings and regain your confidence.

4. Ask for help and form communities.

If you are experiencing imposter syndrome, you are not alone. Charles Darwin himself suffered from it; in 1863, he wrote the following to geologist Charles Lyell: “But I am very poorly today and very stupid and I hate everybody and everything. One lives only to make blunders.” In writing this, Darwin sought sympathy from a fellow scientist.

Darwin’s strategy can also be yours. If you are feeling down on yourself, reach out to those in your community that you trust, and you may find that they are feeling the same way. You can ask others for help in tackling a problem in exchange for your advice or spend a few hours venting your frustrations and discussing your academic stresses. Forming communities of support is a good way to realize that you are not alone and to boost your confidence by creating opportunities for you to help others.

5. Find meaning outside your work.

For most academics, their research is not only a massive part of their lives, but also a fundamental component of their identity. This means that professional obstacles can seem like personal failings, especially when formal measures of academic success are not only narrowly defined, but also fickle and limited by design; after all, there are only so many grants and open positions.

As a result, it is important to find meaning outside the academy. Engaging in a hobby that lets you grow and produces tangible results you can be proud of is a good way to gain confidence that will survive the relentless pressures of academia; consider taking up art, a craft, martial arts, creative writing, birdwatching, or anything that lets you develop skills and confidence outside your research.

Lastly, when you feel as if you do not belong, remember that you are not alone; everyone makes mistakes and experiences self-doubt, but you can rise above it to become a better, more confident scholar.

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