Impostor Syndrome in Academia: Problems and Solutions

Updated: Apr 28


Impostor syndrome written on paper

Ever felt like a fraud? Unworthy of your successful career or academic path? Worried about your mask falling during a job interview? You're not alone. These feelings may be related to a common phenomenon, present in all areas of life: impostor syndrome.


This article will focus on imposter syndrome in academia and provide tips on which positive approaches can be adopted to take the bull by the horns.


When you graduate from high school, obtain a university diploma or complete your PhD, we'd prefer you were convinced this was the fruit of your hard work and nothing else.


Let us dive into the discussion.


What is impostor syndrome?


Impostor syndrome can be defined as an ensemble of persisting feelings of unfulfillment, underperformance, and inadequacy despite obvious and visible success. Research shows that about 70% of the population has experienced this issue.


It's likely you might suffer from imposter syndrome if you:

  • Are unable to assess your skills and competence in a realistic way

  • Describe your success as being due to external factors

  • Often self-doubt

  • Are afraid of not meeting expectations

  • Often undermine your performance


Costumes

Why imposter feelings are a problem

As we saw above, this issue is mainly internal. Why internal? Because it stems from your own self-perception, shaped by life events and environmental factors, such as your upbringing, your personality, and your academic context for example.


On the other hand, some might argue it's not a problem: imposter feelings might push you to work harder, study harder and spend more time preparing reports, group projects, and presentations to perform better.


However, it's very likely this feeling of needing to constantly over-prepare will come with anxiety, which is not a buddy you want sitting on your shoulder during your entire career, whether you're in academia or not.


Where imposter syndrome is prevalent

Introduced in the 70s by psychologists Suzanna Imes and Pauline Rose Clance, imposter syndrome was initially applied to high achieving women.


Today, it is estimated that 70% of individuals will experience imposter syndrome at least once in their lives. In other words, whether you're a student, a professor, a CEO, or an employee, it's likely you'll experience imposter syndrome.


While the imposter phenomenon can affect everyone, it's quite prevalent in the academic environment, hence our wish to further explore imposter syndrome in academia, the world of students, schools, universities, professors, scholars, and education more broadly speaking.


Imposter syndrome in academia

Laboratory

The imposter phenomenon is very present in the academic world. From students to PhD candidates, through academics, professors, and faculty members: no one is immune to imposter feelings.


For students, these feelings of inadequacy may - from a health and medical perspective - result in cases of:

  • Anxiety

  • Decreased levels of self-esteem

  • Depression

From an academic perspective imposter feelings may lead to unethical behaviors and academic dishonesty:

  • Contract cheating: paying someone to complete assignments for them

  • Plagiarism: copying someone else's work

  • Recycling: making minor adjustments to a paper resembling the assignment to be completed

  • Collusion: collaborating with groups of students or colleagues to share answers

Either way, imposter syndrome has negative consequences on academia as a whole and every member of the academic community could use bullets to fight the irrational fear stemming from this phenomenon.


5 types of imposter syndrome

Student studying

To help you better understand whether you're one of that 70%, here are different types of imposter syndrome with which you might identify. In her research and notably in her book "The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women", Dr. Valerie Young distinguishes 5 types of imposter syndrome.


The perfectionists

These individuals have extremely high expectations, such that even the smallest of mistakes will make them feel like failures and underachievers.


The superwoman/superman

They work long hours, rarely take days off, and strive for success in life - in all its aspects. They want to show they're the real deal through hard work, and constantly seek to prove themselves through it.


The natural geniuses

Natural geniuses are used to everything being easy for them, such that whenever something is too hard or difficult to master on the first try, they prefer giving up with a feeling of shame and self-doubt.


The soloists

Soloists highly dislike asking for help and feel like failures or frauds when they do. In their view, seeking help implies a lack of skill and competence on their part.


The experts

These individuals keep seeking and can't get enough training or additional certifications. They feel their knowledge will never be sufficient and that unless they complete as much training or obtain as many certificates as possible, they will be perceived as unqualified.


Overcoming the imposter syndrome


Therapy session

We're not going to sugar-coat this, moving past imposter feelings is no easy task. It will require you to adopt a completely different personal perspective and confront deeply ingrained beliefs you hold about yourself.


The tricky thing is that you might not even realize you hold some beliefs about yourself, which means you might need to share your feelings with someone (and that will feel so good!).


Let's go through a few steps you can take to start tackling imposter syndrome.


1. Baby steps

First of all, take it easy on yourself during the entire process. Overcoming this problem won't happen overnight. That being said, start tackling this problem as early as possible.


Take one small action at a time and cut yourself some slack! Reward yourself for each small step you take (including reading this article!).


2. Assess your achievements and abilities

Sometimes, writing where you've been and what you've done on a piece of paper can be very effective in helping you overcome your irrational beliefs of not being good enough.


Here's a great starting point: writing how you see yourself in one column and what you've achieved in another column. It's very likely you'll see you achieved more than you think and at the very least start questioning your deeply ingrained beliefs of incompetence and underachievement. If you want to be efficient, why not list all your skills and achievements in your CV? Make the best of this exercise!


That's a great step taken! After writing it down, you might need to hear it out loud from someone else, hence the importance of this next section.


3. Share your thoughts and feelings

Imposter syndrome is an irrational belief. It can stem from many different factors, including family upbringing, personality, and social anxiety.


The best way to confront irrational beliefs is to share them with someone. Doesn't it feel good to hear someone say you are a great student, you are a solid researcher, and you are a valuable colleague? Start by speaking with friends, close family members, and colleagues.


If you feel comfortable sharing thoughts and feelings with someone you're less familiar with, consider giving a therapist a ring. Therapists are great people to share thoughts and feelings with because they see you and understand you in a completely different way than all other people in your life do. They'll ask you the right questions, help you question your thoughts, and your self-doubt, and convince you most of these feelings are completely irrational.


At the end of the process, you'll be one of those people. That's the goal after all: learning to convince yourself that you are worthy, smart, and deserve success in life.


4. Stop comparing yourself to others

Who cares about the grades your student peers got? How many papers your fellow researcher got published? Your hard work is for you, not for anyone else, not even your parents.


Comparing yourself to others in social situations will inevitably lead you to see things they achieved that you didn't and not the other way around. Without getting too philosophical, we each choose different paths and have different objectives, which means a comparison doesn't really make much sense.


Instead of comparing, why not listen carefully, ask the right questions and make the best out of that conversation? If it turns out you share similar objectives with the person you're chatting with, you're in luck more than anything! Ask for as many tips as you can. By learning more, it's likely you'll perform better and reach your objectives, just like they did.


5. If the above hasn't convinced you

If you feel like you won't overcome your feeling of being an impostor, here is a quote for you:


"Just because you're trash doesn't mean you can't do great things. It's called garbage can, not garbage cannot"


To be clear, this fifth point is the last resort. No one is trash, the large majority of people on Earth are good at something, and you are too.


To wrap up

People pulling a rope

Well, we hope this information and the few humble tips we presented will help you adopt a different mindset, one that serves you best.


Overcoming imposter feelings will benefit your health, performance, self-esteem, and confidence and boost your success, whatever being successful means to you.


Beating the imposter syndrome is not an easy gig: it will require you to reassess your abilities, successes, intellectual capabilities, and accomplishments.


While research shows 70% of you are likely to face the imposter syndrome phenomenon at least once in your life, don't let it affect your career or academic life.

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