Imposter Syndrome

November 1, 2007

A little bait for the DM and the PP. I ran across an interesting three parter (one, two, three) from mrswhatsit on imposter syndrome in science.

Impostor syndrome, for those who don’t know, is characterized by the belief that you have somehow fooled everyone into thinking that you are smart and competent, that in fact you are neither, and one day people are going to figure out that you are a fraud. It seems to be fairly common among women academics. I first heard the term a few years ago and it described exactly how I felt on a daily basis.

I don’t know that this is all that unique to women…

As a mentor though, it poses interesting questions. We all know we’re supposed to be supportive and encouraging and all that. “Good” mentors are great at these “atta-postdoc” skills.  All true. But are we supposed to diagnose “imposter syndrome”? How is one to set up an imposter-syndrome-friendly environment?

A related question is what degree of confidence do you project as a PI and mentor? The “troops” want to be encouraged, excited and motivated by someone surging forward with great confidence, no? So we shouldn’t burden them with our own problems, like, say grant funding, right? But what about the appearance of “super-prof-ness” and the effect this has on the outside (or inside) observer? Read comments over on FSP for an illustration of “You’re so cool it makes me feel unworthy, how do you DO that?”. So in some senses the highly confident PI is not good for the imposter syndrome trainee.

7 Responses to “Imposter Syndrome”

  1. physioprof Says:

    I always project extreme excitement and confidence, both inwardly to the trainees in my lab and outwardly to colleagues in my institution, field, and subfield. I don’t know from “imposter syndrome”, but I treat everyone in my lab as though they are smart aqnd confident. I also tell them that regardless of what they feel inside, they need to project confidence.


  2. Neuro-conservative Says:

    I agree with bikemonkey that this syndrome is hardly limited to women in science. I should think that most scientists would encounter this from time to time when confronting the enormous complexity of their chosen field. When I get to feeling that way, I use it as an impetus to stay up late reading some of the major articles that have been sitting for too long in my inbox.

    At the same time, I can think of some senior investigator types (Prof. Graybeard & Dr. BlueHair) who probably should spend more time feeling like frauds, because they are. But that’s another story altogether…


  3. mrswhatsit Says:

    It does seem that men feel imposter syndrome. The difference is, unlike women, imposter syndrome doesn’t seem to keep the majority of men from pursuing their goals. Unfortunately, I haven’t had time to find more recent scholarly articles about this, so I can’t say whether researchers have nailed down why this is.

    I’m not sure that advisors can help all that much in the diagnosis of individual cases imposter syndrome. For one thing, I think it would be hard to tell from the outside who is having a problem and who is not. After all, these are people who _are_ successful. They probably look like everything is fine. To be encouraging and supportive is probably the best that an advisor can do. That, and not tolerate self put-downs.


  4. neurolover Says:

    One piece of advise I’ve seen offered on how to counteract imposer syndrome is to be specific about praise with your trainees: not “great talk!”, but details about why the talk was good. Then, when the person starts going down the imposter syndrome path, they have factual information to draw on to counteract it.

    Check out Caroline Dweck for info. She’s a child psychologist, and so the advice is often geared towards children, but it would apply to anyone who is being taught something.

    I do believe the imposter issue affects women differently, but using precise positive reinforcement should work with anyone.


  5. […] been what mentors can do to stave off imposter syndrome in their charges. Bikemonkey mentioned it here, and Alethea also talks about it here.  Bikemonkey asks, “A related question is what degree […]


  6. drugmonkey Says:

    “I always project extreme excitement and confidence, both inwardly to the trainees in my lab and outwardly to colleagues in my institution, field, and subfield.”

    …and on blogs???? 🙂

    I don’t really know how I come across and I think I’m dismal at changing that in any case. In either direction. So while I may not be all that big on “sharing” within the lab in terms of “gee, I’m really unmotivated this week”, I’ll for sure go over the paper submission or grant revision strategy as I see it, warts and all. So if I’m putting a grant revision in and I am feeling pessimistic, I’ll for sure acknowledge “Well I think we’ll avoid triage but it probably won’t go all the way to fund line this time”. Or “Sure this is a bit of a long shot journal but let’s see if we can get it sent for review”.

    On the flip side, when the arrogance comes out, it comes out. If I think someone took the wrong tack on some paper or experimental approach that we kick ass on I may let to occasional “those idiots” slip out, sure. Waddayagonnado?

    The cheerleading thing is definitely a weak spot for me. I have a certain innate pessimism (readers everywhere are shocked, I realize) so the surging with great enthusiasm thing likely doesn’t apply. Can one learn to fake that? Heh.

    mrswhatsit, on imposter syndrome somehow not hindering men, well this is an interesting one. are we getting a bit circular here? “Well, men can overcome it so therefore it must not be as bad for them”. The alternative is going to be viewed as blame-the-victim, i.e., that men have just as much “imposter syndrome” in incidence and severity but they overcome it through force of will. heh.

    okay but perhaps they have specific tools, skills or advantages that counteract the imposter syndrome. what might those be? I see minefields. but what the heck.

    1) career inevitability. I’ll get in trouble on this one I have no doubt. But on average men and women in the US are still socialized very differently. And even very independent minded, very smart, highly trained and at times career focused women have, in the back of the mind, somewhere somehow the concept of dependence. That for some fraction of the child bearing years they will be supported financially by someone else. Not that everyone does so, not that career focus doesn’t trump all in some women. Just to say that there are next to zero men thinking this. They for the most part have a core of belief that they are supposed to work to support themselves and, oftentimes, a family as well. -This has a way of focusing the mind.

    2): A possibly related point is that even in science, a job which is substantially self-motivated, self-reinforcing and just plain self-interested in many ways, men retain a core of “this is a job”. In a way that I find women’s subtly different viewpoint to be “I do this job because I like it.” The difference between “a job that I happen to like” and “a endeavor I like that happens to be a career” is subtle. But when things suck and one is on the point of quitting, small things loom large.

    3) child play. Another stereotype for which I will no doubt pay but think about the organized sports and the diversity of roles which are filled. sports offer many different ways for the differentially talented to be “the best”. Say the best quarterback will never be the best defensive end and vice versa in (‘murrican) football. boys hew more toward team sports and the identification of distinct excellences. This may possibly train a mindset in which just because someone is clearly your superior in one domain doesn’t mean that you aren’t his superior in another domain. and don’t even get me started on the effects of “…yeah but I can kick his ass” (yes, meaning a physical fight and yes, these thoughts occasionally shape our mature adult thoughts if not behavior…). From what I can tell, lots of girl play focuses around who can become the dominant queen bee instilling a “I am not worthy but at least I can suck up to she who is” mentality. (..whoo, slipping way down into zuska bait here. onward….) Aha, you say then a generation of Title IX is the fix! A partial one but girls and boys organized sports teams behave very differently so it may not be so simple…

    4) genuinely not giving a crap what other people think. I dunno is this circular? Men are notoriously deficient at detecting, never mind caring about other people’s feelings.


  7. John Graden Says:

    Nice article. I just wrote a book on The Impostor Syndrome.

    The Impostor Syndrome is the underlying feeling that you are not as smart, skilled, or talented as people think you are. It’s a dread that people will find out you are faking it.

    How do you know if you suffer from The Impostor Syndrome? In his book, The Impostor Syndrome: How to Replace Self-Doubt with Self-Confidence and Train Your Brain for Success, John Graden outlines some possible indicators:

    1. Do you sometimes not speak up because you feel people will realize you’re not as smart as they think you are?
    2. Do you find it hard to accept praise?
    3. Is it difficult for you to take credit for your accomplishments?
    4. Do you feel like a fake and fear you are going to be found out soon?
    5. Are you a perfectionist who is terrified of making a mistake?

    Find out more about The Impostor Syndrome at


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