Imposter syndrome in academia

You either have it or you know someone who does: Imposter syndrome. Spreading like a viral disease across campus and beyond, it may be the reason you become your own biggest enemy. It’s the internalised fear of being outed as a fraud at any moment and could, at worst, stunt your own growth.

Let’s talk about it.

What is imposter syndrome?

First coined in the 1970s by psychologists Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanna Imes, imposter syndrome is not a diagnosable psychological condition. However, it manifests in perfectionism, self-doubt, and anxiety and doesn’t spare anyone easily. Even the most accomplished people in their field are not safe. Oscar-winning actress Jodie Foster once said, “I always feel like something of an impostor. I don’t know what I’m doing.”

Now you’re probably wondering, how can someone who has won the most prestigious award in their industry think so little of their achievements? This is what makes imposter syndrome so incredibly treacherous; It will make you mis-attribute all your achievements, be it to luck, deception, or just being well-liked.

First mention of imposter syndrome in 1978 paper by Clance and Imes.

How does it manifest?

People who suffer from imposter syndrome will often engage in negative self-talk and cognitive distortion, where they focus on small mistakes and errors and blow them out of proportion. They are worried about being exposed as a fraud and tend to struggle accepting any form of recognition for their achievements. By constantly putting themselves down, they also become their own biggest critics and hold themselves to a higher standard than what would be fair. In terms of work, imposter syndrome can steer people into one of two ways: Overworking or becoming avoidant, both of which are due to internalised perfectionism. The latter is a form of self-sabotage where the feeling of not being good enough takes the upper hand so that people hold back from even tacking the challenge at hand.

Why is it so common among academics?

Academics tend to be considered high achievers in society. This comes with high expectations of their abilities, skills, and competence. These expectations often end up resulting in a cognitive bias among the individual who is expected to measure up to them. The Dunning-Kruger effect describes how high performers tend to underestimate their skills, which is one of the key symptoms of imposter syndrome. This cognitive contradiction is often explained through the observation that the lack of skill is paired with the ignorance of said lack, resulting in inflated confidence. Consequently, having an idea of how much there still is to learn, results in despair and self-doubt.

Dunning-Kruger effect. Source.

Is completing the PhD the cure?

Sadly, completing a PhD only means entering a highly competitive job market. One of the main issues with imposter syndrome is that it is a vicious cycle and no matter how impressive previous achievements are, you will only find a new way to attribute them to mere luck, having fooled everyone, or having worked much harder than expected to make up for a lack of skills. And there are only so many times, that the odds are stacked in your favour, meaning the next challenge might be the one that exposes you as a fraud – or at least that’s what the little voice in your head will be telling you.

The only cure for imposter syndrome is identifying it and accepting it for what it is. Once you give it a name, you will find it easier to determine where your self-doubt stems from. There are plenty of online resources on the topic and your university might be even offering workshops about imposter syndrome and coping strategies.  I highly encourage you to learn more about the topic, so in case you’re suffering from imposter syndrome, you don’t allow it to become a burden on your journey. 

Anna Rezk is a 2nd year PhD researcher in Design Informatics at the University of Edinburgh in partnership with the BBC R&D. Her research revolves around the implication of personalised and highly customisable public service media content and how it can be leveraged to promote inclusive and democratic civic participation. Due to her background in journalism and computer science, she is particularly interested in news, and how content can be algorithmically enhanced and curated without thwarting editorial intent. Find her on Twitter as @anna_rezk.

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