Feeling Like a Fraud: Impostor Syndrome in STEM
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To attain "success" without attaining positive self-esteem is to be condemned to feeling like an impostor anxiously awaiting exposure - Nathaniel Branden, psychotherapist.
I received a compliment on an article I had written from a family friend recently. They said, "Your work is brilliant, you must be so proud." The compliment triggered a chain of negative thoughts. I hadn't felt flattered and appreciative of the kind gesture; rather, I had squirmed. I felt uncomfortable.
This is not an uncommon occurrence. I often find that if I am referred to as "intelligent", or a "bright girl", it doesn't fill me with a sense of pride. Rather, the voice in my head reiterates the same phrase, "They'll realize eventually that's not true", and I'll typically respond with a downbeat comment. I constantly undermine myself, and if you were to ask me why, I really wouldn't be able to tell you. Sometimes I think it's because if I say these things myself, then if they were to ever be spoken by another, I wouldn't feel as hurt or shocked.
I distinctly remember sitting in my first A-level chemistry class when I was aged 16. It was our first lesson exploring organic chemistry *gulp* and I was struggling with some of the basics. The teacher concluded the lesson by saying, "And if you don't even understand the concepts we've learnt today, then you may as well not be here." In that very moment, a seed was been planted. I had struggled to understand the class. The concepts hadn't come particularly easy to me, and I was an outsider to those around me who had grasped every word. The teacher must be right, I thought to myself; I shouldn't be here. I never made it past the first year of A-level chemistry.
It was either a fluke or a matter of fate that, on the same day I received the compliment on my work, a publication was highlighted in the media that caught my attention. It was titled “I must have slipped through the cracks somehow”: An examination of coping with perceived impostorism and the role of social support by Jeff Bednar and colleagues.1The review is published in the Journal of Vocational Behavior and outlines a study investigating professionals in training with perceptions of impostorism. The term "impostor syndrome", or "impostor phenomenon" struck a chord with me. It took me right back to the day that I was sat in that chemistry class.
I began to wonder just how many individuals in the scientific field specifically experienced this notion of feeling inadequate or like an "outsider".
A fear of being found out
"Impostor syndrome is experienced by millions of people around the world cross culturally, and describes difficulty internalizing one's accomplishments or abilities, and instead attributing their success to other factors," explains Dr Valerie Young, an internationally recognized expert on impostor syndrome. She has even written an award-winning book about it: The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women: Why Capable People Suffer from the Impostor Syndrome and How to Thrive in Spite of It. "Factors such as luck, timing, 'someone helped me', 'I had connections' are common examples. I've heard creative ones over the years. Students often say, 'I have a very common name, I think they may have mixed up my application for this University'," Young says.
She adds, "Sometimes people plant the seed in our mind that perhaps we are only here because we were a diversity pick in some way, for example 'They were looking for a woman', or 'I'm included to increase the racial diversity'. We externalize our success and we are left with a fear of being found out."
I'm curious to know how the "externalizing" of success manifests in a person. Young says, "The reason I have spoken at over 85 colleges and universes across the globe is not because people want to address impostor syndrome as an interesting self-help topic. The reason is that there are behaviors associated with the feelings and these behaviors have consequences, not just for the student but also perhaps for an employer or business owner." When you feel like an impostor you have to find a way to manage the anxiety, and to avoid "being found out".
Pauline Clance Suzanne Imes were the first two psychologists to coin the term impostor phenomenon. It's not actually a diagnosable syndrome, it has just been referred to as a syndrome over the years.
In an article published in the American Journal of Pharmaceutical Education, Adam Persky, Ph.D, writes: “The signs and symptoms are feeling of phoniness, self-doubt and inability to take credit for one’s accomplishments. It is a form of intellectual self-doubt. Those with imposter syndrome are often intelligent and high achievers – like many academics, pharmacists and professional students. On one hand, impostor syndrome provides motivation to persevere. On the other, you over-prepare and overwork.” The overpreparing and overworking I can definitely relate to.
On the other hand, Young tells me that impostor syndrome can also lead to excessive procrastination: "Clance and Imes identified what they call "coping" and "protective" mechanisms, and I've identified additional mechanisms throughout the years. These mechanisms appear in all hierarchies. It may be the student who chooses not go for more challenging assignments, or the major who doesn't speak up or ask questions, the professor who doesn't offer solutions. It can also manifest in procrastination. Everybody procrastinates, but when it becomes a real problem it can impact our study or our work."
Video credit: TedEd.
Hierarchy in STEM
Working in STEM, regardless of your specific occupation, can be challenging. STEM, particularly academia, is renowned for its hierarchy – you begin at the bottom as a young and enthusiastic undergraduate, and you work your way up, building a repertoire in your field of specialism until you perhaps one day become an "expert"; an esteemed professor, perhaps.
This structure appears to offer many advantages: you can learn from the kind individuals who are "superior" to you that are willing to share their knowledge, and you can formulate a plan for your own career. First, I'll complete my undergraduate degree, then I will study a masters degree, followed by a Ph.D. and then a post-doctoral position... and so on so forth. It presents a path with a (somewhat) clear direction. On the other hand, it can lead to a real sense of inadequacy. When you are surrounded by individuals that appear to be immensely intelligent, it’s quite daunting. Will you ever possess the same amount of knowledge and expertise?
"Impostor syndrome is rampant in higher education because, whilst there are wonderful aspects of higher education, there are aspects that fuel self-doubt not only in faculty but also in staff," Young comments. "When you look at STEM, people in creative fields and artistic fields such as writing are more susceptible to impostor syndrome because they are being judged by subjective standards. There are people in jobs that are professional critics that have to judge their work. But then also in medicine, or technology for example, these fields are rapidly changing and updated, and so you might feel that you can never keep up to date."
As a science writer, the insights I gain through my work are truly fascinating, but I can also relate to Young's note about feeling like I can "never keep up to date". It's a notion that bothers me, because it's impossible to know everything and I'm fully aware of this. But I often chase after knowledge, convincing myself that there is always room for more, no matter how hard I have researched or studied.
Matt Swift, a PhD student from the University of Birmingham, offered his insights on the prevalence of impostor syndrome in STEMM: "Impostor Syndrome is the result of transitioning from a culture where being right is the be all and end all, that of A-Levels and most undergraduate degree courses, into an environment where curiosity and inquisitiveness should be encouraged even if you are wrong, that of post-graduate research and academia."
He continues, "Very often that transition occurs rapidly without any real preparation and as a result people still think that being wrong about a hypothesis or idea means you don’t deserve to be in the position that you’re in. It’s a feeling that you’re 'winging' it and when you do get something right it’s a fluke. This prevents you from having positive feelings about the genuinely good work you might be doing."
At what stage in an individual's professional development can impostor syndrome strike? "I started experiencing impostor syndrome very early in my PhD. At lab meetings we’d often discuss things I had only a scant concept of. Even though these things were related to research outside of my field I was convinced that not knowing about it was proof that I was effectively conning everyone." Swift adds. "I realize now that this is simply inexperience and it’s physically impossible to know everything about things that even cutting-edge science hasn’t fully elucidated yet!"
Research suggests that Swift isn't alone in what he is feeling. The aforementioned study, “I must have slipped through the cracks somehow”: An examination of coping with perceived impostorism and the role of social support, found that 20% of the college students in the study cohort experienced very strong feelings of impostorism.
Is impostor syndrome impacting the quality of research in STEM?
STEM is a field that thrives from an individual's courage to explore novel ideas and theories, whether that be through scientific research or other creative means. Without this "pursuit" of discovery or meaning, these disciplines would not survive. I ponder whether impostor syndrome could be affecting the quality of scientific research?
Swift thinks so: "Impostor syndrome fundamentally causes you to doubt your own ability and as a result your abilities will naturally suffer. I think journal and publication culture is a fundamental issue that cultivates impostor syndrome too." He believes that in STEMM, we spend too long searching for the "right results" for publication, rather than conducting what he refers to as "good" science and looking at the data we produce. "The whole point of scientific research is that it’s new, it shouldn’t conform to right or wrong because in most cases the rights and wrongs haven’t been established," he adds.
The result, according to Swift, is a lot of "safe" research that doesn't push boundaries and becomes too dogmatic.
Gender and culture in impostor syndrome
Clance and Imes' original publication in 1978 was titled The Impostor Phenomenom in High Achieving Women: Dynamics and Therapeutic Intervention. However, Young is quick to point out that impostor syndrome is ignorant of gender or culture: "A lot of men also identify with impostor syndrome. A lot of younger men are more apt to talking about it. They are not immune on any level," she says. "A sense of belonging fosters confidence. When you walk into a classroom or a meeting or university, or an executive level or organization, the more people that sound and look like you, the more confident you feel."
Of course, STEM is a field in which there is a notorious gender gap. Women in the United States made up less than one-quarter (24%) of those employed in STEM occupations in 2015. "The problem is, if there isn't many of you or if you're the first woman to do something, you're going to feel pressure to represent that entire group, which can contribute to impostor syndrome," Young adds.
The only way to stop feeling like an impostor is to stop thinking like an impostor
It strikes me that, despite impostor syndrome impacting an estimated 20% of students in college, coupled with my own experiences, I only became familiar with the term recently, and I am not alone. "For an issue I consider to be virtually endemic across most early STEM careers I think there is a distinct lack of dialogue regarding impostor syndrome," says Swift. "I’ve introduced the term to at least four colleagues of mine who started after me. I think many people are aware of the feelings without being able to put a name to it. When it has a name, you have a chance to deal with it properly but I think too many suffer in silence."
Are you experiencing feelings of impostor syndrome? The American Psychological Association offer several steps to try and overcome these beliefs over on their website.
I ask Young what can be done to combat impostor syndrome and help those that are experiencing its effects. She tells me that when people attend her talks, they simply want to stop feeling like an impostor. They want to leave having shed those feelings. "I now emphasize to people that feelings are the last to change. The only way to stop feeling like an impostor is to stop thinking like an impostor," she says.
How does one stop thinking like an impostor? By becoming consciously aware of the conversation going on in your head when you have feelings of impostorism, and stepping back to look at the broader situation, according to Young. "I think we over-psychologize this, and we really need to take a step back and look at the context. If you're a graduate student in STEM, almost by definition you're going to have impostor syndrome. You're constantly being tested on your knowledge, and this makes you more susceptible," she comments.
Bednar and colleagues' study found that perceptions of impostorism lack a significant relationship with performance. Individuals with impostor syndrome are still capable of doing their jobs well, they just do not believe in themselves. The researchers believe that talking is also key to combating feelings of impostorism: "It's important to create cultures where people talk about failure and mistakes," Bednar says. "When we create those cultures, someone who is feeling strong feelings of impostorism will be more likely to get the help they need within the organization."
Particularly in STEM, Swift believes that it is important to recruit experienced researchers to help early-career individuals manage their feelings of impostorism: "In my opinion, the solutions are looking us right in the face. Early career STEM researchers are surrounded by a wealth of experience and people who have been in the same position. I think those more experienced researchers should be encouraged to discuss impostor syndrome with their colleagues and help them to understand it’s natural not to know everything," he concludes.
Valerie Young and Matt Swift were speaking with Molly Campbell, Science Writer, Technology Networks.
1. Gardner et al. 2019. “I must have slipped through the cracks somehow”: An examination of coping with perceived impostorism and the role of social support. Journal of Vocational Behavior. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jvb.2019.103337.
2. Clance and Imes. 1978. The Impostor Phenomenon in High Achieving Women: Dynamics and Therapeutic Intervention. Psychotherapy: Theory, Research and Practice. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/h0086006.
3. Persky. 2018. Intellectual Self-doubt and How to Get Out of It. American Journal of Pharmaceutical Education. DOI: 10.5688/ajpe6990.