Skip to content

Impostor Syndrome

Each day last week, after I completed a section of my comprehensive exams, I was bombarded with the same question – “so, how did you do?” As I answered, “ok, I guess,” the anxiety welled inside of me. What was I afraid of exactly? It’s the same fear I always have as I pass another milestone in completing my doctorate – what if they find out I have no clue what I am talking about?

Here’s the thing, the longer I study (22 years of schooling to be exact… sheesh!) and the more I learn, the more I feel like I know nothing! They call this impostor syndrome and apparently it is incredibly common, especially among female academics.

But why do so many women (including myself and Brittany) fear that they are intellectual phonies? While I think it is important to question yourself and your competence every once and a while (after all you can’t know everything), feeling like a fraud isn’t healthy and could potentially sabotage your success. I am particularly concerned that this seems to be more of a problem for high-achieving women.

This article argues that successful women are more susceptible to impostor syndrome because they have internalized long-held cultural norms that tell women they are less qualified then men (I mean we still earn less than men for the same job!). Furthermore, impostor syndrome thrives in highly competitive fields, like grad school. Not only is graduate school competitive, but there is also a “criticize first, praise later” mentality. This is meant to push you, but often leaves you wondering if you can hack it.

Furthermore, many women today seem to think we’ve achieved some sort of gender equality in education. But as this article highlights, outdated gender norms still affect classroom dynamics (at every level) and women’s perception of their own qualifications and abilities, which only contributes to the impostor syndrome.

So what can we do about this? It is imperative that we talk about it. As simple as that sounds, realizing that your fears are common, and rooted in centuries of patriarchy, helps you sort fact from fear. Celebrate your accomplishments and successes, no matter how small they feel. Britt and I are both still working on validating our accomplishments rather than chalking them up to perseverance or luck! Finally, don’t let feeling like an impostor derail your confidence and ambition. Use it to drive yourself to work hard and do your best.

And if all else fails, take it from the expert Jessica Collett (a professor of sociology at Notre Dame), who says “… [R]esearchers find that impostorism is most often found among extremely talented and capable individuals, not people who are true impostors.” I don’t know about you, but that quote made Britt and I feel much better!

Do you ever feel like an impostor?