What Am I Doing Here?

This past week reminded me of the seeming ubiquity of impostor syndrome, even in the visibly successful and apparently supremely confident. Or at least, this statement is true as it pertains to women. One outcome of what follows is I would love to know whether the same state of mind is a permanent undercurrent for males too.

Impostor syndrome, in case you do not recognize its name, is that feeling that you don’t belong, that you are only where you are through some clerical or other error and that one day, probably soon, you will be FOUND OUT. In other words, you are an impostor and the unmasking – with its consequent inevitable embarrassments and humiliation – is just around the corner.  I only discovered the name for this state of mind a few years ago, although the feelings were very familiar. As far as I recall it was Vivienne Parry who introduced me to the concept, in a talk she gave at a Woman’s Forum meeting in Cambridge. She was the guest speaker, talking to an audience of several hundred about how she had built a successful career in journalism and the media based on what she saw as her fairly modest qualifications. Having once come across the phenomenon, I quickly found others who suffered from the same anxieties.

The next one who publicly spoke about it at an event I attended was my erstwhile Vice Chancellor from Cambridge, anthropologist Alison Richard. She and I were engaged in a dialogue (in front of an audience of young female researchers) about our careers and the issues we felt we had had to face as we attempted to balance work and family life in order to make progress in the male dominated worlds we each moved in. Alison pointed out that when she had first got her letter confirming her place at Cambridge as an undergraduate at Newnham College all those years ago, she had assumed the letter had only been sent to her by accident,  clear manifestation of the syndrome. If you want to hear a different conversation along these lines, there is a podcast of an event the Royal Society held in early 2009 on the occasion of Linda Partridge giving the Royal Society’s Croonian Prize lecture (about her work on the biology of ageing), the first woman to do so. This involved Linda and myself – and indeed Vivienne Parry as chair/facilitator – discussing our lives and how we’d got to where we are: impostor syndrome featured quite early on in this exchange of ideas as you can hear for yourself on the podcast. As Linda said, for a long time she thought she was the only person to have such fears.  The reality seems to be that impostor syndrome is very common.  It is important that early career researchers know this, so that they do not let it take over their lives.

Last week, as I say I was reminded of these prior events and the frequent intrusion of the topic of impostor syndrome into talks about ‘life’, not having thought about it for a while. L’Oreal hosted a lunch for previous winners of their FWIS fellowships together with various senior female scientists in their capacity as ‘friends’,  to celebrate the FWIS fellowship scheme: the 2012 competition is to be launched on February 1st .  It was an appropriately joyful occasion (washed down with plenty of alcohol, not always a good thing at lunchtime), and this year’s winner of the L’Oreal/UNESCO FWIS Laureate for Europe, physiologist Frances Ashcroft from Oxford, gave a brief and excellent talk about her research on Type I diabetes in newborns, as well as thoughts about being a senior woman in science. Frances and I were, as it happens, Cambridge undergraduates together at Girton College back in the days when it was an all-women’s college. We lost touch with each other for many years until we found ourselves elected to the Royal Society on the same day in 1999 – a place I would suspect, neither of us expected to find ourselves when we had first known each other.

Her description of her work on diabetes was elegant and simple enough for me – and I would assume the other non-specialists in the room – to get a feel for what she had discovered, her passion for scientific enquiry and her determination to challenge the received wisdom when it didn’t add up was manifest. But, once again, here was a senior woman scientist prepared to stand up and say that, deep down, she constantly expected to be shown to be a fraud. In her case the situation was compounded by a supervisor early in her life saying to her that she would never make it as a scientist. Perhaps that was just the spur she needed: there is nothing like a bit of opposition to raise hackles, but also energy levels, as long as you don’t let it consume your soul.

Frances Ashcroft, Linda Partridge, Vivienne Parry and Alison Richard all share the same fears and yet all have succeeded spectacularly in their chosen spheres.  Furthermore, we (and I’d include myself here) all feel – when asked to talk about our lives – this need to be honest about these fears. I know, because many younger women have said so to me after my own talks, that it is very powerful to hear us express these fears, that it empowers them because they realise that what they themselves feel can be lived with and need not lead to paralysis through the exercise of this fear. (This is a point well made in a recent post by Sarah Kendrew). They are not alone in feeling this way, although if no one points this out it is only too easy to feel as if you are.  Individuals may never be able to overcome it, but it is not terminal unless one allows it to be so and in general it should not be regarded as a ‘syndrome’ in the medical sense of the word. This is certainly a case of ‘feel the fear and do it anyhow’.

What intrigues me is this. I have named here several very senior women (including myself) who have all been willing to stand up and say ‘I suffer from impostor syndrome’ in public (predominantly, but not entirely, to audiences made up of women). I am just listing a few occasions when I have been present, therefore, by extrapolation, it probably happens pretty often.  What about men? The evidence (for some slightly scientific evidence see here) is that they suffer from it too, though possibly a smaller proportion of them do so, but how many would be willing to stand up in front of an audience and say so? I’m curious about this. Is it a feeling that men recognize? How willing are they to talk about it, or does it make them feel too uncomfortable? Perhaps far fewer men than women are aware of it?  Maybe successful and inspirational men are happy to talk about it in front of an audience of males, but of course I don’t attend such events so I couldn’t know.  Or is it the case that the men in the audience wouldn’t react to any such admission in the overwhelmingly positive way women appear to do, hence the topic is avoided? I do know I’ve never heard such a point of view expressed by them in public, but that may reflect the nature of events for women that I attend and which don’t have obvious parallels for men or mixed audiences in the sciences. My belief is that the phenomenon is ubiquitous, across ages, genders and disciplines. So, answers please!

Update February 5 2012 In the light of all the responses, the next post looks further at this problem, with more of an emphasis on men’s reaction.

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81 Responses to What Am I Doing Here?

  1. Maggi Dawn says:

    I recall, when working at Cambridge, listening to an endless stream of undergraduates and posgraduates who suffered these feelings. Anecdotally at least, at that level it affected just as many men as women. I wonder whether, as time goes by, women remain more willing to admit it?

  2. I am a male scientist, and the feelings you describe are very familiar to me.

    I have a generalised background feeling that I will be found to have made some egregious error, killed my patients and thrown out in disgrace!

  3. Badengineer says:

    Definitely men have this as well. My favorite story was told by Jean Shepard when he was on an aircraft carrier, at night, bad weather and he looked at the captain and only saw confidence and supreme competence. Until he asked the captain about this and the captain laughed about how he didn’t know how he got his position and that he was constantly doubting his abilities.

    My theory is that almost everybody suffers from this to a certain extent, except perhaps actors and politicians who feel quite the opposite. I suspect, though, that men are less likely to admit to such feelings.

    Great post, thanks.

  4. Andy says:

    This is me! I feel like I’m going to be found out every day!!

  5. Jonathan says:

    Speaking as a young male lecturer in physics, I think its safe to say that impostor syndrome is a fairly generic feeling. I often feel like an imposter and I suspect I always will a little. A part is the open ended assessment of academia – your best work today may be disproved in a few years time. The phrase “asymmetric warfare” has become popular recently and to me my imposter syndrome comes from “asymmetric knowledge”. There will almost always be someone who is more of an expert in a given subject than you and its always easier to criticise or ask a difficult question than to create a satisfying answer. Its hard to feel like an expert in that situation, but oh so important not to let the feeling of inadequacy get in the way of pushing forward.

    The following are two good links to successful male scientists discussing the issue:

    http://telescoper.wordpress.com/2012/01/06/impostor-syndrome/
    http://womeninastronomy.blogspot.com/2011/12/impostors-welcome.html

    Ed Bertschinger quotes the following statistic albeit from a small survey:
    “women appear to experience Impostor Syndrome more than men. 43% of males surveyed and 62% of females surveyed “often or always” think “I’m afraid to be found out” while 30% of males and 15% of females never or rarely felt that.”

  6. Thank you for posting this. Until I read this I thought I was the only person who suffered from this fear. Yes men do suffer as well at least this one does.

  7. Judith Croston says:

    You may be interested in this recent post from Cardiff astrophysics professor Peter Coles’s blog if you haven’t seen it already:

    http://telescoper.wordpress.com/2012/01/06/impostor-syndrome/

  8. cromercrox says:

    I think it’s common to everyone. Heavens, I am almost 50 and I still don’t know what I want to do when I grow up. I think a problem that some people have – I include myself here – is related to Imposter Syndrome and it is a persistent failure to evaluate one’s worth to the outside community. Underestimating one’s achievements is as bad as overestimating them. Misunderestimating them can be catastrophic.

    • J Elliott says:

      I think that something important to this discussion is the error we make by overestimating other people at first: When we meet someone who seems impressive, in our assessment of them, maybe we add that impressiveness to our idea of the ‘norm’ which is our own experience, and don’t factor into the equation the ways that that person is less capable. If we thereby come to believe in these fictitiously superior beings, it follows that amongst them we would feel an imposter.

      • cromercrox says:

        Very well put.

      • I agree that overestimating the competence of other humans is an important factor in having difficulty evaluating one’s own competence.

        Unfortunately, some of the sleaziest types use a powerful megaphone to announce their supposed brilliance.

        Having endured the California school system and the University of California at Berkeley, I was often disillusioned and confused by the shortcomings of the teachers and professors.

        Perhaps if there were easily verified competence tests, then the loudmouth imposters would be unable to confuse others who *are* competent, genteel and always striving to be better.

    • Stephen says:

      I’ll put my hand up and, for now, go with ‘What Henry said.” But I think Ian H is correct (below) in that there aren’t really ‘men in science’ forums like the ones you describe for women (perhaps because ‘men in science’ is — regrettably — the default).

  9. Grant says:

    I hope you can forgive me for writing this having only got as far as the first paragraph. (I’ve work to get onto and I suspect if I don’t make these points now I’ll forget to!)

    – yes, it happens to everyone AFAICT (which isn’t easy)

    – your title could be read as relating to the position the person currently holds; I’d like to extent it to applying for jobs, where the person might not apply for jobs that they are actually capable of taking on. (Or perhaps underselling themselves in applications.) Similarly for changing fields of endeavour. This isn’t helped by that many job applications ask for a long list of “ideal” skills, when in practice they’d be happy with a subset of them and/or would factor in an applicant’s interest in the project (read: ‘self motivation’), etc.

    (In case anyone is wondering: I hate job applications.)

  10. AusMossy says:

    I’m another male who thought I was the only one who had these feelings. I put it down to a lack of confidence. Whenever I find myself in a new job stretching my skills, I’m a web programmer, I often find myself thinking “How is it people keep employing me?”. As I get more settled into whatever the current position is, the feelings tend to abate. Whenever some new technology comes along that I need to implement they return. I’ve not raised these feelings with many people, largely because I fear being “found out”.

  11. J Elliott says:

    I think it’s worth asking the question, if you asked people ‘is your boss/colleague/subordinate an imposter?’ would the answers given by men be different from those given by women? (Is it possible that women have higher expectations not only of themselves but of others too?)

  12. Heather says:

    Thank you for another excellent post. It is a recurrent theme among bloggers but I find real added value to your take on it.

  13. I’ve certainly felt like an imposter at various points in my my career – most acutely when I was attempting to give supervisions to 2nd year physics students at Cambridge. I felt that raising this at the time would have been career limiting, and I still feel that.

    Perhaps the difference here is that there are no “men in science” forums, it’s often struck me that much “women in science” activity is actually highly relevant to men to – for example with issues over parenthood and having the right contact networks to progress.

  14. stephenemoss says:

    If imposter syndrome is as widespread as seems to be the case, then perhaps the real imposters are those few who have an unshakable belief in their own abilities and absolute certainty as to their positions and responsibilities.

    Which makes me wonder whether we may all experience ‘imposter syndrome by proxy’. Who here cannot think of others who are the most outrageous imposters, generally occupying posts somewhat more senior than our own?

    • J Elliott says:

      This is surely the more significant point! Not that some people are aware of their possible shortcomings, but that some people are imposters of a worse kind, believing too much of themselves, or at least acting that way.

  15. Steve says:

    I definitely think that I’ll get found out at some point. I often have the feeling that maybe someone has found me out already and it’s only a matter of time before this goes public. Then the nurse gives me my medication…no seriously. I think if one is honest then we are mostly in a position of great honour to be able to study the physical world (and get paid for it). If we truly question our thoughts on the physical world to the extent that we should (the enquiring sceptic) then we cannot help but turn that scepticism on ourselves. Am I really good enough is a common question I have. Sometimes my scepticism is proved correct – I am not. But, nevertheless I plough on hoping to at least make some small breakthrough.

  16. This is definitely something that rings true for me. Indeed I can recall having discussed this sort of thing several times with several colleagues. I’ll admit that these conversations tend to take place in the pub and are typically all-male.

    One thing that also has cropped up is how we sometimes think we can identify other people who one day WILL get found out…often those whose work seems built on shaky foundations or is perhaps over-interpreted in every talk that emerges from their work.

    Personally, this used to concern me much more until I found what I would describe as “my level”. My guess is that impostor syndrome is much more widespread among women in science but also those at the early career stage.

    Very nice post. Thanks.

  17. This morning in a tweet to Ian Hopkinson you said that nobody was answering you specific question, “do men discuss the impostor syndrome?” I can only answer for myself and say that until I posted here yesterday I had never openly admitted that I suffer from it and I have never heard other men discussing it or admitting to it.

  18. Steven says:

    I’ve always been prone to this. Oddly enough, I wrote about it this morning: http://behavecology.wordpress.com/2012/01/30/sight-reading-my-science/

    I’ve also had some senior male scientists, very well-regarded people, admit the same to me in private conversation. There might be some truth, though, to the idea that it is difficult to get us guys to admit it in front of a crowd. Or, perhaps, it just doesn’t occur to us to say it?

  19. Thanks for the amazing response. I certainly thought, as I said, that the feeling was ‘the phenomenon is ubiquitous, across ages, genders and disciplines’ and the comments support that view. But it is also clear that men are much less likely to discuss it, not least because they don’t have the kind of events that might provoke such discussion. Maybe they should! As Ian says, this maybe because scientist as man is seen as the default, but if men are also unwilling to discuss it down the pub I’m not sure that’s the only reason. Maybe men should take inspiration from women’s willingness to discuss their fears and open up a bit more – as Thony Christie has done for instance – and be honest about their fears. They might find it cathartic or, as women have said to me, empowering.

    Much appreciate the link to Telescoper’s blog on the subject (thanks Judith and Jonathan) which I hadn’t seen before, a rare male who has put his hand up to talk about it, suggesting men suffer less from the topic but certainly do so(as the responses here show). I am particularly interested in his comments on the reverse effect, the so-called Dunning-Kruger Effect in which “incompetent people find it impossible to believe in their own incompetence”. He wondered if this might be even more prevalent in academia, and some of the comments here imply you’re all familiar with that phenomenon too so it looks like he may be right.

  20. It’s not just women, men suffer from this as well, but it’s much rarer for us discuss it amongst ourselves as I’ve seen women doing. If we do discuss it, it’s generally in the pub, and several beers into the evening.

  21. Andrew Warner says:

    Hi there,
    I’m an erstwhile scientist and now consultant. I have it quite strongly but it comes and goes. I’ve mentioned it to my wife and some trusted colleagues but I don’t trumpet it too much. I think in the consulting game it’s a bit of a bold move to show weakness (if that can work). Although, having read your blog it might be met with relief and a good chat.

  22. Rita says:

    I wrote a little about this recently here http://portosentido.wordpress.com/2011/11/30/the-impostors-amongst-us/. Opening up was simultaneously good and bad.. but one of the good things was the amount of colleagues that wrote to me, called me, or pulled me to the side at a conference or coffee time to share similar feelings. Most were male – and a couple very senior. From as debilitating as this is, I never got the impression that this is a women’s only issue, or even predominantly a women’s issues.

    Whether women are more likely to speak of it publicly is another matter altogether, but as always it will be hard to disentangle the two.

    I also found that talking about it to people who don’t experience it (and this is still the majority) was frustrating, whether they were male or female!

  23. Heather says:

    It’s a good thing to separate the feeling from the gender issue. Some of us are naturally more self-confident than others. Some of us are, presumably, more competent at our professional skills than others, and there is little correlation between the two.

    My own relief in hearing other stories of imposter syndrome come (still), not from people younger than myself, but from the potential role models. Because then the question is no longer “is there anyone else like me?” and becomes “how do these competent people get past it?”

    As Rita above wrote, “I’ve started to realise that these feelings are probably decoupled from scientific ability, and that they can be helped.” After having pushed through for some time, I am starting to think I’ve been helped finally. One of the things was indeed what Athena brought up: “In her case the situation was compounded by a supervisor early in her life saying to her that she would never make it as a scientist. Perhaps that was just the spur she needed: there is nothing like a bit of opposition to raise hackles….”

    My thesis adviser, who is proud of me now and whom I appreciate and admire, asked me kindly one day if I wouldn’t want to leave science and be a writer, since I was so “literary”. In France that is not a compliment. This was as much spur as was useful; more, I’d have quit the path I am currently following in academic science for sure. I certainly thought about it hard when I was an unemployed postdoc, as many of us seem to be at one point or another.

    However, I am very careful with my mentees to present alternative career paths as those about which I don’t know as much as I ought, but that are viable and even desirable options, requiring different levels of competence in different skills, and all valuable.

  24. Robert Kerr says:

    The Dunning-Kruger effect mentioned above, while named for the lowest end of competence and misperception of own-and-others’ competence, came from research that looked at all levels of competence and its perception. Attention naturally focused on those at the lowest end of both competence and ability to judge the competence of others, but one of the other results was that the top percentiles of competent people tended to underestimate their own competence, and/or overestimate the competence of others.

    Anecdotally, those whose competence I trust most tend to be those who are clearest about where the limits of that competence lie.

    • J Elliott says:

      I suppose one good thing about overestimating the competence of others is, it raises the bar regarding expectations, and so might actually improve the performance of the sufferers!

  25. I’ve had several managers over the decades who liked to help me by telling me fairly regularly that I was (in their opinion) an impostor. Some of these were the same ones that had appointed me. So it doesn’t only happen pre the tenure track.

    I actually think Impostor Syndrome is, as several people pointed out above, common to almost everybody other than the alarmingly and often incomprehensibly self-assured ‘bullet-proof’ types.

    Interested in Robert Kerr’s:

    Anecdotally, those whose competence I trust most tend to be those who are clearest about where the limits of that competence lie.

    I ‘ve found scientists often to be quite clear-eyed about noting the limits of their own competence, though somewhat less so the higher one goes up the hierarchical tree. I would say that the undergrads we take for medical school strike me as rather more super-confident /impostor syndrome-free than the science ones – which is interesting, as in medicine one actually wants students (and doctors) to maintain a keen sense of their own limits.

  26. It is interesting that for men, alcohol seems to be required to enable the topic to be discussed and no one suggests it is done very publicly – except obviously here and on the twitter discussion. So, perhaps I can start a trend of men being a bit more open about their fears? I suspect that’s not terribly likely! Your many comments have given me much food for thought which, when I’ve had a chance to digest and read more of the links I’ve been given (and when I’m not in committees, giving lectures or reading draft papers from my group plus all the other things the day job entails) I’ll try to assimilate into a follow-on post. Not promising how soon this may be, though.

    • I should point out that the impostor syndrome was or is the least of my problems or fears. I have a long history of mental illness, which took most of the last twenty years of my life to untangle. I started to come to terms with the impostor problem a few years ago when I began to realize that I actually possess the abilities as an academic that other people have always claimed I possess and that I had never believed. I can now stand up in front of an audience as an acknowledge expert on the history of science without the feeling that I’m bluffing. What is for me interesting about this particular problem was the feeling that only I suffered from it. It’s a very comfortable feeling to know that far from being alone there’s a whole heap of others out there with the same doubts and worries so yes I think you are right that people in general and men in particular should be more public about such problems.

  27. Neil Lawrence says:

    Like a lot of my trusted colleagues I feel that a lot. I think it helps keep you grounded.

  28. Klaas Wynne says:

    Wow, what an amazing response: it is as if all scientific men feel weak and like impostors on a regular basis. Since nobody has mentioned it in the replies before: I never ever feel or have felt like an impostor in my life. Obviously, I have felt that my performance or knowledge has been inadequate but my reaction has been to work longer, fight harder, and to try and become better. I suspect that this is the standard average male response. Having “feelings” is for girls.

    • Steven says:

      ‘Having “feelings” is for girls’? You’re joking – badly – right?

      • Klaas Wynne says:

        Well, yeah but no. Dealing with feelings or weaknesses or not a typically male response. Beating yourself up over difficulties is. That’s not a value judgement but, I think, an innate response.

        • Steven says:

          Okay, your reply was ambiguous, so I’m going to assume that you were trying to make a comment on the constraints placed upon the expression of mens’ feelings and not – as it could seem – a sexist non sequitur. Even so, I disagree that you can reduce the whole discussion to an ‘innate response’. If nothing else, I think that this thread has shown that there are plenty of men who routinely deal with feelings and weaknesses (a term I don’t like; imposter feelings are not a weakness or a character flaw, they’re a response that needs to be understood and dealt with in some way) and the way in which they do so is varied. Some deal with it by having beers at the pub with colleagues, some deal with it by burying it, some deal with it by taking to social media and talking about it.

          Athene’s point about there being more venues for women to talk about these feelings is a valid one; social media is a good outlet, but perhaps spaces for male grad students and academics to talk about these things could be made. Or, more to my liking, maybe it could be done with women and men together, because I’d like to think that the genders have something to learn from each other in this case.

  29. Dave Nussbaum says:

    Not specifically targeted at one gender, but a colleague of mine ran an intervention that targeted students’ sense of belonging. With a methodology based on some very effective previous intervention, for instance by Tim Wilson of UVA, this intervention presented college students with examples of students a few years ahead of them who told them about how they had also struggled and felt like they didn’t belong at first, but that things improved over time.

    Here’s a brief write-up of the results, including improved GPA relative to control, three years down the line. http://ncore.occe.ou.edu/documents/presenters/Walton_Cohen_2011_Science.pdf

  30. DJ says:

    A male colleague came into my office the other day to discuss a grant proposal and used the words “I’m afraid I am going to be found out!”. It was a real eye opener because a) he is male and b) he is brilliant. Very refreshing.

    The problem with discussing imposter syndrome is that I don’t really feel I should be discussing it because I feel I really am an imposter!

  31. dodgyblot says:

    I found this post really interesting, but I was only moved to comment when I read on Athene’s twitter feed about the “unanimity” of the comments. I, like Klaas, have never felt this syndrome. I really did think hard about this, but it is not something I recognise. I am not doubting that the feeling is widespread, and I was rather reluctant to gate-crash the self-help group that was developing here, but the comments were only unanimous because people who don’t have these feelings are unlikely to read this and are much less likely to comment.

    I first read about imposter syndrome on the BBC News Magazine section a year or so ago. I thought it was very strange and happened to speak to my old PhD supervisor about it. She is a woman and told me that she really suffered from this when starting up her lab (the article painted it as a female specific issue). It is obviously a real phenomenon. But I don’t buy into the feeling that all of us scientists are suffering from this terrible disorder!

    I’m sorry if this is offending anybody and if people who don’t suffer from this make the afflicted feel worse, but I just don’t recognise the symptoms that have been described.

  32. Heather says:

    @dodgyblot, Klaus et alia:

    No worries (at least for me). It’s much better to have a realistic picture of the landscape. And your comments help reassure anyone subject to this feeling that those others who seem confident may in fact not be faking it, and that ways of handling pressure are diverse.

    All of that is very useful in lab management. We need to learn to work with all styles. People whose self-confidence has taken many hits over time need to understand that some people are not handicapped in this way, and vice versa for a little empathy and encouragement.

    • I’d heartily second your comment re: the need for people who don’t have impostor syndrome to understand that some people do have it, and vice versa.

      A supervisor who’s never felt like an impostor, and whose reaction to being told “you’re rubbish, you’ve always been rubbish, and you’ll always be rubbish” is to become hyper-motivated to prove the speaker wrong, will be a very bad match for a student who already thinks they’re rubbish. Unless, of course, the supervisor understands that this particular student actually needs to be told “I believe you can do this”.

      Conversely, if “Professor Under-confident” only uses positive motivational techniques on a student who has zero confidence problems, then that student will never be pushed to do his or her best. Which would be a shame — but it seems unlikely to drive such students out of science altogether, so they may get a second chance, with, say, a postdoc advisor who realizes that they need a verbal kick in the backside to excel.

      • annmucc says:

        I remember reading about the impostor syndrome during my PhD and feeling relieved…I was not the only one! It was really a revelation to me. However, I
        would also say that it is necessary to balance positive comments even for people who suffer from impostor syndrome/low confidence. My supervisor was one of the people who pretty much used positive motivational technique throughout most of the PhD. This only helped make me think that he was praising me because he thought I was so rubbish I needed the encouragement (going into a negative tail spin? You bet!). I wonder if such thinking is common amongst others (or are there so few positive motivational technique supervisors out there?)

  33. Heather says:

    @Dave – that was an excellent read; thank you! I think it quite relevant:

    “Everyone else seemed so certain that they were right for [school name]; I wasn’t sure I fit in. Sometime after my first year, I came to realize that many people come to [school name] uncertain whether they fit in or not.”

    (And of course, as above, many other people come quite certain they deserve to be there, and worked hard for it.)

    So, perhaps a key to success in science is finding a peer group in which one does feel like one belongs. My Ph.D. lab certainly fostered that sense of being a part of a kind of titled elite, to the extent that “alumni” find each other with pleasure at conferences, and yet it was just one big lab.

  34. Jon says:

    I’ve often guessed that I’m far from the only one to feel this way, though my feelings of imposter-ship are made stronger by the fact that my undergrad background is comparative literature and I now do ‘big data’-driven network research… (it’s a long story)

    However, on the plus side I’d like to point out that a little self-doubt (as long as it’s not crippling) is hardly a bad thing: you check your own work more carefully, you’re more open to feedback/input from others, and you tend to be more humble in your interactions with the rest of the world and aware of your impact on others.

    After all, the look where the most supremely confident people that I can think of — politicians and investment bankers — got us.

  35. Owen says:

    I never had the sense that I was an impostor during my education, or even when I was an undergraduate at Cambridge.

    I have had it as a constant background murmur in my professional life, though: the sense that at some point people will discover that I’m useless and don’t actually know anything. I don’t know where it comes from. I could hypothesise that it’s because I’m entirely self-taught in what I do and have no qualifications for it beyond experience. That doesn’t ring true to me, though.

  36. BB says:

    Well this is all very well but what if you are a waste of space and not up to the job and your colleagues will not take your requests for help seriously because they think you have imposter syndrome?

    I genuinely don’t know if I am joking or not.

    • BB I find that scenario slightly hard to imagine. Good colleagues, line managers etc should never assume impostor syndrom is sufficient excuse to ignore requests for help – certainly not unless it happens multiple times. It seems to me that since impostor syndrome is internal and typically invisible, that people are anyhow unlikely to make that assumption. A call for help should always be heeded, and a good appraiser/line management should mean that if others truly believe someone is a ‘waste of space’ some formal (more polite even) way of expressing that should be found, which might include setting goals/objectives or encouraging some further training if e.g. it was teaching that was felt to be weak. Not sure if I’ve fully understood youru point of view though.

  37. I have always suffered from impostor syndrome. At work, social events and sports. But hey, so far no one has sussed me out yet ;)

  38. I extrapolate from this comment thread that only around 3% of the world’s population feel like they know what they’re doing at any given time :)

    I first encountered imposter syndrome as a first year grad student, although I didn’t learn its name for another few years. I’d always excelled academically, from primary school all the way until the end of my undegrad degree, and had been very self-confident as a result – only to find myself floundering in a lab feeling like I was a fraud who’d be found out and sent home at any moment. A few months in I drunkenly confessed my feelings to a fellow first year grad student – male, FWIW – in a cab one night on the way home from a departmental party, and he stared at me wide-eyed and yelled “ME TOO!”

    A few weeks later, I was reading a book in the institute’s library called How to get a PhD and found a section saying that many new students, especially those who excelled at undergrad, feel like frauds when they start their PhD and fear being found out, but not to worry about it. I immediately ran to the other student’s bench and shoved the book into his face; after he’d read it, we both stood there and grinned at each other.

    I’ve felt imposter syndrome a few times over the years – when I joined a Canadian lab as a postdoc and was younger than all but one of the department’s grad students, for example, and especially when starting new phases of my career, first in biotech marketing and then in my current grant wrangling role. It gets better over time though, and I don’t seem to be feeling it much any more. Perversely enough, I’m now worried that this means I’ve become complacent and need to go and seek out new challenges… you can’t win, can you?!

  39. As an early career researcher i can definitely relate to imposter syndrome. I can also anecdotally say it is a very common thing among my generation for both men and women and for some a huge source of anxiety and stress.

    It isn’t just a case of worrying you’ll get found out though, there is the constant questioning and self doubt – Am i good enough? How do i transition to the next stage? I think as PhD students we see a lot of academics who have been very successful, and it is difficult to comprehend how they got from where we are to where they are.

    On a personal note, I’m actually quite pleased to feel it, because it pushes me to work that bit harder and I am sure it has played a big part in my career so far.

  40. dione says:

    This exchange is a blast of fresh air. Creativity and self-doubt often seem to go hand in hand in all walks of life, not just academia, let alone specifically science (women or other). Not many people yet know about Imposter Syndrome, though : we are a lucky few. I hope the discussion spreads like wild fire to those whose lives have been put on hold because of it. The world will be richer for it – not an insignificant outcome at this point, some would say..

  41. Jay Goldfarb says:

    This discussion is very interesting to me. I am a land surveyor and engineer who is currently a (rather old) graduate student in geophysics. My supervisor recently pointed out after a presentation that I gave in a class that I was “too self-deprecating”. Another student whom I later consulted said she agreed with this assessment. My defensive response to this was to say that I would rather be self-deprecating, or, more importantly, truly humble, than the converse.

    I am also a part-time musician and I’ve commented recently that it is impossible for a musician to know how good he or she is. Of course music appreciation is more subjective than scientific accomplishment, but, there’s a degree of subjectivity in everything humans do.

  42. Jo Brodie says:

    Nothing much to add from me other than to say I’ve never experienced this. Naturally in light of the Dunning-Kruger discussions this worries me a wee bit ;) So does that mean I do experience it…?

    • J Elliott says:

      In the circumstances, it does sound like it! : )

    • Yes I’d picked that up from twitter: in the following post (now published) you’re the sole woman who’s admitted to not suffering from it. Make the most of it and don’t start worrying in case you really do….!

  43. Jay says:

    Yeah I work in TV and certainly recognize those feelings. I think it’s something a lot of people are feeling more and more in a digital age of uncertainty, self-help, consumerism & celebrity. There are so many options- so much information that it’s not surprising we all feel like we don’t know anything. And I think before the recession a lot of careers really were built upon very little- especially in my industry. It’s at a point where I look at a plumber, or an electrician and really admire them for being able to doing something that can help people, or solve a problem in a very tangible way. I think a lot of people (perhaps this is a male thing specifically) are wanting to go back to old school trades, that aren’t victim to the follies of trend-culture. I’d also like to refer you to a book by Kay Hymowitz called ‘Manning Up: How the Rise of Women Has Turned Men into Boys’. Very interesting read that touches upon the current culture of men who haven’t really learned to ‘do’ anything in a world where it’s acceptable for a 30 year old to play computer games.

  44. Ian says:

    Yes, men have it too. I am a postdoc and will talk about it more now- it definitely stalled my career and I did feel alone, even knowing several other scientists (men and women) who had similar feelings. It’s only recently, now that I’m coming out of my depression/anxiety that I am more willing to open up about it, even though it is uncomfortable. I think I can serve as a good example of what not to do. if given the chance, I would do it in public. It’s an awful feeling that I still wrestle with, but am learning to live with.

  45. chris y says:

    I extrapolate from this comment thread that only around 3% of the world’s population feel like they know what they’re doing at any given time

    I was going to say, if you exclude professional politicians that sounds about right. But you’d have to add senior business executives and a handful of other occupations which select strongly for uncritical self confidence to the exceptions. On the whole the general mistrust with which these super-confident people are regarded suggests to me that absolute certainty that you know what you’re doing isn’t a trait that most people value very highly in others. It is however highly valued by people who share it, and thereby hangs a tale.

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  47. Thank you again for posting this: it’s made me think carefully about how I feel. Of course I suffer from imposter syndrome and of course I have done since I was a Cambridge UG convinced that they’d admitted me by mistake. But I wonder if, in some ways, it is related to ambition. Part of how I dealt with it as a student was to work hard to show people I was worth it, and I stopped feeling an imposter for a very brief period after getting a first in part II- well until I started a PhD of course, and felt it even worse. It may be though, that the desire to convince yourself and others that you are not an imposter is what drives people to achieve things (well I think it is in my case). Unfortunately you finally get the chair you always wanted, that you thought would prove your worth, and realise that now you feel even more of an imposter (‘What, her a professor? Don’t make me laugh’ you imagine people saying) . I think that may be partly why I was so very scared and unhappy at the prospect of being made to do an inaugural lecture (at UCL they are pretty much mandatory) . It felt like the ultimate imposter experience: there you are standing up being gawped at by your esteemed colleagues and friends, and you are just waiting for someone to say ‘Hold on a minute, this is all rubbish, she isn’t up to this at all.’ None of the men I have spoken to about this has been able to understand why I hated the experience so much- perhaps they are some of the few who do not seem to suffer from this themselves, or will not admit to it.

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  49. jstreetley says:

    This feeling amongst PhD students is mentioned in the recent PhD Comics movie, and even in the trailer: http://www.phdcomics.com/movie/index.php so I guess it is at least acknowledged amongst students.

  50. Wesley says:

    What a fantastic article, I too have these feelings of inadequacy and definitely feel like an imposter in my field of science. So much so that I have, and sometimes still do, consider leaving science altogether. It is nice to know that I am not alone in these feelings. On the subject of males discussing this sort of thing, I have a friend who is a brilliant Entomologist and when I mentioned my “problem” to him he simply replied that he too had these feelings.

  51. Pingback: Choose Paranoia – in praise of Imposter Syndrome | Sociable Physics

  52. Helen King says:

    When I read “Alison pointed out that when she had first got her letter confirming her place at Cambridge as an undergraduate at Newnham College all those years ago, she had assumed the letter had only been sent to her by accident, clear manifestation of the syndrome” – it reminded me of when I returned home after an interview for a junior research fellowship at Newnham, was told by my mum that the college had phoned and I was to call them back at once, and said “Oh, I won’t have got the JRF – it will be about a really nice pair of leather gloves that somebody had left in the waiting area’. When they told me I’d got it, I cried. They said that was a common reaction.

  53. The discussion about impostor syndrome continues in a variety of places. Gaby Hinsliff has written about this recently: a whole page in yesterday’s Daily Mail, in which she includes comments from interviews with various women, myself included.

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  56. Woodlandstaar (@woodlandstaar) says:

    I am a successful (male) phd scholarship student with a perfect academic record and a few publications under my belt and yet I always feel like I have somehow managed to get here only through luck and being good at giving the right impression.

    I always feel that I don’t do enough work or haven’t read widely enough and just get by through being able to talk a good talk but that it is all a show and one day the gaps in my knowledge will show.

    In my more sensible moments i realise that this comes from comparing myself to professors who have 20 or 30 years experience on me. Although sometimes i also get intimidated by other phd students but this is normally because I might stray into research fields briefly that they spend all their time looking at! Still it is hard to ignore the gnawing doubts in more vulnerable moments.

    I really thought that this was just a personality quirk that I had. Reading this and seeing very successful people feel the same makes me feel better, not only in knowing that others feel like this, but also that if these top minds can feel doubt then perhaps it is just me being too hard on myself and my fears are unfounded.

  57. Harriet R says:

    One of my friends (male) who’s a PhD student has it bad – he works himself so hard so that “no one finds out”. It’s ridiculous – he’s just as intelligent as any of the other students.

    I oscillate between imposter syndrome and an overblown sense of entitlement – not a fun combo! I’m starting to moderate myself a bit these days.

    The super-confident facade of many with imposter syndrome is weird but understandable. Unfortunately it can worsen the imposter syndrome in others (this definitely happened on one of my courses – we all felt like failures because everyone else seemed to be doing fine but we were all struggling). Is there a good way round this apart from everyone getting pissed and breaking down in tears until we all work out what’s going on?! I ended dropping out of that course, so I’ll never know.

  58. Stuart says:

    ….I oscillate between imposter syndrome and an overblown sense of entitlement….

    What a wonderful description!

    I’ve played piano on stage at music festivals, an amateur but I’ve performed some quite serious stuff. My biggest fear when I’m nervous and about to go on stage is that people will find out that I can’t really play the piano!!!

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  61. A Dutch poet, who’s name I have shamefully forgotten, wrote: People believe genius is a gift from God -it isn’t, it’s an escape strategy…..

    A male student colleague of mine once confessed to abstract night-time fears, which he linked to the temptations of Jesus in the Bible. He linked these fears to his daring to take the personal responsibility for creatively leaving the paths of conventional wisdom. The furies then punish all those who do so.

    Perhaps the secret lies in a tragic role-reversal: In a hunter-gatherer community, it seems logical that women should become the technologists -and that men would need to develop the social skills that prevent armed hunters from killing each other. If women invented farming, bringing the men home, a difficult situation would be created.

    Oh Kali, Athena and Diana -what has happened to you?