There’s nothing quite like having someone else write about my research in a public forum to rouse my generally dormant sense of impostorism. So, why not use that publicity–about fraudulence, no less–to have a discussion about the negative effects of a fear of fraudulence for academics (and the academy).
At this year’s ASA meetings in NYC, Jade Avelis and I presented research on the effect of impostorism (also known as the impostor syndrome or feelings of fraudulence) on academic career ambitions. We were specifically interested in impostorism as a potential causes of “downshifting”* (entering graduate school programs aspiring to a tenure track position at a research institution and changing during the course of study to a non-tenure track position or one with an emphasis on teaching), a trend almost twice as common among women as it is among men.
In the literature to date, researchers attribute higher rates of downshifting among women to their increased concerns about family friendliness compared to men. Drawing on qualitative and quantitative days from PhD students at a private, research institution in the Midwest, Jade and I test both this common explanation and an impostorism account. As reported today in Science Careers, over at the website for Science, we found trends consistent with previous research. Women were more likely to suffer from impostorism, more concerned about family friendliness, and more likely to downshift during graduate school than men were. However, we also found that women’s increased concerns about family friendliness did not explain their increased likelihood to downshift. Impostorism, on the other hand, played a significant role.
The article gets a few things wrong. We were looking across colleges (physical sciences, social sciences, humanities, and engineering) and not focusing on scientists. We didn’t find differences across colleges in downshifting, but the sample sizes are small. There were small differences across colleges in impstorism. The qualitative data suggest that social science and humanities students are more susceptible to impostorism than their peers in the hard sciences, in part because they see their evaluation as more subjective and their work time and obligations as less delineated than those who are in the hard sciences. But, if one thinks of impostorism as an innate, durable trait (the jury is still out on this one), there could be selection effects and people who suffer from feelings of fraudulence might have opted out of STEM fields before grad school. The article also makes it sound like our presentation focused on mentors–when really they were just brought up in the Q&A.
However, the article gives press to what is an important problem–and one all too often overlooked in discussions about academic careers and ambitions. Although efforts to make academia a more family-friendly place and to lessen gendered conceptions of caregiving are important, our results suggest that more direct interventions aimed at the experience of impostorism may be necessary to ensure that talented individuals are not hampered by insecurity. This may be particularly true for graduate students, who are at a point in their career where feelings of fraudulence can significantly affect their future choices.
What can you do to help colleagues, students, and friends who suffer from the impostor syndrome? Research shows that one of the best things we can do is name impostorism, to give students the sense that what they are experiencing is more common than they believe. Also let them know that researchers find that impostorism is most often found among extremely talented and capable individuals, not people who are true impostors.** If this isn’t enough, and these feelings are debilitating, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy has been shown to be effective in treating impstorism. In the end, though, acknowledging the feelings as genuine and realizing their potential deleterious effects can go a long way to making a difference.
*This is not meant normatively. We simply used this term to capture the issue as discussed in previous literature and not to establish R1 positions as the gold standard and other careers as somehow lesser.
**People who are incompetent are much more likely to suffer from the Dunning-Kruger effect and grossly overestimate their competence.