feeling like a fraud? you’re not alone.

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.

24 thoughts on “feeling like a fraud? you’re not alone.”

  1. I remember the moment in grad school when I learned about imposterism, and there were so many of us who felt that this described us exactly!

    This is such interesting research. I wonder how much more prevalent imposterism is in academia than other fields.


  2. Thanks for posting this Jessica! I think this is a big issue. I assume class background and race play a role too. The people I’ve talked to who seem most afflicted with self-doubt in the face of objective ability or achievement often come from groups who get messages implying they should not be achieving.


  3. Tina & OW: Research does suggest that impostorism is common in academia, although none that I know of has systematically compared professions (but research has compared programs of study). And volumes of research suggest that certain racial and ethnic minorities and first-generation college students are also over-represented among sufferers. Unfortunately, because of the psychological bent of the majority of the research, there is little attention to why it might map on to certain demographic groups, but I’m hoping to change that in work with a more sociological perspective.


  4. Great work, here. It will be interesting to see how imposterism influences not only career choices, but also the presentation of self as one works toward achieving those goals. Do sufferers of imposterism differ in how they present their work, in writing their letters of application to jobs, in talking with colleagues? Does the lack of self-assurance lead to hedging their bets on selling themselves? All of these things matter on the market, and even IF sufferers of imposterism do not downgrade their goals, imposterism may still have a deleterious effect on their careers.


  5. This is great to see and I look forward to seeing more of this work.

    Here’s a quote included in the Science Careers piece:
    “I shouldn’t be here because I’m not willing to be in the office 60 or 70 hours a week.”

    It is interesting to see the interplay of concerns about “family friendliness” and imposterism here. It seems this person (woman) doesn’t feel s/he belongs in the job because sh/he may not live up to a gendered ideal worker norm that precludes family caregiving. I’m reminded of Cha’s findings on long hours expectations and occupational segregation (http://gas.sagepub.com/content/27/2/158.abstract), though the connection to feeling like a fraud is not made there.


    1. I wanted to update with something interesting that I stumbled on the other day. Shelley Correll and her student, Allison Wynn, presented in the same session about women leaving technical fields because of gendered perceptions of the industry. Turns out, the Ada initiative argues this is linked to impostorism too (although, as far as I can tell, has only anecdotal evidence to support it) and offers some other fantastic interventions to help women and others who might be suffer from the impostor syndrome.


  6. @RCS: You bring up a number of interesting points. I don’t have data on much of that, but I can say that “impostors” experience much more uncertainty (about the future) than those who don’t suffer from the impostor phenomenon. Even if they don’t shift career goals, this uncertainty must influence their career trajectories in other ways (perhaps through their performance in some of the realms you mention). Impostorism is also emotionally and psychologically taxing and can cause a psychological distress and/or emotional exhaustion. To avoid that, impostors might opt out of various opportunities where they feel their impostorism will be piqued.

    @Erin: In the paper we make an argument that the two things (family friendliness and impostorism) can be related. Valerie Young, who was also quoted in the Science article, made such an argument in her book, saying that women might opt out of competitive work environments (that feel threatening) and into safe spaces like family (that feel authentic). But there’s also the matter that you bring up where women, and other concerned about balance, might feel inauthentic in workplaces because of ideal worker norms – and that these situational factors could be a root of impostorism. This certainly rings true in my interviews with graduate students. It is a more sociological (and contextual) view than many who study impostorism would normally adopt, but I agree whole-heartedly and see that idea as the next frontier of research in the area because many people have talked about it, but no one has really studied it systematically.

    I thought you might be interested in the other quotes that I shared in the ASA presentation.

    Concerns about Family Friendliness:
    -“Academics is all consuming. I don’t want to be consumed.”
    -“I have not changed, but I have very seriously considered changing [it]. I hear so much about how very difficult it is for a woman to both achieve tenure and have children….It makes me want sometimes to just get out of this whole thing.”

    Combining Family Friendliness with Impostorism:
    -“I’m struggling with finding a career option which I feel will fit well with my personal goal of starting a family, which is most important to me, and also finding a career for which I feel prepared. My main concern at this point is feeling competent in my chosen career.”
    -“I don’t think I’m smart enough to be a successful research professor. After seeing the lifestyle of [my advisor], I don’t think I have the stamina or desire to lead such a frenzied, harried life.”
    – “I worry that I will never be successful in my field and that in spending so many years in my education, I’ve robbed myself of the opportunity for a normal family life.”

    – “I often worry that I’ll never have anything valuable to contribute to [my discipline].”
    – “I am uncertain if I’m resilient enough to make it in academia.”
    – “I am sick of not knowing the answers to questions.”
    – “During a heavy exam year, I struggled so badly that I thought seriously [about] teaching high school [or] community college.”
    – “I worry that I’m maybe I’m just lazy and I don’t like working hard, and I shouldn’t be here because I’m not willing to be in the office 60 or 70 hours a week.”


  7. Thanks, Jessica, for the lead on other readings and sharing the great quotes. “I don’t want to be consumed” might be my new mantra, along with reminding myself of the privilege of getting to engage in engaging work.


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