mainheader

Jenny Baker
/ Categories: 584

TIPTopics: Own Your Success: Dealing With Imposter Phenomenon in Grad School

Andrew Tenbrink, Mallory Smith, Georgia LaMarre, Laura Pineault, Tyleen Lopez, and Molly Christophersen, Wayne State University

Take a moment to reflect on whether you currently identify or have ever identified with the following statements:

  • Sometimes I feel or believe that my success in my life or as a graduate student has been the result of some kind of error.
  • I’m afraid people important to me may find out that I’m not as capable as they think I am.
  • I often compare my ability to those around me and think they may be more intelligent than I am.

If some of the above statements resonated with you, you may have experienced feeling like an imposter or intellectual fraud at some point in your academic or working career. Although occasional feelings of self-doubt are normal, persistently questioning your place in your I-O psychology program (despite meeting requirements and performance expectations) may be an indicator that you are experiencing the imposter phenomenon (IP).

IP (also referred to as imposter syndrome or perceived fraudulence), initially developed by Clance and Imes (1978), describes feeling like you’ve only succeeded due to chance or external factors—not your own capabilities. As reflected in the statements you reflected on at the beginning of this article (adapted from the “Clance Imposter Phenomenon Scale”), individuals experiencing IP feel like they are not as competent as others think they are and that they lack the ability to gain competence (Badawy et al., 2018). This leads those experiencing IP to feel a lack of belongingness in their academic or working environment, such that there is a disconnect between what they think about themselves and how the external world views them. Although you may be more familiar with the term “imposter syndrome,” we use the term “imposter phenomenon” to align with the literature that criticizes the term “syndrome” as implying that experiencing IP is dysfunctional and the result of individual failings (Feenstra et al., 2020). As you’ll see throughout this article, IP results from the interplay of many factors—some individual but some contextual and social. Therefore, we feel that “imposter phenomenon” is a more appropriate term for this construct.

If you think you have experienced IP, you are not alone. Approximately 70% of professionals across a variety of settings have reported experiencing IP at one point in their careers. Graduate students may be especially likely to experience feelings of fraudulence as we wrestle with our identities and sense of belonging, feelings of inadequacy, constant social comparisons, and the performance expectations of our families/communities and programs and advisors (Craddock et al., 2011). In this article, we explore the ways in which feeling like an imposter can affect graduate students and the I-O graduate school community. We also offer advice and resources to manage and reduce the effects of IP at the individual, interpersonal, and system level.

Who Experiences Imposter Phenomenon?

When IP was initially introduced, it was thought to only affect women (Clance & Imes, 1978). However, more recent literature acknowledges that IP can affect all genders, racial and ethnic groups, and people in a variety of professional and educational settings (Bravata et al., 2020).

Personalities, identities, and contextual factors all play a role in imposter tendencies. Research about IP and personality has linked IP to maladaptive perfectionism and neuroticism, low or unstable self-esteem, and an external locus of control. In her book The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women, Dr. Valorie Young identified five behavioral patterns of high achievers who could be susceptible to imposter feelings. Although these subtypes haven’t been empirically tested, they may be helpful in identifying and articulating your own feelings and behaviors (read more about these subtypes in this article): 

  • The Perfectionist: These individuals set high expectations and focus on their failures rather than achievements.
  • The Expert: These people fear looking incompetent or stupid, which could result in them not speaking up or taking on a task unless they know every detail.
  • The Natural Genius: These people feel like a fraud when something doesn’t come easily to them and view needing to put in effort as a sign of failure.
  • The Soloist: These individuals want to do everything on their own and feel like a fraud if they need to ask for help.
  • The Superwoman/man: These people feel pressure to work very hard compared to their colleagues; they often feel stressed when they aren’t accomplishing something.

Although understanding IP at the individual level of analysis is important, we also agree with the many authors (e.g., Feenstra et al., 2020; Clance et al., 1995) who advocate for the importance of interpersonal and social contexts in the examination of IP. Our social context provides highly important cues about how we should feel about ourselves and our situations, and the subtle and overt cues we perceive in our environment can signal whether we “belong” in a certain role, space, or environment (see related research on social identity threat theory; e.g., Steele et al., 2002).

Studies have found that ethnic minority students/employees, women in STEM fields, and students/employees from low SES backgrounds are at higher risk for feeling like imposters. Societal stereotypes, lack of representation, and negative interpersonal interactions at work or school can signal to individuals with an underrepresented or marginalized identity that they “don’t belong,” triggering enhanced feelings of IP (Feenstra et al., 2020). In a topical example, an op-ed published earlier this year questioning Dr. Jill Biden’s credentials brought attention to the narratives pushed by popular press that make women in academia question their legitimacy. These narratives, which are reinforced by negative stereotypes about women’s cognitive ability and by a lack of female representation in STEM fields and at higher levels in academic institutions, may cause female academics to doubt their successes and belonging—reinforcing feelings of IP.

Research in the areas of social identity threat, stereotype threat, and felt belonging reinforce the importance of considering the person–environment interaction when explaining behavior. For example, identity-based motivation theory suggests that someone’s motivation decreases when individuals interpret their situation as incongruent with their identity (i.e., “this behavior is not for people like me”; Oyserman & Destin, 2010). Research on stereotype threat (Steele & Aronson, 1995) has consistently found that awareness of negative stereotypes about an identity with which one identifies can negatively influence performance and behavior. Lack of motivation, poorer performance, and anxiety around conforming to a negative stereotype can perpetuate and motivate IP. About the interplay between IP and stereotype threat, Womble Edwards (2019, p. 19) writes:

Rooted in the ideologies of privilege and oppression, both phenomena ignite a sense of otherness and propagate the dominant metanarrative. Whether they feel as though they do not belong (i.e., imposter syndrome) or they feel as though they must prove they belong (i.e., stereotype threat), some marginalized groups are hyperaware of how they are othered, and this awareness influences how they navigate spaces.

How Can Imposter Phenomenon Impact Graduate Students?

The conversation surrounding IP has become increasingly prevalent amongst graduate students and academics, with op-eds and Twitter threads concluding that graduate school presents unique challenges that can trigger imposter feelings and isolation for some students. The prevalence of IP among graduate students may be in part motivated by who is attracted to graduate school—often high-achieving, perfectionistic individuals. The academic environment is also likely to play a significant role in perpetuating graduate students’ feelings of IP. Graduate school can be a highly isolating, critical, and demanding environment for students. Further, universities have been historically exclusionary to marginalized groups, and there still exist systematic barriers for academics with nontraditional backgrounds, identities, and characteristics that can amplify their perceived “otherness” and feelings of IP.

Graduate students experiencing IP are likely affected by the “imposter cycle.” This cycle manifests when individuals experiencing IP strive for perfection, leading to (a) procrastination because they fear that they do not have the competency to produce high-quality work, or (b) overpreparing and spending more time than needed on the assignment to produce high-quality work. For instance, a grad student may be caught up in the “imposter cycle” when they continuously delay submitting a paper for publication in fear that it will be rejected. Students dealing with IP may also avoid participating in class, skip opportunities to attend and present at conferences, or be apprehensive to apply for internships or grants. As a result, IP is hindering the academic and professional development of graduate students—likely negatively affecting their future career prospects. This notion is supported by existing research that suggests that those experiencing IP tend to limit themselves in their careers—decreasing their potential for career growth and satisfaction (Neureiter & Traut-Mattausch, 2016).

IP can be associated with anxiety (e.g., negative affectivity, neuroticism; Ross et al., 2001), poor self-views (e.g., low self-esteem, low self-perceived intelligence; Kumar & Jagacinski, 2006), and even poor personal relationships. Connecting with others may become difficult as those experiencing IP feel unworthy of a relationship with their peers. Licensed marriage and family therapist Moraya Seeger DeGeare states that individuals experiencing IP may think, “If I show up as my authentic self, this person is going to reject me, and I’m not deserving of this relationship.” As a result, those experiencing IP may end up socially isolating themselves at school, at work, and in their personal lives. With such detrimental effects, we hope to spend the remainder of this article discussing strategies to ameliorate these feelings and reduce the negative outcomes of IP.

How Can We Reduce Imposter Feelings for all I-O Graduate Students?

Although IP feelings in graduate school are common, writing off IP as “just the way things are in graduate school” can halt conversations about what we can proactively do to reduce feelings of IP. In particular, perceived belonging appears to be an important protective factor that can reduce graduate students’ imposter feelings. Sverdlik et al. (2020) describe perceived belonging and IP as two sides of the same coin. When graduate students feel a sense of belonging in their academic community, they feel valued, involved, important, and are more likely to see themselves as an “academic.” Thus, fostering an inclusive, welcoming, and safe culture in your graduate program is likely to have real benefits for reducing IP. Below we introduce a few strategies at the program, interpersonal, and peer level to increase perceived belonging and decrease IP.

Communicate inclusive values through policies and practices. Studies based in social-identity-threat theories provide evidence that we can reduce feelings of IP and increase students’ sense of belonging through policy changes and communication. For instance, Browman and Destin (2016) found that low-SES students experienced less identity mismatch and higher academic motivation and efficacy after reading messages that their school supported socioeconomic diversity through their values, programs, and resources. Similarly, Hall et al. (2018) found that women in STEM experienced lower identity threat and higher expectations of positive interpersonal relationships when their organization had gender-inclusive policies.

Share failures and processes along with successes. Cisco (2019) suggests that faculty can “demystify the processes of academia” (p. 17) for students to reduce IP. Academia can be daunting when students only see their peers’ and professors’ published papers and accolades while they are struggling with rejected papers or poor grades. Cisco (2019) believes it could be helpful for advisors to share their rejections and processes with students, as opposed to only their successes and finished products. Ask your advisor to share the processes they use to navigate writing manuscripts and reading academic literature. Ask your professors and peers for their strategies when dealing with rejection and critiques, and be open with sharing your own setbacks and rejections. Creating an environment where critiques and setbacks are not shameful can help students accept that perceived failures are not a sign of their own incompetence but an integral part of academia.

Foster belonging and build your “science identity” through mentorship. Mentorship in graduate school can occur in many forms, from being enrolled in a formal mentorship program to seeking informal mentorship from your peers. There are numerous benefits to mentorship for both the mentor and mentee, including emotional support, personal support, career development, and satisfaction (Ehrich et al., 2004). Seeking help from others also deepens your connection to individuals within your field, further reducing IP by fostering feelings of belongingness.

Mentors can help create an identity-safe graduate school environment through role modeling, representation, and culturally responsive mentorship. Culturally responsive mentorship occurs when mentors validate their mentee’s social identities while simultaneously reinforcing self-efficacy in their field. This type of mentorship helps students develop a “science identity” (Chemers et al., 2011) that is compatible with their social identities. Underrepresented graduate students who received culturally responsive mentoring felt more confident as researchers and became more committed to their academic and career goals (Haeger & Fresquez, 2016). For a great resource on best practices in mentorship, including culturally responsive mentorship, see the website: The Science of Effective Mentorship in STEMM.

What Can I Do About My Own Imposter Feelings?

At this point you may be wondering: “How do I as an individual build resilience to the highly critical nature of academia to feel like a valued contributor who can thrive in the I-O field?” The answer to this will differ for everyone, but below are some tips and resources you can use to better understand and mitigate your imposter feelings.

 

Set mastery goals and adapt a growth mindset: Mastery goals focus on learning and gaining new skills rather than on performance or avoiding errors. Research has found that setting mastery goals is an effective strategy to feel more confident and engaged even in the face of identity-threatening situations (Stout & Dasgupta, 2013). Practice a growth mindset by focusing on your process and effort rather than your innate skills. For example, instead of telling yourself “you tried your hardest, that’s all you can do” when you make a mistake, instead think “It’s ok if I don’t get something right away. What are my next steps?” Read more about growth mindset and other strategies to help mitigate the effects of IP and stereotype threat in Nolan Young and Vargas’ seminar worksheet for the University of Notre Dame.

Daily self-affirmations: Research has found that writing daily self-affirmations about belonging improved performance for members of negatively stereotyped groups (Shnabel et al., 2013). When experiencing IP feelings, take time to reflect on your values, your worth, and the people with whom you are connected. It can be helpful to set aside some time each day to reflect on your unique contributions, accomplishments, and perspectives while also celebrating the people who and experiences that helped shape who you are today.

Master your own thoughts: Personal development coach Jess Stuart lists several ways in which we can quiet the IP voices in our head. She challenges us to remember that our internal self-doubt is not a reflection of our external reality. You do not need to prove your worth to others, only to yourself. We should also acknowledge that although it’s common to have feelings of IP, we can choose to observe those thoughts and let them go rather than identifying with them.

Limit social comparisons on social media: Although social media can be a great way to connect with other scholars, there is also evidence to support that online social comparison can fuel IP (Perrelli, 2020), poorer psychological health, and lower academic performance (Malik et al., 2020). Be mindful that people are motivated to use social media to post socially desirable and glossy portrayals of their successes that often don’t tell the full story of their experiences. Check in with yourself about your relationship with social media (particularly academic social media), and take breaks if you find yourself engaging in social comparison in a way that doesn’t feel healthy for you.

Seek feedback: Because those experiencing IP are normally successful and high-achieving individuals, it may not be apparent to your professors or advisors that you are in need of feedback. Don’t be afraid to take an active role in the feedback process if you are doubting your abilities or need reassurance (Anseel et al., 2015). Seeking feedback from your advisor may provide confirmation that you are on the right path, and they will likely highlight the accomplishments that you may have overlooked.

Reconceptualize the definition of a scholar: Dr. Callie Womble Edwards explains that she combated her IP by redefining who she was taught a scholar was (i.e., white, able bodied, cis, male) to a definition that included her philosophies and identities. To arrive at her new definition she journaled, used social media (through sharing the hashtags #TheLifeofaScholar and #iLookLikeAScholar), reviewed literature, self-reflected, and critically examined definitions of scholars for implicit assumptions.  This process allowed her to stop comparing herself to the old, narrow definition of a scholar that made her question her belonging. Read Dr. Womble Edwards’ article here and more about her organizations here and here.

Abandon the concept of imposter syndrome/phenomenon: Another strategy to consider is to not only combat IP but to abandon the entire notion altogether. Some academics are calling for a retirement of the phrase “imposter syndrome” claiming that academia’s exclusionary history guarantees that anyone who has identities outside of the majority will experience imposter syndrome. You might feel it’s time to abandon this phrase all together and reduce its power over you.

Next time you have thoughts of unworthiness or self-doubt, take a moment to recognize it is just that—a thought!  Remind yourself, “I am not an imposter; I belong in academia,” because you do. It is our hope that our article provides you with the information and resources needed to continue combating IP in graduate school and throughout your I-O career.

 

 



Andrew Tenbrink is a 5th-year PhD student in I-O psychology. He received his BS in Psychology from Kansas State University. His research interests include selection, assessment, and performance management, with a specific focus on factors affecting the performance appraisal process. Currently, Andrew has a 1-year assistantship working as a quantitative methods consultant in the Department of Psychology’s Research Design and Analysis Unit at Wayne State University. Andrew is expected to graduate in the summer of 2021. After earning his PhD, he would like to pursue a career in academia. andrewtenbrink@wayne.edu | @AndrewPTenbrink

Mallory Smith completed her Master of Arts in I-O Psychology in the spring of 2020. Prior to graduate school, she earned her BA in Psychology and German from Wayne State University. Her interests include factors influencing employee attitudes, efficacy, and perceptions of justice during organizational change. After graduation, Mallory started a new job in the healthcare industry, leveraging both her I-O skillset and background in information technology to support digital transformation, enhance work processes, and encourage employee adoption of new innovations. smithy@wayne.edu | @mallorycsmith 

Georgia LaMarre is a 4th-year PhD student in I-O psychology. She completed her undergraduate education at the University of Waterloo before moving over the border to live in Michigan. Georgia is currently working as an organizational development intern at a consulting firm while pursuing research interests in team decision making, workplace identity, and paramilitary organizational culture. After graduate school, she hopes to apply her I-O knowledge to help solve problems in public-sector organizations. georgia.lamarre@wayne.edu

Laura Pineault is a 5th-year PhD candidate in I-O psychology. Her research interests lie at the intersection of leadership and work–life organizational culture, with emphasis on the impact of work–life organizational practices on the leadership success of women. Laura graduated with Distinction from the Honours Behaviour, Cognition and Neuroscience program at the University of Windsor in June 2016. Currently, Laura serves as the primary graduate research assistant for a NSF RAPID grant (Work, Family, and Social Well-Being Among Couples in the Context of COVID-19; NSF #2031726) and is a quantitative methods consultant for the Department of Psychology’s Research Design and Analysis Unit at Wayne State University. Laura is expected to graduate in the spring of 2021. laura.pineault@wayne.edu | @LPineault

Tyleen Lopez is a 3rd-year PhD student in I-O psychology. She received her BA in Psychology from St. John’s University in Queens, New York. Her research interests include diversity/inclusion, leadership, and well-being in the workplace. Tyleen is currently a graduate research assistant and lab manager for Dr. Lars U. Johnson’s LeadWell Research lab at Wayne State University. Tyleen is expected to graduate in the spring of 2023. After earning her PhD, she would like to pursue a career in academia. tyleen.lopez@wayne.edu | @tyleenlopez

Molly Christophersen is pursuing a Master of Arts in I-O Psychology. She earned her BA in Sociology from Michigan State University in 2016. Her interests include workforce training and employee development. After graduate school, she has her sights set on an applied career in the private sector—ideally in a role where she can help businesses train and develop their employees, effectively helping individuals to grow within their organization. mollychristophersen@wayne.edu | @molly_kate32

Previous Article SIOP Needs You to Submit an Awards Nomination!
Next Article Hold the Date: Oct 7–9, 2021 Leading Edge: Leadership Development
Print
593 Rate this article:
No rating
Comments are only visible to subscribers.

Theme picker

Categories