The first rule of impostor syndrome is: you talk about impostor syndrome

Openly discussing academic successes and failures is the first step to alleviating impostor syndrome among women in academia, says Ashley Vaughn 

February 24, 2019
Woman speaks to counsellor

A large majority of women in academia feel like they don’t belong in their jobs, as though they were an “impostor” who might be revealed as a fake at any moment. A quick look at Twitter or Facebook will reveal a glut of #impostorsyndrome posts, often by graduate students, but increasingly shared by faculty. 

I, along with colleagues at the University of Cincinnati and Kennesaw State University, recently surveyed more than 1,300 women about this phenomenon. Feeling like an impostor can depend on what women think causes their successes and failures, we found. 

Women who feel that their failures were just bad luck tend to feel like less of an impostor than those who blame themselves when things go wrong. On the other hand, thinking that luck caused one’s successes feeds into impostor syndrome. 

The current academic job market contributes to this perception that luck or connections leads to an academic position. In our study, many women mentioned the stress and uncertainty in their job search as contributors to their feeling like a fraud, whereas others felt that landing a job today was more about luck than talent. 

Meanwhile, women who could point to the role that they played in their own achievements tended to feel like less of an impostor. 

Those with the highest levels of impostor syndrome were more likely to attribute their successes to their supervisors or principal investigators (PI) or to the activity being easy. 

Women who had more impostor feelings also tended to associate their academic careers with negative effects in their life. For example, these women may feel that their academic careers are coming at a cost to their mental and physical health, to their families or to their hobbies. 

Those with lower levels of intellectual property tended to value their academic careers more, while those with high levels tended to have experienced a greater cost (emotional, psychological, monetary or relational). 

Interestingly, impostor syndrome levels did not vary by type of institution. Women studying, teaching and researching in small, undergraduate-focused institutions had impostor syndrome levels similar to those at doctoral institutions with a high research output. 

Although we found that impostor syndrome was extremely common across all academic positions, doctoral students had an average 10.6 per cent higher impostor syndrome level than tenured faculty. Several graduate student participants mentioned the role of advisors, PIs, and supervisors in exacerbating or alleviating feelings of fraud. “My advisor is abusive. Doctoral work is hard enough, I don’t know why [they] want to make it even harder,” one said.  

Some might think that this only applies to grad students and junior faculty, but even tenured academic women still feel like an impostor a lot of the time (although slightly less than their more junior colleagues). 

As one faculty member told me, “The lack of support and of community when combined with the lack of clear assessment metrics eats away at one’s self confidence. This feeling of uncertainty and unease does not go away after one is given tenure, but carried through. It is as if we were trained to be this way.”

Adjunct faculty, who scored similarly to other faculty members, highlighted the lack of a sense of belonging that they feel and the impact of often extreme workloads. “I have more stress as an adjunct. I teach an average of 14 classes a year to pay the bills, leaving little time for my own research and writing that would ultimately help me get a tenure track job…As the years pass without success on the market, the worse I feel and the more inferior I feel compared to my peers. Being an adjunct is wearing down my self-worth. It gets worse every year.”

It’s important to support female faculty to help them maintain their feelings of belonging. Also, when women feel like they are able to do their jobs well and without needing help, that can bring relief from feelings of not deserving their job. 

Many tenure track and tenured faculty members highlighted the importance of department culture in alleviating their feelings of impostorism, as one tenure track faculty member said: “One nice thing [about participating in the research] is realizing that I have much more confidence now in my tenure-track position than I did in graduate school. Imposter syndrome hasn't gone away, but it has certainly lessened for me. Having a couple of great, supportive and encouraging colleagues who are also women and mothers is a significant contributing factor.”

Talking openly about impostor syndrome, our academic successes and failures, and creating a more supportive academic community may help to alleviate some of feelings of being an impostor. As one tenured faculty member told me, “Being an older academic, who was first generation and non-traditional, I’ve always felt like an impostor. But I didn't even know it was a ‘thing’. It's comforting to know I’m not alone.”

Ashley Vaughn is a social scientist at the University of Cincinnati and a visiting professor at Miami University.

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