Impostor syndrome in the academy: no one is immune

Undergraduate or star scholar, status seems to offer little protection against feeling unworthy while less privileged students may be more at risk

September 8, 2016
Fake nose and moustache eye glasses placed on table
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The crime of wearing brown shoes, we learned last week, is one of a slew of unwitting offences that leads to high-achieving graduates with the wrong “polish” being ruled out of jobs in the City.

According to the Social Mobility Commission, which is headed up by Alan Milburn, working-class candidates are still falling foul of “arcane culture rules” that reinforce the elitist status quo.

It’s nothing new for professions such as banking and the law – or indeed, politics (it’s a safe bet that the Eton schoolboys who managed to secure a two-hour meeting with Vladimir Putin recently were all wearing polished black Oxfords).

But ludicrous details like this are a reminder of the biases that persist, and in a week when the University of Oxford revealed that it would welcome its highest proportion of state-educated students this autumn, it’s worth the risk of being called a curmudgeon to say that while up is better than down, 59.2 per cent still isn’t nearly high enough (the proportion of children educated in state schools in the UK currently stands at 93 per cent).

For those who do make it to university from less privileged backgrounds, one of the dangers is that the brown-shoe mentality of City recruiters is internalised, and students are left feeling that they are indeed inferior to their peers – that they don’t fit in.

In an analysis of so-called impostor syndrome this week, we hear from both researchers and undergraduates about how debilitating this can be, and according to Ruth Caleb, chair of the Mental Wellbeing in Higher Education Working Group, “students coming from a low-income or minority ethnic background [can be] more susceptible” to the phenomenon.

However, it has been well documented that this feeling of inadequacy – of somehow being unworthy of the shoes you find yourself standing in – is prevalent among academics as well as students.

It’s a theme that rears its head more than once in a collection of personal reflections from research leaders in our cover story this week, in which we ask for their pearls of wisdom on how to run a successful lab.

What’s clear throughout the contributions is that very few feel fully ready to take on the mantle of principal investigator when the moment comes – and even the most successful do not claim to have all the answers or a blueprint that comes with a guarantee.

“When you finally step across the great divide from postdoctoral researcher to principal investigator, it’s very easy to get a major attack of impostor syndrome,” writes Ottoline Leyser, director of the Sainsbury Laboratory at the University of Cambridge. “For me, this was somehow amplified by my warm welcome, with its implication of high expectations.”

Her first piece of advice to a new PI? “Don’t worry: we are all just making it up as we go along.”

Elsewhere in this week’s Times Higher Education, we take a tour of the Crick Institute as its first inhabitants (trainer-wearing, since you ask) take up residence under the bravura, free-wheeling scientific leadership of Sir Paul Nurse. It’s worth noting that even someone of Sir Paul’s standing is, it seems, not entirely immune to self-doubt. When asked by THE in 2013 what his first thought was when he was told that he had won a Nobel prize, he replied: “That someone was playing a trick on me.”

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