Class? Gender? No, ‘impostor syndrome’ is shaped by your parents

PhD students with encouraging mums and dads less likely to be plagued by feelings of inferiority, survey suggests

October 27, 2022
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Far from being shaped by class and gender, whether PhD students feel like impostors in academia is more likely to be determined by how supportive their parents were when they were young, researchers claim.

Studies have indicated that large numbers of doctoral candidates and academics show signs of “impostor syndrome”, the term used to describe a set of feelings that includes the fear of being unworthy of success and not as good as others, and being constantly afraid of being exposed as a fraud. Women and scholars from poorer backgrounds are often regarded as being particularly susceptible.

But a study that surveyed 1,694 PhD students across eight Finnish universities found that gender and age were not significant predictors of impostor syndrome – and neither was whether they had grown up in families with scarce resources.

Instead, researchers from the University of Turku found that the less encouragement a doctoral student received from their parents in childhood and adolescence, the more likely they were to suffer impostor feelings, according to the study published in Higher Education.

While students who got high grades on their master’s theses had some protection from impostor syndrome, the relationship was not significant.

A low level of planning – associated with “drifting” into doctoral education – was the other significant predictor of feelings of inferiority.

“Parents’ support and encouragement is the most important thing,” Hanna Nori, one of the study’s authors and a research fellow in Turku’s department of education, told Times Higher Education.

A key part of the study was a four-point “doctoral impostor syndrome scale”, which asked respondents to describe their feelings about their academic ability. The average score was 2.13, with more than 7 per cent scoring at least three.

This contrasts with a 2019 survey of female academics that found that two-thirds of respondents experienced frequent or intense feelings of being an impostor.

“Our research shows that the [impostor syndrome] roots often extend to the early onset of the life course, when the inner story of an individual gradually begins to build. Supportive parents will undoubtedly help create a positive inner story,” write Dr Nori and her co-author Markku Vanttaja.

But the pair say that knowing that impostor syndrome is quite common among PhD students “can reduce excessive self-criticality” and argue that doctoral programmes “should take better account of PhD candidates’ backgrounds, life situations, and aims”.

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