Two-thirds of female scholars experience frequent or intense feelings of being an “impostor” in academia, a major new survey suggests.
Asked about their sense of intellectual self-doubt, some 95 per cent of 1,326 women in higher education who responded to a survey on “impostor syndrome” admitted characteristics showing at least moderate levels of the phenomenon, according to a paper published in Studies in Higher Education.
Some 46 per cent of respondents were identified as having frequent feelings of impostor syndrome, while 20 per cent suffered intense and recurring fears of being exposed as an intellectual fraud, according to the study, which was written by researchers from the University of Cincinnati and Kennesaw State University in Georgia.
Impostor syndrome was just as likely to affect women with tenured faculty positions as those doing PhDs or filling postdoctoral research roles, according to the study, which received responses from universities across the world.
There was no difference in the level of impostor syndrome experienced by women in different types of institutions – for example, community colleges, teaching-focused universities and elite research-led institutions, said the study’s co-author Ashley Vaughn, a Cincinnati social scientist who is now a visiting assistant professor at Miami University in Ohio.
“This is a global phenomenon, not just something affecting Western educational institutions or more junior faculty,” Dr Vaughn told Times Higher Education.
Those individuals who credited their current position to “luck” or professional connections, rather than their own ability, tended to show higher levels of impostor syndrome, explained Dr Vaughn.
In other cases, those with high levels of impostor syndrome would claim that their position had been achieved only because they published with a high-achieving peer or supervisor.
The study also found that academics with high levels of impostor syndrome were more stressed and unhappier than those with only moderate symptoms.
“It is not just that they feel a bit insecure – it is really impacting on their lives,” said Dr Vaughn.
Despite its apparently endemic level among female academics, impostor syndrome remained a taboo subject, added Dr Vaughn, who wants scholars to open up about these feelings.
Expressing self-doubt or insecurity, however, ran contrary to a culture in which academics were reluctant to admit any kind of failure or flaw, she said.
“We are so focused on accomplishments [and] stacking our CVs with achievements, we never stop to admit when things haven’t gone perfectly,” she said.