Although they look, talk and work just like any other undergraduate, they feel that they do not belong among “genuine” students. They feel the same as a well-dressed beggar might upon bluffing their way into the palace ball: an interloper waiting to be outed as lesser.
Such students may be suffering from impostor syndrome – a condition characterised by delusions of inadequacy; the feeling that the status, role and reputation they enjoy is unwarranted, and that they are secretly out of their depth despite an abundance of evidence demonstrating their proficiency. They may project an outward impression of confidence, but when they observe in their peers the self-assuredness that they lack they may feel like frauds.
It is an issue that some believe is endemic to higher education – among staff and students alike. Even in the current societal drought of self-esteem, the particular stresses of higher education can greatly exacerbate the issue.
Jessica Collett, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Notre Dame, researches the phenomenon. She is of the opinion that “universities and academia are ripe for impostorism” because of the particularly subjective nature of assessment.
“With few objective measures for success or value of contributions in academia, it is easier to discount success and think that someone made a mistake or just passed us or accepted our paper for some other reason not related to its merit,” she said.
Professor Collett links impostorism within academic settings to cultural perceptions of intelligence. “Given unconscious biases that certain groups are more intelligent, people who don’t fit those characteristics might also hold the assumption that they’re likely lacking in that innate intelligence.”
Ruth Caleb, chair of the UK’s Mental Wellbeing in Higher Education Working Group and head of counselling at Brunel University London, echoes this sentiment. She notes that “students coming from a low-income or minority ethnic background, and those with learning disabilities, are sometimes more susceptible” to the phenomenon.
“We let our counselling clients know that the Brunel admissions process means that students studying at Brunel have been taken on because we believe them to be fully capable of obtaining a degree, which often surprises them,” she said.
Many students and counsellors discuss the rising rates of impostorism in the context of a wider student mental health crisis.
A recent high-profile report on student mental health referenced figures showing that more than a quarter of UK students are thought to experience mental health issues at any one time. And just last week a new survey of 6,500 undergraduates found that one in eight believed they had a mental health condition.
For young people, university, especially at the start, is a time of particular susceptibility to mental health issues such as impostorism.
Anoushka Bonwick, projects and relationships officer at the university-focused mental health charity Student Minds, said that “a lot of individuals are moving away [from home] for the first time and they’ll be working independently for the first time”.
She believes that university not only introduces a flurry of often stressful new situations – independent living, managing finances and social upheaval – but that, quite uniquely, it provides “a very stark way to compare yourself to people…that can be quite challenging because you’re in an environment where there is a lot of competitiveness”.
Culture of competition
Katherine Thompson, a third-year history undergraduate, attributes her feelings of impostorism in part to the hypercompetitive and pride-driven culture in academia.
“A lot is expected of you, and if you perceive your work to be not up to standard, it’s easy to feel like an unworthy and lesser student among your peers,” she said.
“I’ve certainly spoken to many who feel the same as me in my year. Often they seem confident, but that’s only because they don’t present their failures and insecurities on the outside, but when you get talking to them you realise that’s because they reveal only their successes to other people.”
It is not only peer interaction eliciting such emotions – some students report that research staff can project such an air of professionalism, intelligence and insight that undergraduates think it impossible to live up to their standards.
This is backed by recent research indicating that science students learn better when they are taught about the struggles of famous scientists. Highlighting the mistakes that such eminent figures made and the failed experiments that preceded their famous breakthroughs humanises them and breaks the illusion of their seemingly superhuman intelligence. This helps students to see being a researcher as a more attainable role.
It may further comfort undergraduates to learn that many in academia are also plagued by feelings of impostorism. Dr Caleb said that “staff also experience low self-esteem and the sense that they are less capable than other academics. I certainly felt that way myself for many years in spite of my qualifications!”
For Professor Collett, this is also a personal issue. “I was brought on to a textbook [writing] team a few years back, on a subject that I teach and research. I had every reason to feel confident,” she said.
“But, prone to impostorism myself, when I first started writing, I would do all kinds of research on almost every sentence I wrote, just to be sure I wasn’t wrong. I was paralysed by fear that a mistake would be in print, demonstrating my ineptitude for all the world to see.”
Impostorism is a durable trait that seems often to sustain itself throughout the career trajectory of an academic, potentially limiting the ambition of those – particularly women – who would otherwise be on a path to more research-intensive and prestigious positions.
In the view of Professor Collett, “women who feel like impostors are avoiding places where their perceived weaknesses could be exposed, like those careers that rely on research and publishing”.
Although impostorism is associated with high ability and perfectionism, the constant self-doubt and resulting emotional exhaustion is in no way an asset.
The missed potential of those constrained by such feelings is a grim prospect, but increasing awareness of the issue can reassure people that they have no reason to doubt their abilities and can encourage them to seek counselling. Naming and knowing the phenomenon has a positive effect on those dealing with feelings of illegitimacy, helping to dispel the illusion that anyone is alone in feeling like a fraud.