The Impostor Syndrome: Are You Fooling Everyone?

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At one time or another, nearly every graduate student and new faculty member wonder about his or her competence. "Sure I got into grad school, but it's just a matter of time before I utterly fail. I'm not as good as everyone and someday that will become apparent." One faculty member explains, "I've published a bunch of articles, but each time I start a new research study, I wonder if I can do it again. I know it's ridiculous but I wonder if this will be the time when they find out that I'm making it up as I go? Which is crazy, because I'm not!" This is a common fear often referred to as the impostor syndrome. The impostor syndrome runs rampant in academia - and women are especially prone to it.

What is the Impostor Syndrome?

The impostor syndrome or phenomena is the feeling of being an intellectual phony and is prevalent among high-achieving persons. It is characterized by feeling unable to take credit for accomplishments, academic excellence, and recognition, as well as dismissing success as simply luck, good timing, or perseverance. So-called impostors feel that they have fooled everyone and that they are not as smart or capable as everyone thinks. This, of course, is inaccurate.

How do you get over the impostor syndrome? Easier said than done. What else can you do?

Accept it

Most professionals question their competence now and then. Don't beat yourself up over it. Accept it as part of being human. In fact, questioning yourself at least sometimes is a good idea because it ensures that you are self-aware and can identify ways in which you can grow.

Assess Your Skills

Accurately assessing your performance is key to moving past the impostor syndrome. Document your competencies. Document your successes. Each time you succeed, however small, take the time to jot down the specific actions that led to success as well as what experience and qualities underlie your success at completing each action.

Recognize that you are not alone.

Talk with other students. Learn about their successes, failures, and concerns. Social comparison can help you see that others are in the same boat - we all question our abilities at one time or another. The tough part is to not let those questions detract from our work and our sense of competence.