Belief in the Absence of Proof: Imposter Syndrome Part II

Imposter Syndrome Part I 

So, how is it that a person can be a scientist, someone who forms opinions, ideas, theories based on facts and can, in the face of overwhelming proof to the contrary, believe that she is stupid? Good question. This is exactly what my friend, R, wanted to know. She had to accept that such a thing was possible because she had seven people telling her they thought in exactly that way, but she just didn’t understand how it could happen.

I’m not sure I understand either. Certainly I believe low self-esteem plays a role somehow. That much seems obvious. In the paper by Clance and Imes (1) describing Imposter Phenomenon, the authors suggest that a woman suffering from imposter syndrome typically falls into one of two categories:

1. She grew up in the household where another sibling was “the intelligent one” even though she consistently out-performed that sibling.

2. She was told while growing up that she was precocious, that she did things effortlessly, AND that smart people don’t study until she somehow got the impression that if you have to make an effort, you are not smart.

However, I don’t see myself fitting in very well with either of those two groups, though I am often guilty of thinking that how hard you work is inversely correlated with how intelligent you are (2). If anything, I was considered “the intelligent one” growing up but I certainly wasn’t told that I was precocious or a natural genius or anything like that. However, I have had problems with low self-esteem and low self-confidence (and have had years of therapy to determine where these things came from and it certainly wasn’t from people telling me I’m brilliant).

Anecdotaly, in talking to the other female members of my lab and other women, it seems that many things can contribute to the belief that you are an imposter and low self-confidence is related to these things. Some women say that it is the apparently high self-confidence of the men that they work with that leads them to believe they are less bright and not deserving of their achievements. If you thought that you were genuinely smart, wouldn’t you boast about it (though this suffers from a “chicken or egg” problem–do these women feel that they are not smarter because they don’t boast about their accomplishments or do they not boast about their accomplishments because they feel they are not really smart?). Other women say that they got so used to professors dismissing them in favor of their male colleagues that they started to believe that they must not be as smart. This reason has the ring of truth to it for me. It is no secret that women are often marginalized in the sciences and being consistently marginalized has to have an effect on how you view your own worth.

Whatever the reason, imposter syndrome has negative consequences for the woman involved. First, of course, there are the psychological problems that accompany thinking that you are a fraud. It’s emotionally stressful to be constantly afraid you will be outed as an idiot, that any day you may lose your job or get kicked out of school. Having high levels of anxiety can keep you from performing your best, and reinforce the belief that you are a phony. On top of that, women with imposter syndrome may stop short of achieving all that they can. In Part I, I wondered whether imposter syndrome was related to the attrition of women as you climb to higher levels of science. According to Clance and O’Toole, this does seem to be the case (3). Women suffering from imposter syndrome do not take opportunities to advance their careers. They don’t follow their dreams, perhaps because they are too afraid or perhaps because they feel they are not qualified for the positions their hearts desire.

But why does it seem to primarily affect women? Why are women more prone to thinking they are frauds? Clance and O’Toole suggest that other factors affecting women complicate the issue. Women are often not encouraged in their career choices the same way men are. Women more keenly feel a conflict between their careers and their and families. These also have the ring of truth in them for me. In some ways, I think the desire for a family is used as an excuse for abandoning a goal that I don’t believe that I can actually achieve. And while I was never actually discouraged from following my career path, I was never actually encouraged, either. There’s no one standing there telling me that I should pursue a career in science, that I should finish my PhD. On the contrary, lately I’ve mostly heard that they would still love me if I quit! Whether that would be different if I was male, I have no idea.

So, now that we know that there are a substantial number of women out there who believe that they are somehow faking their way to success, what do we do about it?

Imposter Syndrome Part III


(1) Clance, PR and Imes, S (1978) “The Imposter Phenomenon in High Achieving Women: Dynamics and Therapeutic Intervention.” Psychotherapy Theory, Research and Practice Volume 15, #3.

(2) I know there is no logic to this, but there often is no logic to the feelings buried deep down in my soul.

(3) Clance, PR and O’Toole MA (1988). “The Imposter Phenomenon: An Internal Barrier To Empowerment and Achievement.” Women and Therapy. (I’m sorry, but I don’t have the full citation for this article, having downloaded as a pdf from here (PDF). Even more egregiously, they cite another work for this data which I was unable to obtain and therefore cannot cite it properly.)

Note: When I started this series of posts, I had intended to simply discuss my own feelings and that of my labmates and my own opinions of how these feelings arose. However, I found myself wanting look for more information about Imposter Phenomenon and what research was being done on the subject. If I had the time, I would dig into this further and find more recent articles and so on, but 1) I’m currently in California visiting my husband and I think he’s already confused about why I’m blogging instead of spending time with him (I’m a little confused about it as well, actually) and 2) I want to get these out in time to submit for Scientiae. But, I’m sufficiently intrigued by this subject that I may write more about it at a later time when I have the full resources of a university library available to me.

10 thoughts on “Belief in the Absence of Proof: Imposter Syndrome Part II

  1. this is the first time i’ve heard of “imposter syndrome,” and it really struck a chord. despite getting good grades and respectable achievements, i constantly feel like it was just a fluke…that i don’t deserve them. thank you for posting about this and allowing me to be conscious and more aware of this problem!

  2. Pingback: I’m Good Enough and I’m Smart Enough: Impostor Syndrome Part I « I Love Science, Really

  3. Pingback: I Really Am Good Enough and Smart Enough: Imposter Syndrome Part III « I Love Science, Really

  4. Pingback: We’re Good Enough, We’re Smart Enough, and Gosh Darn It, We’re the November Scientiae!

  5. You wrote: “And while I was never actually discouraged from following my career path, I was never actually encouraged, either. There’s no one standing there telling me that I should pursue a career in science, that I should finish my PhD.”

    First, you should. Second, I’ll comment on new post 3 and increase your traffic 🙂

  6. I’d be pretty interested to hear more about your friend R who has never felt this way. I find it interesting that she’s a “very junior” grad student.

    The reason I ask is that I went a little crazy my second year of my PhD (I’m in my fourth now) and, at the time, I was the only one losing my mind. I was surrounded by younger students who were, just like R, confident of themselves and their futures, and who loved our university and our department.

    Then, as time went by, they started going through the same thing I had – they all “went crazy”, one by one. I secretly felt better that I wasn’t inherently defective, but I wouldn’t wish that state of mind on anyone.

    I suspect that it had to do with the quantum leap in expectations (from yourself and others) that we experience moving from early grad school, where one is fresh out of the top of one’s undergrad class, to late grad school, where it hits you that, as hard as you’ve been working, there are thousands of students as smart as you working just as hard. And it turns out there aren’t enough jobs to go around.

    Aack! Anyway, I hope that isn’t the case for your friend. And yes, you should finish your PhD. 🙂

  7. I’ve had this problem for some time. In my case my older sister and I were introduced by our father as the smart one and the pretty one, respectively. So of course now regardless of our accomplishments, my sister feels dowdy and I feel dumb. I’ve completed my PhD and am now a postdoc with a very exciting project. I feel lucky to be here because in fact I don’t feel like a very smart person at all. Despite the fact that I determined within 3 months a major set of data that the lab had been attempting to test for over a year with no results. On the one hand I do give myself credit and it makes me feel accomplished because as a postdoc it’s difficult to feel you are firmly on your feet as an independent researcher. On the other I am still pestered by the idea that this was just dumb luck and that I will fail. One thing that has helped me was revisiting an old lab where I was criticized and sadly believed it by a male scientist who appeared to be a very intelligent man. I’m not arguing that he isn’t but after a little scientific maturity and knowing him all these years and watching his failures I realized that it was more male bravado than anything that made him appear to the naive as an accomplished scientist. Because in truth he is not at all and manages to let everyone around him down mostly blaming others for his lack of success. He hangs on by the skin of his teeth not because of the current funding environment alone but because he is not a mentor in a field that requires proteges in order to seed his scientific progress.
    We all have doubts and if it helps to improve ourselves then listen to then but don’t let them rule you. We all need to know our limitations. For all a person’s innate intelligence, consider what they can do with it in the long run. It may not be any better than that of someone who has to struggle and in fact may not add up to half as much.

  8. I’ve been lucky enough to stumble upon your blog and this particular post. I am in my fifth and (really) last year of working towards a PhD in molecular biology. I do frequently struggle the with the feeling, and have even declared to others, that I am an impostor!(I say it with enthusiasm too) My issue is I am dyslexic with years through the public school system trying to keep me out of classes that I might fail (like pre-algebra-ha!) and stating that I’d never go to college and various other “supportive” actions. And then there is the embarrassment of not being able to spell simple words and read words I have not yet connected the sound with…so why not feel like a total impostor? I do “love science, really” too…its been the one and only way I can be smarter then the average (or below average) human… Thanks for this post, opened my eyes, and made me question. I will enjoy reading your blog with much interest as a fellow-female -pursing-PhD.

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