I Really Am Good Enough and Smart Enough: Imposter Syndrome Part III

Imposter Syndrome Part I

Imposter Syndrome Part II

So now that we’ve established that a significant number of women in science suffer from imposter syndrome (including me), and that imposter syndrome is potentially contributing to the attrition of women from science, what do we do about it?

For me, the key to starting to overcome imposter syndrome was realizing that there were other people like me. Women who, for no apparent reason, thought that they were frauds. It was truly eye-opening. And a relief! I wasn’t crazy—other people thought this way, too! Or rather, maybe I was crazy but I was crazy in a specific way just the same as lots of other women. It can be profoundly comforting to know that you are not alone in your deepest, darkest fears. And once I had that realization, I could talk to other people about my feelings of self-doubt and my fears of people discovering I wasn’t as capable as they thought I was. My talking about how I felt opened the door to other people talking about how they felt and I knew the women I was talking to were pretty smart. These strong, capable, intelligent women were scared that they weren’t really all that strong, capable, or intelligent. Once I saw how profoundly their self-perceptions were warped, I was able to think that just maybe my own self-perception was a little bit off-base. Maybe I wasn’t secretly a dunderhead. Maybe I really was as smart as I appeared to be on paper. Maybe, just maybe, I was selling myself a little bit short.

So, from my own experiences, I think one of the most powerful things we can do is to talk to other women about imposter syndrome. Let other women know that such a thing exists. Of course, not every woman suffers from imposter syndrome (my friend, R, for example). But even if you don’t feel like telling other people about your own insecurities, you can at least talk about the problem of imposter syndrome. You can at least make other people aware. You can at least give other people a name to what it is that they are feeling.

You can also recognize your own feelings as disconnected from reality. Start acknowledging your accomplishments. Learn to say these words:

“Thank you.”

The next time someone says to you, “Wow, you must be smart,” (this often happens to me after I say that I’m in graduate school for cell biology and frankly, it embarrasses me) do not demure (like I usually, do—hey, it’s a work in progress!) say, “Thank you.” You ARE smart. Stupid people do not get to where you are in life. If someone says to you, “Great work on that experiment,” after you just spent the last 3 weeks working 18 hours a day troubleshooting a procedure and the whole thing culminated in a heroic experiment in which you did not sleep for 24 hours, do not say, “It was nothing.” It was NOT nothing. It was SOMETHING! It was a very big something and it took a helluva lot of time and effort and chutzpa and you should be proud. Instead of saying it was nothing, say, “Thank you.” It’s just two words, it should not be so hard to say them.

Give encouragement to the women around you. Clance and O’Toole (1) found that men often felt like they were frauds, but this did not keep them from advancing in their studies and careers. Clance and O’Toole speculated that this may be because these men received encouragement from peers, from mentors, from society in general to continue despite their fears. Imagine how much easier it would be to keep on advancing if you had someone encouraging you every step of the way. Imagine how much easier it would be to overcome your fears if there was someone telling you, “You can do it.”

And finally, be kind to yourself. Tell yourself that you are intelligent, that you earned your accomplishments fairly. Tell yourself that you deserve the good position you find yourself in. Imagine how much you could accomplish if YOU told YOURSELF, “You can do it!” Look yourself in the mirror and say,

“I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and doggone it, people like me!”


(1) Clance, PR and O’Toole MA (1988). “The Imposter Phenomenon: An Internal Barrier To Empowerment and Achievement.” Women and Therapy.

This paper can be found here (PDF). It includes an “Imposter Phenomenon Quiz” which you can take if you really want to. The authors suggest that a person scoring 60 or above is suffering from Imposter Phenomenon. I scored 83. Clearly I still have some work to do!

18 thoughts on “I Really Am Good Enough and Smart Enough: Imposter Syndrome Part III

  1. Thanks for a great series of articles.

    I went through something like this during the first year or so of my PhD. I was on a very steep learning curve and just couldn’t get my first set of experiments to work, so I felt like I was a fraud who didn’t deserve to be there with all the real scientists. After a few months I confessed all to a fellow (male) student, who said with amazement that he felt the same way and thought it was just him! We both instantly started to feel better, especially as we started to get on top of things in our projects. Just hearing that someone else was going through the same thing really helped both of us.

    A few months later, an older student left, and passed on a book called “how to get a PhD” to me. Chapter 1 said that students often feel like a fraud in their first year, that they don’t deserve to be there. I showed this passage to my friend and we both had a good laugh about it.

    Things have been better since, especially as I was lucky enough to always have excellent supervisors who gave lots of positive reinforcement. Being aware of your imposter syndrome is a huge step, so good luck, and remember that the best thing you can do when someone praises you is to thank them and believe it!

  2. Thank you so much for writing these posts. My score was 81 and reading your posts the past few days have been so helpful in exactly the ways you point out today. I’m not the only one who feels like this!
    Many people have pointed out to me how thinking or acting this way is completely irrational but it never made a difference. Learning about this will hopefully make a difference. Thank you again!

  3. I scored a 71 and way out of grad school. Shoot. Although I’m a guy I thought I’d pass along some possible wisdom (it’s also possible crap that only applies to me). Be attentive to when you feel belittled or small. Feeling like an imposter needs to be gotten over but at the same time it may tell you something about what you should be doing. For me, that meant running from bench science and towards public health/science policy.

    As much as I liked bench science (there is nothing like the feeling of an assay that finally works out), it wasn’t for me. My ‘feeling small’ moments came in lab meetings or or conversations with people who are able to put together the most amazing string of scientific terminology (you know who they are; they know every possible pathway like the back of their hand) but with arguments that I didn’t think made any sense. I didn’t say anything because I feared that because I didn’t remember every possible connection to the MAPK/ERK pathway, I’d look like a fool. It took me a long time to realize that seeing above the weeds was a gift not a handicap and that maybe my talents would be better used elsewhere. Remember that people that are extremely talented at all aspects of science are extremely rare; you probably don’t even know any.

    It also helps to take those moments where you realize that you shouldn’t have felt stupid and turn them into being indignant instead of frustrated/down on yourself. Good luck, all.

  4. Thank you for these posts.
    I found them through a link from another site and can’t believe how accurately they describe how I have always felt.

    Having started a PhD in the last month, it is only this week that I have begun to feel like this again. It nearly stopped me from having the confidence to apply for PhD studentships at all. Now that I know there are other people out there who also feel this way I hope it’ll give me the confidence to work to the best of my ability without worrying all the time for the next four years.

    Again thank you, this has taken a massive weight off my mind.

  5. I hold this article very dear to my heart because until now I hadn’t realized that the way I felt about my accomplishments was actually something that should be fixed. I dimissed my achievements and thought nothing else of it.

    What makes me different from all of you is that I am a high school student. I have yet to experience the pressure of performing at the collegiate level. As a high school student, my peers and I are trying so hard to make ourselves look desirable to colleges. I always feel like I’m the one who is at the bottom of the pack.

    And recently this year I’ve been finding myself slipping in my schoolwork. I suppose this could be connected to my attitude or my intellectual capacity. At least it is a comfort to know that what I’m feeling is shared if not by my peers, but by other women as well.

  6. Here via ScienceCareers.org

    Thanks for writing this. Me and my (male) colleague have frequently shared stories about feeling like frauds during the course of our PhDs. I’ve always known that he’s not a fraud, and eventually, after successfully defending my thesis, I had to admit that I’m not a fraud either. Surprisingly, it was a frightening realization – there’s no excuses anymore.

  7. I’m a first year graduate student in a doctoral program in the midwest. It’s a large university, much larger than my undergraduate university, and although my undergrad was academically rigorous and many people failed out of the school because of its difficulty, the fact that this is such a large university intimidates me. I was rejected from 7 other schools, how do I know they didn’t have the right idea about me? Reading this made me realize that these feelings are normal and that the best thing I can do for myself is to stick it out and prove to myself that I CAN do this. On a scientific note, have they found this phenomenon in other fields, or is it primarily the sciences?

  8. I’m a 4th year PhD student, and I feel EXACTLY the same way (especially the cloning part..grrr!) and have ever since I started this degree.

    it started way before that, to be honest, but I never felt like I was stupid until I went to grad school for a PhD

    Thank you for these articles..it literally made my day to realize what I am feeling is quite common and I like what you suggested to change it (I am SOOO guilty of belittling my accomplishments and it wasn’t till I read this that I realized how bad that is for my self esteem).

  9. Check your email for a little article I published in 1975 called The Fictional Adult. IP precursor. Little read. Hard to find.
    Etc. A Review of General Semantics, 1974, v32, #3, 284-286

  10. I’m so glad your blog is floating around 4 years later. I was in graduate school with you (at least in time and spirit if not geographically) and just got my PhD in 2010. I was an outperformer as an engineering undergraduate and I won many accolades (and a lot of cash) as a graduate student in science. My resume makes me look like a superwoman with several principle authorships on cited papers in high-impact journals. And I currently have a good job. Why wouldn’t a top-tier university snatch me up for a tenure-track position?

    Yet I am terrified. When are “they” going to discover that running mathematical circles around my notoriously smart male classmates was accidental? If I get that tenure-track position one day, how many days will it take my colleagues to figure out I’m a dumb-ass?

    Now after reading your important 3-part blog, I feel like I have hope and it’s possible to learn how to deal with the discrepancy between my internal dialogue and reality. Thank you!!

  11. THANK YOU.

    Really, thank you SO SO much for this post. I need to lear how to say “thank you” when someone says something nice to me. I’m a chemistry PhD student and sometimes, when people ask, I wish I could say something that doesn’t sound as nerdy, so I don’t get those “wow you must me smart” comments that I don’t know how to respond to.

  12. First day of graduate school. . . so glad to have found this. Didn’t know there was a name for what I was feeling. Thank you!

  13. What I can do is send you scans of the three pages. email me at bobkathuds@suddenlink.net There was a followup piece presented as a paper at the General Semantics group meeting in St. Louis about 1976. I believe I called that “The Fictional Woman.” It has some relevance to the “Women can (can’t) have it all” debate going around since summer 2012 when Slaughter published her article in The Atlantic. I have found the handwritten paper I read in 1976 and am getting it typed in some way as to get it on the net and will let you know when that is done. Robert L. Hudson

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