SAGE Musings: Impostor Syndrome

Carol Ormand, SERC, Carleton College
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published Oct 17, 2019 9:13am

The Impostor Syndrome: that persistent, pernicious feeling that you aren't really qualified for the position you find yourself in -- that sooner or later, someone is going to find out that you are a "fraud" (e.g., see references). Originally described as a phenomenon affecting high-achieving women (Clance and Imes, 1978), the impostor "syndrome" is now widely recognized as affecting men in equal numbers (Laursen, 2008). Although I've been unable to find a reference describing how prevalent the impostor phenomenon is in STEM, it appears to be fairly common, prompting one Engineering professor to write a short article entitled "Impostors Everywhere" (Felder, 1988). In any case, it affects both faculty members and students (e.g. Felder, 1988; Laursen, 2008; Campbell, 2019). Fortunately, there are effective strategies for addressing and overcoming these feelings.


Which of these sound uncomfortably familiar to you? All are associated with the impostor phenomenon.

  • Self-doubt; fear of being found out (Campbell, 2019)
    • Anxiety; depression (Weir, 2013)
  • Feeling uncomfortable receiving praise (Campbell, 2019)
  • Attributing [your own] success to factors other than competence, such as luck or personal connections (Campbell, 2019)
    • While simultaneously attributing peers' successes to skill (Laursen, 2008)
  • Working harder than necessary ("over-preparing") in an attempt to make up for one's self-perceived inadequacies (Weir, 2013; Campbell, 2019)
  • Procrastinating (Weir, 2013; Campbell, 2019)


  • Become consciously aware of the impostor phenomenon (Campbell, 2019)
  • Consider context. Are you in a situation where you are required to learn new information or skills? If so, of course you aren't an expert, yet (Weir, 2013; Campbell, 2019)
  • Find ways to assess your performance more accurately (Laursen, 2008)
    • Keep a written record of compliments and praise for your work (Clance and Imes, 1978; Laursen, 2008)
    • Re-examine your "failures": how many were because of circumstances beyond your control? (Laursen, 2008)
    • Remember what you're good at; consider writing a list of your strengths (Weir, 2013)
  • Challenge your thinking (Weir, 2013).
    • Change how you think about your successes; if you find yourself attributing success to luck, re-examine your interpretation
    • Catch yourself when you over-prepare and/or procrastinate
  • Foster a culture that acknowledges that nobody can know everything, and feeling like an impostor is normal for anyone pushing the boundaries of knowledge (Campbell, 2019)
    • Talk about it: with your peers, with a trusted mentor or mentors, with your students and/or advisees (Weir, 2013). Kudos to Kristie for doing exactly this at the recent Geological Society of America meeting, in her talk on Overcoming the Imposter Experience


Lately I've been wondering about whether feeling like an impostor is a natural consequence of the Dunning-Kruger Effect: paradoxically, as we develop expertise in a field of study, we become increasingly aware of the limits of our knowledge. Our confidence decreases even as our competence increases. In addition, I think it is not uncommon in both academia and STEM for our situation to change in ways that evoke feelings of inadequacy. In academia, we are often put into positions for which we aren't prepared or trained in any way: ask any department chair what kind of job training they've received for that position. In geoscience, the tools of the trade - the technology we use to do our work - change rapidly, and the rate of technological change is increasing. In STEM education, our student population changes over time, the technology and methods we use to teach is changing, and the science we teach about is changing. If you feel like you can't keep up with all of that, you're definitely not alone.

My final thought on this topic, for the moment, is to ask you to think about what we can do, individually and collectively, to dismantle the impostor phenomenon. I hope that as faculty Change Agents, you give yourselves credit -- rather than feeling like a fraud -- for taking on new challenges and new roles, in your classrooms, in your departments, and on your campuses. I hope you also recognize situations where your students may be susceptible to feelings of inadequacy, and offer them perspective and support. This could be anything from gathering scientific data to thinking about transfer to a 4YCU. Naming the impostor phenomenon, normalizing it, for ourselves and for others, is a powerful step in the right direction. Can we go further? Can we work to eliminate it? What would that look like?


Campbell, Molly (2019). Feeling Like a Fraud: Impostor Syndrome in STEM. Retrieved October 14, 2019, from

Clance, Pauline Rose and Suzanne Ament Imes (1978). The Impostor Phenomenon in High Achieving Women: Dynamics and Therapeutic Intervention. Psychotherapy: Theory, Research, and Practice, v. 15, n. 3, pp. 241-247.

Clance, Pauline Rose (1985). The Impostor Phenomenon: When Success Makes You Feel Like a Fake. Bantam Books (Toronto).

Felder, Richard (1988). Imposters Everywhere: Chemical Engineering Education, v. 22, n. 4, pp. 168–169. Retrieved October 14, 2019, from

Laursen, Lucas (2008). No, You're Not an Impostor: Science Magazine. Retrieved October 14, 2019, from

Weir, Kirsten (2013). Feel like a fraud?: gradPSYCH, v. 11, n. 4, p. 24. Retrieved October 14, 2019, from

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