Impostor Phenomenon

So, fall semester is officially over!  My quantum mechanics final was ridiculously difficult, but it’s behind me and I am trying to put it out of my mind and just relax (trying being the operative word).  Still, it feels like the work never ends; now that school is out I have to concentrate on applying for the Goldwater Scholarship and on filling out my summer research applications.  Such is the life of an undergraduate! I’ll probably be wishing for this when I’m in grad school.

Today’s post feels particularly relevant in light of my post-quantum final feelings of inadequacy:  it’s about something called Impostor Phenomenon (also called Impostor Syndrome), which is characterized by extreme feelings of inadequacy in one’s field, despite having achieved significant successes.  It is the feeling of not belonging, feeling as if one doesn’t measure up to others and isn’t qualified to be where they are.  An “impostor” might feel like they don’t deserve the success they have.  They are more likely to believe that they were awarded a grant or got a paper published because they were lucky, not because they earned it.  These feelings of self-doubt and an inability to believe in one’s abilities can occur in women and men, although it is particularly prevalent among women in male-dominated fields.  In the article “Unmasking the Impostor”, Catherine Cardelus, an assistant professor at Colgate University, was quoted as saying, “I’m a high achiever and I’m successful, but I’ve had those moments of waiting for someone to tap me on the shoulder and tell me I don’t belong.  Or to tell me I was really lucky to get that paper in that journal.”  A blog post on geekfeminism.com tells about a computer science lab teacher who had a female rate herself extremely low for a group project, saying that she felt she didn’t have the same skill set and didn’t contribute enough to the project, even though the male members of her group rated her highly.

In the case of Impostor Phenomenon, you are the only one holding you back.  Feelings of self doubt and of not belonging can be hard to combat.  In “Unmasking the Impostor,” Cardelus gives some tips for beating Impostor Phenomenon.  She points out the importance of a supportive and understanding adviser/mentor, and of having a support system that can help reassure you when you have impostor feelings.  It is important to remind yourself of all your strengths, positive qualities, and accomplishments (making a list is always a good idea).  In addition we need to recognize and accept that we can’t always be perfect.

I think this issue is something that students should especially be aware of.  As we move forward in our career paths, there will certainly be times when we doubt our abilities and talk ourselves down for not being perfect.  But we need to accept that we have worked hard and deserve the success we’ve achieved as to not hold ourselves back from accomplishing all that we are capable of.

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4 thoughts on “Impostor Phenomenon

  1. Pingback: Self Confidence! « Physicist/Feminist

  2. I’ve heard of the impostor phenomenon. In fact, I heard of it in the context of top CEOs and leaders of industry, etc. It can be really tough to feel secure with your abilities in a field full of so many intelligent and creative minds.

    I have definitely felt this way, but here’s another factor I like to think about. Sometimes half the work is initiative; you have to put your brain to use! So instead of questioning how you managed to get here, be proud that you pushed yourself this far. Of course easier said than done!

    Great blog, I will be visiting often.

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