Impostor Phenomenon and Graduate Students

DisguiseIt is not uncommon for graduate students to question their competencies, abilities, and accomplishments in the areas of research and teaching. In other words, many graduate students feel like impostors in academia. This Centre for Teaching Excellence teaching tip provides information about the impostor phenomenon, as well as how to manage feelings of impostorship.

The impostor phenomenon

According to Joan Harvey, the impostor phenomenon (IP) is a “psychological syndrome or pattern. It is based on intense, secret feelings of fraudulence in the face of success and achievement. If you suffer from the impostor phenomenon, you believe that you don’t deserve your success; you’re a phony who has somehow ‘gotten away with it.’” (Harvey, 1984, p. 3). “Syndrome” may be too strong a term, but many of us experience these feelings with varying strengths and frequencies.

Feelings associated with the IP:

  • Feelings of phoniness and self-doubt (“I am not as smart as they think.”)
  • Fear of being “found out” (“It’s only a matter of time before people realize I don’t belong here.”)
  • Difficulty taking credit for one’s accomplishments (“I don’t deserve to win this award.”)
  • Frustration with inability to meet self-set standards (“I’ll never be as good as I want to be, so why bother trying?”)
  • Lack of confidence, fear of making mistakes (“I don’t think I have what it takes to be a scholar.”)

Impacts of the IP on graduate students:

As instructors

  • Less accessible to students
  • Unable to motivate students
  • Not comfortable acting as a role model or mentor to students

As researchers

  • Conduct less research
  • Less willing to present at conferences or publish

As future faculty members

  • Unwilling to attend departmental functions and events
  • Reluctant to serve on departmental committees
  • Avoid socializing with peers and faculty members

Academic transitions that might lead to impostor feelings:

  • Masters student = PhD candidate
  • Teaching assistant = Novice instructor
  • PhD candidate = Junior faculty
  • Graduate student = Expert in your field

Strategies for managing the IP Feelings:

Strategy Description
Break the silence Speak out about your feelings. Knowing there is a name for these feelings and that other people suffer from them can be very reassuring.
Separate feelings from fact Everyone feels stupid from time to time. Just because you feel it doesn’t mean you are.
Recognize when it’s normal to feel fraudulent When something is new to you, you may feel like you don’t fit in. These feelings are natural response for any novice.
Accentuate the positive Don’t obsess over everything. Do a great job when it is important, don’t persevere over routine tasks.
Develop a new response to failure and mistake making Learn from your mistakes and move on. Don’t dwell on what has happened in the past.
Right the rules Don’t feel like you always need to know the correct answer. Recognize that you have just as much right as the next person to make a mistake or ask for help.
Develop a new script Rewrite your mental script from “I am an impostor” to “I may not know all the answers but I am smart enough to figure it out.”
Visualize success Instead of thinking of worst case scenarios, imagine yourself conducting an excellent presentation or answering questions with the correct reply.
Reward yourself Learn to pat yourself on the back when you deserve it. Don’t hide from validation!
Fake it ‘til you make it Take a chance and “wing it;” this is not a sign of ineptness, but rather a sign that you are intelligent and able to rise to a challenge.

If you want to discuss your personal or educational concerns with a trained professional, contact Waterloo Counseling Services to schedule a confidential meeting. If you want to discuss IP feelings with other graduate students, check out the online forums on the Chronicle of Higher Education.

Selected resources:

  • Brems, C., Baldwin, M.R., Davis, L. & Namyniuk, L. (1994). The Imposter Syndrome as Related to Teaching Evaluations and Advising Relationships of University Faculty Members. Journal of Higher Education. Vol. 65 (2): 183-193.
  • Clance, P.R. & Imes, S. (1978). The Imposter Phenomenon in High Achieving Women: Dynamics and Therapeutic Intervention. Psychotherapy Theory, Research and Practice. Vol. 15 (3).
  • Harvey, J.C. & Katz, C. (1984). If I’m So Successful, Why do I Feel Like A Fake? Random House: New York.
  • Turman, P.D. (2001). ‘I’m Fooling Them All:’ The Examination of the Imposter Phenomenon in the Undergraduate
  • Instructor Assistant Experience. Journal of Graduate Teaching Assistant Development. 8 (3): 123-131.
  • The Imposter Syndrome website.