Dealing with the Imposter Syndrome

This blog is part of a series addressing issues further explored in GSA’s Pardee Session Women Rising: Removing Barriers and Achieving Parity in the Geosciences.  Attend the Women Rising session, 1:30 – 5:30 p.m.Monday, November 5, Sagamore Ballroom 5, Indianapolis Convention Center, Indianapolis, followed by a networking social, 5:30 – 7:00 p.m.

By Beth A. Johnson, Department of Geology, University of Wisconsin-Fox Valley, Menasha, WI 

When I was approached to write this blog, I was encouraged to choose a topic that I thought women in the geosciences would find important.  After some consideration, I thought, “The imposter syndrome!  Perfect!  I’ve certainly dealt with my fair share over the years!”  And now that I sit down to write this, I find my reactions to be all over the place, from procrastination to writers block to, “What on earth do I know about this?!  I’m no expert!  I was an idiot to choose this topic!”

But, as a colleague just pointed out to me, that reaction is kind of the point.

I am a Ph.D.-holding tenured associate professor.  The struggles that accompanied these accomplishments alone are certainly enough to make most people occasionally fall prey to their own insecurities.  However, there was a lot more that was going on along the way: major medical issues that threatened to derail my career, an advisor whose life was spiraling out of control, a mass shooting at my university….  My personal and academic lives were at times chaotic and the sensation that some important things slipped through the cracks was very real.  So, by the time I made it to the other side of the chaos, with my new Ph.D. in hand and an uncertain future ahead of me, there was a part of me that kept thinking, “But I feel like I know nothing!  Who’s going to want to hire me?”

It was a few years before I realized that these reactions were not unique to me alone.  It was my first real experience with the imposter syndrome.

The imposter syndrome was first described in 1978 in an article by Pauline R. Chance and Suzanne Imes titled “The Imposter Phenomenon in High Achieving Women: Dynamics and Therapeutic Intervention.”  In this study, they define it as an internal experience of “intellectual phoniness” and the authors’ original work focused on studying high-achieving academic women (Clance and Imes, 1978), though other researchers conducted subsequent research on other groups and genders.  In most cases, those who endured the imposter syndrome experienced the sense that they were frauds, that they must not fail, or that all their success came from luck or because they had managed to fool someone.  This feeling persisted in spite of their significant achievements, awards, academic degrees earned, etc.  Although the original study divided participants into two groups based on family history, with inadequacy feelings internalized based on family experiences and exacerbated by school or work, a recent article by Christine Liu states that toxic workplaces or academic environments may also be to blame.  According to Liu, instead of labeling feelings of inadequacy as a personal flaw, something that the individual must deal with, perhaps the fault lies with the culture of academic research, which encourages overwork and acceptance of under-compensation to prove that one is a “real scientist” (2018).

All of us who have gone through intense academic experiences such as graduate school come out of it experiencing a certain degree of the imposter syndrome.  For each person, the causes and experiences are different.  And even though I’ve been a full-time professor for nearly a decade now and have more skills and experience, I am still surprised when I’ve been thrust into a new situation and feel it rear its ugly head again.  At least I now recognize it for what it is, though I still suffer that annoyance of, “For crying out loud, not again!”

So, for those people experiencing those twinges of guilt for your success, I want you to remember the following:

  • You are not a fraud. You didn’t fool or charm someone to get where you are.  You worked hard for what you have achieved.  No one gave you your determination to keep working.  That is all you.
  • We all deal with a bit of the imposter syndrome when we first start out. Have faith in yourself and your abilities and keep moving forward.
  • You will likely deal with it from time to time throughout your career. That’s okay.  This just means you’ve stepped out of your comfort zone.  Succeeding in your task means you now have a bigger comfort zone.
  • You are a human being and human beings are not perfect. There is nothing wrong with that.  Don’t fixate on perfection and instead focus on doing a good job.
  • Take a critical look at the environment around you. What you are feeling may honestly have less to do with you and more to do with where you are.
  • Dealing with the imposter syndrome can be a lonely experience. By definition, sufferers are trying to hide perceived inadequacies from others.  Talk to people.  The relief one experiences when they realize they aren’t the only ones feeling this is profound.  Faculty advisors and mentors: talk to your students and researchers.  This will help them make a more successful transition from student to professional.

Author in Lake Superior
Beth A. Johnson, Ph.D. is an associate professor of geology at the University of Wisconsin-Fox Valley in Menasha, WI.  Her areas of interest include Quaternary Geology, Geoscience Education, History of Geology, and Women and Geology.  She is the editor and contributing author of the new GSA Memoir 214 Women and Geology: Who Are We, Where Have We Come From, and Where Are We Going?.

References:

Clance, P.R. & Imes, S. (1978).  The imposter phenomenon in high achieving women: Dynamics and therapeutic intervention.  Psychotherapy Theory, Research and Practice, 15, no. 3.

Liu, C. (2018).   Imposter syndrome isn’t the problem – toxic workplaces are.  Quartz at Work.  Accessed on July 26, 2018 from https://work.qz.com/1286549/imposter-syndrome-lets-toxic-work-culture-off-the-hook/

 

4 responses to “Dealing with the Imposter Syndrome

  1. It doesn’t matter how many times I read pieces like this. It doesn’t matter how many people share that they also feel impostor syndrome. It doesn’t matter where – grad school, post-doc, V.A.P. positions – all in different places. It doesn’t matter that I now finally have a legit, permanent job, seven years post-PhD.

    It’s still there. And I still feel out of my league. And I still feel like I’ll never meet expectations.

  2. Maybe you should read The war on women by Sue Lloyd-Roberts to end the imposter syndrome in you forever. It will make you angry enough. Possibly to realize that you have been told for many years that you are a defective human being. After all, you are a woman. And after all, it is wrong for a woman to have ambitions. At least, there are still many people who firmly believe that.

    But there is hope. Only very recently, we were not even allowed to attend university. We have several very promising trends of emancipation going on in the world right now.

    Personally, I have never encountered anyone with imposter syndrome but maybe hiding it is part of it?

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