Gas station without pumps

2014 July 12

Impostor syndrome

Filed under: Uncategorized — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 10:56

I know that many students feel at times like they aren’t capable of doing what they need to do to ace their classes, to graduate, to move on into the “real world” or higher up in academia. Sometimes they feel like they are just “faking” being smart, and that someone will catch them at it.

This is known as “impostor syndrome” and is quite common—Wikipedia even has a page explaining it.  People from underprivileged backgrounds or who have been socialized to think of themselves as somehow inferior suffer from it more than those who have been taught to be confident in what they do.  For example, women in physical and computational sciences often doubt themselves, even when the objective evidence is that they are quite capable.

Even tenured professors, who have passed through many tests of their resolve and ability, often suffer from impostor syndrome.  I suggest the following reading (all from a single author) for those who are wrestling with this problem (the author selected these posts herself from her larger body of work):

Maria Klawe, president of Harvey Mudd College, has a good, short article on her own experiences with impostor syndrome in Slate.  For a somewhat younger perspective, Alicia Liu’s article Overcoming Imposter Syndrome is worth reading.

Incidentally, there is a flip side to the problem, of students (often, but not exclusively, male students from privileged backgrounds) having too much confidence and not being aware when they are out of their depth, failing to ask for help when they need it.

Both problems can be tackled with the same approach: seeking outside verification of your abilities and paying attention to the feedback. This is easiest while being a student, as there are many formal mechanisms in place for honest feedback—it gets harder when you have to rely on the more random mechanisms of journal paper reviews and grant proposals or pats on the back from co-workers.

As a community, we can all help with both problems by providing honest feedback (neither ego strokes nor unwarranted criticism) when asked for it, and by asking for feedback ourselves.

For my part, I tend to see the negative both in my own work and in others’ work, and I am working on trying to increase the amount of positive feedback I give people.


  1. […] Gasstationwithoutpumps also has a post on the same topic today, with links to some good posts from Medium and Slate, as well as some of my old posts (from Academic Jungle: Underachieving; Beer, Fries, and Impostors; The Sucky and Awesome of Academia; from Xykademiqz: Potential and Ambition; Tenure Denials; You Got Tenure, Now What?; The Tenure Track, Illustrated). […]

    Pingback by Ride It Like You Stole It | xykademiqz — 2014 July 12 @ 18:12 | Reply

  2. I have seen that syndrome too many times (including the flip side of it) both in my work and outside of my work. But I did not know that it had a name! Thank you so much for that write-up and the extra links to the detail articles. I think “paying attention” to the feedback is key, and here I see many failing. And giving feedback is key too, and I believe (at least for myself) we are not seeking feedback enough. And you are very, very true about your last point on more positive feedback, this is something I need to do myself more often too. I have found out that in a feedback session the order of the feedback is very important: bring something positive at the beginning, then alternate what it is good, with what could be improved, then close with something which has been done well. That way the feedback is wrapped in a ‘positive’ wrapper. Starting with negative feedback, bringing some good and not so good things in the middle and closing the feedback with a negative statement makes a whole different thing.

    Comment by Erich Styger — 2014 July 12 @ 23:08 | Reply

    • I have particular problems with “positive wrapper” approach—the problems clamor for attention and the positive stuff takes concentrated effort to pull out. If I’m giving written feedback, I can add positive stuff to the beginning of the feedback at the end of my writing, but in verbal feedback I have to provide the feedback as it comes to me, as I don’t have a big enough short-term memory to hold it all in while I search for positive things to say.

      Comment by gasstationwithoutpumps — 2014 July 13 @ 07:06 | Reply

  3. […] I also feel like a hypocrite: I always talk about the ways to fight the impostor syndrome or make it work for you and whatnot. But this only […]

    Pingback by Acute Impostor Syndrome | xykademiqz — 2015 November 7 @ 22:45 | Reply

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