Combating impostor syndrome in academia

The subject of impostor syndrome is of interest to many academics, but most of the discussion has focused on early career faculty (eg Craven, 2014). We recognize that feelings of sham can be problematic at any stage of a career. We also offer suggestions on how to deal with these feelings.

It’s the first day of school. You’ve reviewed your grades, your class list, and are excitedly awaiting your new students in a new classroom. You apply your name tag and check your reflection in the glass, but the name tag doesn’t say your name … “Hello, my name is: FRAUD”. Have you ever had this dream or a similar dream? Impostor syndrome (or more precisely the impostor phenomenon, since it does not refer to a clinical diagnosis), was first invented by Clance and Imes (1978) and usually occurs in individuals high achievers who perceive themselves to be less competent than others perceive them to be. This discrepancy causes anxiety and the fear of being “discovered” for being a “fraud”. This feeling is very prevalent and felt by up to 82% of people at some point in their life (Bravata et al, 2020). For a detailed description, we encourage you to read the review article by Sakulku and Alexander (2011).

Explore impostor syndrome

Certainly, early career professors know the feelings of impostor syndrome (Craven, 2014), but with the drastic changes in teaching and learning during the COVID-19 pandemic, we recognize that the feelings impostor can be problematic at any stage of life. career. The pandemic notwithstanding, as we move forward not only do our responsibilities change, but often the nagging comparison we engage in as well, making Impostor Syndrome a career-wrecking devastation that can rob the joy. of our hard-earned accomplishments. The sham can happen when we start a new role, a new course, adopt a new technology, or even when things aren’t new, but maybe our perceptions or feelings about teaching have changed. . To fight impostor syndrome, we need to better understand it. The authors of this article hope to present a useful framework for contextualizing and remedying the discomfort caused by this phenomenon.

The popular conversation around impostor syndrome often revolves around feelings of personal fault and ends there, but there is more to it. There are both internal and external factors related to feelings of impostor: internal factors include aspects such as personality characteristics that arise within the individual, while external factors provide social and environmental context. occurring outside of the individual, such as difficult students or even societal expectations. Both facets offer the opportunity to emerge a negative self-perception.

From a psychological point of view, much of the research has described this “syndrome” as a trait that is internal to the individual and, therefore, identifies causes that are also internal, such as personality characteristics. (eg perfectionism, type A) or attachment style. Social psychologists have also looked at the role of social context in generating and managing these feelings (see Feenstra et al., 2020 for a discussion of these two points). As such, the use of the term “impostor phenomenon” demonstrates a shift away from the individualization of these feelings in order to recognize their prevalent nature in the workplace – something professors may find oddly heartwarming.

While internal factors relate to who we are, external factors relate to the way things are. For example, feelings of impostor may be linked to societal forces; It is well documented that women and racialized groups experience higher rates of impostor feelings due to the pervasiveness of stereotypes and the subsequent discrimination they experience (Bravata et al., 2020). In this way, the external factors start from conditions at the macro level, which exist outside of the individual, reverberating downwards to produce the uncomfortable feeling that we are not up to the job. Other concrete examples might include institutional policies and workplace standards that create general conditions that lead to a general feeling of inadequacy.


Since the underlying causes or triggers for these impostor feelings are both internal and external, tackling these feelings must come from these two sources as well. Below, we’ve identified some suggestions you can try the next time you’re feeling overwhelmed by feeling like an impostor.

Internal antidotes
Addressing and / or modifying the cognitive distortions you have are the most effective ways to deal with the negative emotions associated with feelings of impostor. Looking at things that are objective and measurable (evaluation of your teaching by students, colleagues, or supervisors) can help remedy any bias you have about yourself. When you try to look at the situation objectively, you know that you are good at your job, that you were hired on the basis of your merit (both on paper and in a demonstration / teaching interview) and that you continue to be employed because you are good at what you do. Plus, worrying about being inadequate and being a good teacher means that you care about your students and their learning. By adopting this practice, you can reframe or think about your situation more logically than you are during an impostor “episode”.

Additionally, if you share your feelings with others, they will likely provide you with an external perspective on how you are viewed by others (e.g. competent) and tell you how they really see you (rather than how which you see yourself distorted). Alternatively, trying to help a coworker or friend overcome their own feelings of impostor can help you see the logical errors in your own thinking. Another approach is to make a realistic assessment of your own abilities, such as comparing your students’ ratings to a school-wide average or other benchmark, but you have to resist the urge. to compare yourself to others in all aspects of your profession, because everyone’s strengths are different. . We tend to focus on the strengths of others but highlight our own flaws, so changing our mindset can help us as well.

When doing tasks, focus on progress rather than perfection and try to shift the source of your self-esteem from your work to internal attributes (e.g., you are kind). Make sure to celebrate your successes and / or take them into account (for example, when someone gives you a compliment). Practicing gratitude, like being grateful for your successes and abilities, has benefits beyond just tackling feelings of impostor. Finally, taking care of yourself is important to everyone, so being kind to yourself can help with these feelings as well.

External antidotes
Combating the external factors associated with impostor syndrome, such as the culture of your workplace or the overall expectations of the company, is obviously a little more difficult because these aspects are much more difficult to control or influence. What many external factors contributing to impostor feelings often have in common is disconnection – from the subject, from students, from colleagues, from the institution, from society as a whole, or even from ourselves. When we experience disconnection, distance, or isolation from these elements, our own feelings of inadequacy can thrive unhindered. In post-secondary institutions, the pervasiveness of bureaucracy and / or corporatization serves to increase the distance and separation between members. In this sense, social integration and personal ties can have beneficial effects. For example, adopting aspects of an expressive leadership style, which emphasizes the well-being of the group through a more connected, personal and united approach, can address the disconnect that serves to perpetuate comparison. This more open leadership style can be adopted by faculty and other leaders who wish to foster a more collaborative, creative and comfortable work culture. Finally, it should be considered how alleviating the external contributors to impostor syndrome may be a by-product of maximizing existing institutional frameworks such as equity and accessibility. When faculty feel prepared and empowered to perform with the resources and support they need, they may be less likely to feel fraudulent at work.

Final remarks

While our attention has been limited to how instructors experience the feeling of being impostors, it would be helpful for us to remember that some of our students may experience these feelings as well, especially if they are black, native, or color (BIPOC), first. Generation College students, or LGBTQ + (see Bravata et al., 2020 for a discussion). Therefore, the suggestions we have provided may also be applicable to our students.

Morgan Chapman is Professor of Sociology at Durham College in Oshawa, Ontario, Canada. She holds a master’s degree in sociology and is particularly interested in the intersections of society, self, teaching and learning.
Lynne N. Kennette is Professor of Psychology and Research Coordinator at the School of Interdisciplinary Studies at Durham College in Oshawa, Ontario, Canada. She holds a PhD in Cognitive Psychology and is passionate about the scholarship of teaching and learning.

The references
Bravata, DM, Watts, SA, Keefer, AL, Madhusudhan, DK, Taylor, KT, Clark, DM, Nelson, RS, Cokley, KO, & Hagg, HK (2020a). Prevalence, predictors and treatment of impostor syndrome: a systematic review. Journal of General Internal Medicine, 35 (4), 1252-1275.

Clance, PR, & Imes, SA (1978). The phenomenon of the impostor in successful women: dynamics and therapeutic intervention. Psychotherapy: Theory, Research and Practice, 15 (3), 241-247.

Craven, JG (2014, September 16). Overcoming Impostor Syndrome: Tips for New Teachers. Focus of the faculty.

Feenstra, S., Begeny, CT, Ryan, MK, Rink, FA, Stoker, JI & Jordan, J. (2020), Contextualizing the impostor “syndrome”. Frontières en psychologie, 11, 575024. 2Ffpsyg.200.575024

Sadulku, J., & Alexander, J. (2011). The phenomenon of the impostor. International Journal of Behavioral Sciences, 6 (1), 75-97.

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