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Learning about academic mental health

Over the past year I have been volunteering with Dragonfly Mental Health, an organisation working to improve mental health in academia through research, education and community building. Much like 500 Women Scientists, their goal is to change the culture within academia to produce a healthier, more stable environment where all kinds of people can flourish.

As an ambassador for Dragonfly I have been learning about the mental health issues most commonly affecting academics. Recently I had the chance to speak with the team developing Dragonfly’s workshop on impostor syndrome. This discussion made me rethink issues like self confidence, self doubt and the sense of belonging, which are often topics we discuss when talking about problems to do with gender imbalance in STEM and the leaky pipeline.

Please remember that this is a blog about my learning experience, not medical advice, a scientific article or the official view of Dragonfly Mental Health. If you also find this topic interesting you can reach out to us on twitter @DragonflyMH or by email (

What is(n’t) Impostor Syndrome?

Most of us have probably heard of impostor syndrome during our careers: the phenomenon of successful, high achieving people (often women) who are unable to appreciate or believe their own success. [2] describes it as:

Impostor Syndrome Describes high-achieving individuals who, despite their objective successes, fail to internalize their accomplishments and have persistent self-doubt and fear of being exposed as a fraud or impostor.

This can include:

  • Feeling that a grade, degree, publication, job or honour wasn’t really deserved

  • Feeling that most or all colleagues are more knowledgeable and competent than oneself

  • Feeling shame over struggling or lacking knowledge and experience

  • A fear of being discovered as a fraud and losing one's work, reputation and security.

Researcher Pauline Rose Clance has developed an Impostor Phenomenon questionnaire [1] to help people assess whether and to what extent they may have impostor feelings. Participants rate on a scale of 1 (not at all true) to 5 (very true) how much they agree with statements about recognising achievements and fitting into their workplace, such as

  • I have often succeeded on a test or task even though I was afraid that I would not do well before I undertook the task.

  • It’s hard for me to accept compliments or praise about my intelligence or accomplishments.

  • I’m afraid people important to me may find out that I’m not as capable as they think I am.

  • I avoid evaluations if possible and have a dread of others evaluating me.

By learning more about what Impostor Syndrome is, I also learned what it is not:

  • It is not a syndrome! It is not a medically recognised psychological condition. For this reason and others which I will outline below, many people do not use the common name “Impostor Syndrome” but rather “Impostor Phenomenon” or “Impostor Experience”. I will use both of these names in the rest of this post.

  • It is not the same as humility! Understanding that nobody is perfect and recognising our own gaps in knowledge and experience is generally a good thing. Feeling scared or overwhelmed about our perceived deficiencies and being unable to recognise our strengths is a different experience.

  • It should not be Business As Usual! It’s time for all of us to recognise the impact that the Impostor Phenomenon can have on someone’s life and career, and take it seriously.

Image courtesy: Pinterest

Do we all suffer from it? How can we not?

One thing that makes impostor experience tricky to talk about is that a lot of the symptoms are severe versions of feelings that most people experience. This leads to the idea that impostor experience is the same as humility or uncertainty, and even the idea that there’s something strange about the people who don’t identify with it (I don’t support this line of thinking, as I want to believe that there is a happy medium between distress and overconfidence!). So how many of us do have it? Is it normal?

According to [2], due to different screening tools and cutoffs for assessment used, impostor experience is found to affect between 9% and 82% of the population. One study [3] found that it affected between 22% and 60% of physicians in training, one of the more commonly studied groups when it comes to Impostor Experience. Even with this lack of precise data, there are a few things we know:

  • It is common across all genders, ages and career stages.

  • It often co-occurs with depression, anxiety and burnout.

  • There are no published studies evaluating treatment of Impostor Experience as a standalone issue independent of a mood disorder.

This last point may seem bleak: is there no way out of the impostor experience? Luckily there are tools at our disposal, including:

  • Learning to recognise and accept impostor feelings

  • Not comparing our successes with those of others

  • Replacing the mindset of perfectionism with one of sufficiency

  • Actively practising self acceptance and kindness

  • Treating any underlying depression, anxiety or burnout, which may include…

  • Psychotherapy.

Impostor experience and marginalisation

Something that might stand out about the list of treatments above is that they are all centered around the individual and focus inwards. But can an individual approach to the Impostor Phenomenon be sufficient, when many of the feelings described in the Clance test, such as

  • I sometimes think I obtained my present position or gained my present success because I happened to be in the right place at the right time or knew the right people.

  • It’s hard for me to accept compliments or praise about my intelligence or accomplishments.

  • At times, I feel my success has been due to some kind of luck.

  • I’m disappointed at times in my present accomplishments and think I should have accomplished much more.

Could also be caused by the way we are treated in our workplace?

We came up with several examples of how academics might be quite explicitly told that they are not as competent as their colleagues or have not earned their position. This is often a consequence of systemic discrimination (such as racism, sexism or classism) in STEM and broader culture, and a belief that only certain kinds of people are suited to research work.

  • A misunderstanding of hiring policies and quotas has led to the idea of the “diversity hire”. Many marginalised academics have been told (wrongly!) that they didn’t really earn their position but got it because their institute needed a woman, person of colour or disabled person on their staff.

  • Many academics who are parents are told that they are less committed and hard-working than non-parents if they need to take parental leave or adjust their timetable to meet the needs of their family. Some parents (especially mothers) are also made to feel that they do not belong in academia because they should be putting *more* of their time and energy into child-rearing, not research. Either way, parents are being told that they do not fit in and cannot really perform at the same level as childless colleagues.

  • More generally, anyone who cannot or doesn't want to devote their entire being to their work can be made to feel that they don’t take academia seriously enough and therefore don’t deserve their place in it.

  • Students and researchers from non-academic family backgrounds often fall victim to the “hidden curriculum” of social norms, language and knowledge which are useful in navigating academia but are not explicitly taught or discussed. This can mean that they feel less intelligent or lacking in subject knowledge when they are really lacking in very specific social knowledge.

We concluded that cultural change has to be part of the discussion around Impostor Experience, and we encourage everyone to help by:

  • Talking openly about self doubt with colleagues and students.

  • Challenging perfectionism and unnecessary competitive behaviour in ourselves and others.

  • Raising awareness of, and challenging, discrimination including microaggressions.

  • Helping to eliminate the hidden curriculum by sharing resources and knowledge and respecting different language, cultural and class backgrounds.

I know of course that 500 Women Scientists are already engaged in this work! If you want to join me in learning more about impostor experience and other mental health issues in academia, get in touch with Dragonfly on social media or by email.

References & Resources

Provided by Dragonfly

Dr. Lucia Rotheray (@LRotheray)

Mathematician, Content Contributor

One year after giving birth to my child, I went to my regular gynaecological check up. My doctor, a 70 year old who (to my good luck) refuses to retire, was in a good mood and did some small talk. She asked me how things were going. I said that it was a particularly stressful time, applying for new jobs, etc. She told me "with a baby and your career, it is really hard, especially in Switzerland". I said "yes, I am particularly tired of being questioned for working 100% by so many people!" "Aha, of course… you are a Rabenmutter!", she smiled ironically. Given my surprise face, she immediately continued: "it is a disrespectful way of saying you are a bad mother for not being with your children all day". Then she continued telling me that when she studied medicine, there were actually several female students, but later they ended up working as assistants in their husbands’ praxis, to be able to work part time and take care of the kids. After graduating, my doctor moved and worked many years in the US. "There the problem was different. Since medical school is so expensive there, the fathers directly refused to pay for a medical career for their daughters, since they were anyway going to give up their professions once they got married". My horror face needed no words of clarification.

A couple of Dohlen (from the Raben family) flying around the Jungfraujoch. Photo credits: Julia Venturini.

Friends had warned me about the difference of treatment between my partner and me once the baby came, but I did not expect it to be so widespread. A friend told me "you will see, for example, how he will be praised when he brings the kid to the playground (what a great daddy!), and no one will ever praise you". But I did not expect the generalised "How come you work 100%?!" from so many people, like extended family of my partner, former colleagues, doctors (except my gynaecologist), hairdressers… Even when my kid was not a baby anymore.

You might be wondering "why do you get so pissed about that question?". To me, behind that "innocent" question, several social beliefs and prejudices are hidden. Let’s go by parts into those hidden "premises".

Premise #1. It assumes that if a child grows up in a family where both parents work full time, not all the needs of the kid will be satisfied. In such a family, clearly someone beyond the parents must help with the care duties. This is apparently bad for children.

Premise #2. Since a reduction from working full time is needed to raise a kid properly (because premise #1 is true), then by asking the question only to the mother, the assumption is that it is the mother who has to spend more time with the kid. It’s this deep belief that kids need the mother more, or that kids "belong" to the mother.

And there is an even more subtle premise assumed when questioning the mother for not working part time. It is assumed that a mother can always reduce her workload. And which are the professions that allow for a reduction in the working percentage? You will tell me: in Switzerland, many! teacher, medical assistant, secretary, sales person, etc. They all have something in common: they are typically not the professions that enjoy the highest social status, which is equal to say: they are not the best paid jobs. So the innocent question is also implying premise #3: that is the woman who should quit her aspiration to a position of high social status (and power).

I will analyse one by one these three premises, giving my perspective of why they are not correct.

Premise #1.

It’s true, all kids need their parents. Nobody is questioning that. But do kids need to be with their parents (or one of them) all the time? Is there some data backing that up?

I am not a social scientist, but I highly doubt that kids raised in France (a country where childcare from the baby stage is much more generalised than in Switzerland) love less their parents than in Switzerland. Or that they have on average more problems as adults than kids raised in Switzerland. Premise #1 tends to hide the belief that by using child care facilities, parents are "giving away their kids all day to strangers'' (I have heard this). As if Kita workers were some sort of monster. The truth is, they know much more about kids and child development than most of us, they studied and have experience with children. They care about them and teach them to do things I would be completely unable to do myself if I kept my kid home with me. The kids know them well because they see them every day, and the Kita is also the place where the kids make their first friends, learn to play with them and to share. They are not with strangers, they are with their friends and caregivers. And a kid does not go "all day" to the day-care. You are still the parent! You are still responsible for their well being. You are still there when they need you, and that is what matters to them.

Once, before getting pregnant, I was having doubts if I was going to manage with a baby with my career. A secretary where I was working at that time told me something that I always remember: "what kids need from their parents is quality time. If you are all day around them but you are busy cleaning or doing something else, that doesn’t count for them. If you can delegate or share that, find time to play, to read a story, to take them for a trip… that is what matters." I think it’s true.

And let’s be honest. Of course we all parents love our children. Nothing makes us happier than that tight hug they give us when you pick them up at school. Nothing amazes you more than seeing them grow with all their out-of-the-box thoughts and reasonings. But kids are also really hard. They are constantly demanding, they get annoyed, they get injured. They sleep bad at night. They cry. A lot. They defy your limits. They overpass your patience… The truth is, it is really exhausting to be with them all day, especially when they are small. I noticed during the pandemic that I am a much more loving mother when I have my time to go to work and see my kid afterwards, compared to when I was with her all day.

Actually, the end of my gynaecological visit (which started this post) was my doctor saying "I never stopped working and I raised three children. I think if I had stayed home all day my children would hate me!". I laughed loud: "I think the same, my daughter would hate me too!".

In the end, why would it be better for a kid to be all day with a parent? Who demonstrated that?

Premise #2.

I did not realise until getting the famous question of "how come you work 100%?!" that most mothers in Switzerland work part time (when they are not directly housewives).

In the case of the family member who asked me, I felt very tempted to reply "why don’t you ask the same question to the father?". But I did not want to start a family argument at that time.

I think it is crucial to realise that childcare does not have a gender. It’s true, it’s the woman who gets pregnant and the one who breastfeeds. That is very demanding, but it lasts about one, or one and half years, and it is by far not the only duty related to childcare! Kids also need someone changing diapers, bathing them, comforting them when they cry, setting limits, putting them to bed, preparing food when they start eating solids, getting them new clothes, etc. None of these tasks are a "mommy" job, nothing prevents a father from doing them (that is, by the way, being a father!). Any role we assign to those tasks is cultural. It is essential to acknowledge that if we want things to change.

It is also crucial to admit how deeply influenced we are from our own role models. We might unconsciously believe that those tasks "belong" to the mother just because our mother did that. A personal anecdote related to this: during the last visit of my mother, when my partner stood up with our kid in arms from the table in the restaurant we were, to tell me "I go to change her diapers", my mother looked at me with an amazed face and claimed "he is a mother!". I said with a very pissed off look "no mom, he is a father".

We do not have to forget that "stereotypes" are not "nature", and we do not have to lose scope of how psychology and its role models tricks us all the time, making us repeat the same schemes with which we were nourished, unless we do the conscious exercise of questioning those roles and discussing them with our partner all the time.

I must admit that the constant famous question made me question myself if I was doing things right by not asking for an extended period of unpaid maternity leave, or by reducing my workload. And this considering that I did not grow up in a country where mothers are at home and in a society that bombards you with the tacit motto "kids need their mothers at home". No, I grew up in a house where my mother was not working 100%, but 150% because she was a single mom of two. Also, in my home country, most women work because salaries are very low and everyone needs to work, and working part time is rarely an option.

If the single famous question affected me (because I felt judged), how can it not affect a person that grew up here? It looks nearly impossible to me to go against that if you were bred like that. And then I remember how tired I am of seeing Swiss young women dropping out of academia after obtaining their PhDs, because they want to start a family and see no way to cope with family and work. Coping is possible with the right partner! But one has to let all social judgments slipper like rain droplets against the window, and that is not easy. And one has to always question the stereotypes. That’s also not easy, and we all have them.

I have seen even among progressive people I know, how the woman ends up not working or working very little when the couple opts for kids. Many factors enter into this uneven decision: maternity leave is too short for a reasonable time of breastfeeding. The father already earns more. Kitas are terribly expensive. In school, kids must go back home for lunch. You put this together with the brain washing motto of "kids need their mothers at home" and you end up with the current Swiss society.

The problem is, things will not change if women continue giving up their professions to comply with these social mandates. Maternity leave will not be extended if women continue stopping to work after giving birth. Childcare and school system will not change if change is not demanded by the majority.

Premise #3.

A permanent position in academia is one of those jobs that are scarce and highly coveted, and hence, the competition is fierce. Hence, if you work part time when you are competing for one of those positions, the chances that you make it, get reduced, because another hundred people continued working full time and will have more credentials than you. I can imagine a similar situation for becoming manager or director in a prestigious company. And even once you get the so desired "top" position, I also see it very hard to reduce the workload, because of all the compromises, and all the people that depend on your decisions on a daily basis.

Bottom line: when climbing the ladder in a high status profession, with a high degree of decision making, it is really difficult not to work full time. So the real question is: why should it be the women who gives up the aspiration to these positions?

At the end, history and social studies have demonstrated that the lack of women in those positions has harmed dramatically the life of women world-wide, because for example, when there are no women in the decision making, medical research does not focus on diseases affecting only women, cars are not designed for women (and hence women die more often in car accidents), musical instruments are not made for women sizes (and hence chronic diseases like tendinitis are more common in women), and a long list of astonishing etcetera that you can dig in by reading the game changer book Invisible Women from Caroline Criado Perez.

In addition, 51% of university students in Switzerland nowadays are women. Numbers do not change much when looking at the percentage of doctoral students. Will we keep locking up all that talent and preparation inside the four walls of domestic life? This is even silly when thinking only from the country-level economical perspective.

But beyond the economy, and more important to me, it’s us: women that have strived so hard to be where we are and that also want to raise happy and healthy children. Who dares to tell us that our efforts were in vain? Who dares to tell us that we can’t?

Dr. Julia Venturini


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