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Academic Mental Health and Imposter Syndrome

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

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