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There’s no denying that our doctoral students are high achievers. The time, effort, and cost of a doctoral degree require high levels of commitment, work, and time on task. Yet, when we read the latest social media posts by doctoral students on Facebook and Twitter, we see a lot of students posting about how they are afraid they may not be good enough or smart enough to finish the degree. Some go as far as to say that they don’t belong there or may be fooling their families, co-workers and even themselves into thinking that they can every attain that high honor of earning a doctorate unless it’s by some fluke or luck or that they must make a much greater effort than their classmates. Others question whether their background or upbringing have prepared them for this level of academia, and the worst fear of all is that they be opening themselves up to being discovered as someone who doesn’t belong.
These students are describing the psychological phenomenon called Imposter Syndrome, but few realize that there is a name for what they’re experiencing, or even that others have the same fears and self-doubts that they deal with almost every day. That discovery may be particularly important for women, people of color, and first-generation college students because all those groups are particularly prone to this phenomenon (Hermann, 2016). The term imposter syndrome was first coined in 1978 by therapists Clance and Imes when describing high-achieving women who attended their therapy sessions. These women were highly successful in their careers but didn’t really own their success, contributing it instead to outside influences, others, or luck. Imposter Syndrome has more recently become commonly used to describe graduate students who are afraid they don’t have the background or ability to succeed and are afraid of being found out as frauds (Blake-Hedges, 2018).
In her book The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women: Why Capable People Suffer From the Imposter Syndrome and How to Thrive in Spite of It, Young (2011) says there are five types of imposter syndrome: perfectionist, superwoman/man, natural genius, soloist, and expert. Speaking of her own experiences with imposter syndrome, Young reported that she first experienced it when she was a freshman at a prestigious university where her mother was a night janitor. During our ongoing research, we are finding doctoral students who have expressed each of these types of imposter syndrome in their social media posts. Though still in the early data collection and analysis phases, it seems clear that the underlying tone of imposter syndrome among doctoral students is that they must become more expert than others in order to earn the degree and that they may not be worthy of it once earned.
Comments such as “I never really felt good enough my whole life,” “my self-confidence issues and imposter syndrome may inhibit my work on a doctoral study,” and "we (graduate students) are all overworked, underpaid and stressed out perfectionists with imposter syndrome,” help explain how doctoral students view themselves in this role that may for many of them be a first generational experience with little or no support from their immediate families and friends. “I’m worried about being discovered as a fraud, “ is a frequently occurring comment.
Our research to date is revealing that doctoral students may overcome this high degree of fear and anxiety over being ‘found out’ by creating their own support networks and accept help and support available as one student suggested in her Twitter post: “The way I overcome imposter syndrome whilst doing my PhD is to stop and think: ‘I have a team of world expert supervisors who are supporting my project and my ideas - even if I don't have faith in myself, I have faith in them’.”
As we complete this research, we will be seeking more information on how to assist our doctoral students that may be experiencing imposter syndrome to overcome it, to not be afraid to take changes, and to realize that feedback is not personal and success is not only within reach but something that each student deserves.
CEITR members and College of Doctoral Studies associate faculty, Drs. Karen Johnson, Mary ‘Mimi’ Stout and Michelle Susberry Hill, are currently researching the Imposter Syndrome phenomenon among doctoral students and will share more information in upcoming blogs.
Blake-Hedges, C. (2018). We’re all frauds: managing imposter syndrome in grad school. American Society of Cell Biology. Retrieved from https://www.ascb.org/careers/frauds-managing-imposter-syndrome-grad-school/
Hermann, R. (2016). Impostor syndrome is definitely a thing. Chronicle of Higher Education. https://www.chronicle.com/article/Impostor-Syndrome-Is/238418
Young, V. (2011). The secret thoughts of successful women: Why capable people suffer from the imposter syndrome and how to thrive in spite of it. Crown Business: New York.