Impostor Experience

Many people working in high pressure fields have felt that they were inadequate and undeserving of their success at some point in their career. This feeling is particularly strong among people in STEM fields. In 1985, psychologist Dr. Gail Matthews of the Dominican College in California found that approximately 70% of all people have suffered from these thoughts of inadequacy at some point in their career. This phenomenon is commonly known as Impostor Experience, a term first coined in 1978 by psychology professor Pauline Rose Clance and psychotherapist Suzanne Imes.

Dr. Valerie Young defines Impostor Experience in the following way.

“Despite evidence of their abilities, many bright, capable people do not experience an inner sense of competence or success, believing instead that they have somehow managed to fool others into thinking they are smarter and more competent than they “know” themselves to be. People who feel like Imposters attribute their achievements to luck, charm, computer error, and other external factors. Unable to internalize or feel deserving of their success, they live with a deep sense of inauthenticity and the fear that they will be found out.”


Common impostor thoughts include:

“This is so much easier for everyone else.”

“It’s only a matter of time before I’m found out!”

“I forget everything I learn, while others don’t.”

Such thoughts not only affect confidence, but can lead to detrimental work habits such as holding yourself back from potential promotions, working excessive hours, or self-sabotage to explain a poor performance. Students in STEM fields are particularly prone to suffering from impostor experience for a number of reasons including working in isolation, researching unanswered questions, lacking immediate deadlines, working in a field where their race/gender/etc is underrepresented, or being the first in their family to attend graduate school. The impostor feelings developed as a student often do not fade until someone is well established in their career, if ever.

Luckily there are ways to cope with your own impostor syndrome and support those around you who may suffer from it. Acknowledging the existence of impostor syndrome and the extent to which it affects the people around you can be a powerful way to combat impostor feelings. Knowing that your peers have the same thoughts of inadequacy and accepting that this is a typical feeling can be very comforting. However, remember that unrealistic comparisons between your peers and yourself are not productive and can lead to stronger impostor feelings. Focus on your own positive achievements and redefine success to match your personal career path. If the impostor feelings start to affect your daily life, take some time for self care or consider seeking a support group or mentor.

Another useful tool to combat Imposter Experience is to keep an "achievement file / folder". As you go through your career, start adding evidence of accomplishments to that folder. It can be something as simple as an email saying "Good Job!". Examples you can include - amazing code you wrote, a paper you published, a HW problem you were particularly proud of, etc!. When imposter feelings start creeping up, you can use this folder to combat those thought by looking back at the all the positive evidence of things you accomplished. 

Impostor experience is ever present in academic settings, especially in a high-pressure environment like graduate programs. We can all help combat the effects of impostor syndrome by talking about how it is affecting ourselves or our peers/students, finding support in a mentor or peers, and becoming a mentor or supportive peer to someone else. Students at NMSU have access to free counseling through the NMSU Wellness Center

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