Imposter syndrome in Academia

Imposter syndrome in Academia


hat is imposter syndrome?

Imposter syndrome was first described in the 1970s by Clance and Imes1, two clinical psychologists that interviewed 150 highly successful women who despite their impressive achievements and professional recognition, reported feeling to be impostors with no internal sense of success. They described this complex as the “impostor phenomenon”.

Imposter syndrome involves unfounded feelings of self-doubt and incompetence, where a person fears being ‘found out’ in their workplace or educational institution, despite his or hers education, experience and accomplishments2. “What am I doing here?”, “I’m not good enough” or “I don’t belong in this place” are common thoughts of people that suffer from the imposter syndrome.

This phenomenon can happen to anyone, but according to Brian Daniel Norton, a psychotherapist and adjunct professor at Columbia University, women, women of colour and the LGBTQ community are most at risk: “When you experience systemic oppression or are directly or indirectly told your whole life that you are less-than or underserving of success and you begin to achieve things in a way that goes against a long-standing narrative in the mind, imposter syndrome will occur”3.

Why would anyone want to see me again in a movie? And I don’t know how to act anyway, so why am I doing this?

Meryl Streep

 3-times Oscar winner, 2-times BAFTA winner and 9-times Golden Globe Awards winner

Imposter syndrome in academia, is the struggle real?

Multiple factors can trigger the imposter syndrome within you4, such as:

  • Competitive atmosphere where judgments are made on the basis of your merit;

  • Situations originated from your childhood like being pressured by your parents to do well in school, receiving harsh criticism from your mistakes or being constantly compared to other’s performance;

  • Certain personality traits such as being a person with perfectionistic tendencies.

Indeed, academia is full of high achievers who work in a competitive environment that takes very much into consideration what they have accomplished so far, and probably might be asked questions like: “how many publications do you have?”, “have you received any awards?”, “you don’t have any nature publications yet?”. This constant judgment and comparison with other academics may feel personal. It can often result in anxiety and self-doubt, and can lead to you downplaying your success or believing that whatever you do is never going to be good enough.


How to beat it?

If you feel yourself experiencing imposter syndrome, this is what you could do5,6:

Break the silence: be open about your feelings and recognise when they emerge. It’s important to talk to those close to you about your concerns to help you get a sense of perspective. You are likely to discover that you are not alone.

Seek support: there may be times when working in a pressurised environment may seem overwhelming, however it’s important to remember that you are not alone and there is always support available to help you to manage these feelings.

Stop comparing: focus on measuring your own achievements instead of holding them up against others’. Turn imposter syndrome on its head: remember that smart, high-achieving people most often deal with imposter syndrome. So, the very fact that you recognize it in yourself says a lot about you.

Remind yourself you’re good at what you do: document your achievements as you go along to challenge any feelings of inadequacy. Be proud of your accomplishments and learn to accept compliments from others.


[1] Clance, P. R., & Imes, S. A. (1978). The imposter phenomenon in high achieving women: Dynamics and therapeutic intervention. Psychotherapy: Theory, research & practice, 15(3), 241.






Marina Maia