NEW YORK CITY—Impostor syndrome—the feeling that you've somehow tricked people into thinking that you're competent, while believing that your success is the result of luck and others overlooking your flaws—is a widely reported phenomenon in academia, especially in graduate school, and is believed to play an important part in some women's decision to abandon academic careers. Assistance from a high-quality mentor, on the other hand, is often touted as an unassailably positive factor, encouraging women to complete their degrees and emulate their mentors.
A study presented last month at the annual meeting of the American Sociological Association in New York City affirms the importance of impostor syndrome—also called impostorism—in science careers. But the study's results also suggest a more surprising possibility: that a rock-star female mentor may dissuade some women from pursuing an academic research career.
While both men and women suffer from impostor syndrome, more women than men experience it, says the study's principal investigator, Jessica L. Collett, a sociologist at the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana, in an interview with Science Careers. Women also feel like impostors more frequently than men do, she says, and are more encumbered by it. "Impostorism is something that negatively affects both men and women, but it's more pronounced among women, and therefore affects their career trajectories more," she says.
While a lot of work has been done on the causes of impostorism, Collett notes, nobody has really studied how it affects career choices. So, Collett and her colleague Jade Avelis conducted a survey and a series of interviews with 461 doctoral students at Notre Dame, 46% of them women and the majority studying science. The questions were designed to tease out whether respondents felt like impostors. She also asked them about their concerns over family and career, their career goals, and whether those goals had changed since they began their doctoral programs. In the interviews, she asked the subjects to elaborate on those topics.
For the purposes of the study, Collett categorized as "downshifters" people whose goals had shifted away from research-intensive, tenure-track positions and toward nontenure-track positions such as policy work or teaching. Her goal was to learn whether downshifters were more likely than others to suffer from impostor syndrome. Other factors—including the odds of getting a tenure-track job—factor into such career decisions, Collett tells Science Careers, so she attempted to account for these factors in her interviews. She notes, however, that such factors aren't mutually exclusive: People who feel like impostors might be more intimidated than their peers by the tight academic job market.
Among the doctoral students in her sample, Collett found that 22.5% of women and 27% of men identified a research-intensive, tenure-track professorship as their current career goal. She also found that more women than men—11% versus 6%—initially aspired to such positions but had since downshifted.
Collett then sought relationships in the data between downshifting, concerns over family-friendliness, and impostorism. Concerns over family-friendliness, she found, had no statistically significant relationship with the decision to downshift—but feelings of impostorism did. "We see that impostors are overrepresented in both the groups that seriously considered changing and those that actually did so," Collett said at the meeting. Impostorism was, in fact, the only statistically significant gender effect that accounted for downshifting. "This suggests that impostorism at least partially mediates the relationship between gender and career ambitions in academia."
Turning to the qualitative responses that Collett collected in interviews, she found that many of those who were categorized as downshifters reported worrying about being incompetent in the lab. "My main concern is feeling competent in my chosen career," said one Ph.D. student in a scientific field. Another told Collett, "I worry that I'm maybe just lazy and I don't like working hard, and I shouldn't be here because I'm not willing to be in the office 60 or 70 hours a week." These comments indicate feelings of impostorism, Collett says.
An unanticipated quirk emerged in her interviews: A significant number of women reported that they felt they could never be as good as their female mentors. One said that she suspected her mentor was secretly Superwoman; how could she ever live up to that example?
That inspired Collett to consider whether impressive female mentors might actually dissuade women who already experience impostor syndrome from pursuing the tenure track. Valerie Young, an education researcher and expert on impostor syndrome, tells Science Careers that this finding fits with what she's seen in her research and interviews. "If you're constantly comparing yourself to this star mentor, by definition you're never going to measure up," she says. Collett plans to explore this idea further in future studies.
Both the quantitative and qualitative data, Collett says, suggest that impostorism plays a larger role than previously suspected in female scientists' decisions to shift toward less competitive, less time- and energy-intensive careers.
Give it a name
What can scientists do to combat feelings of impostorism? "What every mentor, faculty, and department should do is, on day one, name the impostor syndrome," Young suggests. "No one likes to fail, but what differentiates impostors is that they feel shame when they fail. So, put a name to it. I'm a huge fan of normalizing it—not pathologizing it—and putting it into context. Let people know that everyone feels that way at some point or another."
Collett adds that female mentors, especially, should be open with their female protégés about the challenges they face in the workplace and how they overcome them, and how they make compromises with their time and energy. Male mentors tend to feel freer to discuss their choices and insecurities, she says, while many female mentors believe that will make them appear weak. "Male mentors have many more informal interactions with their male mentees," Collett says. "In those times, he lets guard down; he talks about his family; he says, 'I've got to run and pick up my son,' or 'The wife wants me home,' or something like that. These men get to see a different side of their mentors. Women are so buckled up at work. … Women don't want to say, 'I've got to go pick up my children.' " Making an effort to be more open about these challenges and time constraints, she says, could help debunk the myth of the Superwoman mentor.
Am I done yet?
Although she didn't find statistically significant differences among the various scientific fields, Collett speculates that some disciplines could offer some protection against feelings of impostorism. The reason is surprising. "The women in my interviews who were in the hard sciences could feel comfortable leaving the lab at whatever time of day, so long as their experiment was done," Collett says. In contrast, women in the "softer" sciences tended to report more anxiety over whether they measured up in the lab. In such fields, apparently, it's harder to know when you're finished.
Collett suspects that quantitative measurements may be able to help sufferers of impostor syndrome see that they're doing just as well as their peers; she recently applied for a National Science Foundation grant to study this issue.