Thursday, December 8, 2011

Impostors Welcome

My title is one of the slogans proposed to increase awareness of Impostor Syndrome by a group of faculty, staff, postdocs, and graduate students who participated in a facilitated conversation about this subject in my department. Impostor Syndrome is the feeling of not deserving to be in the position you are, and of being afraid that advisors, instructors, or peers will come to realize that you are not as capable as you may seem. The effect can be harmful when it selectively reinforces negative messages and causes people to try less hard because they are convinced they are incompetent when they are not. Conversely, the ability to identify and counter these feelings with positive reinforcement and determination can be very helpful in increasing ability through effort and practice.

I experienced Impostor Syndrome vividly when I started teaching as a faculty member at the very university that rejected me for undergraduate admission. How could I ever hope to teach such brilliant students? Although no one had told me about the syndrome, I knew instinctively that I just had to persevere through my fears. Experience and hard work came to my aid. The lesson? Persistence matters.

When postdoc Kathy Cooksey proposed leading a discussion of Impostor Syndrome in my department, I was delighted that others would learn and share from our collective experience. We also benefitted from an informal survey of graduate students conducted by Stanford Professor Margot Gerritsen. (See her presentation at a career development workshop for graduate students and postdocs in the geosciences.) The survey was not officially endorsed by Stanford nor were the survey questions vetted by experts. Nevertheless, its results ring true and point out a concern for gender equity: women appear to experience Impostor Syndrome more than men. 43% of males surveyed and 62% of females surveyed "often or always" think "I'm afraid to be found out" while 30% of males and 15% of females never or rarely felt that. Responses to these feelings also show gender differences: 52% of males who admitted such feelings felt that their performance was negatively affected compared with 87% of females; 27% of males with such feelings reacted positively ("work harder") while only 7% of females did. Even though the statistical significance of these differences cannot be established, the results are concerning.

It's important for educators to be aware of Impostor Syndrome as well as preventative and palliative measures. It's endemic at my university and maybe at yours. We should educate students that they're not alone in having these feelings and that there are helpful responses. As Kathy suggests, having a malleable rather than a fixed mindset is helpful. Successful people everywhere learn that failure is the first step towards mastery.

Eleanor Roosevelt said, "No one can make you feel inferior without your consent." We must not allow ourselves to retain feelings of inferiority. Had I succumbed to that response 30 years ago, I would not be writing here today.