The Imposter Phenomenon

by Hans on 2007/06/23

I attended a fascinating presentation earlier this week. The presentation was about the “imposter phenomenon” by Diane Zorn (PhD candidate at York University).

The Imposter Phenomenon is when high achievers (e.g., graduate students, professors, lawyers, physicians, etc) are “plagued by the fear that they are not as capable or intelligent as others think they are, that they cannot keep repeating their sucesses, and that they will reventually be found out as frauds”, despite outstanding accomplishments and frequent praise.

What I found most interesting was that this phenomenon isn’t so much an individual’s fault (according to Diane Zorn), but the result of environmental and cultural forces. In graduate school, the university culture fosters unhealthy lifestyles and often unwittingly promotes this imposter phenomenon. Diane Zorn presented data that showed how working to get a PhD is detrimental to your health: loss of hobbies, isolationism, decreased and dysfunctional communication skills, high incidence of depression, high stress, and so on.

One interesting finding was about Harvard. Apparently, Diane gets very positive feedback whenever she runs a seminar/workshop on this topic at universities and companies across North American and Europe. Audience members seem to share about their own insecurities and generally support Diane’s thinking about the imposter phenomenon. The one time she presented at Harvard, she got a completely different response – basically they disagreed with her. When she asked the Harvard audience about their response, they basically said “We’re at Harvard. Why would we feel that way”. As Diane said, Harvard looks like a perfect opportunity for a case study.

{ 1 comment }

Steven Karp September 6, 2011 at 5:25 pm

Hi Hans,

I realize I’m commenting after over four years after you posted this entry, but I just found your eHealth blog and I think this entry is very interesting.

I was definitely experiencing “imposter syndrome” (although I didn’t know there was a name for it) myself earlier this year when I was applying for graduate school. Despite an established record of mathematical success, I was worried that I somehow had a totally wrong impression of the criteria that graduate schools would use to evaluate my application. I thought there might be something I was missing that was obvious to everyone except me, and I considered the possibility that I would get rejected by all the schools I applied to.

The more logical part of my brain saw that this was irrational and ridiculous, and I turned to quantitative measures of my success such as test results, grades, and contest scores in order to reassure myself. Then I felt embarrassed and guilty about having these feelings, because I knew that there were lots of people who were jealous of my ability and my success. What’s more, some of my friends were having the same feelings I was, except that in some cases they were justified, and they didn’t end up getting into the graduate programs they wanted to.

Although I try to be outwardly modest I don’t think I’m so inwardly, and I’m generally confident in activities (like math) in which I have a lot of experience. Most of the time I’m proud of my accomplishments, and I think rightly so. I wouldn’t say these feelings of “imposter syndrome” were overpowering or even prevalent, but the fact that I felt them at all really threw me for a turn. I was surprised at myself.

I was very gratified when I did get into most of the schools I applied to, and I felt like it confirmed my world view a bit. However, when I went to visit the schools as a prospective student, I experienced “imposter syndrome” again. I saw that other students knew lots of math I didn’t, and I wondered if I had just been lucky to get into these schools. Maybe I merely had good reference letters and contest results, and hadn’t worked that hard. One fellow prospective student quizzed me on what kinds of math I knew, and surprised at how little it was, asked, “So how did you get into all these good schools?” I think that question was unfair, but it made me think a bit. I had to remind myself that we all had different backgrounds, and just because I didn’t know everything everyone else knew didn’t mean I knew less.

Probably the strangest encounter I had in this regard was at a party at Columbia University for grad students and prospective students. I was talking to a grad student (who did his undergrad at Harvard, since you brought it up) who, after asking me which schools I got into and a bit about my interests, asked me if I knew what a “sheaf” (or some object in algebraic geometry) was. When I said I didn’t, he called over his friends and said, “This guy doesn’t know what a sheaf is,” and said to me, “You’re the man.” I gathered that he admired I was “too good” to learn standard but tedious material (which most other students knew and he probably thought felt necessary to know to get into graduate school) but still smart enough to be accepted by the schools I was.

Despite all this, I don’t think that “imposter syndrome” is necessarily a bad thing. In a competitive environment I think it’s good to feel a bit insecure and to challenge yourself to outperform your own standards. Also, it’s natural that we do so. If our ancestors hadn’t pushed themselves the human race wouldn’t be where it is today, and evolution has selected for this drive for success. I would even go so far as to say that many of the greatest thinkers and especially artists in our history undervalued their ability and the value of their work. If they were ever satisfied with what the mast majority of people considered “good work” they would never have felt compelled to do great things.

Steven

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