By Vanessa Nepomuceno, PhD
At some point in graduate school, most people experience imposter syndrome. Imposter syndrome is when you doubt your skills and talents, minimize your own accomplishments, and have an internalized fear of being exposed as a “fraud.” For minorities, there is additional pressure to achieve and break stereotypes because we are the first to enter fields we were locked out of for centuries. As a result, we have to work harder than our counterparts and be exceptional to be taken seriously.
Imposter syndrome should have been one of the themes of my dissertation. It often felt like I should not be proud of my accomplishments because they were not significant or truly earned. I feel a twinge of anxiety when I hear people call me “Dr.” or put PhD at the end of my name. Nearly two years later, it still does not feel mine. However, imposter syndrome is not a new subject. In 1978, psychologists Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes published a study that would be the founding basis for decades of work. The study examined over 150 highly successful women who did not feel successful despite their accomplishments. The majority of these women were well-educated, respected professionals yet could not accept that they were worthy of their accolades or positions. In fact, these women were so convinced that they found “innumerable means of negating any external evidence that contradicts their belief that they are, in reality, unintelligent.”1
Navigating imposter syndrome in academia
Feeling inadequate is impossible to avoid sometimes. Yet there are ways to support yourself through your graduate studies. Forming community and building relationships with other Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC) is essential. Lack of diversity can make this incredibly difficult. The internet is a creative way around this. Many scientists have personal blogs depicting their graduate experiences. Social media, especially LinkedIn and Twitter, is an outstanding resource to find people that share your background and research interests. Network and expand your circle by joining professional societies and attending conferences. Find mentors and allies outside of your graduate program and university that support you both mentally and professionally. Secondly, do not underestimate the value of counseling. Chronic feelings of imposter syndrome often lead to mental illness such as anxiety and depression.5,6 It might seem daunting to read additional books or articles as a graduate student, but reading studies on psychological impacts of systemic racism for BIPOC can bring validation and help you maintain perspective. Reading Claude Steele’s Whistling Vivaldi: How Stereotypes Affect Us and What We Can Do was the first time I had entertained that I was starting to believe my own stereotype as the “minority” in a group.
For minorities, there is additional pressure to achieve and break stereotypes because we are the first to enter fields we were locked out of for centuries.
Give yourself positive reinforcement. My best friend introduced me to what she calls her “Atta Girl Folder.” It is a compilation of emails that she has saved from colleagues and supervisors commending her work. The focus is not the praise of others, but to remind herself of who she is: a hard-working person that is capable, worthy and successful at what she is doing. I cannot overstate the following: you must recognize the truth versus the lie. You feel inadequate, but that does not mean that you are inadequate. It is important to reiterate to yourself that these internal thoughts do not represent your capacity for learning or success, even if you do fail a few times. While difficult to accept, some failure is normal but not indicative of your potential or talents. Have compassion for yourself.
Advisor’s corner: mentorship and allyship
Feeling like an imposter during your graduate studies is so common that it is considered normal. Normal and common are not synonymous. More importantly, just because something is common does not mean it is acceptable. Advisors along with graduate faculty and staff should make an effort to help students overcome their negative self-talk and succeed. Try to lead with compassion and empathy; you were once a graduate student too. Help students distinguish between humility and fear. Keep a growth mindset when interacting with your students and check in with them. This means relating to everyone as if they are capable of learning and becoming effective.7
For minorities, it is not just the student doubting their abilities or right to exist in academic settings. It is racism and systemic barriers that send the message that they are not welcome in these settings. It is the strain of trying to thrive in a system that was never designed to include them let alone be conducive to their success.3 This is why microaggressions can be so crippling. Microaggressions are defined as a comment, action, or behavior that communicates hostile, derogatory, or negative attitudes toward a stigmatized or culturally marginalized group. It is often subtle and can be unconsciously or unintentionally expressed.8,9 Imposter syndrome is aggravated by bias and microaggressions, negatively reinforcing what a student is already thinking of themselves. It is critical for advisors, faculty, and staff to educate themselves, assess their bias, and work to cultivate a better learning and working environment for all.4 Below is a list of resources to attempt to do so. Taking these steps are paramount because without it we are just addressing the symptom but not the illness.
Many thanks to all those who took the time to participate in the webinar. We appreciate having all of our members of the American Society of Pharmacognosy on this journey with us.
Feeling like an imposter during your graduate studies is so common that it is considered normal. Normal and common are not synonymous.
Clance, P.R., Imes, S. The imposter phenomenon in high achieving women: dynamics and therapeutic intervention. Psychotherapy Theory: Research and Practice. 1978. www.paulineroseclance.com/pdf/ip_high_achieving_ women.pdf
Weir, K. Feel like a fraud? American Psychological Association. 2003. www.apa.org/gradpsych/ 2013/11/fraud
Tulshyan, R., Burey, J.-A. Stop telling women they have imposter syndrome. Harvard Business Review. 2021. hbr.org/2021/02/stop-telling-women-they-have-imposter- syndrome
- Mullangi, S., Jagsi, R. Imposter syndrome: treat the cause, not the symptom. JAMA. 2019. 322(5): 403–404.
Chrousos, G.P., Mentis, A.A. Imposter syndrome threatens diversity. Science. 2020. 367(6479): 749-750. doi: 10.1126/science.aba8039. PMID: 32054753.
Sonnak, Towell, C.T. The impostor phenomenon in British university students: Relationships between selfesteem, mental health, parental rearing style and socioeconomic status. Person. Indiv. Diff. 2001. 31, 863.
- Dweck, C.S. Mindset: The new psychology of success. Random House. 2006.
Sue, D.W. Microaggressions in everyday life: race, gender, and sexual orientation. Wiley. 2010. pp. xvi. ISBN 978-0-470-49140-9.
- Sue, D.W. et al. Racial microaggressions in everyday life: Implications for clinical practice. American Psychologist. 2007. 62: 271-286.
For minorities, it is not just the student doubting their abilities or right to exist in academic settings. It is racism and systemic barriers that send the message that they are not welcome in these settings.
ADDITIONAL EDUCATIONAL RESOURCES
- Gay, R. Women shouldn’t have to lead like men to be successful. Fortune. 2015. fortune.com/2015/02/12/women-shouldnt-have-to-lead-like-men-to-be-successful/
McGill, B.M., Foster, M.J. et al. You are welcome here: A practical guide to diversity, equity, and inclusion for undergraduates embarking on an ecological research experience. Ecology and Evolution. 2021. 11(8), 3636–3645. doi.org/10.1002/ece3.7321
Readwell, H.M. Beyond Stereotypes in Black and White: How Everyday Leaders Can Build Healthier Opportunities for African American Boys and Men. Praeger Publishing. 2013. p. 47. ISBN 978-1-4408-0399-4.
Paludi, M.A. Managing Diversity in Today’s Workplace: Strategies for Employees and Employers. Praeger Publishing. 2012. ISBN 978-0-313-39317-4.
Princeton University Library: Notable books on systemic racism, racial justice, and anti-racism. library.princeton.edu/news/general/2020-06-16/notable-books-systemic-racism-racial-justice-and-anti-racism-available-pul (accessed 6/10/2021)
Harvard News: Faculty recommendations of books on race everyone should read. news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2020/06/a-reading-list-on-issues-of-race/ (accessed 6/10/2021)
Gender Summit presentation by Kecia M. Thomas: Women of Color in STEM discipline. gender-summit.com/images/GS3NA_ppts/Thomas.pdf (accessed 6/10/2021)