Tips for Fighting Impostor Syndrome in Academe

If you have experienced such fears once, you’ll probably confront them again as your career advances, writes Angela Fowler, who recommends having a set of tools that will assist you in overcoming them.

August 29, 2022
Illustration of a female figure holding a trophy and looking in a mirror; her reflection is in gray and surrounded by question marks, illustrating the concept of impostor syndrome.
(useng/istock/getty images plus)

The dictionary defines impostor syndrome as “the persistent inability to believe that one’s success is deserved or has been legitimately achieved as a result of one’s own effort or skills.” In other words, impostor syndrome is the feeling that you know you are a fraud and eventually other people will figure it out, too.

When I was in graduate school, I never heard the term, but I definitely experienced it. As a first-generation nontraditional student who completed my bachelor’s degree at a small liberal arts college, I felt like an impostor. It seemed as if everyone else had specialized educations and experiences to better prepare them for graduate school, while I was struggling to keep my head above the water and catch up to everyone. I did not feel like I belonged, and I thought it was only a matter of time before someone else realized the same thing and kicked me out of the program. It was not until I was a postdoc that I would learn the term “impostor syndrome,” which perfectly described what I had experienced.

Impostor fears are common in academe, especially for people with historically marginalized identities and even more so for those with intersecting ones. While change is occurring to make academe more supportive, it is happening extremely slowly and not without pushback. So, what can you do to begin to fight your impostor fears? You can find tools and mechanisms to help you. Most likely if you have experienced such fears once, you will experience them again even as your career advances. Having a set of tools will assist you when you need to overcome even the worst impostor syndrome days.

  • Build confidence. It’s one of the best ways you can tackle impostor syndrome. What helps you build confidence? It might be something small or large, but even small steps can help you work toward being confident and experiencing fewer impostor fears. It does not have to be academic or work related. For me, it started as asking questions in seminars. Although it was terrifying at first, I slowly realized that my questions were similar in quality to the professors’ questions, which made my confidence grow.
  • Get a little help from your friends (and family). When we are in our feelings, it is hard for us to use logic to get out of them. So, share your concerns and fears with people you trust. They will usually see angles you cannot and help you realize that you are not an impostor but rather truly amazing. And they do not need to be in academe to be supportive. In fact, they are more likely to see your wins if they are outside higher education, which can lead to more confidence and reduce impostor fears.
  • Practice. Practice builds your confidence. Find someone you trust to practice with. Are you worried about an upcoming interview? Do a dry run with someone you know and trust or a career development professional, if your institution has one. Concerned about your upcoming dissertation defense or job talk? Again, practice. If the idea of practicing with others makes you more nervous, start by practicing by yourself out loud. Then try with someone you are comfortable with who you know will not make you nervous. Being aware of your needs on how best to practice can make you more comfortable.
  • Learn. Perhaps your impostor fears come from the unknown. It is common for fears and anxiety to come from not knowing about something. In graduate school and academe, so many things are not well-known or discussed. So how can you learn about them? Talk to people who have experienced them (bonus points for also increasing your network, which is always a good thing). Join Twitter and follow people to see threads and discussions about different issues and ideas. Talk to people you know who have gone through the stages you are concerned about.
  • Problem-solve. Do you feel more like an impostor in certain situations? If so, consider what you can do to make those situations less fearful and stressful for you. For example, if you are worried about your dissertation defense, set it up for the time of day when you are your best self. If you are a morning person, schedule an early-morning time. If you are a night owl, look for afternoon availability. Choose an outfit that you feel good in. Some things may be completely out of your hands, but controlling the things you can might make a difference.
  • Don’t compare yourself to others. Even if we are at the same career stage, we are all on different journeys. Some fields are quick-paced, and publication of your work can occur fast. Other fields have extremely slow timelines and it can take longer for you to publish. Some people have to teach during graduate school, reducing the amount of time available for research. Other people have families to care for and different levels of personal demands. Comparing yourself to others will only lead to feelings of inadequacy.
  • Find trusted mentors. Mentors can be anyone. They can be your advisers, committee members, peers or someone you have yet to meet. Good mentors are important to have and will help build you up. They will not make you feel bad about yourself. It is good to have multiple mentors for various reasons including having a good support system and getting a variety of perspectives. Additionally, they will point out why you belong and that you are not an impostor.
  • Succeed out of spite. Chances are you probably had someone at some point say something to you that made you feel less than stellar or as if you did not belong. By succeeding, you are proving them wrong. Every successful move you make and achievement you reach proves it. Using that proof to propel yourself forward and fight those inner fears is a completely valid thing. You should not use it as the only thing to battle your fears, but if you need to use it, go for it.
  • Keep an accomplishments document or folder. Keep track of any accomplishments you have, big and small. When you feel like you are an impostor, revisit it. It might not completely absolve your fears, but hopefully it makes you realize that you are the smart and accomplished person you are. Plus, it will assist you in writing your CV or résumé when the time comes. And you never know: sometimes that one student evaluation that says you are the bee’s knees could be just what you need to read on a bad day.
  • Seek professional assistance. Getting mental health support is not always easy, but it is vital in many cases. Find out what your health insurance covers and seek out a therapist and/or psychiatrist who will be a good fit. Make sure you have outside support from friends and family while you seek out a therapist or psychiatrist, as finding someone who is a good fit can be taxing by itself. Sometimes we need outside assistance, and there is nothing wrong with seeking it from trained professionals.

Last but definitely not least, remember you are smart and capable. They admitted you to the program or hired you because they saw something special in you. You would not be where you are today if you were an impostor. You are a skilled and brilliant person that can bring your own distinct experience and expertise to whatever you choose to do. You belong. You are not an impostor.

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Logo of the Graduate Career ConsortiumAngela Fowler is the director of the Office of Postdoctoral Affairs at the Indiana University School of Medicine, where she also assists graduate students and postdoctoral scholars with career development. She has a background in virology and viral immunology, and she is a member of the Graduate Career Consortium, an organization providing an international voice for graduate-level career and professional development leaders.

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