Imposter syndrome is a psychological phenomenon wherein an individual is convinced that they do not deserve the success that they have achieved despite (perhaps extensive) empirical evidence to the contrary. For me, this usually manifests in the thought:

I've somehow convinced everyone into believing that I'm actually good at this.

followed by the horrifying notion that eventually I'll be found out and my world will collapse.

I believe that the imposter syndrome is not uncommon in academia. I'm interested to know how other people here have experienced and dealt with it.

In particular, I'm looking for actual tactics that someone might use to combat imposter syndrome.


Why I asked this question:

Beyond the obvious reason that this is something I have struggled with for many years and only recently gotten a handle on myself, there's also some evidence that merely realizing that other people experience imposter syndrome helps fellow imposters. As a grad student, I've managed to meet a fair number of people who are in their own struggles with imposter syndrome; however, the tactics and self-trickery that have helped me don't always speak to them and perhaps someone else's methods might.

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    I am not sure which kind of answer would satisfy you (all in all, different people have different experiences and SE is not for polling questions). Could you reformulate it so it is answerable? As a side note: 1. Some people are overconfident, some - underconfident. 2. Sometimes one gets lucky, sometimes - unlucky (all in all, world is not fair). 3. "No man shall be a judge on his own cause" (see 1). But even if you need to be, look at objective data (and don't imagine that everyone else is omniscient). – Piotr Migdal Aug 9 '13 at 5:15
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    Of course one manifestation of imposter syndrome is that I'm unwilling to answer this question for being called out as the one person for whom imposter syndrome is NOT imaginary. – Suresh Aug 9 '13 at 23:31
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    There is a TED talk about this exact subject, titled "Fake it until you become it" – congusbongus Aug 12 '13 at 0:14
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    Folks who are voting to close - would you mind sharing any thoughts on how to make the question better? – Aru Ray Aug 12 '13 at 14:22
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    Remember that this is hard. Everyone is bad at this.You're not good at this, your just less bad at this than everyone else! – recursion.ninja Aug 4 '15 at 17:10
up vote 135 down vote accepted

I found two practices helped me a lot:

  • Reinforce what you know. The biggest problem with being an academic surrounded by other academics is that you're constantly being confronted by things you don't know. Even worse, it often seems like everyone else knows something that you don't know.

    You don't need me to tell you how demoralizing that is. The fight is to go back and review what you do know, and reinforce your expertise in your subject area. Most academics are polyglots; choose some random thing you've studied, learned, or even just considered previously, and review it every now and then. It'll help you view the progress you're making.

  • Engage non-academics. You don't realize how much you know until you talk to the other 99.99% of people who don't know what you know. (Confusing sentence...) Write blogs, offer to give visiting lectures at a school or workplace, work as an intern or consultant in industry, champion a political cause related to your research. There are so many ways you can make use of your knowledge, and doing so will definitely help massage your ego which has been bruised by many semesters of feeling inadequate.

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    Ref. "engage non-academics": pick a SE site of your area and help those who know less than you. :-) – Vedran Šego Aug 11 '13 at 9:07

It's hard to even think of a time when I didn't feel like an imposter. I would tell myself constantly that I was succeeding only due to luck, or having spent more time working as opposed to having any actual ability, or the fact that as an international student I had a very different background from my peers and therefore had an unfair advantage, and so on. At some point in graduate school when I came across the phrase 'imposter syndrome' I finally realized that I am not alone and started to get over it, to some extent.

Here are some things that have helped:

  1. Knowing that this is a real thing (I'm not alone!) The mere fact that there is a name for what I was feeling was a big deal. Imposter syndrome is a documented phenomenon that many people have to deal with. I sometimes go back to the wikipedia page just to remind myself of this.
  2. Knowing that several bigger, brighter academics have felt (or feel) similarly inadequate on occasion. It's easy to convince oneself that while imposter syndrome is common among grad students, maybe only the 'non-imposters' actually go on to succeed - knowing that even the academic superstars I look up to sometimes doubt themselves helps to remind me that this is false.
  3. Forcing myself to look at the empirical data. I imagine some other grad student, with exactly the same achievements as mine and ask myself what I think about them.

However, honestly, this is very much work-in-progress for me.

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    "The mere fact that there is a name for what I was feeling was a big deal."- aptly said. thumbs up – MycrofD Jun 28 '17 at 12:09

The Harsh Reality: They Do Exist

Before I met my roommate, I thought that I was one of the most intelligent people that I've ever met, pretentious, I know, but just being honest. When the material was upper-level undergrad or graduate level, I studied, but even at a top tier university, I got amazing grades with much less effort than most of my peers, which was convenient but in an odd way depressing and isolating; however, my grades dramatically changed after a lot of personal losses (this is relevant, see below).

I'm sure a lot of us are in awe of well renowned professors--if you're an academic, they're like rock stars, at least to me they are. I've always looked up to these people, they make me feel like there's a place for me in this world. Anyway, as a result of being extraordinarily depressed, I lost almost all of my confidence. Unfortunately for me, this was when I met my (now) roommate, which made me feel so much worse.

There are people who say that they don't study when they really do. There are people who appear to be really smart when they're really not. There's a major difference between knowing a lot of facts and actually being intelligent. My roommate is quite literally the most brilliant person I've ever met, including several Nobel laureates. After living with him, I discovered that he actually doesn't study, at least not like most people do. He can read something once, at a ridiculously fast speed--quite literally he can read a full textbook page in under 20 seconds and comprehend everything. This is not limited to any particular domain. There are countless times that I have gone to him with high level mathematics problems from disciplines that he's not too familiar with, and he's able to not only understand everything almost immediately, but he can synthesize beautiful solutions and explain the concepts to me better than my professors who've been in the field for years. I know it sounds unbelievable, but I assure you that it's true.

My roommate was a major stumbling block for me. After meeting him, I began to doubt my intelligence even more. If people like him exist, what the hell am I going to do? How could I possibly compete with him? I went to speak with a few of my professors to essentially ask them if they were like my roommate. If they all were, then I knew that I had no place in the academia. Fortunately, out of all of the professors that I talked to, every single one of them said that they struggled a lot. While some of them knew one or two people like my roommate, they reassured me that not only did they put a ton of work in and struggle, but they also doubted themselves all the time, and most still do.

I guess what I am saying is that sometimes it can make sense to feel like an imposter. Some people are just geniuses, and I do not use that term lightly. In the end, 99% of the best of the best of the best still struggle a lot. It's okay to struggle, it's good. It means that you're learning. For what it's worth, if you're accepted into a PhD program or lab or what have you, the admissions committee/PI made a conscious decision to say that they believe that you are good enough. I don't care if you think that you got in because you knew someone, and that person recommended you. (A) that happens all the time, and (B), they actually went out of their way to recommend you. They put their reputation on the line for you. They wouldn't do that unless they believed in you--these are really intelligent people, you didn't trick them. Finally, for the people who only think that they got to where they are because of hard work and not natural intelligence, I say to you (A) that's probably not true (smart people tend to think that because they struggle with stuff and finally understand it, that everyone can and that's patently false) and (B) you're more likely to be successful than someone smarter who doesn't put in as much work. Sorry for the really long answer, but I hope it helps someone. It made me feel better just writing it. Cheers!

EDIT:
One last thing, the more one travels down the rabbit hole, the more one realizes just how little they know. This can lead people to question their intelligence. It's pretty ironic, you're becoming more informed and because of it you feel less informed. In this case, you just need to take a step back and realize that true mastery is impossible. It should be a good feeling to learn that which one did not know before. It's doesn't mean that you're stupid, it means you're getting smarter. If you think that you know everything or even can know everything, then perhaps you are not that intelligent.

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    The story about your roommate makes me think "superman exists" – Abraham Guchi Aug 10 '13 at 1:14
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    @AbrahamGuchi Yeah, he truly is an academic superman. People don't believe me, then they meet him and they're like: "Oh my gosh, you really are the smartest person I've ever met." He's very humble, though. – Steve P. Aug 10 '13 at 1:33
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    I would really like to meet your room mate one day – user774025 Aug 10 '13 at 11:43
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    As the old saying goes, "if you are the smartest person in the room, you are in the wrong room". – Federico Poloni May 1 '15 at 7:08
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    It took me till my early twenties to recognize that being of "above average intelligence" really just means you're smart enough to be painfully aware that you're trapped somewhere between being frustrated by the average person and not being able to hold a candle to the flame of the geniuses you encounter. I've struggled to come to terms with it ever since. – KB145 Dec 29 '15 at 21:00

Personal take on this, or why I don't feel quite as much like an imposter these days.

I've spent years toiling away in the salt mines of my choice convinced that I was just scraping by at every stage that didn't involve a formal "exam" (I'm good at those). Certain that I was surrounded by my betters. Because I'm in big science I got to do this in settings that involved a lot of close work and socializing with my peers; I've worked closely enough with scores of people at various points on their career arcs to get to know our relative strengths and weakness.

And I've slowly come to a realization which has taken (some of) the pressure off:

Yes, I suck and I'm really only good at a couple of the bits of this job and other people make me look like piker in almost everything involved in this work

... but ...

with only a couple of exceptions1 they suck too.

I really am better than average (even among my peers) at a couple of things. They are not big flashy things, they don't draw the admiration of crowds, but they are things that need doing and I'm pretty good at them.

So, I've become content (at least some) to be a worker bee: I've got a part to play in this enterprise, I know how to do it and people will ask me to do it because in these little corners they are even worse.


1 The only thing I can say about these folks is that they are few and far between and there aren't enough of them to keep me from getting work. And I try not to think about them. And I think I'll have another drink.

But it is inevitable for most of us. If you are N sigma above the norm, then there is one person who is N+2 sigma for every ten people like you. Unless you one of the ten smartest in the world there are going to be people who make you look like you can barely walk and chew gum at the same time. That is just the way it is.

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    This answer isn't quite as bleak as the Lego Grad Student, but it's close. – E.P. Dec 6 '16 at 20:32

As Aru Ray said, knowing that this is actually a quite common feeling is helpful in overcoming it. Ways you can achieve that include discussing it with others, including accomplished researchers, and reading about it. Here are a few texts and resources on the topic, which I recommend heartily to both students and faculty:

This question struck a nerve...I didn't know that this feeling is an actual diagnosable syndrome! As an undergrad who is attempting an ambitious course load, including research projects far beyond what most undergrads in my school tackle, I often struggle with feeling that the praise, recognition, and high grades I receive must be mere kindness on the part of the professors, who surely are just impressed by the amount of effort I put in! I know I am not a genius, so those who say I am must be mistaken.

Remembering what the famous inventor Thomas Edison said is always helpful when I begin to feel like an imposter. "Genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration." Knowing that I have put in a large amount of 'perspiration', I realize that even if others are being generous in their applause, I have earned most of it through sheer hard work, and I can accept the rest of it being providence or luck or whatever it is to which you want to attribute unearned success.

In short, realizing that most success is due to hard work, and accepting that a small part of success will always be unpredictable and unearned has helped me deal with Imposter Syndrome. I realize that depending on the situation and the severity of your symptoms, this may be of no help at all...

The way you have phrased your statement "I've cleverly fooled everyone into believing that I'm actually good at this." makes me think of two different situations.

The first is when you have low self-esteem and simply do not think you are worth much as a person. With low self-esteem comes also low self-confidence, which is a very common situation in academia -- I recognize it from myself. Self-esteem can be a sign of depression and can in such cases be medicated. Self-confidence is something one can build through positive feedback from others so that the value of ones work is seen. It is possible to have reasonably good self-confidence but still have poor self-esteem. In such cases you have to keep up a facade to seem confident although you do not feel as such.

The second case I think of is more of a psychological (permanent) condition, akin to narcissism where you deliberately thrive from deceiving people that you are more than you really are. In such cases you thrive to fool other into thinking something and the goal is the manipulation and nothing about the truth. I think we can see some of this as well (of course since it is a human aspect) in persons who try to cheat more or less successfully. I would not be surprised if some of the more famous scientific cheats suffer from this affliction although peer pressure could certainly play a role.

So in the end, regardless of type, you will find these feelings/afflictions because they are all part of the human psyche and becomes a burden if not in balance.

  • I agree that the phrasing of the question was somewhat ambiguous and I've changed it to reflect the question better. – Aru Ray Aug 9 '13 at 12:49
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    However, I'm not certain that this answers the question. For example, you say that 'Self-confidence is something one can build through positive feedback from others so that the value of ones work is seen', but imposter syndrome is exactly when positive feedback is deemed meaningless by the 'sufferer'. – Aru Ray Aug 9 '13 at 12:52

The more productive question may be, "Is the present situation better with me or without me?" If you believe your participation is actually detrimental, step aside... but in most cases you'll realize that, whether or not you're the Platonic Ideal of whatever you're striving to be, the situation is still better with you there making that effort.

In other words, worry more about the world and less about yourself. Like paranoia, self-doubt is itself inherently somewhat narcissistic.

Or to put it another way: That which we would become we must first impersonate. Viewed in that light imposture isn't necessarily such a bad thing. We all have to fake it till we make it. And a robust appreciation of our ignorance is the foundation of wisdom.

protected by Alexandros Aug 26 at 18:48

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