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As its quite apparent from many online discussion forums and also in-person conversations, a lot many Ph.D students seem to have impostor syndrome, of course in varying degrees. We hear statements like:

  1. I don't think I am cut out for research, although my advisor thinks I'm quite capable
  2. The paper that I worked on and got published - I don't think it deserves to be published, although my advisor was quite impressed by the work.
  3. If only someone smart had a crack at this problem, they would have figured out a workable solution much faster

and so on.

My theory on this is that, this should be a recent trend largely influenced by sites such as LinkedIn/Google Scholar where academic and research achievements are now publicized and easily accessible, giving room for a lot of unnecessary self-critical evaluations and comparisons. I'm curious to know from senior researches/academics if the imposter syndrome was common among students even, say in the 70's or 80's, or is it just a recent trend.

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    From WP: The term impostor phenomenon was introduced in an article published in 1978, titled "The Impostor Phenomenon in High Achieving Women: Dynamics and Therapeutic Intervention" by Pauline R. Clance and Suzanne A. Imes. Clance and Imes defined impostor phenomenon as "an internal experience of intellectual phoniness" and initially focused their research on women in higher education and professional industries. A place to start? Dec 1, 2022 at 1:24
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    It was not uncommon, it just didn’t have a single catchy name.
    – Jon Custer
    Dec 1, 2022 at 1:53
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    I'm pretty sure imposter syndrome existed in the stone age. It is not limited to today's academia.
    – user9482
    Dec 1, 2022 at 6:18
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    +1 I think it's a good question to ask. Maybe it could be complemented by considering if imposter syndrome is uniform across countries and disciplines
    – Clumsy cat
    Dec 1, 2022 at 10:43
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    Not enough for a full answer, but: the number of scientists and people with an advanced degree is skyrocketing, the competition in academia becomes fierce (see e.g. pnas.org/doi/10.1073/pnas.1800478115 for some details). I find it evident that there is a recent trend indeed, but do not know if there are good estimates of its scale.
    – Lodinn
    Dec 3, 2022 at 0:49

2 Answers 2

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Almost 30 years ago, after my defense (or defenCe -- for it was in England), I felt so ashamed of my dummy self and my research that I didn't even celebrate.

My complexes were amplified by the fact that in the country of my origin the standards for PhD dissertations in STEM were, those days, extraordinarily high -- a tradition established by Kolmogorov, Gelfand, Landau & Lifshits. and other titans. This contributed a lot to my misery.

It is only some 5 or 6 years down the road, and after more publishing, that inside my mind I pronounced myself PhD.

Years later, after I found that my PhD research was still being cited, I realised that my inferiority complexes were unfounded. Also, having been on several defense committees in several countries, I eventually came to peace with myself and gave to my thesis a fair grade: not outstanding but passable.

My case was not unusual. I knew a fellow who was so ashamed of this PhD research that he STOLE his thesis from the university library (it was before the digitisation era). He eventually became a well-cited scholar, but his impostor complexes were at that time even stronger than mine.

I conclude the story with Whitney Young's quote which, in my opinion, explains why we should never yield to the impostor syndrome:

“The truth is that there is nothing noble in being superior to somebody else. The only real nobility is in being superior to your former self.”

Keep on with your work. Do not measure yourself against others. Do what you can.

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    I never thought that the feeling lingers on even after you pass the defense! This is an interesting and useful answer along with some historic perspective.
    – Neb Uzer
    Apr 10, 2023 at 18:37
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TL;DR

Imposter syndrome for scientists isn't weird. The pressure upon scientists nowadays have probably led to unprecedented levels of imposter syndrome though.

There have been massive shifts in expectation, including managing science by quantifying output (and putting targets on output numbers). On top of that, the world has become much more competitive - scientific output increases exponentially, as Lodinn pointed out in their comment. That points to a lessened effect in earlier times.
On the other hand, the nature of a scientist is not to be sure, but to question their knowledge continuously. That points to a still-existing effect in earlier times.

Overall, I'm sure imposter syndrome in science has been around ever since it was called science. I would also argue that the changes since the 80s/90s/2000s have led to a much more industrialised and competitive approach to science, in which imposter syndrome would be much more common.


(1) The environment changed

You wonder about how things were in the 70s and 80s. I would argue that that is not a fair comparison, given how the world has changed. The world is massively more connected right now, and there have been foundational shifts in how academia is governed - at least, in some countries, but I wager in most. Case in point: full professors used to be appointed by the Queen in The Netherlands. That made it impossible for their host institution to fire them - you cannot overrule the Queen. So they got rid of that rule, somewhere in the 80s I believe.

More pertinent to your question: there has been an enormous increase on managing quantifiable aspects of research. I am not positive when that started. Likely, it varies from country to country - my guess for Netherlands (where I know the academic system reasonably well) is that this started in the 90s. I know of a full professor sent on early retirement due to lack of publications in mid-90s at least.

Again in The Netherlands, managing academia by quantification received an enormous boost around the end of the 2000s. The Minister of Education reapportioned a large part of science funding from institutional funding to project-based funding. Before that change, research groups in NL had funding to appoint PhD students and postdocs themselves. Afterwards, they only had funding for permanent staff; money for temporary positions was contingent upon project acquisition. This led to a very competitive environment - not just for grants, but also for staff positions. Universities started setting quota's and expectations on scientific output and (later, after the former was being gamed) on scientific impact.

Such changes lead to increased pressures on PhD students. E.g.: the better the PhD student performs, the better the project turns out, the easier to attract further grants, the more secure your job, the better your chances for promotion, etc.

Now that's all a Dutch perspective; nevertheless I wager that similar processes occurred elsewhere. For example, Peter Higgs (after whom the elementary particle was named that was found by the LHC) said in an interview that he'd probably been fired for lack of output if he hadn't been nominated for a Nobel prize (in the Guardian).

(2) The nature of science is to question knowledge

A second aspect is that the nature of science is to question knowledge. A famous example of not doing this happened in 189 by famous scientist Lord Kelvin, when he said "There is nothing new to be discovered in physics now. All that remains is more and more precise measurement." He lived to regret his words with the advent of General Relativity and Quantum Mechanics...

Side bar aside: scientists are trained to question knowledge - even established knowledge. Basically, the internal monologue "is that truly so? If so: show me the proof!" should be ingrained into a scientist early in their career. It is not at all weird to then apply that to other aspects than merely the research one is performing. That can easily lead to questioning the validity of one's career. The tough part is that while there is likely evidence that someone is a decent scientist, that is not the same as conclusive proof. Add to that the hyper-competitive world we find ourselves in nowadays, both within academia and without, on social media, and it is not weird for anyone's best available evidence against imposter syndrome not to be convincing to a scientist whose basic nature it is to question if the evidence is sufficient.

My conclusions

I cannot give you a complete account of how the academic world functioned in the 70s/80s. However, in the 70s and 80s, far less papers were published. Moreover, universities weren't (at least, not everywhere) run as if only offering a desk for permanent staff to set up their own grant-attracting shop. While it is in the nature of scientists to doubt (and thus: doubt their own value), I do think the societal and managerial changes since the 70s have changed science careers such that they continuously have to validate their own existence nowadays.

In short: Imposter syndrome for scientists isn't weird. The pressure upon scientists nowadays have probably led to unprecedented levels of imposter syndrome though.

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