My imposter syndrome is focused around the academic job market (which is different than other posted questions), and it comes in two parts:

(1) My feelings of being an imposter have been exacerbated by poor treatment and abuse from my PhD advisor over the years who has, in moments in frustration, remarked derisively that I have the worst technical ability of any student in the lab, do not fit in, and would have better off with an advisor working in more applied topics. The only reason why he kept me employed as his student was because I worked hard, said 'yes' to every thing he asked me to do and basically failed to set any personal boundaries, allowing him to step all over me. These repeated remarks have been extremely cruel and I have thought about quitting and even ending my life several times. That being said, I know deep down that there is some truth to his comments.

Fast forward several years, and I am privileged enough to be interviewing at some very prestigious universities for academic positions (top 5 places). But I am fully aware that this is largely due to my brilliant and extremely controlling advisor who has been the driving force behind the success of a lot of my work.

While my other prestigious letter writers have raved about me and written exceptionally strong letters, I can't help but feel that they do not know the truth: which is that the image that they see of me is one that is carefully crafted by my advisor. But once I graduate and leave the influence of my advisor I will stumble and not meet their expectations.

(2) I am exceedingly anxious about interviewing at these top 5 institutions due to a fear of being looked down upon by faculty who are clearly, and quantitatively more intelligent and brilliant than me. I have heard of stories where faculty will just ignore you at dinner if they've figured out you're not at their level of intellect.

At most places however, even at slightly less prestigious institutions (top 5-15 places) I do not get this anxiety. The faculty are more down to earth and I can typically find faculty who are on a similar 'competency plane' as me, who I can relate to. But that is not the case at the most top institutions.

I am also quite introverted. I am never the center of attention (in fact I hate it), and I do not naturally fit the mold of the social and intellectual butterfly that can wow people at dinners.

Even if I get an offer from these prestigious institutions, I am hesitant about taking the offer given that I may always be a "small fish" in a big pond for the rest of my career. And I believe I would be happier at a slightly less prestigious institution.

Logically speaking, I wonder if it even makes any sense to interview at these prestigious institutions aside from social obligation to my letter writers + nobody in their right mind would actually cancel interviews at these places.

It is a popular trend to suggest that everyone has imposter syndrome and everyone belongs. But the cold harsh truth is that people do get found out as imposters and those people don't get tenure!

I understand how this might seem like a vent from a privileged person, but I would love to hear other people's thoughts about this general topic of dealing with imposter syndrome as I think it can apply to a lot of people.


2 Answers 2


Let me just clarify a couple of misconceptions that you seem to have from what you have written:

  • There is no need to "wow people at dinners". All workplaces have more extroverted and more introverted people, and it is by no means true that the person that does most of the talking/jokes is the most liked by everyone.

  • There is no need to go to the top institution. You should work at a place where you are comfortable and will enjoy yourself. Forget about statements like "nobody in their right mind would actually cancel interviews at these places". Those statements are wrong.

That said, I will refer you to the existing question for dealing with impostor syndrome. Your success was achieved by you, and not by your advisor. All the controlling in the world cannot make a person successful if that person does not have the ability.

I would go to the interviews (also at the top places) and see how they make you feel about the place. If it feels too competitive or that people look down on others, you can always reject and go to a place that is a better fit for you. But why not give it a try? Even if the interview is uncomfortable, if you do not take the job then it will just be a story to tell.


Firstly, I'm sorry to hear that you had previously thought about ending your life. If you ever feel this way again, please talk to your family and friends and make sure you are well looked after. If you feel too self-conscious to talk to people you know, contact a counsellor, or even hit me up with an email and I'd be happy to chat. Actual or perceived lack of ability or success in academic work should never be a life-ending event.

Setting aside the issue of supervisory abuse, and concentrating solely on your feeling of being an imposter, there are a few things I notice about your description of your candidature experience:

  • Your supervisor is a brilliant researcher;

  • During your candidature, your supervisor pushed you hard and was not shy about pointing out your deficiencies and the magnitude of these deficiencies;

  • You were highly diligent and willing to do additional work, beyond what would normally be expected;

  • Like all other PhD students you were a novice research with areas of strengths and weaknesses (weakness on technical skills; strength on diligence), including some holes in your knowledge and ability;

  • By the end of your candidature, all relevant referees have a high opinion of you, and your supervisor is also taking action to ensure that others have a good image of you.

All of this evidence points to a pretty common situation in academia, which is that an incoming PhD student is weak and deficient as a researcher during the early part of their candidature, but then they work hard to get better and they become competent (often without perceiving how much more skilled they have become). Consequently, their relationship with their supervisor goes from one involving heavy criticism of their work, to a gradual easing of that, to a later relationship involving praise for their skills and abilities. While the particulars of your case may involve poor treatment (which I wouldn't presume to know about), the above aspects of your experience suggest the standard situation in which you were bad at things but then got a lot better.

What you describe in your post does indeed sound like "imposter syndrome" to me, since your own view of your work conflicts sharply with the assessments of the referees that have observed your work.** Two of the primary things that people with imposter syndrome forget is (1) that you get better at things during periods in which you work on becoming better at them; and (2) that there are expectations for competence that differ at every stage of our training and careers. The fact that you were previously told off for being deficient at a thing does not mean that you are permanently deficient at that thing, or deficient in general. Similarly, the fact that you are not as good a researcher as your brilliant and experienced supervisor does not mean that you are deficient relative to the career stage you are at. Your description says that several years after your previous PhD candidature you are now getting positive evaluations of your work, both from your supervisor and other referees. Assuming that those people are competent to judge your work, this suggests that you are at the level of competency you need to be at for your career stage, and if anything, you are probably at the top end of competency in that cohort. (Bear in mind that academic spots at prestigious universities are insanely competitive; to be considered you probably need to be in the top 1-2% of PhD graduates, so if you're even in the ball-park then you are probably somewhere at the top end of your cohort.)

Finally, I notice that you have said that you know deep down that there is truth to your supervisors comments. His negative comments on your skills might well have been true at the time, but now you've gotten better at research. If what your supervisor says is indeed true, then presumably this means he was correct in pointing out your research deficiencies during your training and he is also correct in now having such a high opinion of you that he is taking action to arrange strong letters of recommendation for a prestigious academic position. In other words, why believe your supervisor speaks the truth only when he says bad things but not later when he says (or thinks) good things?

** And I am one of the people on this site who is a huge sceptic of the frivolous overuse of the term "imposter syndrome" to describe anyone who has been told they are bad at a thing.

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