Question: The impostor syndrome seems to be common in academia and there are quite a few questions about it. I wonder if there is something like the inverse impostor syndrome.

I'm not referring to the Dunning–Kruger effect, I don't feel particularly superior to anyone. That's not it. Metaphorically: I don't feel like I have a greater slice of cake because I don't see any cake, even though everybody speaks about how big, moist and delicious their slices are and how knowledgeable they are about cakes.

To me, everybody feels like an impostor. (And everything feels like a lie)

Is there a name for this feeling? I deeply and seriously wonder about how accurate and shared it may be, if it has a name then most likely I'm not alone in this and therefore maybe I would not be completely mistaken.

End of the question.

Examples (in case you need them, I work in computer science):

  • Head of the department speaking about "big data" for an excel file of several megabytes.
  • Planning setting the deadlines looking exclusively at the calendar (and not the work).
  • Gantt where activity A ends before activity B starts. A requires B.
  • Becoming an expert on a topic overnight because it's trendy and a buzzword.
  • Correcting English grammar and paper structure, for the worse.
  • Paper reporting evaluation results before any code has been written.
  • Paper reporting evaluation results when the code does a different thing.
  • Coauthoring a paper, without even laying their eyes on it.
  • Directing a thesis, not checking the formulas, only the "easy" parts.
  • A researcher makes the GUI, gets all the credit.
  • Constant meetings with no agendas or minutes (or effects)
  • Micromanaging without actual managing
  • Powerpoint before actual research or Powerpoint instead any research
  • Re-selling old ideas with new labels and minor cosmetic changes that are for the worse
  • Most of the tweets with the tag #overlyhonestmethods. However that's being sloppy, I mean being an impostor, focusing solely on how things look because:
    • Doing some research formally (writing proofs) and empirically (developing a system and testing it with a benchmark, creating a benchmark!) and writing about it on a paper takes much longer than
    • Writing some fiction on a paper, which anyway takes much longer than
    • Subliminally collaborating on a paper and putting your name in it.

BTW: one of the problems why there are so many impostors (as I see it) is that open source code is not requested.

  • 13
    Powerpoint before actual research or Powerpoint instead any research — If I had a nickel ...
    – Mad Jack
    Commented Aug 7, 2014 at 20:18
  • 47
    That question comes suspiciously close to a rant, but I think the actual question ("how is it called if I think everybody is just making shit up?") is interesting.
    – xLeitix
    Commented Aug 7, 2014 at 20:43
  • 11
    @NateEldredge "Hasn't got anything to do with academia" is too strong a statement. I would really want to keep this question around, I think it is much too important.
    – xLeitix
    Commented Aug 7, 2014 at 21:09
  • 7
    Can your second paragraph be summarized, "the cake is a lie?" :)
    – apnorton
    Commented Aug 8, 2014 at 2:29
  • 18
    I propose a name for it: outposter syndrome
    – virmaior
    Commented Aug 8, 2014 at 8:35

7 Answers 7


I have on occasion felt the same myself (sometimes still do), and know of many disillusioned PhD students who felt exactly like that. There are dark moments in the night, when you are wondering whether funding for CS will be cut down entirely eventually, when funding agencies also get to the conclusion that CS is one big science of imposters.

However, what you need to realize is that this is in fact impostor syndrome - only that you are not comparing yourself to your peers, but rather you and your peers to e.g., other sciences. However, the reason why it happens are the same: you have unrealistically high expectations of the research community, which it cannot possibly live up to in reality. You know the shortcomings of your community all too well, but do not have enough insight to see that other research communities or professions are also far from perfect. Yes, all the crap you mention happens on occasion, but guess what? We are all human, so it is simply unrealistic to assume that every professor will always be a good manager (or even a decent human being), that every dean will always still be an active and good researcher, or that every paper is always published with the most noble intentions.

I should also mention that your conclusion that, if you are not alone in this feeling, you surely need to be right, is fundamentally flawed. History has shown all over again that many people can be wrong in the same way at the same time.


By the way, I think your question title is wrong. The opposite of the impostor syndrome is, as you say, more or less the Dunning–Kruger effect. What you are referring to is not the opposite.

  • 5
    +1 for pointing out that this is still imposter syndrome, but just at a different scale (collective, rather than individual, and perhaps not applying to all memebers of the collection). Commented Aug 7, 2014 at 22:48
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    Brilliant observation that it can be framed as impostor syndrome on a larger scale... on the other hand, the difference between "impostor syndrome" and "observation that I/we/many-of-us are impostors" is a judgement call posing in something that sounds like a clinical diagnosis, so that seems like a bit of posturing in itself. You seem to believe it's impostor syndrome in this case (you say the OP has "unrealistically high expectations"); I'm not so sure. A possible alternate point of view is that we can, and should aspire to, do better. Even if all the other departments are doing it too.
    – Don Hatch
    Commented Aug 8, 2014 at 6:45
  • 6
    "unrealistically high expectations of the research community" It's not really a matter of expectations. We have a community of people that are doing good and bad work to some extent (different in expectations and reality), the problem arises when bad work provides better career opportunities than good work. It seems to be an optimization problem, trying to pretend the most (get impact, stats, projects…) with the least (time and effort) investment on actual research (that someone else will do and nobody will notice). The classical talkers and doers. (I continue)
    – Trylks
    Commented Aug 8, 2014 at 14:05
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    Finally, for a small clarification, I have noticed some concern about this question being a rant or psychology based, I think it's relevant in the community 1, 2 and I can guarantee this is not a rant, I'm not angry at all, I'm disappointed and I'm very concerned (quite worried in fact) about how something as important as research seems to be evolving into lots of useless slides. Maybe we need a war, I don't know about the solutions (and that one is probably stupid), I only wanted to know how "real" the problem may be.
    – Trylks
    Commented Aug 8, 2014 at 14:16
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    I'm not sure I buy this argument. According to this interpretation, anyone who thinks that anything is not good is suffering from "impostor syndrome by proxy". If I believe the hamburger place down the street serves bad hamburgers, is that impostor syndrome because I'm comparing it to other hamburgers I've eaten elsewhere that were better? Your answer really applies only if the issue was specifically that the OP believed his own field was bad compared to other fields, but what he's describing seems more general than that. It's more like "existential angst" or "lack of faith in humanity".
    – BrenBarn
    Commented Aug 8, 2014 at 21:16

Is there a name for this feeling?

If there was a name for this feeling, that would imply that this interpretation was just a feeling and wasn't real (and that impostors are not the norm in your field).

You don't believe that your feeling is wrong? Do you?

The actual term you're looking for is probably cargo cult worshipers and that's not the feeling you have, but the label you'd use to describe the impostors in your field. Richard Feynman even coined the term "cargo cult science", which would imply that he found the majority in such a science to be negligent and most of them potential impostors.

See this entry in Wikipedia on cargo cult:

The metaphorical use of "cargo cult" was popularized by physicist Richard Feynman at a 1974 Caltech commencement speech, which later became a chapter in his book Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman!, where he coined the phrase "cargo cult science" to describe activity that had some of the trappings of real science (such as publication in scientific journals) but lacked a basis in honest experimentation.

See his explanation:

Following is an excerpt from speech (taken from the book).

In the South Seas there is a cargo cult of people. During the war they saw airplanes land with lots of good materials, and they want the same thing to happen now. So they've arranged to imitate things like runways, to put fires along the sides of the runways, to make a wooden hut for a man to sit in, with two wooden pieces on his head like headphones and bars of bamboo sticking out like antennas--he's the controller--and they wait for the airplanes to land. They're doing everything right. The form is perfect. It looks exactly the way it looked before. But it doesn't work. No airplanes land. So I call these things cargo cult science, because they follow all the apparent precepts and forms of scientific investigation, but they're missing something essential, because the planes don't land.

I suppose that term "cargo cult" could be used as a qualifier for many different areas. For instance, if one was so inclined, one could say "cargo cult academia", or "cargo cult business", and so on...


There actually specific terms/descriptions for what you are experiencing. A few of them are "becoming jaded", "cynical", or - depending on what connotation you'd prefer - "being a realist". This isn't rare, and in general is a side effect of increasing knowledge and experience.

The impostor syndrome and Dunning-Kruger effect is all about a false, biased impression of reality. If you have simply become a cynic, this can become a bias where you come to just assume - and automatically perceive - everyone to be full of it, regardless of whether or not they are.

I have found as I get older and learn more about the world I have to actively fight this bias and assumption that everyone else is full of it, for a simple and all too common reason: people are in fact very often full of it. But let's look at why:

1) As humans we usually do not know what we do not know.

2) Being wrong actually feels exactly like being right, all the way to the very instant we realize our wrongness.

3) There is so much to know about the world that even the most brilliant of us can know only a tiny fraction of what there is to know.

4) The world is complicated and difficult to predict.

5) We have very limited knowledge and ability to predict things, yet we must try to be the masters of our fate and make decisions anyway.

6) Our very physical bodily makeup causes us to be drawn to confidence, and it is often easier to be confident when one knows little. In the words of Bertrand Russel, "The fundamental cause of the trouble is that in the modern world the stupid are cocksure while the intelligent are full of doubt."

7) Bluffing can be a highly effective real-world strategy ("faking it" is often a highly profitable strategy).

...and more.

One of the "treatments" for this bias, if you will, is to remind yourself that while all the above is true, it is just as true of ourselves as it is of others. Most material in the world might very well be chaff, but sometimes you find something of great value, and it isn't good to just plug one's ears and believe nothing or to believe everything.

In other words, work towards a healthy skepticism instead of biased cynicism.

Another issue, dealing with #3 above, is as one learns one quickly develops knowledge that is greater in that specific area then the vast majority of living people. As a simple example, a basic undergraduate course in statistics can give you greater understanding of stats and probability than over 95%+ of all people in the entire world (if you pay attention and think about the material, anyway). With such training you almost immediately notice that nearly every use of statistics in mass media (to say nothing of politics) is wrong, biased, an outright lie, and is at least fundamentally unreliable.

This applies to all of your bullet examples. If we assume most human skills and traits are normally distributed, it suddenly becomes no surprise that most people (managers or otherwise) aren't very good leaders, aren't remarkably honest, tend to exaggerate or make stuff up, and so on.

However, this is all very much the reason why we have science in the first place: to err is human, and oh how oft we err. If we weren't so prone to such errors, we wouldn't need specially developed methods refined over many, many years to help us move towards correctness.

I personally feel that much of the reason for doing science is precisely this realization that most of what we know and believe is probably wrong - and if we are right about anything, it's mostly an accident. And anyone who pretends otherwise is full of it, whether they know it or not - and that includes me, too.

  • 5
    "it is just as true of ourselves […]". No! I refuse to join this game. I may do research, but I will focus on the quality of the systems I build and not on the venues where I publish the results, actually I may simply publish everything on GitHub. It may be cynicism or the engineer in me pulling back, but as I grow older I am less and less interested in my h-index and the papers, and more on the systems I build. It's not about being famous, wrong or right for me, but about building something that actually works and changes the world or just speaking about some fiction. (Now this is a rant)
    – Trylks
    Commented Aug 8, 2014 at 19:39

A literal answer to a literal form of the question ("is there a name for this?") is "jumping on a bandwagon". :)

CompSci obviously has the blessing/burden of the internet. Probably the only other things equally over-hyped (!?!) are gambling, porn, and various fraud possibilities. The only "completely legal" one of these four is CompSci... but the pressures to fudge are amazingly great.

A comparable bandwagon-corruption (at least in the U.S.) was/is "basic science", esp. math and physics, after WWII, where the "bandwagon" was that this would "save us from the commies" (because building The Bomb had ended WWII... crypto was still secret). So then we had the NSF (National Science Foundation) throwing money at people in math and physics for a while... so NSF funding became a test of credibility, and often at R1 universities nowadays it's impossible to get tenure if y're not vetted by the NSF. But there's not enough money to go around, etc. Unsurprisingly, the NSF has evolved into (pardon my saying-so...) an intensely bureaucratic entity, decisions made in ever-deteriorating fashion.

Similarly, not everyone can successfully author a video-game or internet-app or ... "Market saturation" is another very-relevant descriptor in such situations.

"People tend to jump on(to) band-wagons."

  • 1
    I agree that the current popularity of CS (both, with students and funding agencies) is a blessing and a curse at the same time.
    – xLeitix
    Commented Aug 8, 2014 at 7:23

My two cents: Academia is a very competitive field. Many smart people have to compete for a small number of opportunities, such as (but not limited to) funding, grants, positions, publications on prestigious journals etc. In such a highly competitive environment it is partially necessary to oversell yourself (and your team's) abilities and the importance of your research, otherwise better "salesmen" might easily steal your "spotlight", even when their research might be less significant (according to who is another question) than yours. Of course the more important your research is and the more prestigious your position is and the more weight you carry in the scientific community, allows you not always having to oversell yourself and your abilities. But for the most of us who do not belong to those chosen few, networking, connections and advertising our work is certainly necessary in most of the cases.

In this scenario, how much each one of us oversells himself is a question of personal ethics, upbringing and aspirations. Many go overboard and might fit the negative scenarios you describe. But this type of behavior is not Academia specific and the world is full of such people in any profession. This is a fact of life and you have to "deal with it". In some cases, it is useful that such people actually exist for you to realize what not to become and who you really want to be.

But as a friendly advice, you also need to to calm and vent down. Focus on the positive aspects of life and your work and make your own rules on how you play the game. If your working environment is toxic, minimize its effects by living a full, meaningful life outside Academia. Our work is only a part of who we are and in the long run and there are many more important things in life.

  • 4
    The specific question seems to be "is there a name for this", which this answer doesn't actually address as far as I can tell.
    – ff524
    Commented Aug 7, 2014 at 20:51

False humility.

deprecating one's own sanctity, gifts, talents, and accomplishments for the sake of receiving praise or adulation from others - Wikipedia on Humility

The "impostor" doesn't realize how awesome they are, and downplays themselves. When you see that you are smarter and more aware than those around you, but choose to not see this, that is exactly what impostor syndrome is.

From Wikipedia:

The impostor syndrome (also spelled imposter syndrome), sometimes called impostor phenomenon or fraud syndrome, is a psychological phenomenon in which people are unable to internalize their accomplishments. Despite external evidence of their competence, those with the syndrome remain convinced that they are frauds and do not deserve the success they have achieved. Proof of success is dismissed as luck, timing, or as a result of deceiving others into thinking they are more intelligent and competent than they believe themselves to be.

In your case, you go on to consider that the others around you should know better. And because you don't accept and represent your true nature that is "smarter"/"more aware" than those around you, you become an impostor like them.

In effect, it is two sides of the same coin. You're looking at those around you as being on one side of the coin, and you on another. The truth is that you're both the same coin.

We are brought up to believe that it is "good" or "right" to be humble. And to an extent, this is truth. I'm not arguing that. However, it seems that you've taken this point to the extreme where you're now falsely humble.

It is false humility that is the impostor you are looking for.

  • Beautiful unexpected answer, though I'm not sure it's the one I want to settle on / internalize. "Seeing I'm smarter and more aware than those around me" seems like a dangerous point of view (particularly the "smarter" part), as it can put up a barrier to being able to convince people of anything or change anything.
    – Don Hatch
    Commented Aug 13, 2014 at 19:12
  • As long as you're "trying" to change the others, you'll be running into a wall. If you and them both are suffering from "impostor syndrome" (although on opposite sides of it), then you can lead them out of it by changing it in yourself. When you are no longer an impostor, they will want to stop being impostors as well. Whether it is "dangerous" or not is irrelevant. What is the truth? Test it. Find out for yourself if it's true or not. Commented Aug 13, 2014 at 19:23
  • You seem to be suggesting that the only way to effect change is to be a role model. While I agree that can be an effective tool, I disagree with your assertion that trying to effect change by other means, e.g. pointing out problems and incongruities, is doomed; I have seen those be effective tools as well. In any case, my point is that with any of these tools, coming at it with the attitude "I'm smarter than them/you" tends to sabatoge the effort, in my belief/experience, and omitting such words opens doors. Thus my resistence to incorporating such words into my model of what's going on.
    – Don Hatch
    Commented Aug 14, 2014 at 22:21
  • Yeah. I'm pretty jaded. I guess I don't care if I come across poorly anymore, and accept that some will write me off simply when I know I'm smarter than them. shrug Commented Aug 14, 2014 at 23:49

It is called realistic worldview or healthy criticism. Once one has a sufficient impressive publication list and good political sense, academia can be a very nurturing place for laud incompetence. A friend of mine called it "Stephen Hawking syndrome" referring said authors competence in philosophy.

One problem is the hero worship: "If someone is smart / talented than she/he is competent in anything". At a (or more like beyond) career point most people in academia really believe this and applies to themselves as well as other people judged.

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