Imposter Syndrome

By Legal Eagle

When I was an undergraduate student, I did very well in a particular subject, and the coordinator asked me to tutor in the subject the next year.

“Um, I feel like a bit of a fraud,” I said. “Maybe my marks were just luck, or something like that.”

“I feel like that all the time,” confessed the lecturer. “But I can assure you in your case that you did well because you really did know the subject and we all agreed that yours was the best paper.”

We discussed this further, and I was amazed to find that this lecturer also had a feeling that his success was a result of simple luck. This was even though he had published a renowned and ground-breaking PhD thesis and was one of the most brilliant scholars in his area. He and another awesome lecturer were responsible for inspiring me to go into academia.

Unfortunately, I still have bouts of this feeling. When I get a negative review of an article I have written, I think, “Ah ha, this person has uncovered the fact that I’m an imposter”, but when I get a positive review, I think, “Hmm, must have been lucky.” My attitude sometimes frustrates those who love me: my husband and my best friend couldn’t believe that I seriously doubted that my PhD would be confirmed.

This is apparently a well-documented phenomenon: impostor syndrome. It has been said to afflict academics in particular, as this blog post tells. I wonder why academics are particularly prone to this feeling? Perhaps it’s because there’s no internal measure of whether a particular article or piece is good or not. One is relying on the feedback of others.

When I looked at the links in the Wikipedia article linked above, I saw that the articles referred to academics, actors and entrepreneurs who all had this feeling from time to time. Then I thought that maybe it’s also linked to those who have “performative” careers – a lot of being an academic is about performing, and persuading others. And of course it’s central to the career of actors. I can imagine that being an entrepreneur is also about acting in a way such as to give others confidence about your business (although as I’ve said in a previous post, some entrepreneurs do actually believe their own performance to such an extent that it may be detrimental).

I have a “performing persona” when I’m teaching or addressing a court room. It’s like I put on a different self. Perhaps people who “perform” for a career have difficulties in connecting the achievements of that self with their normal self?

Anyway, I was thinking about all this with regard to my upcoming conference presentation – it’s hard not to feel like a fraud – but I’ll just have to put on my confident performing persona, and remember that she is an aspect of me too!


Check out this awesome cartoon (link courtesy of JC). Obviously I should get into literary criticism instead.



  1. Jacques Chester
    Posted July 12, 2008 at 12:18 pm | Permalink

    I feel like this every day, unfortunately.

    “How can I call myself a programmer? I suck!”

  2. conrad
    Posted July 12, 2008 at 2:29 pm | Permalink

    If subjects are set up well, you don’t need to be an expert in the area to be a tutor — but the person that organizes it needs to set the subject up well so this does not matter. This is a fact of life for everyone that runs big subjects with large amounts of sessional staff — there are very few sessional staff who are going to know every area that you are likely to teach in for many subjects.

    As for articles, some time other you need stop taking these personally (I know it’s annoying to get them and hard to do!). I could probably paste the walls of my office with rejection letters and still have some left over (and probably the next office with papers I have rejected of other people), and that is also true of most of the top guys in my field. It’s just way academia works — top journals have rejection rates of 80%+, but if you never submit there you’ll never get in.

    If you also want to see how unfair the review process can be (and the grant process is even worse in Australia!), read Kahneman’s Nobel Prize speech (it’s online). In one part he talks about how his famous work on representativeness was rejected from Psych Review (which is the top general psychology journal). Not only that, the reviewer also had some comment about Amos, where he said they were bad for each other. As it turns out (and Kahneman even says so), the best work he ever did, which is what he got the Nobel prize for, was all done together with Amos.

  3. Posted July 12, 2008 at 3:55 pm | Permalink

    I can understand that. I’m not a high achiever – being incredibly lazy, I’ve been relatively happy to drift through school and uni getting decent rather than brilliant marks; but there have been occasions when I’ve felt this way. Imposter Syndrome probably happens a lot to artists, poets, and maybe – just maybe – the critic. (Then again, a certain sense of self-confidence is probably what gives the critic the ability to tear other people’s art or arguments so fearlessly apart).

    There’s a story about Henry Fielding, who, in his earlier days, was a stage writer. David Garrick was backstage when the rowdy English audience turned on the actors (presumably with rotten potatoes aplenty) during the performance of a particular Fielding play..

    Fielding turned to Garrick and cried, “Have they found me out, then?”

  4. Posted July 12, 2008 at 6:37 pm | Permalink

    Well, you learn something new every day! I’d never heard of this until your post, although I’ve certainly seen it around the place – and felt it too, usually just before exams (I keep thinking I’ve forgotten everything, and that my brain is full of holes where useful stuff leaks out).

    I think I can hazard a guess at where some of this comes from, though. Lots of research indicates that intelligence is largely heritable, which means that if you turn up on planet Earth with a 140 IQ, it’s mainly down to luck.

    In countries where crude barriers to entry have been swept away (one of the commenters on the scienceblog site you linked mentioned this), then it’s possible to become very successful because you got lucky genetically.

    Of course, that doesn’t account for those people who are clearly very talented thinking that they’re frauds. Maybe it’s the effect of being among lots of other similar people. Schools are by their nature mixed places, with everyone from dummies to geniuses and all flavours in between. The upper echelons of business or the academy are a different kettle of fish.

  5. superdonk
    Posted July 12, 2008 at 7:37 pm | Permalink

    I’ve felt the same way except I thought people were conspiring in my favour.

  6. conrad
    Posted July 13, 2008 at 6:44 am | Permalink

    “Lots of research indicates that intelligence is largely heritable”

    That might well be true, but if you look at scientific creativity and productivity (and academic research productivity), there’s very little relationship once you go over about 120 (not that you should really complain if you get to that level). At least for productivity, that of course comes as no surprise to anyone that works in such fields — many people that are highly productive are basically smart and very hard working administrators that attract good people to work in their labs that occasionally get to do something of their own.

  7. Posted July 13, 2008 at 2:50 pm | Permalink

    I just checked that anecdote in my book – a set of biographies of 18th century humourists by WM Thackeray – and just to give the full flavour of the anecdote, even at the expense of contradicting myself, here’s how Thackeray gives the event:

    When the audience upon one occasion began to hiss a scene which he [Fielding] was too lazy to correct, and regarding which, when Garrick remonstrated with him, he said that the public was too stupid to find out the badness of his work; – when the audience began to hiss, Fielding said, with characteristic coolness, “They have found it out, have they?”

  8. John Greenfield
    Posted July 13, 2008 at 3:01 pm | Permalink

    This is well-known anxiety in the business world. Most MBA graduates nowadays will cover it explicitly in OB classes. A lot of firms – McKinsey being notorious – seek this trait in potential recruits as they reckon (quite correctly), that a little insecurity will motivate their little slaves to work 1,000 hours per week so their impostering will not be exposed.

    I reckon a lot of it has to do with how liberally our society cakes superlatives on even the most mundane activities and workmanlike performances. There are far more people described as “guru,” “genius” “talented”, “mover and shaker”, leader” etc. than we each reckon occupy such elite performances/activities.

    Does somebody selling insurance products over the phone to Westpac retail customers really believe they are invloved in formulating “strategy”? Do people marketing KFC really believe they can “think outside the box”? Do people really think they are “rocket scientists” because they can run a linear regression in Excel? Do people who get High Distinctions in Hospitality Management really believe they are “intellectually gifted”?

  9. cuckoo
    Posted July 14, 2008 at 10:35 am | Permalink

    Interesting post. From my own perspective, one class of people even more prone to Impostor Syndrome is Anyone with anything to do with contemporary art (and in most cases, deservedly so.) I’ve known many Museum curators in this field, and have given up being astonished when they confide in me their terror at being exposed as impostors. After all, they work in a world where there is no objective measure of worth or merit. Not even “success”. Everything depends on their opinion, or even more, on their fear of someone else’s opinion. They live in daily dread of having their opinion shown up as worthless, and what possible defence could they have against that? I could count about two people I know in this field who actually have thought-out their values and opinions in this area, and who could defend them in argument if required. Everybody else just falls back on their one defence “Well, everybody else thinks it’s good!!”

  10. Posted July 16, 2008 at 5:42 pm | Permalink

    Um well speaking of experience in the art world. 🙂

    Well there is the story of the Emperor’s New Clothes. Bring that up with farty types and they’ll call you a fascist. Which is interesting because I’m not the one trying to silence dissent with intimidation and slander.

    But I think luck plays a part. To have talent is lucky. I inherited my dad’s brain so I never had to actually study much. If I inherited my mother’s brain I might’ve done well but I would’ve had to, ulp, work. 🙂

    Luck almst always plays a part. Think of the Rolling Stones. Almost immediately and exceptionally successful. Very much a time and place thing, a little earlier, a little later and they would’ve petered out in the early to mid 60s. One of those bands like the Yardbirds.

    However talent would’ve still helped ’em out. Keith Richards would be known now as an obscure yet great musician (probably dead). Jagger’d still be Sir Michael, still be mega-wealthy but not because of rock n roll.

    Sid Viscious on the other hand would still be dead from smack only we wouldn’t have the t-shirts to tell you so.

  11. Posted July 16, 2008 at 6:23 pm | Permalink

    JC had some story about a guy that made management on Wall St because he was useless. Everyone split on this firm and went somewhere else. They him behind ’cause he was useless and so he got promoted.

    The Forrest Gump effect.

  12. Jacques Chester
    Posted July 18, 2008 at 4:21 pm | Permalink


  13. Posted July 20, 2008 at 3:17 pm | Permalink

    My mother used to work for an ‘engineer’ who was a complete nimcompoop. Didn’t know a blueprint from toilet paper. After six months she knew more about building hydroelectric power stations than he did.

    But he had a sooper accent courtesy of Harrow and Oxbridge and said ‘oh how simply splendid’ an awful lot.

  14. Posted July 21, 2008 at 5:42 pm | Permalink

    I didn’t see that cartoon before. That’s priceless.
    And also you’re obviously…

    b. Not helpful
    c. A fascist
    d. All of the above.

    So there. 🙂

2 Trackbacks

  1. By skepticlawyer » Student, grade thyself… on July 18, 2008 at 4:18 pm

    […] that students will often misjudge which questions they do well. There’s also a link back to my post on imposter syndrome, which tends to suggest that some people have great difficulty in judging whether they are really […]

  2. […] particularly on the days when I’m suffering from that frequent companion of academics, ‘imposter syndrome‘. Whereas if you hold yourself up to ordinary people, you’re doing just fine and dandy. […]

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