The Irony of Imposter Syndrome

By Casey terHorst

I’m an Assistant Professor with a job that’s split evenly between teaching, research, and service and I can honestly say that I love my job. I have the freedom to choose what I want to work on each day and much of the work I do is because I want to do it, rather than being forced to do it. Even when I feel overworked, I like it to some extent. I have a good job.

Having just put together a tenure binder, I can look at many objective measure of my performance and interpret that data as me being good at my job. And yet, despite my faith in scientific faith in evidence-based conclusions, my brain constantly tries to convince me that the data is wrong and I don’t belong here. Hello, my name is Casey, and I have Impostor Syndrome.

If any of these thoughts ever run through your head, then you may be in the same boat as me:

“What did I do to deserve to be here?”
“I’m not smart enough to do this job.”
“What qualifies me to teach this class? I’m still learning this stuff myself!”
“I was just lucky to get this grant because everybody else is doing more interesting science than me.”
“Why bother writing a blog post that nobody’s interested in?”

We impostors think we’ve somehow gotten here by luck. We think we tricked people into thinking we’re better than we are. We tell ourselves to fake it until we make it and we think we get by on false confidence. Sometimes we even think we’re a bad person for presenting what we feel is a false impression of ourselves. We think that one of these days, the charade will end and our world will crash down around us. They’ll discover our dirty secret that we’re not as good as they thought we were. We think we don’t belong and we’re not supposed to be here.

But here’s the irony. As I’ve talked to more people about this, I’ve found that most people feel the same way. The Academy is filled with impostors. I’d go so far as to say that most of us feel this way much of the time. Seriously, bring up the idea of Impostor Syndrome with an academic peer. I usually find that they reveal similar thoughts. We can’t all be impostors in the club if that insecurity partly defines membership in the club. So, if everybody thinks everybody else is better than them, then somebody is wrong.


Think about your colleague or lab mate who’s just told you that they feel like an impostor too. Perhaps you had no idea they felt that way. You thought they were confident and successful before. Does this revelation change your mind about that? Probably not. Did you think they were successful only because of their confidence? More likely, you respect them because you saw them give a great talk, or read one of their publications, or they said something in a reading group that you thought was really insightful.

Academia attracts a certain phenotype. Introverts are more common than extroverts. Shy is more common than bold. Insecure is more common than confident. That’s not always easy to observe though. Most people hold their insecurities on the inside and project confidence outwardly, which is at the root of Impostor Syndrome. Knowing that this hidden majority exists is weirdly comforting to know that even though I feel I don’t belong, most other people who I like and respect don’t feel they belong either.

As I discussed Impostor Syndrome with colleagues recently, one particularly smart friend pointed out that maybe it’s a good thing. Scientists work in a field that’s built on uncertainty. Our job is premised on disproving hypotheses. Maybe populating our field with people who are naturally skeptical of their own success is beneficial to the kind of science we put out. We should be even more confident in the robustness of our results knowing that the results have already passed a strong self-filter.

Ok, so you feel like an impostor. What should you do about it?

Step 1: Admit it.

In the past, my advice to mentees has been to fake it til you make it. Thinking about that more now, I’m not sure that doesn’t perpetuate the problem. As you find out that more and more people feel like impostors, don’t you wish we’d all just admit it to each other? Our false confidence affects the ability of other people to feel confident, particularly if they don’t want to fake it. Too often we view an admission of insecurity as a sign of weakness, or even incompetence. In fact, I had to run this post past a few friends to make sure I wasn’t committing career suicide by admitting my insecurities. Would this hurt my ability to get a grant? Would it affect my authority in the classroom? I received mixed answers to these questions.

Sometimes embracing insecurities can resolve the insecurity. Recently, I listened to a job candidate on an interview fumble through their answers to the first few questions. Then they stopped and said out loud, “I’m sorry. I’m just really nervous. This is a really intimidating situation.” Then they went on to just nail the rest of the interview. Like many things in life, sometimes the solution is simply acknowledging the problem.

Step 2: Find your people

The people who make you feel like an impostor? Those aren’t your people. Hang with the other alleged impostors. Talk about impostor syndrome. And talk about why maybe you’re wrong about it. Talk about what you’ve done that makes you belong.

Looking back, the reason I stayed in this career is because of great academic advisors. They unknowingly helped to alleviate Impostor Syndrome by treating me like an equal and making me feel like I belonged. I know plenty of people whose advisors, whether on accident or on purpose, have made them feel insufficient. You new graduate students looking for a lab—ask the current students there whether their advisor makes them feel better or worse about their abilities.

Step 3: Make others feel like they belong

When you find your people, support them. Or even if they’re not your people—compliment them. When somebody says something insightful in a reading group, tell them so. When you read a paper you really like, tell the author. When you see a conference talk you thought was great, go find the speaker later and tell them what you thought. More than likely, they thought what they said in the reading group was stupid, or that they just got lucky when they got that paper published, or that their talk was a bomb.

Step 4: Generate some data

We’re scientists. We’re convinced by data (not always when it’s about us personally). So generate some for yourself. It’s easy to look back at the last year and think another year has passed unremarkably. Keep a list of good things that happened each day/week/month. Just start a list in your phone so it’s always handy to add to it. Here are some examples:
August: started graduate school in a great lab (you were chosen to be part of the lab).
November: published a paper (editors and reviewers found your work exciting).
January 9: got two emails asking for a copy of my paper (I must be doing something interesting).
February 18: Dr. Famous asked a question at my talk (I held their interest!).
March: wrote a blog post for this kick-ass new blog.
May: student grades were higher this year than last year (new pedagogy is paying off)

At the end of the year, go back and read over your list. You’re not imagining your success. Note: Do NOT make a list of bad things that happened. Forget those. Look at the long-term trends in your data. You know more as a senior than you did as a freshman. You’re a better scientist when you finished grad school than when you started. You can keep faking that confidence to some extent, but it’s nice to look behind you and realize that you’re making it too.

Please feel free to share your own experiences with Impostor Syndrome and what you’ve done to deal with it or overcome it! Share your stories on Twitter with #ImposterSyndrome and @rapidecology so others can see they’re not alone.

Author Biography: Casey terHorst is an assistant professor at California State University, Northridge. He is a community ecologist and evolutionary biologist who is also focused on increasing diversity and inclusivity in STEM fields.

Image caption: If everybody thinks that everybody else is better, then somebody must be wrong. Image was created by Casey terHorst.

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