On feeling like an impostor…

Are you an overachiever but feel like any day now someone is going to discover you aren’t actually all that great?

You could have Impostor Syndrome (IS).

Impostor syndrome is characterised by chronic feelings of self-doubt and a fear of being discovered as an intellectual fraud. Even though certain people have clear-as-day evidence of substantial personal achievements, they are unable to internalise these accomplishments or skills. Instead of acknowledging  achievements – the results of hard work, and celebrating our successes – we attribute our triumphs to luck, timing, personality, or the faulty judgments of others. These individuals believe they are less intelligent or competent than others think they are. A 1998 study of medical, dental, nursing and pharmacy students found that 30% thought of themselves as impostors. Impostor syndrome can be extremely detrimental to psychological well-being and cause acute distress.

Additionally, a greater number of females display impostor syndrome compared to men. A 2016 study by Villwock and team found that the number of females with IS was more than double male counterparts (49.4% of females versus 23.7% of males). Impostor syndrome is surprisingly common among some of our most successful African American and minority groups. Even still, it can strike any gender, race, or age.

Recently I was at an intensive course for doctoral students (just to clarify, not just medical students… us other super cool PhD students too). It was a rare chance to interact with PhD candidates from other disciplines, mostly from the sciences. Quickly a common theme began to emerge amongst our shared reflections: a feeling of inadequacy.  Lack of emotional support or functional support with research, daunting deadlines and hazy career prospects where it’s almost certain we will have to explain our thesis research over and over again to people who don’t understand the intensity of our struggles. It’s so easy to feel worthless in our world. It’s so easy to feel like an impostor.

More complicated than a simple insecurity, which tends to hamper success, this is an issue that plagues those with the highest accomplishments. These individuals believe they need to work harder and longer to harness the same achievements.

Joyce Roché lists the symptoms:

  • When people praise you, you fear you won’t live up to their expectations.
  • You feel your success is due to luck, despite your actual track record of achievements.
  • You’re afraid others will discover how little you know.
  • When you succeed, you have doubts about being able to do it again.
  • You believe others are more intelligent than you.
  • If you’re up for a promotion, you don’t tell anyone until it’s a done deal, in case higher ups “change their mind.”
  • You feel you need to work harder than others in order to prove your worth.
  • You always have a backup plan ready in case you’re “discovered” for the fraud you believe yourself to be.
  • You seek external validation, yet don’t fully believe it when it comes.
  • You keep your real life—upbringing, degrees, etc.—secret from peers so they won’t have even more reason to doubt your qualifications among their rank.

Here are a couple of strategies suggested for tackling these demons.

  • Develop your self-awareness. Realistically analyse your strengths and weaknesses. Keep a dynamic inventory.
  • Take in external validation. Next time someone gives you a compliment, try to internalise it and say thank you.
  • See others for who they are. See both their strengths and weaknesses too.
  • Make sure you keep perspective on your life as a whole. Perfection in one project might not make a dent in how happy you feel.
  • Find a mentor. Having someone who believes in you and someone you trust to share your fears and self-doubts can be a healthy way to take stock of where you actually
  • Recognise you are not alone. The research shows Impostor Syndrome is more common than what we might thing. Comfort others displaying the same symptoms and share experiences and coping mechanisms.

Pursuing a PhD is really an exercise in Impostor Syndrome as we exist within a long process of discovering who we are as academics, researchers, or intellectuals. We haven’t had time yet to make a widespread contribution to the literature in a (peer validated) way that makes less relevant our own self-thoughts because we have been accepted by committees of peers. Perhaps the sense of self-doubt never goes away.

Either way… be kind to your PhD friends, because they probably aren’t all that kind to themselves.


Clance, P. R., & Imes, S. A. (1978). The imposter phenomenon in high achieving women: Dynamics and therapeutic intervention. Psychotherapy: Theory, Research and Practice, 15(3), 241-247.
Henning, K., Ey, S., & Shaw, D. (1998). Perfectionism, the impostor phenomenon and psychological adjustment in medical, dental, nursing and pharmacy students. Medical education, 32(5), 456-464.
Peternelj-Taylor, C. (2011). Is impostor syndrome getting in the way of writing for the Journal of Forensic Nursing? Journal of Forensic Nursing, 7(2), 57-9.
Villwock, J., Sobin, L., Koester, L., & Harris, T. (2016). Impostor syndrome and burnout among American medical students: A pilot study. International Journal of Medical Education, 7, 364-369.

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