Effect Measure

The Imposter

In my salad days I had the privilege of team teaching with a brilliant neuroscientist at one of the world’s most famous research institutions. In the fifties he had published, with a famous co-author, a foundational paper about peripheral information processing in vision. He was also a brilliant lecturer, giving without notes, spellbinding and seamless narratives full of impressive erudition. He had devoted graduate students and was married to a beautiful woman, a well-known personality on the local educational television station (this was before PBS). There was only one fly in the academic ointment: he essentially never published anything beyond his seminal paper.

The problem was he believed he was a fraud, whatever the manifest signs of his accomplishments and success. If he published, he believed, he would be found out by his scientific peers and revealed for the imposter he knew he was. My colleague, in other words, was a victim of Imposter Syndrome.

Imposter Syndrome is not an official DSM-IV diagnosis but it has been much written about in the pop psychology literature and is well-known to the mental health counseling staffs of high status universities, where it afflicts many students who are convinced they got in “because Admissions made a mistake.” It was originally used in connection with high achieving women in academia, but it has become clear it also afflicts many men. It isn’t gender specific.

Feelings of inadequacy, attributing success to luck or “just hard work,” discounting accomplishments, belief that one has fooled others and will be unmasked, all are amazingly common among academics. Counseling services are concerned with students, but faculty are often hit even harder, senior faculty like my colleague sometimes more so. Faculty rely on postdocs and doctoral students to do much of the heavy lifting on their grants and it is not uncommon to hear scientists look back wistfully to the days when they could employ the newest techniques or computer software. What is unspoken is that they are no longer as capable of working at the bench as their students. What they do instead — plan experiments, analyze data, write grants, sit on advisory committees, teach — is extremely important but the inability to wield the latest tools of their trade adds to the feelings of inadequacy an imposter syndrome sufferer feels. Meanwhile they advance in academic rank and are honored for papers their students have done the grunt work on.

Imposter Syndrome is a spectrum and sufferers experience it to lesser or greater extent. The extent of disability of my old colleague is probably unusual. But he was the real thing.


  1. #1 Roman Werpachowski
    July 12, 2006

    revere: you’re talking about me, man 😉 that’s how I feel often while striving to get my PhD.

  2. #2 revere
    July 12, 2006

    roman: This is a common reaction: the shock of recognition. This is a surprisingly common condition in academia (which is what I know) and perhaps other fields.

  3. #3 Marissa
    July 12, 2006

    Revere, I’m not sure how I would do in a lab now either after a long absence. Is it like riding a bike I wonder?

  4. #4 Zeno
    July 12, 2006

    Yeah, I know what you mean. I was perusing my dissertation the other day, which was highly praised by my graduate committee, because it was suggested I could generate a couple of publishable papers out of it. I ended up wondering how anyone could be interested in such puerile dreck. I mean, my results are so trivial and obvious. Maybe it’ll look better the next time I dig it out.

  5. #5 Polyphony
    July 12, 2006

    This is such an interesting blog! I come here primarily to keep updated on bird flu, but thoroughly enjoy many of the postings on other subjects as well.

    The Imposter Syndrome is certainly not limited to academics. I was once hired to write weekly essays on a subject for which I had no formal training at all by a publisher who believed I was just the right person for the job. I took the money and jumped in, convinced that I was in over my head and would soon be exposed in print with my byline flashing in neon colors.

    After awhile, I realized the publisher knew what he was doing and my contributions on this subject were worth reading and more informed that I thought going in.

    I think this is a very common syndrome in all realms of human endeavor. The key is to keep moving, witnessing and and evaluating what is transpiring and adjusting our understanding accordingly.

    The other side of this is that there are real imposters out there, who don’t care a rat’s banana how they may be affecting others. Healthy introspection also helps us recognize these individuals.

  6. #6 BAW in MI
    July 12, 2006

    I know someone who suffers feelings of inadequacy and inferiority, despite his brilliance, commendations from others, and 2 masters, a doctorate, certifications and extra studies. He taught at the college level for a few years, and would like to, again. But, he feels he is a “dinosaur” in his field and what he would teach would be irrelevant to what is wanted today–which contributes to feelings of inadequacy and inferiority….so, he works far below his level of intelligence, education and ability. He’s well liked and appreciated, and far under-utilized, but feels grateful to have what he does. Yep, Imposter Syndrome, I see it every day.

  7. #7 Roman Werpachowski
    July 12, 2006

    How do we tell the Imposter Syndrome from recognizing the situation when we truly are inadequate for the job?

  8. #8 Platypus
    July 12, 2006

    You can add software engineering to the list of fields where IS occurs. In general nobody would accuse me of being modest, but I do have times when I feel like I’m getting far more credit than I’m due. Anybody could have found that bug if they’d happened to be looking at the right log or piece of code, I think, or I just happened to hit upon the right combination of calls and arguments to make something work. Never mind that there’s probably a reason I was looking at or trying something nobody else had; the feeling still occurs.

    In small doses I think this is a normal part of any high-level intellectual activity. I’d actually worry about someone who never felt that they’d been touched by luck. Attributing every success to personal merit and every failure to external circumstances is a well known and very unhealthy kind of bias. Ditto for the converse which is IS. In reality luck happens. It needs to be recognized as such and given exactly as much weight as evidence suggests – no more and no less. That’s true not only at a personal level, but also in terms of formulating policy. Ideologies that deny the existence of luck (e.g. laissez-faire economics based on an assumption of near-perfect rationality/efficiency) are as counterfactual as “dust in the wind” nihilism. Life is somewhere in between.

  9. #9 revere
    July 12, 2006

    Roman, Platypus, et al.: good points, all. Just because someone feels they are an imposter doesn’t meant they aren’t and there are many true imposters out there. The Peter Principle (one version, anyway) is that people rise to the level of their incompetence, so there are real world reasons to think one is an imposter or is in over his/her head. Moreover there are real charlatans out there.

    The Imposter Syndrome I am referring to, however, is the extreme mismatch between objective evidence of accomplishment and a person’s self-evaluation to the extent it seriously interferes with their ability to realize their potential, as in the case of my old friend and colleague. For some people, the feelings underlying the Imposter Syndrome are a positive thing for the world at large because they constantly strive for some external validation of their abilities (e.g., having their paper cited, their blog recognized, their promotion come through, etc.). Of course they don’t accept the outward evidence of success but just try to get more evidence, but the world benefits. In other cases it prevents such realization because of the fear of being unmasked.

    I think Platypus (echoed by the reaction of Mrs. R. who said the same thing) makes a good point that many if not most intellectually honest people have a large measure of self-criticism. That’s one of the abilities that enables them to function at a high level. So we all have varying amounts of the feelings that the Imposter Syndrome manifests to excess.

  10. #10 Eric
    July 12, 2006

    Familiar words. Some days, I feel like any minute now someone is going to announce that everything I’ve done is meaningless, and I’ve been bluffing the whole time. I know I’m not but the feeling is still there from time to time.

  11. #11 writangl
    July 12, 2006

    I live and work in a world of writers, from academics to poets, some of whom have earned prestigious awards.

    Privately, most of the good ones agonize that their published work doesn’t begin to match the beauty, complexity, or the fullness of the topics they pursue. The deeper and broader their understanding and awareness, the more awareness they have of the greater universe of their ignorance.

    I think we could reframe that sense of feeling like a fraud,presenting it instead as appropriate humility, asserting itself when faced with accolades from peers and students. By naming it and honoring it as healthy and mormal, we could tutor both the moral development and the self-regard of up-and-coming brilliant thinkers.

    Many of our greatest scientists, philosophers, and spiritual leaders have articulated this moral truth in various ways:

    Isaac Bashevis Singer: “Our knowledge is a little island in a great ocean of non-knowledge.”

    Charles Darwin: “Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge.”

    Socrates: “I know nothing except the fact of my ignorance.”

    Thomas Edison: “We don’t know a millionth of one percent about anything.”

    Pliny the Elder: “So as this only point among the rest remaineth sure and certain, namely, that nothing is certain.”

  12. #12 Ana
    July 12, 2006

    An European and feminine variant of Imposter syndrome is the Modesty Syndrome.

    Some people want to be recognised for their work, but consider that all good work is the outcome of whole of their branch (or research group, or science community, or whatever.) They don/t want to play the fame game, don/t want to push themselves forward, don/t want to go that extra mile for recognition (e.g. accept visible posts for their visbility…), and most particulary, refuse to put other people down. This stance is not due to shyness; in fact it has a certain arrogance to it – as it spells, take me as I am, look to the work, take it or leave it, I won/t capitulate, or change.

    I know many women like this and suffer a mild version of it myself.

    It is the reason, for example, that women in Science do well (or better) in egalitarian settings, in old style Communist regimes, beyond the push for equality of the sexes they have promoted, as well in repressive and dictatorial type ambiance (provided there is no strong prejudice towards women or rules that bar them from working. e.g. Saudi, soon to change), and in /new/ cohesive groups. New, because world-wide, global: some niche thingie where everyone knows everyone else, publications are signed by 10 or 50 people, and fairness prevails. Bozons, anyone?

    When Science turns Junk – is taken over by pols, corps, purely financial interests, authoritarians with an axe to grind – talented persons either seen as lower on the social scale or just plain not belonging to the ruling elite always leave – flee, give up, or are forced out. Women are the obvious example (not so much in the US); others are male out-of-the-closet homosexuals, immigrants, very young people, the perpetual obsessive sticklers for proper scientific procedure (these tend to be old fuddy duddies by now) and of course….innovators, those uncomfortable crazies.

    What I am saying is that politics and social organisation are important considerations – no one can be blamed for their /personality/. (Oh, and I don’t support dictatorial regimes.)

    Good posts!

  13. #13 rnnp
    July 12, 2006

    Despite graduating summa, receiving a master’s, achieving certification in my specialty, having a senior medical director/full professor/infectious disease specialist sign a collaborative practice agreement with me (necessary in my state for NP practice), getting great performance reviews, having faculty ask me to teach,etc,etc,–I feel that any day someone will recognize that I’m a fraud. And I’m afraid to even consider attempting a doctorate. It’s nice to know that others feel the same. And now I’ve got a diagnosis to use–thanks, Revere(s)!

  14. #14 Andrew
    July 12, 2006

    Well, folks, I was so certain that I was an imposter that I did no work for two years and allowed myself to drop out of a prestigious Ph.D. program. In other words, I let my belief in my own lack of success take over until it became truth. I have to wonder how much this contributes to the notoriously high doctoral student dropout rates in the USA.

    The American research university uses people up (grad students, postdocs, etc.) when it isn’t defrauding them (undergrads in 500 student classes, majors without futures, taxpayer dollars subsidizing patented private research). Not to put too fine a point on it, but screw academia.

    I am now enjoying a successful career in business.

  15. #15 sharpstick
    July 12, 2006

    Attributed to Albert Einstein:

    “If I had only known, I would have been a locksmith.”

    As an aside, it is sometimes reported that prostitutes and others in the sex trade say that some of their highly-placed clients (CEO’s, upper level executives, government officials, etc.) pay for domination and/or humiliation. I’ve wondered if that is not a manifestation of Imposter Syndrome.

  16. #16 dg
    July 12, 2006

    I’m trying to guess the subject of Revere’s original post and my first thought is Warren McCulloch.

  17. #17 slovenia
    July 12, 2006

    Friends, family, other writers liked my work. “Brilliant!” “You’re a natural.” etc. At the age of 58 I completed a novel. Now I’m struggling with my fear of publishers who will, no doubt, expose me for the fraud I am. What a pain in the ass.

  18. #18 Polly Anna
    July 12, 2006

    Oh, my!! The tragedy of Imposter Syndrome beyond the symptoms are the consequences—the boottracks of the true imposters, unaware or in denial, up and down their spines.

    [Despite everything, I believe that people are really good at heart–Anne Frank]

  19. #19 hank
    July 12, 2006

    I recall the author later commented somewhere that his Peter Principle in practice described mostly white males and that discrimination keeps many people from being (routinely) promoted to the level at which they are incompetent.

    See also [PDF] Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One’s Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments

    That study found the top quarter in the skills studied underestimated their competence about as badly as those in the bottom quarter overestimated themselves.

    Or as our old geology teacher put it, “a density gradient is found in every classroom …”

  20. #20 revere
    July 12, 2006

    dg: I’m obviously not going to say who it is, but I will note the obvious: McCullough published a fair amount in Rashevsky’s journal and elsewhere.

  21. #21 kas
    July 12, 2006

    Oh my god. This is me. And for the record, I am a 47-year-old female doctoral student, facing candidacy exams in the fall. I feel very inferior around everyone else in my program, and that I am here only because I’ve worked like a dog to get this far. And for what? What difference will it really make to improve the world?

  22. #22 Dizzy
    July 12, 2006

    This is great news. It means I might really be competent after all :-)))

    I used to wonder how I got the recognition I did, as I wasn’t as technically savvy as the rest of my IT colleagues. It was especially amusing when my boss told me that, until recently, I got paid more than him. Not bad for a girl doing a guy’s job. How did I fool so many people without even trying?

    Finally I realized I was comparing apples and oranges, and that my ability to organize, assess needs, put people at ease (lol, I must be the only tech I know that people ‘fess up to about what they *really* did), smooth ruffled feathers and follow through on committments made life easier for everyone in my department. Focusing on what I’m good at is much more useful than worrying about my shortcomings. And as it turns out I can now see that some of my colleagues don’t really know any more than I do – all they are better at is spouting acronyms.

    Moral of story: unless you’ve mastered the art of shameless politicking, 99% likely you’re there because you’re good enough.

  23. #23 scienceiscool
    July 12, 2006

    I believe it was Einstein who said, “If we knew what we were doing, it would not be called research.”

  24. #24 MPB
    July 13, 2006

    I laminated the Larson cartoon during my postdoctoral fellowship– of the elephant sitting down to play the grand piano at a packed solo concert: Oh, my God! But I’m a flutist!

  25. #25 Hsien Lei
    July 13, 2006

    What’s the opposite of Imposter Syndrome? While there are many who are paralyzed by their own defeatist thinking, there are loads more who have completely unjustified oversized egos. Not saying that I know any personally or am one myself. 😉

  26. #26 tan06
    July 13, 2006

    I am working with people with those problems every day.
    It can make a big difference to know some people are feeling this way by circumstances (hard work for years, not a lot of accomplishments in their experience, thesis is one of these instances; an antisocial boss; an inferior position, in most cases only to save money on their fees), or they are risen with messages from their parents and teachers like: you’ll never succeed, you’r inferior and the like. It’s a long way to crawl out of those feelings, but it can be done and I am grateful to Revere to raise the subject here. For there are many lovable and intelligent and sensitive people who suffer from these feelings and they deserve better. Go read the theory of Jeffrey E. Young. (It is on my desk accidentally when I type his name.)

  27. #27 revere
    July 13, 2006

    hsein: They’re called Deans (although I hasten to say I have a great Dean, the title Dean is a major risk factor for the diagnosis of True Imposter).

  28. #28 Melanie
    July 13, 2006

    Your mileage may vary, but I’ve never had a Dean who wasn’t direct evidence of the Peter Principle.

  29. #29 Sam Dawes
    July 13, 2006

    I was reminded of Erik Erikson’s typology:
    Middle Adulthood (35-60 Years)
    ? Psychosocial Crisis: Generativity vs. Stagnation
    ? Main question asked “Will I produce something of value with my life?”
    ? Central Task: Creativity
    ? Positive Outcome: Nurturing children or helping the next generation in other ways
    ? Ego Quality: Care
    ? Definition: Commitment to and concern for family and community
    ? Developmental Task: Nurture close relationships; Management of career and household; Parenting

    Later Adulthood (60 years-Death)
    ? Psychosocial Crisis: Ego integrity vs. despair
    ? Central Task: Introspection
    ? Positive Outcome: A sense of fulfillment about life; A sense of unity with self and others
    ? Ego Quality: Wisdom
    ? Definition: Detached yet active concern with life in the face of death
    ? Developmental Task: Promote intellectual vigor; Redirect energy to new roles and activities; Develop a point of view about death

  30. #30 tan06
    July 14, 2006

    Nice passages you found, Sam.
    But the creativity and the introspection tasks Erickson is mentioning are in the cases above hindered by disturbing memories, thoughts and feelings, ‘lessons of the past’. Even if deeply buried under daily life routine. So, as Revere wrote, the accomplishments of a person with an imposter syndrome are not in line with subjective thoughts (evaluations) and feelings. And those disturbing schemes are discourageing him/her and when finally he/she is giving in there is no actual evidence left to help the individual to climb out of that feeling of ‘faking it’.
    I once had a boss who liked to destroy every self-confidential team member including me, and for some time I had the conviction ‘I can start cleaning offices, at least I’m good in that, if not as a psychologist’. By now, I have my own practice, had a lot of education, psychotherapy, have been evaluated many times, and my clients are content with me. I am always asking for their evaluations when we terminate the therapy.
    But I’ll never forget what it can do with you when someone in a powerful position wants to be a star at other’s costs.

  31. #31 chelsea
    July 15, 2006

    This post has circulated among many doc students who are tempted to self diagnose IS. Doc students who are at risk for IS rely on dissertation committee members’ intellectual honesty and encouragement for a reality check (i.e., what they are writing is not bologna.). What if their committee members have IS and are relying on their doc students for the same? Speaking for myself, a strong committee may the best early intervention for potentially debilitating IS. Without my committee, I may have succumbed to IS long ago.

  32. #32 tan06
    July 18, 2006

    Chelsea: at universities here, we ‘re having student counselors, most of them are psychotherapists. They can diagnose IS and treat it, or refer to another psychotherapist who is allowed to do long term treatment.
    Everyone who works with students and colleages at the (Dutch) universities I know can be sent or by him/herself go to these counselors.
    Because student counselors have a low threshold, anyone can visit there for free consultation, training, courses etc.
    For students: maybe it’s nice to print this posting and comments on EM and to handle it to the counselor at your university. Because IS isn’t a DSM IV diagnose and sometimes, may be, will go by unattended.

  33. #33 Zoe Brain
    July 29, 2008

    Ah Spit. Too accurate for comfort.

    OK, is there a self-help programme?

  34. #34 Fortuna Lisa Burke
    March 17, 2009

    Hi Revere, I’m currently working at a Production company and am doing research on Imposters Syndrome in men. We are making a documentary on the topic. I would like to talk to you about this, and would be most grateful if you could email me your contact details, to the given address, and we could ask you a couple of questions about this unusual disorder?

    Kindest Regards,

    Fortuna Lisa Burke

  35. #35 lucy
    April 2, 2009

    Thanks for writing about this, I hadn’t heard the term until recently, and now realise how perfectly it describes how I’ve felt all my life.

  36. #36 Animal
    May 19, 2011

    IT surely must be one of the major areas that IS occurs in. I just got a great job with a Silicon Valley software company, and I can’t believe I’m worth what they’re paying.

    I feel like I acquired these skills by nothing but coincidence and timing. I feel like all my new colleagues are smarter than me, and hyper aware of my mistakes and shortcomings.

    I feel like I will just have to cling onto this position for as long as I can. Which means that I work long hours to try to pay my way.

    Funny thing is I really wanted this job, and collaborated with the company for a long time on an informal basis before they offered me the job, so they know me well. Now I have the great job, I feel terrible.

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