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.