Ep34: Feeling Like an Imposter at Work?

August 10, 2016 in Season 2
Photograph of eye looking down from a giant microscope.
Imposter syndrome: when will they finally find you out? Image credit: Stuart Higgins.
Imagine feeling like an imposter at work, as though you weren’t supposed to be there, that everyone is just so much smarter than you.

You think you’re not good enough, they’ve been wrong to hire me, I got very lucky...

This is imposter syndrome, sometimes referred to as the imposter phenomenon, imposterism, or feelings of fraudulence. It can manifest in many ways, including: feeling like you’re not good enough to do your job, that they hired you by mistake, and the fear of being found out as a fraud. It’s common in successful people, and those experiencing imposter syndrome might discount their own success, putting it down to luck alone.

Throughout my interviews I’ve been asking my guests if they’ve ever felt like an imposter at work, and they all have. For some it’s a reoccurring feeling, in particular when working on something new (which I think is the definition of doing science?), for others it’s appeared at certain times (in particular at the start of a PhD) and subsequently subsided.

While imposter syndrome affects both genders, it can disproportionately affect women working in academia. (Aside: if you read the article linked here, it’s highly worth reading this blog post by one of the authors which clarifies their findings further). It feeds into the complex mix of factors that can already disproportionately affect women working in academia.

There are ways of dealing with imposter syndrome, such as becoming more self-aware to recognise when the feeling occurs, and by talking to others who might be in a similar situation to see if they feel the same. This episode also features comedian Stuart Goldsmith’s approach to dealing with imposter syndrome.

And one final note - it could be worse. While imposter syndrome tends to affect genuinely successful people, there is also the Dunning-Kruger effect, which is roughly the opposite: you think you’re really good, but actually you’re not…

Many thanks to all of the contributions towards this episode: Dr Silvia Vignolini, Dr Jenneke van der Wals, Dr Emma Chapman, James Threadgill, Dr Daniel Sutton, Francesca Boughey, Dr Shelda Debowski, Gareth Mitchell, Hannah Stern, Professor Dame Athene Donald, Dr Joy Warde, and Stuart Goldsmith.

UPDATE: Athene Donald wrote a great blog post in response to this episode, which you can read here.