27 Imposter Syndrome

The imposter syndrome is endemic in academia, and particularly affects new or marginalized researchers (Breeze, 2018; Edwards, 2019). Researching and writing about subjects niche to your field and methods, the substance of your work will often only be known to you and a select few others: but the appearance of being an academic remains. The imposter syndrome presents itself as an extreme form of self-doubt, one in which you feel a constant sense of paranoia that you will be found out, that at any moment the act will be up (Breeze, 2018). It is promulgated by a sense of loneliness, that others cannot notice your fraudulence, a loneliness that feeds itself from hiding from others who could notice. Even when others are accepting you, rewarding you for your work, the feeling of being an imposter remains. The feeling of being an imposter then simultaneously represents a genuine concern over your substance and a preoccupation with appearance.

Rest assured, if you are feeling like an imposter, it is normal and healthy. A new researcher has yet to build the substance of their work, and their bid into serious and sophisticated research will have the marks of amateurishness: naivete and clumsiness. Both are vital and redeemable qualities when they are matched by the sincerity and potential of your research. The sincerity component means acknowledging your limitations, accepting that you are brand new to this work, caring after and forgiving your exhaustions, all while retaining belief in the value of your work. The potential component is the belief that your work will improve, that even the feeling of imposterism, of not being quite good enough, is part of that yearning. But this perfectionism can often go too far, particularly when it tells you to believe that you should already be at the highest level. This is where potential must be culled by sincerity. It is important to laugh at your hubris, accept your mistakes, and choose self-care over the destruction that unreasonable ambition begets.

It is also important to fight the loneliness that imposter syndrome thrives on. In many Honours seminars that we facilitate, students discussed the importance of ‘normalizing’ the struggles of undergraduate research. Sharing your own struggles with research will break the facade of getting it right on the first try, encouraging others to also relate their inconsistency with that image of perfection. We highly encourage you to form connections and be transparent with your peers and mentors. Doing this will not only provide you a support group, but it will form a feedback loop between your perception of self and others. In other words, you will let others ‘find you out’ to dissipate the paranoia of being ‘found out.’ From here, you can work on sharing and hearing the substance that does exist in your research and others, no longer in the isolated position where you must infer substance from limited presentation and anticipate the same from others. See Box 4.6.1 for some strategies for battling imposterism.

Five Strategies for Battling Imposterism

Acknowledge the Imposterism

It sounds simple but this is the only and finest step for tackling imposterism. If imposter syndrome is an asymmetry between your appearance to others and your appearance to yourself then the first job of imposterism is to admit that asymmetry exists. The subsequent task should not then be to reveal that to everyone you run into, but rather to understand what it is that you feel is ‘pretense’ in your acting to others and what is genuine care for your work. Cultivate the genuine care for your work and avoid the pretense.

Forgive but do not Allow the Temptation to Deceive

Environments like an undergraduate honours seminar full of talented peers and educators can tempt you to present an ‘idealized’ version of yourself and your work. This is of course can be a healthy instinct, but when carried too far it can lead to deceit. It is important that you acknowledge the deceit and do not punish yourself too much for it. Do not beat yourself about saying that your methods section was done when it was not, it is a normal part of trying to keep up with your peers and odds are your peers are doing exactly the same thing. Try to acknowledge the situation you are in, the embarrassment you may feel about keeping up, and nonetheless remind yourself of the value of staying honest publicly (to maintain a consistency in expectations you have for yourself and that others have for you).

Narrow Down Exactly what Makes you Feel ‘Fraudulent’

Think of the role, responsibility, or ideal that you are not meeting. Write down what it is and put parameters on it (e.g., I feel like an imposter because my data does not perfectly represent the group I am trying to analyze). By making imposterism a definite and not vague feeling, you will be better able to address the competency that is making you feel insecure. For instance, once you have narrowed down that it is a lack of data that is making you feel unworthy to research this topic, simply be honest about the limitations of your assertions in your writing.

Share this Feeling with your Peers

Ask others if they are experiencing the same thing. The best way to cultivate an environment that allows vulnerability and avoids deceit is to first be able to acknowledge that the temptation to deceive exists in that environment. Ask your peers if they have experienced imposter syndrome, inquire into the aspects of their thesis that they are struggling with, and share the same experiences with them.

Do the Work and Forgive the Work

Do what you can to keep up with the major tasks of your thesis, but remember that you may just be one of those people who believe that ‘it will never be enough.’ Try to forgive your imperfections, but always by acknowledging that you have tried hard (who knows what ‘best’ is) to achieve your task. Fighting impostorism can become a healthy part of doing your project if you do your best to avoid those anxieties by tackling those questions early in your work and then forgiving them later on. Remember that you have already achieved ample as an undergrad researcher.


Breeze, M. (2018). Imposter syndrome as a public feeling. In Feeling Academic in the Neoliberal University (pp. 191-219). Springer International Publishing. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-64224-6_9



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