Five things we learnt about imposter syndrome

Posted in: Employers, Research, University of Bath

Why do we question ourselves so much, and how can we cope with feelings of inadequacy at work? Inspired by a recent paper by Thomas Roulet, we brought together a group of management academics to discuss what imposter syndrome is, why it happens and how we can deal with it. This is what we learnt.


1. It doesn’t get better as you get more senior – but you can learn to temper it

Imposter syndrome is the feeling of constantly doubting one’s accomplishments, and living in fear of being exposed as a “fraud”. While we might expect that these feelings would be most prevalent amongst more junior faculty, it’s not something that goes away as you climb the ladder. One of our speakers explained that when you start in academia, you become an expert in the very niche, specialist subject of your PhD. But as you progress into senior management, you move away from this specific focus and are expected to get involved in a huge range of discussions, many of which you know nothing about. Even if you get used to tempering your anxieties, they tend to surface again when you’re pushed out of your comfort zone.

The answer? One of our audience members suggested fake it til you make it.

“These feelings are always there in the background, but peak at certain times, like when you move into a new job. I’ve recently moved not just jobs but discipline, and from a teaching post to a research intensive institution – I really feel like an imposter. My strategy is winging it. I can talk for a minute on any subject - but I couldn’t go to a minute and a half!”

It was suggested that this is perhaps a rather “male” approach – and indeed other participants mentioned their strategy of behaving “like a man” by taking up more physical space, and using a more authoritative voice.

Another approach used by one speaker is to be thoroughly or even over prepared so that you are as fully informed as you possibly can be for the situation.

“You always think people are more expert than you. We make these assumptions about everyone else – but in fact we all only know so much. And nobody else thinks that you’re suffering from this, so you’re doing a good job of hiding it.”


2. Rankings and ratings make it worse - so look beyond those to other measures of success

In many ways, academic life means constant rejection. Particularly for junior scholars who are under pressure to build a portfolio of work, the submit/review/reject cycle can be extremely tough. This is exacerbated by our tendency to compare ourselves with others, studying their research profiles and publication lists, and also by the measurements that are used not just by our institutions but by external bodies to rate and rank everything based on 4* publications.

Senior colleagues recognise that this is a difficult culture – we don’t want to judge people solely on publications, but if they can’t achieve a certain level of success, will they be able to cope in the competitive atmosphere of the business school? “We hate the culture, but we’re powerless to change it” said one Professor.

So what can we do? We can take a broader view of our own achievements, and consider how we are helping to address societal and environmental challenges. One speaker described changes taking place in their business school:

“We want to encourage excellent research, but we also want to ensure public value. We’re moving away from rankings and journal lists and trying to make a big culture change. In interviews, we can ask what people want to achieve beyond publications, what are their societal ambitions. And we’re putting more emphasis on collegiality and citizenship – we shouldn’t be playing people off against each other”


3. Recognise where you feel vulnerable, and build on that

Imposter syndrome may be something that many of us experience, but it might have its roots in very different things. We might feel isolated because we’re away from our own country, speak a different language – race, gender and socio-economic background all play a part in our perceptions of ourselves, and how we think others perceive us. For some, this makes life very tough:

“Coming from different background and language – it’s very hard. My supervisor said that as a non-native speaker, I’d have to work ten times harder than everyone else. So after My PhD, I worked solidly for three years, 6 days a week, with no holiday. You have to try to balance what you love to do with those expectations, but it’s never enough.”

Others, however, suggested that recognising your weak points can help you to identify where you need support – for example by finding a mentor who has had similar experiences to you. One participant spoke of how she drew strength from her sense of difference:

“I’ve moved around so much, I’m used to feeling like I don’t belong. But then I think I’ve always been challenged, and I’m still moving forward, I’m still coping, so maybe I’m doing something right. You need to recognise your pressures – I’m a single mother with no family to support me – and I’m doing ok. I feel like an imposter on so many levels that being an imposter is the norm!”


4. Get some perspective

The job of an academic is unique, and as one of our speakers pointed out, it can be a fantastic job with a huge amount of freedom. But it’s easy to get caught up in our academic world, when sometimes we need to look beyond ourselves to get a sense of perspective.  One PhD student commented that having a job outside of her research helped her to see that there is more to life than academia. Another contributor suggested:

“Get out of your own area. Engage with other people. Say yes to everything – look for different opportunities. You’ll realise how little people in the real world know about stuff that you know a lot about, and that helps to get over those feelings of inadequacy. If you spend your whole life in your academic circle, of course you’ll feel inadequate. Get out of your own field.”


5. Everyone is suffering, so create a circle of niceness

If there is one conclusion we can draw from the discussion, it’s that everyone has had these feelings at some point. As we start to recognise the pressures that we put ourselves and others under, we can take steps to be more supportive and create a better working atmosphere. One of our speakers had this final piece of advice:

“Reach out to others, through social media, public engagement. Make life easier for each other, show kindness to yourself and others. We need to build a circle of niceness in academia. If we’re a bit nicer to each other, we can build a better community”


This article is based on a discussion held at the University of Bath on 6thJune 2019, organised by Dr Sarah Glozer and introduced by Prof Andrew Crane. Thank you to our speakers Dr Thomas Roulet (University of Cambridge), Prof Nancy Harding (University of Bath) and Prof Rachel Ashworth (University of Cardiff), and to our audience for participating so fully and honestly in the discussion.


Header image by TK Hammonds on Unsplash

Posted in: Employers, Research, University of Bath


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