“I feel incompetent”. “I am less creative, less smart, less eloquent and less critical than others”. “I’m a fraud and only got onto this course because of a fluke”. “They’re going to find out that I am incapable.” “Everyone is older and more experienced than me”. “I’m not a proper scientist”. “I don’t do hard core science”. “I feel detached from my work.”
Words are incredibly powerful. Not just the ones we say to others, but the internal dialogue that can play like a stuck record in our minds. The way our self-perception feels inextricably bound up with an idea of everyone else. Comparison swoops in and plucks away at our self-belief until the only thing that makes sense is to be critical of ourselves. And yet these words aren’t someone else’s, nor are they grounded in reality. What does all of this mean?
Whilst at school, our PSHE and citizenship lessons were usually dedicated to the topic of health, but only the physical kind: don’t take drugs or drink alcohol excessively, especially when driving; eat healthily and exercise regularly. Let me be clear that these are undoubtedly conversations that we need to continue having. I just couldn’t help but notice the gaping void in the curriculum. We all came into school as if academia and our lives outside of it didn’t have any effect on the way we felt in our heads, like the mind and body were not connected.
Education is foundational to who we are. 17 years of it leaves an indelible mark. Yet to many of us talking in class, graduating, conducting a PhD, or being recognised for our work conjures mixed feelings. It’s like when someone’s given you a gift and you’d sooner give it back and tell them they needn’t have got it for you than thank them for it. In our mind, we simply don’t deserve it. This experience is termed Imposter Syndrome. 70% of us will experience this at least once in our lifetimes. We can even convince ourselves that our accomplishments are a matter of luck rather than our own efforts. We think we are deceiving others when really, we are deceiving ourselves.
Students in STEM are no stranger to this phenomenon, so I went out and spoke to a variety of STEM students up and down the country to debunk some of the myths surrounding imposter syndrome. I saw this as an opportunity to amplify voices and bring to light lived experiences. As I did this, it became clear that some prominent themes came up time and time again, so let’s address these and consider what can be done to remedy imposter syndrome.
People often say that you find yourself when you go to university. Granted, it is a greatly formative time, inviting self-reflection and growth. But it’s not without its turbulence. Cosmo, a Medical Sciences graduate from the University of Exeter recalls “a constant feeling of not belonging, spen[ding] months reading immunology textbooks after feeling like he needed to keep up with others”. It’s as if education is this treadmill that is constantly increasing in speed. Belonging doesn’t come from a grade or an award or a degree certificate. Katie, MChem Chemistry student at the University of Bath sees that “dedicating time to something that you are passionate about outside of your degree is an excellent way to combat” negative feelings about your abilities. Throwing yourself into something you love is a great reminder of what you can achieve when you really enjoy what you do.
Starting out on a journey, academic or otherwise, it can feel like those first few steps are the hardest. Like we are small fish in a big pond. Sophie, a Science Communication Student here at Imperial College remembers feeling that at work, her degree experience hadn’t made her “seem any less of a ‘little girl’ in everyone’s eyes”, as though she needed to prove she wasn’t a child. Yet, after working for a few years and starting a master’s, her attitude evolved: “I sit back and think about the things that make me feel like an imposter (being young and still learning) and how they are actually advantages in many ways”.
A growth mindset is accepting that not knowing much at the start is completely normal. Doubt in yourself is just a temporary feeling and not a state of being. Your knowledge is not fixed.
Historically, STEM has been fraught with stereotypes and false expectations. Elinor, a BioMed PhD student at the University of Exeter recapitulates these assumptions: “we are shown that scientists are incredibly clever people who know more than the average person, yet when you are starting out on your career you will know relatively little about your field and so did others previously in your position”. These expectations lead to us putting undue pressure on ourselves to perform well or reach ‘perfect’ self-assigned standards. Statistically, imposter syndrome is felt equally by men and women throughout the population, yet it is notable that in the context of STEM, “there’s a lot of internalised misogyny constantly telling us we aren’t good enough for practical subjects”, as Mona, MSc Applied Infectious Disease Epidemiology student at University College London notes.
Thankfully, this is changing. “I was involved in a Women in Science Committee at university and it helps seeing female role models in STEM”, says Cecilia, MSc Science Communication student at Imperial College. It is especially important that these role models represent not just white heterosexual cis males, but also women and those from BAME communities, because an exclusive education is no education at all; institutional racism and sexism only drive feelings of inferiority and stigma preventing people from reaching out for help.
Throughout education, we are confronted with assessments, marks, results days and scrutiny. These procedures are effective in monitoring students’ scholastic progress, but less so in monitoring how a student actually feels about their progress. Tests and grades can come as a double-edged sword. In the words of Laura, MSc Science Communication student at Imperial College, “I find myself needing feedback and validation from people all of the time and when I don’t get it, I end up giving it to myself”.
The need to know what others think of our work can sometimes override our passion for learning, leaving us feeling unmotivated and ultimately unable to derive the same pleasure we used to from our studies. After some time, Laura’s attitude changed. In her words: “I think of learning as being down a well and trying to climb back up. Sometimes you need to fall down the well in order to climb back up and gain a new perspective”. Motivation from extrinsic sources – marks, comments, praise, status and reputation – are the fossil fuels of the brain: unsustainable and ultimately lead to diminishing returns. Intrinsic motivation, that is genuine self-respect and self-compassion, are the renewables that will last a lifetime.
Through these candid conversations, it became apparent that imposter syndrome is uniquely experienced by individuals and is intertwined with multifarious contextual factors, from self-esteem to societal attitudes. Talking openly about imposter syndrome helps others feel less alone. There is joy in being a beginner.