Have you ever felt the elation of a goal reached? Of a dream fulfilled — perhaps graduating with flying colours or landing a dream job? We all certainly have such memories. But for how many of us are these moments marred by feelings of inadequacy, with that nagging voice in the head, “I do not belong here; I do not deserve all this?” A lot of us would nod our heads in agreement, including yours truly. That constant and persistent fear of being exposed as a fraud has a name – “Impostor syndrome”.
Impostor syndrome is characterized by perpetual self-doubt and an inability to objectively take credit for one’s accomplishments. Most people plagued by impostor feelings attribute their successes to external factors like luck, serendipity, or support from others. It was first described by psychologists Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes in 1978, who observed that it was seen mostly in high-achieving women. However, research over the years shows that impostor syndrome is prevalent across genders, social structure, and professional hierarchies.
I got in touch with students as well as established researchers to find out what triggers impostor-like feelings in academics. Pooja (name changed upon request), a female researcher who graduated from the Indian Institute of Science (IISc), Bangalore says, “I felt impostor-like feelings when I joined the Bachelor’s program at IISc, which is highly competitive. The skewed sex ratio – there were five times more boys than girls in the program – did not make it any better. I often felt excluded and inadequate, even though I was doing better than my peers.”
Siddharth Kankaria, science communication and outreach manager at the National Centre for Biological Sciences (NCBS), Bangalore, also an alumnus of the Bachelor’s program at IISc, tried working in a new field of biology every summer, in the hope of finding his “true calling”. He says, “Perhaps the only outcome of this ‘exercise in sampling’ was a realization that I wasn’t really cut out for pursuing a career in life science research – primarily a reflection of my state of burnout coupled with my impostor syndrome, rather than a true reflection of my academic skills and capabilities.”
Both Kankaria and Pooja went on to pursue careers in science communication and are successful in their chosen paths today. To do this, they had to learn new skills and seek out opportunities – proof of their talent and capabilities. However, silencing that inner voice is never easy. “I was still working in an academic setting, and was often perceived by others to have taken the “easy way out”, which just triggered my impostor syndrome even further,” says Kankaria.
Does this mean that this feeling of perceived imposture only affects the novices and not the experts in a particular field? Perhaps not. Sreelaja Nair, Associate Professor at the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Mumbai, draws on her experience. “I am heavily plagued by impostor feelings when I compare myself to my peers or when reviews for a submitted research paper land in my inbox,” she says. Nair has found an effective way to counter these feelings. “I pull myself up by reminding myself that I got into research because of the incomparable creative freedom possible in academia. Academic research can be considered an art form and all artists are perhaps insecure on some level of their capabilities and skills,” she says.
Leslee Lazar, Assistant teaching professor at the Centre for Cognitive and Brain Science, IIT Gandhinagar, feels that there might not be a simple solution to this problem. However, he believes that trained counsellors on campus, as well as periodic conversations about this topic, might be helpful. Kankaria suggests a few more approaches. “Mentorship programs ensuring greater awareness about impostor syndrome, ensuring the availability of accessible and affordable mental health services, and creating safe spaces for people to engage in dialogue about such issues,” are some actions he believes may be useful.
While social media is a constant reminder of the “ideal” lives of others and can be a powerful trigger of impostor-like feelings, Kankaria feels it can be a boon as well. “It offers increased visibility of people across hierarchies struggling with similar feelings, and more opportunities to network with them. It also leads to greater awareness of impostor syndrome and the systemic issues in academia contributing to it.”
Implicit social biases may form one such systemic issue. It is often believed that impostor syndrome is more common among women. Nair provides one explanation for what the problem could be: “It is the society’s fault that it does a double-take when a young girl does well in any kind of competitive field, especially involving numbers, logic, or physical strength. The extra effort from there on to ‘indulge’ the girl (framed as support, encouragement, progressive viewpoint etc.), sow the first seeds of ‘perhaps I do not actually belong here’ in her young mind. These blossom into full-blown ‘I do not belong here, but I have to try to blend in so people better than me don’t realise that I do not belong here’ as she enters any professional sphere.”
Pooja explains how deep-rooted our social biases are, “I remember teachers in my school mentioning how girls are good in biology while boys are better in mathematics. Whenever a boy topped, it was often attributed to his logical reasoning and intelligence. On the other hand, if a girl topped, it was hard work and good memory. Such descriptions still go around in academia – women are rarely applauded for their smartness and intelligence; they are often described as hard-working and patient.”
While Indian universities are often a cultural melting pot, with students from different parts of the country studying together, they also serve as sites of segregation based on caste, gender, region, political ideologies, etc. A vulnerable student, particularly someone hailing from a disadvantaged background or a minority community, could end up feeling isolated, which might trigger feelings of imposture.
How can universities and team leaders help such students? Nair describes some methods she employs to make her students feel comfortable, “In my group, we have weekly “addas” or non-scientific discussions for members to get to know one another through personal stories and narratives of their experiences. For a research team, it is important to achieve that safe space for all members, where one can be their real ignorant self, without judgment, especially with their advisors.”
While the feelings of imposture can be emotionally debilitating, it is important to find ways to move past them. As Lazar says, “There is no single way to deal with these feelings. Talking to friends and reassuring oneself that there are multiple metrics and what we see on the outside doesn’t tell the whole picture, helps.”
It also helps to learn how to live with these feelings when they strike. Kankaria says, “The number of times I have to deal with such feelings has not reduced, but I’ve definitely gotten better at acknowledging and addressing them. I have become more accepting of myself, have greater confidence in my capabilities, and try to consciously focus on acquiring skills that I don’t yet possess.”
Although there have been many discussions on impostor syndrome, it remains to gain clinical relevance. An apathetic approach to this serious issue can dramatically alter the lives of the affected —some even downshift their career goals resulting in severe long-term consequences.
India is on the brink of a mental health crisis and a large part of the solution could be placing qualified support groups in place at educational institutions and workplaces. Seeking help for worsening mental health should be treated akin to seeking help for any other health problems: typhoid, anaemia, diabetes, COVID-19, etc. And while that takes time, perhaps each of us could look around and take active steps to help someone who needs a patient ear or a shoulder to cry on.