I was absolutely terrified on the morning of my PhD viva. As well as the usual nerves, I was convinced that after three and a half years as a graduate student this was the moment when I was going to be found out. Finally exposed. Revealed as someone who didn’t really know what they were doing.
Needless to say I wasn’t and, with hindsight, I realise that I should never have been worried about it. I probably knew just as much as most people. Yet I still bore that fear, the worry that I just wasn’t quite good enough, throughout my time in the lab.
It was only after I left academic research and began a career in science policy that I realised this fear has a name and, what’s more, I’m not alone in suffering from it. It’s known as ‘impostor syndrome’.
Defined (by Wikipedia, naturally) as a psychological phenomenon in which people are unable to internalise their accomplishments, despite external evidence of their competence, impostor syndrome causes those affected to remain convinced that they are frauds and do not deserve the success they have achieved. Proof of success is dismissed as luck, timing, or as a result of deceiving others into thinking they are more intelligent and competent than they believe themselves to be.
Interestingly, discussions of impostor syndrome are very often gendered. I have seen numerous reports and personal accounts, yet struggle to think of an example which cites or is authored by a male sufferer. It seems that women are far more susceptible to feelings, however misplaced, of inadequacy. (I wish to point out here that I’m not a fan of putting people into boxes… I do not mean to implicate my entire gender, I’m merely reporting on what I have come across).
Furthermore, it seems that impostor syndrome is particularly common in highly skilled and highly powered (often male dominated) careers including academic science. This could be because of the culture which often goes hand-in-hand with academic research: one of competitiveness and constant emphasis on critical thought. It’s perhaps not surprising that this can prompt increased inward thought and critical self-assessment. This may be more prevalent among women because women are frequently under-represented in this culture; in 2011/2012 61% of bioscience postgraduate students were female yet only 15% of professors. In relative isolation it is perhaps easier to understand why feelings of inadequacy could pervade.
Or perhaps it’s just because women have been more vocal in coming forward with feelings of impostor syndrome. We need more male sufferers to come out… there is strength in numbers!