Mastering the Workplace: Impostor Syndrome

Mastering the workplace: An ongoing series in which we talk about work skills so you can rock your job.

I was in a meeting today in which I had to introduce and define impostor syndrome to some (ahem, male) colleagues, explaining how important it was and that this is a real thing. I’ll save you a google – impostor syndrome is SUPER common throughout academia, and is when high achieving individuals – often women – believe that they are impostors, waiting to be found out and walked out of the workplace. They “struggle to internalize their success…[describing] feelings of fraudulence because they do not attribute their success to their own abilities despite many achievements and accolades. Imposters see themselves as unworthy of the level of praise they are receiving because they do not believe they have earned such recognition based on their capabilities, causing heightened levels of anxiety and stress.” (Anna Parkman, “The Imposter Phenomenon in Higher Education: Incidence and Impact,” Journal of Higher Education Theory and Practice, 2016, p.52).

Recognize the signs

Let me say it again, for those of you in the back: Impostor syndrome is very real. I had it long before I ever knew it had a name. And so many others have it, too. Impostor syndrome has many effects on the higher ed workplace. Maybe you have a nagging feeling that you don’t deserve the job you have. Maybe you feel you aren’t qualified or capable of the tasks assigned to you. Maybe you tell yourself you don’t have enough experience or know enough about the field you’re working in. Maybe you feel like you’re lacking in the work skills a project requires or that you don’t have what it would take to get a promotion. Maybe you just feel like you don’t belong. In my case, it has the effect of my HR director saying to me “You seem anxious. It’s almost like you feel as if you’re going to get fired any minute.” Uh, yup. Hit that bullseye right in the middle.

One reason you may feel this way: You’re an academic

When you’re an academic, you’re constantly trying to prove yourself. As a student, you’re constantly comparing yourself against your cohort. As you all make your way through your program, you’re trying to assess where you stand against your future competition when it comes to the job market. If you graduate and make it as a postdoc, you’re vying for favor with and access to the right faculty in your department. You’re trying to find the right funding and publications to stand out, and for so many, it never seems to be enough, unfortunately, due to the dismal job market academics and postdocs face. And even for impostors lucky enough to land a coveted tenure-track faculty job, the ultimate prize, these feelings continue to fester as you continuously try to one-up your own game to achieve tenure. And when you find yourself “settling” for a staff job, you suffer from feelings of inadequacy, too. You feel like maybe you were a pity hire, that even though you’re way overqualified, they decided to try you on for size. Or you are highly critical of your work. After all, academics are used to striving to be and looking up to leading experts. So you apologize for your work products, seeing them as less-than-perfect. Or you refrain from speaking up and chiming in with your contributions at meetings because you’re afraid others will find your remarks to expose your lack of depth in the work. (First off, that’s almost never the case, and secondly, here’s a compelling reason to turn that thinking on its head and use your impostor status as an advantage.)

Or that your academic knowledge are over there, but the work you’ve been hired to do is way over here. Bottom line is: academics are, by nature, intellectually curious and extremely bright people who are constantly learning and have literally spent YEARS honing their abilities to learn in order to stay current in their field, and that doesn’t stop once they get to the workplace.

What should you do, if you suffer from impostor syndrome?

1- Listen

First off, listen to what you say to yourself. I mean I don’t mean to go all Stuart Smalley on you, but seriously, what you tell yourself matters. When assigned a new project at work, do you hear yourself thinking “I don’t know how to…” or “I don’t know enough about…” or some variation thereof? Start looking for the signs.

2- Change your Response

Okay, so let’s say you do hear yourself saying “But I don’t know how to…” or “I don’t know enough about that to take on that work challenge yet…,” then pause. Take a good, hard look at what you just said for accuracy. If you were someone else, what would you say to you? Okay, even IF it turns out to be true that you don’t know how or enough about something yet, you are your toughest critic. Wanna know why? Because you’re an academic and that means: you are MORE than capable of *learning it* because you are an expert at learning and research.

Try this out. As uncomfortable as it may sound or feel, when you hear your own negative self-talk, I’d really like you to counter that with saying something that you totally rock at. Seriously. It’s as awkward and weird as it sounds, but just do it. And no, it doesn’t have to be the corollary, like “I suck at Excel so I can’t do this budget” doesn’t have to be stood up against “I don’t completely suck at Excel because I know how to do a SUM formula.” Instead, it can be completely unrelated. “I suck at Excel so I can’t do this budget” could be countered by “Whatever. So what. I totally kicked @ss at Super Phantom Cat last night.”

3 – Set boundaries

About that learning skill I just mentioned up there…
A lot of impostor syndrome academics don’t know when enough is enough. Maybe you find yourself sneaking in a ton of extra hours at nights or spend your weekends beefing up your software skills or benchmarking and researching how everyone else does something so that at work, you can look and feel more prepared, up-to-speed on the past and current trends in your field, and ready to do the things and the stuff. I’m not saying it’s not time well-spent, but when you find it’s happening for weeks on end, or that you haven’t seen your friends or family for a month because you’re hunched over books, articles, and endless info-gathering….you might want to cut back. I strongly feel that any workplace worthy of you will recognize that *part of your 40 hour work week* is professional development like that. What you give your work for 40 hours a week is good enough. Period. It’s time that we deal with this impostor syndrom so you can go get your work-life balance back into focus.

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