March 1, 2021

What’s really behind impostor syndrome

Posted by Laura Guertin

During the Zoom-based mentoring sessions with my undergraduate research student, I make sure to start the conversation by taking cues from topics she brings up. Sometimes, it is her restlessness of being cooped up in her dorm room and only venturing out for her one in-person class, or her concerns for the health of family and friends during the pandemic. Recently, we had an interesting conversation about impostor syndrome – something she said she first learned about on TikTok, as many females are posting videos about how they are treated in science classes and their lack of confidence in being able to do science (I’m not on TikTok, so I haven’t seen these videos).

Impostor syndrome is not a new topic in science discussions, and this blog post is not meant to provide a review of the term. And there have been plenty of suggestions for how to address impostor syndrome. Back in 2008, Science published No, you’re not an imposter. The Chronicle of Higher Education has shared ideas for teaching your graduate students how to avoid feeling as if they don’t belong in academe. The Guardian also published four ways to help your students overcome impostor syndrome. There’s even a playlist of TED Talks for fighting impostor syndrome and an online Clance Impostor Phenomenon Test.

But maybe instead of focusing on assisting individual students by teaching them to fail better or to speak up for themselves (suggestions from the articles above), perhaps we start by looking at the entire system of science students/faculty/staff/administrators in higher education.

These two articles are important reads, for those still using the phrase “impostor syndrome” and looking to address what may be the underlying issue :



Please take a moment to read these two articles. It is important to include in these discussions that perhaps it isn’t a lack of self-confidence, that the self-doubt comes from a toxic environment and culture in our research laboratories and institutions. Only by looking at the entire system and enacting changes can we ensure we are providing the best support and structures for our students and colleagues to succeed.