The Imposter Phenomenon in Academia – Sally Heath

“I am nothing but an impostor and a fake. I don’t deserve my success; I haven’t really earned it. I’ve been fooling other people into thinking I am a lot smarter and more talented than I really am.”

Does the above quotation sound familiar to you? Have you ever felt that your academic success was undeserved, or the result of luck? In the spring of 2008, I facilitated a workshop called The Imposter Phenomenon in Academia. The Imposter Phenomenon (IP) is a term coined in the 1970s by Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes to describe a psychological pattern associated with fears and fraudulence and undeserved success. Common experiences associated with the Imposter Phenomenon include feelings of phoniness and self-doubt, the fear of being “unmasked,” a fear of making mistakes, and difficulty in taking credit for one’s accomplishments.

Since Clance and Imes performed their original research, the Imposter Phenomenon has been examined in many different contexts, but it seems to be particularly rampant in academia. A 1985 Time article suggested that about 70% of the population experienced IP feelings, while research done by Padolske (1990) suggested that 85% of graduate students exhibited IP characteristics. Diane Zorn, a researcher from York University says that the university is a “fertile breeding ground” for the Imposter Phenomenon. Scholarly isolation, aggressive competitiveness, disciplinary nationalism, a lack of mentoring and the valuation of product over process,” Zorn says, make students and faculty alike prone to experience IP sentiments. How can these feelings impair your work as an academic? Research indicates that graduate students or faculty members with high IP feelings may make themselves less accessible to students, may hold fewer office hours, and may present and publish their research more infrequently, all for fear of being “found out” (Turman, 2001).

The good news is that there are steps you can take to both recognize and deal with IP feelings. You can diagnose your predisposition to the Imposter Phenomenon by taking a quiz developed to measure IP feelings. Two different versions of the quiz can be found at the following links:

So you’ve found out you are an imposter! What now? Dr. Valerie Young, who specializes in helping overcome their IP feelings, has created 10 steps to help you overcome these feelings that can be found here:

Of all of her suggestions, perhaps the most useful one is the first one: break the silence. In the workshop that I gave, participants all agreed that the experience was both encouraging and cathartic. It’s nice to know that you aren’t alone in your IP feelings, so talk to your colleagues, your friends, or your peers about it. More than likely, you’ll find out that you aren’t the only one who feels this way. The important thing is not to allow IP feelings to impair your academic work, and to realize that it wasn’t dumb luck that landed you that scholarship or faculty position, but your talent, skills, and hard work.

Related Resources

Brems, C. et al (1994). The Imposter Syndrome as Related to Teaching Evaluations and Advising Relationships of University Faculty Members. Journal of Higher Education. Vol. 65 (2): 183-193.

Clance, P.R., Imes, S. (1978). The Imposter Phenomenon in High Achieving Women: Dynamics and Therapeutic Intervention. Psychotherapy Theory, Research and Practice. Vol. 15 (3).

Harvey, J.C., Katz, C. (1984). If I’m So Successful, Why do I Feel Like A Fake? Random House: New York.

Turman, P.D. (2001). ‘I’m Fooling Them All:’ The Examination of the Imposter Phenomenon in the Undergraduate Instructor Assistant Experience. Journal of Graduate Teaching Assistant Development. Vol. 8 (3): 123-131.

Dr. Valerie Young’s Website:

Other IP resources:

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Sally Heath

As the Acting Instructional Developer (2008-2009), Sally Heath oversees all aspects of the Certificate in University Teaching (CUT) program and works with graduate students who are interested in developing their instructional skills and expanding their teaching horizons. In addition to working at CTE, Sally is pursuing a doctoral degree in English.

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