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What is Imposter Syndrome?

Do you feel like an imposter? A fraud? A faker? Are you dreading the inevitable day your department or students figure you out?

If so, you are not alone. "Imposter syndrome" is common in academia and is not limited to new professors. Whether you are just starting out as a GTA or you've been teaching for years, the feelings of being out of your depth can lurk at the edge of each day, waiting for an opportunity to undermine your self confidence.

Originally coined "imposter phenomenon" by Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes in 1978, feelings of being an imposter were initially thought to be linked to high achievement. Today, it's more widely believed to be part of the human condition, although professions that confer authority are especially prone to cultivating it. But don't let your authority as a professor fool you; your students may suffer from imposter syndrome too.

It's uncomfortable to feel like a fraud. If misery loves company, perhaps it helps to know you are not alone. But on those days when that simple fig leaf of assurance isn't quite enough to gird you for your class, keep these things in mind.

  • Imposter syndrome is useful. If you feel like a fraud, you might be more inclined to prepare and even over-prepare. In teaching, preparation is the key to success. If you come in knowing your stuff, you'll be more successful and your students will respect you more. Besides, the stress that comes with imposter syndrome can keep you more alert and allow you to perform at your cognitive best.
  • Imposters learn more, if they get over themselves. We are all imposters sometimes. We succeed because we stretch and try to do things at the edge of our ability. If you accept that sometimes you don't just "feel" like an imposter, but are one, you might become more comfortable asking questions. If you hide your fear, you'll attempt to hide your ignorance. But education is in the ignorance business. Admit you need help and it will be easier to find someone to teach you.
  • Imposter syndrome fades over time. Well, kinda. You are most likely to feel imposter syndrome about your new responsibilities and challenges. That means if you are new to teaching, feeling like an imposter teacher will likely fade soon. Over the course of your career, you will have many new roles. I'm sure even the president of the United States feels like a fraud at the start.

If you find that imposter syndrome is significantly affecting your ability to perform your job, then the time has come to seek some help. Don't let concern about being a fraud damage your career. Instead, work to see it as a tool you can use to get better at what you do. Ninety-four percent of professors believe they are above average, and obviously they can't all be right. If you hope to see yourself clearly, keep working to improve throughout your entire career.