The Imposter Syndrome in Academia

In this blog post, I will talk about something that many students or researchers have or are experiencing in academia, which is called the imposter syndrome. It is the feeling of not being worthy of having achieved some success or being in a given position. For example, a new PhD student accepted in a top university may feel that he was just lucky and did not really get accepted because of his skills or efforts. A professor may similarly feel that he received funding but that it is undeserved. The imposter syndrome is something very common in academia. Many people have experienced it at some point in their career.

Personally, when I was first admitted in the master degree in computer science more than 15 years ago, I felt that there was still some gaps in my knowledge. For example, I thought that I had not learnt enough about some topics in computer science or mathematics during the bachelor degree. Although I was a reasonably good programmer, it appeared to me that some other students were better. Moreover, another question that I had when starting the master degree was: Even if I am a good student, will I be successful at research? This is a question that many students have because doing research is something new at that stage.

Then, during the master and Ph.D degree, I published several papers on e-learning and started to attend academic conferences. But when attending the conferences, I felt sometimes that my knowledge of the field was not so deep compared to that of many experts there.

Later, I changed my research direction towards data mining and became very good in some research areas there. However, I still felt that I did not know enough about some hot topics like big data.

The examples above are situations that could be viewed as some form of imposter syndrome.

Now, I would like to talk more about this.

Is the imposter syndrome something bad?

Yes, if it discourage you. No, if it motivates you to work harder and to improve yourself. Personally, when I perceive that I have some weaknesses, I will work harder to try to overcome them, and in the end, it will be positive. Thus, whether the imposter syndrome is something negative of positive depends on your attitude towards it.

How to overcome the imposter syndrome?

A good start is to recognize that you have several skills and to think about your strengths. Moreover, you should remember that although some other people may appear to be better at some things, you are better at other things. For example, another professor may seem to be better at teaching than you are but you may be a better researcher, or a student may seem better programmer than you, but you are better at writing research papers. And in any case, you can work out on your weaknesses to improve yourself.

Another important thing is to not be scared that people “unmask you” and discover that you are an “imposter“. Remember that no one is perfect and you should not be shy to admit htat you have weaknesses. You can then ask for help or questions to other people because this will help to improve yourself. For example, it is OK to ask a question about something that you do not understand during a research seminar.

Related to this, I will tell you another story. I remember some friend of mine that was scared of telling his supervisor that his programming skills were weak during his PhD studies. He did not tell his supervisor during his whole Ph.D but he was stressed that the supervisor may find out about it. In such case, I think that he should have been honest with the supervisor (and that is what I told him at that time). If he had done that, perhaps that the supervisor could have gave him some suggestions to improve his skills and my friend would have felt less stressful. But my friend found another solution. He instead worked hard and asked for help from many other students, and finally improved himself.

How long the imposter syndrome last?

There is no answer that is suitable for everyone. Some people overcome that syndrome by receiving some recognition from other people such as some award, a prize or obtaining a degree. But sometimes, the imposter syndrome stays there for a long time. For example, I have read some story about a tenured professor in a top level university that mentioned that he felt the imposter syndrome until he retired. After completing a paper, he was always thinking that he could maybe not find good ideas anymore for his next research projects.

Conclusion

In this blog post, I talked about the imposter syndrome and told you a few stories about it. The imposter syndrome is something very common at all levels from students to professors. The important is to know that you are not alone that you have strengths, and to think about this in a positive way to help you grow and improve yourself rather than discourage you. Don’t be afraid that people “unmask you” but instead ask questions, and work on improving yourself.


Philippe Fournier-Viger is a computer science professor and founder of the SPMF open-source data mining library, which offers more than 170 algorithms for analyzing data, implemented in Java.

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