Impostor syndrome, belongingness and wellbeing in academia
This is a Research Highlight, where I present published research on doctoral student wellbeing.
A recent article by Sverdlik, Hall and McAlpine examined the effect of integration into the scholarly community and perceptions of self-worth on the wellbeing of doctoral students. So, in essence, they were looking at impostor syndrome and belongingness in academia, something I’ve written about before in this blog and elsewhere.
Feeling like an impostor?
What is especially compelling about this research is that the authors sought out to explain the process by which impostor syndrome develops in doctoral students and some of the consequences impostor syndrome has on wellbeing. Although we know something about the antecedents of doctoral student wellbeing (e.g. from this literature review by Sverdlik, Hall, McAlpine & Hubbard), understanding how impostor syndrome develops is really important as it helps us intervene and create a safer and more supportive environment for doctoral students.
Impostor syndrome is no joke. It is is characterized by an inability to internalize one’s own academic success, attributing any success to external factors (e.g., luck, networking) as well as a fear of not being able to repeat successful outcomes and a fear of being exposed as a “fraud” (Clance, 1985). Doctoral students who suffer from impostor syndrome avoid new and challenging opportunities because they are afraid of failure and of being exposed. What a waste of intelligent minds.
Am I the only one struggling?
And this is not some rare occurrence. Studies show that impostor syndrome is common, especially among highly educated and high-achieving individuals, such as doctoral students.
But what to do and how does belongingness relate to all of this? According to the authors, impostor syndrome is more pronounced in situations where the students become isolated from their academic community. This is something I see in my individual counselings: doctoral students who have not been in contact with almost anyone since the beginning of lockdown and who are now completely disconnected from the realities of academic life. This leads to them perceiving themselves as the only ones who struggle and therefore they think they are not capable of doing research.
But this is not only a symptom of the ongoing pandemic and isolation due to that. This is symptomatic of the academic community also during normal times.
The authors explain this:
“Thus, when doctoral students are isolated from their academic communities, their evaluations of the efforts necessary for scholarly achievements (e.g., scholarly dissemination, winning research grants) become additionally skewed as they do not witness the work required for such achievements. When students are integrated into their communities, on the other hand, they are more involved in the work performed by community members and have a deeper understanding of the academic standards, as well as the efforts and skills required to meet those standards. Finally, doctoral students’ sense of belonging to their scholarly community is closely related to feeling like a valued, involved, an integral part of that community and, therefore, an academic.”Sverdlik, Hall & McAlpine, 2020, p. 742.
So, what did they find in their analyses? They found that feeling part of one’s scholarly community negatively predicted impostor syndrome. And that impostor syndrome predicted increases in depression, stress, and illness symptoms.
Stepping out of the shadows
This article thus highlights the importance of making an effort to socialize new doctoral students into the community, creating safe spaces to express feelings of inadequacy or fear of failure, and the need for supportive social atmosphere at the departmental level, that emphasizes the quality of interactions and consultation with faculty. All this can be achieved by e.g.
- allocating more resources for scholarly get-togethers like conferences;
- establishing structured mentoring and collaboration paths between members of the community;
- investing in proper and structured onboarding also for doctoral students (at all levels, not only by HR);
- information and orientation sessions for first-year doctoral students that highlight the prevalence and remedies of feeling like an impostor to normalize these otherwise deleterious feelings of inadequacy;
- make senior staff accountable for involving doctoral students in scholarly happenings and integration into the community;
- providing counseling services and professional development seminars that tackle these topics;
- training supervisors to identify imposter syndrome in their doctoral students and provide access to resources that can help reframe negative self-perceptions.
Clance PR. (1985). The Impostor Phenomenon: When Success Makes You Feel Like a Fake. Atlanta: Peachtree Publishers.
Sverdlik, A., Hall, N. C., & McAlpine, L. (2020). PhD imposter syndrome: Exploring antecedents, consequences, and implications for doctoral well-being. International Journal of Doctoral Studies, 15, 737-758.
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