The academic nightmare – imposter syndrome

Constantly doubting yourself? Have a sense of self-disbelief? Can’t believe how or why you are doing your degree/career? Racked with fear that somebody will find out you’re bad at what you do (even if you’re awesome)? Frequently deliberate over whether your life is heading in the right direction? Join the club…

If you have felt one, or unfortunately all of these, on a regular basis, chances are that you suffer from Imposter Syndrome. First I must clarify – although Imposter Syndrome is a form of anxiety, it is not to be confused with short-term anxiety. The majority of people have short-term periods of anxiety, doubting their academic skills and life choices etc. These are not only natural, but are crucial in motivating us.

Imposter syndrome is a far more-deep seated anxiety, which although can be short term, sometimes is persistent for far longer. It is nagging, constantly on your mind, even when not at work or university. Like anxiety, it is a syndrome based around worrying. Another similar example is hypochondria.

How do I know so much about this, you may be asking yourself? Well unfortunately, it is something I have and continue to struggle with. I am a first year PhD student, working in Molecular Microbiology. Now I can’t speak for other academic areas, but I find the Biosciences very intimidating. I have previously written about my experience of academic intimidation and starting new academic years, in “Starting a new academic year (I have no idea what I’m doing…)”. That entire article is a snapshot into just one of the problems that Imposter Syndrome has caused me.

So let’s go in-depth into what Imposter Syndrome is. It is a form of anxiety that revolves around what you do for a living and who you are (your self-identity), making you doubt yourself in various ways. You feel like an imposter: like you can’t or shouldn’t be doing your degree or job, constantly worrying you will be exposed as some-sort of fraud, having crises of confidence. Like I mention in my previous blog post, for me it was a recurring issue when starting new academic years. The pressure of moving up an academic level got to me, and I was convinced each year that I had reached my academic limit, and should quit. Making the bigger jump from undergrad to PhD made me even more anxious. I also have issues with this when working with a new/unfamiliar technique in the lab. Part of my degree and academic path involves me presenting work at conferences, so of course this is a prime opportunity for Imposter Syndrome to strike, making me doubt that I can present my work, that I’m going to embarrass myself and my department. The scariest form of self-doubt it caused me to have was actually doubting that I had anxiety, that I was depressed. I began to question everything about my mental health, feeling like I was pretending – that I was an imposter. It took me a long time to convince myself that I was in-fact suffering badly with anxiety, and needed help.

One of the biggest problems about mental health conditions is that they complement each other, and many people can have two or more separate mental health disorders that interact. Personally I have had issues with anxiety and depression since I was a child. I learnt recently from a trip to the University’s counselling service that being anxious can make you more depressed, and likewise, being depressed can make it easier for anxiety to be an issue. Going into even more detail, those suffering from anxiety are more likely to suffer from multiple subsets of anxiety. Again using myself as an example – as well as general anxiety and Imposter Syndrome, I also have hypochondriac anxiety.

However, and this is VERY important, just because you have one form of mental health disorder, does not mean you will have the others. It is more likely, but by no means a certainty. People who suffer from Imposter Syndrome, like all mental health disorders, can overcome it. It is also possible to suffer the milder, more ‘normal’ form of anxiety, in-between bouts of Imposter Syndrome anxiety.

I want to end this article on a positive note, because there is hope for those who suffer this form of anxiety. If you identify with what I have said in this blog, then talk to somebody about it. This could be a close friend, a sympathetic academic or a family member. Even if this only makes you realise that you have Imposter Syndrome (or not), it is an important first step. Then I would recommend seeing someone at the University’s counselling service, also on Twitter: @Sheff_UCS. They will be able to guide you on the road to beating Imposter Syndrome!

Just remember, if you are thinking of quitting your job or degree because you are persistently doubting yourself, first take a long hard look at your situation, and ask yourself – “Do I have Imposter Syndrome?”.

6 thoughts on “The academic nightmare – imposter syndrome

  1. I’m worried that we’re pathologising a normal emotion here, Stewart.

    It seems to me that there are three kinds of people:
    Firstly there are people with imposter syndrome as you described. Then there are those with the opposite problem — the Dunning-Kruger effect — whereby people mistakenly assess their own abilities as being higher and more valuable than they actually are. And lastly, there are those few who have genuinely have themselves figured out.

    I’d argue that the vast majority of people fall into the first two categories, and rightly so. Unless you are talking about a topic which is so narrow that you have truly been able to explore it in it’s entirety, you will likely never feel like an expert on the matter. As I get older and get to know more and more people, I’m realising that nobody really has a clue what they are doing; very few people have their shit together, and I’m immediately sceptical when somebody claims that they do. We’re all just bullshitting our way through.

    But if this is the case, and it is completely normal to feel imposter syndrome, why must we pathologise it? It seems to me that, like depression, anxiety, ADHD, and many other “conditions” and “disorders”, the imposter syndrome is just part of the spectrum of normal behaviour. Pathologising this stuff will lead to issues with people’s self-esteem, self-confidence, and self-worth, by implying that there is something wrong with them. Instead we should be encouraging people to be comfortable, knowing that everybody deals with these issues and it’s completely normal.

    I’d be interested to know what you think.

    Heres an interesting article about the topic:


    • Thanks for your comment! Absolutely not, and I completely disagree. If you read the second paragraph of my piece, I explicitly and carefully describe the difference between normal ‘natural’ anxiety and imposter syndrome.

      I am not an expert, however I believe the majority of people don’t have imposter syndrome, but experience a varying amouny of normal anxiety. I agree with the theory of a mental health spectrum, however there are boundaries, at which point someone can be diagnosed.

      Granted, there will be some crossover between people experiencing severe normal anxiety, and those who suffer with low-level anxiety disorders. But I digress…

      My point is that I am not pathologising a normal emotion, I am distinguishing between normal emotions and mental health disorsers. I am doing this not to scare people, I am doing it to raise awareness.

      It isn’t ‘normal’ to have a mental health condition (and I say this as a sufferer of multiple conditions), that is the point of this piece. Whilst it isn’t normal, what I am trying to do, and help others do, is to accept that they are suffering, that they aren’t normal, and that they need to accept and overcome that in order to overcome their mental health issue!

      Looking forward to your reply 🙂


  2. Hi Stewart,

    My comment seems to have been removed and I can’t remember exactly what I wrote so excuse me if I repeat myself or fail to back up one of the points that I made!

    Firstly, I am talking completely from my own ill-founded opinions here, so I won’t argue too much about the numbers of that people ”have” the syndrome. However I will quickly point out that the wikipedia page for the syndrome claims that there have been studies that found that 70% of all people experience it at some point – although it is not backed up by a particular study. Even if the actual figure was only quarter of that, I would still have to wonder whether or not this is indeed a normal emotion and simply a symptom of human existence, instead if a diagnosable mental disorder. It also seems to me that the imposter syndrome might not be such a bad thing in small amounts, for example, doesn’t it serve to keep people humble and less egotistical?

    It should also be pointed out that the imposter syndrome is not actually considered a mental or psychological disorder. Its not even a form of anxiety, its a psychological phenomenon. This effectively means that it’s on the same level of categorisation as things like The Bystander Effect, or Déjà Vu. In this respect, describing it as a mental disorder is undeniably an over-pathologisation.

    I think that the argument that I was trying to make in my first comment however was more that the classifications of what is and isn’t a mental health disorder is becoming a problem, regardless of what you think of the imposter syndrome. I was bringing it up just as an interesting point to think about, rather than trying to accuse you of scaring people – so I apologise if it came off that way!

    Take ADHD for example. If you look closely at the differences in how these should be diagnosed according to DSM-4, vs how they are diagnosed according to the newer, DSM-5, you will notice the threshold for a diagnosis has been reduced significantly. This means that many people are now being diagnosed with ADHD that a few years ago would have just been considered energetic or easily bored – perhaps because they are not being challenged enough.

    The same is happening with depression, anxiety, and a host of other metal illnesses. I’d argue for example that it’s completely normal to be depressed occasionally, and that being occasionally depressed does not necessarily mean you “have” depression. Thoughts?

    Anyway, this was an interesting and enjoyable article! Its certainly provoked a lot of thoughts from me as you can see! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Sorry your comment got deleted! I didn’t take offence at anything so don’t worry!

      Likewise, I only write from experience. I and some others categorise it as a form of anxiety, because you are anxious of being ‘found out’ that you are an ‘imposter’.

      Again it all comes down to the spectrum. I categorise because a: most people fall within ranges and can be grouped together, and b: it is easier! But this doesn’t mean I don’t believe in a mental health spectrum.

      Normal anxiety is useful to keep people in check, having experienced imposter syndrome myself, it serves no use, and is a major hindrance. It goes so far past making you humble, it makes me doubt myself to my very core.

      I get what you are saying about how people classify it etc. However I think that not classifying specific forms of mental health disorders is a negative thing.

      At the end of the day we are arguing over the semantics, which is really not the point. I had a defined feeling that affected my mental health. Call it a phenomenon, or whatever, but by definition that makes it a mental health disorder. It’s not over pathologising, it’s common sense to me.

      Take my article as a whole. I give advice of what, in my opinion, are indicators that you are suffering from imposter syndrome. I give reasons why I treat it like hyperchondriacism, as a form of anxiety (that’s just what it is). I also explain how to determine if you are suffering from normal anxiety, so I’m simultaneously trying to convince some people that normal anxiety is healthy and good for you.

      I completely agree that being depressed for the short term is not having depression. The same goes for anxiety. And undoubtedly some people will think they are suffering when they aren’t.

      If deja vu ever caused someone mental harm, I would be the first to re-assess what I think of it, but having been on the receiving end of Imposter syndrome, it should not be grouped with deja vu, it is very serious.

      I appreciate your viewpoint, but you wont convince me that it isn’t a serious issue that doesn’t need pathologising! Yeah it is thought provoking!


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