Impostor Syndrome and Education

I was going to post this to my journal but thought this might be interesting to a broader audience.

I took a work training on impostor syndrome and had a thought during the discussion. Is impostor syndrome a logical outcome of how we as a (WEIRD) society structure education?

For something like 12+4 formative years, your measure of success is: how often you are right and how well and quickly you do the same tasks as the people next to you. (In the US we privatize academic data but let’s face it, kids and parents still compare and compete.)

Then you enter grad school or the workforce, and chances are you are on a team of different skills and skill levels, doing different tasks, contributing value through differences. But your brain isn’t primed to see/evaluate that. You internal self esteem compass goes in a tailspin since you can’t benchmark your progress like you’re conditioned to do.

Interested if anyone relates to this? And for those that never experienced IS, if there’s something in how you approach your life and work that protected you?

And also, how could we change it, on an individual level (parenting) or a systemic level (curriculum, ed policy)? ETA or how has it already changed since I graduated, perhaps!


Whenever I have imposter syndrome-y things going on, it’s because of that inability to benchmark.

I don’t think that’s a failing of the education system so much as that outside the education system we’re kind of shitty at giving good, helpful feedback. When I’ve been in corporate situations where I could trust the people around me to let me know (immediately) when I’ve mucked up and why it was a muck-up – or conversely to let me know that I did a thing really well and here’s why it was good – I’ve not had imposter syndrome.

When I’ve been in situations where feedback never happens or is way too late, or where I’m left to founder until there actually is a problem, or where I’m just left to toodle along because I’m doing well and therefore obviously don’t need feedback because you only need that if you’re a low performer? Hot damn yeah I get imposter syndrome.


I mostly don’t get imposter syndrome even though I went through many life stages that are poster children for IS (high achieving high school grad, elite college where I was average, PhD program) through a few (probably non-transferable) life hacks:

  • in general I’m not that impressed by the caliber of work the people around me are doing so maybe we’re all useless but I’m probably not more useless then all the other people
  • I managed to really internalize through reading YA fiction that everyone feels awkward and stupid and not good enough no matter how awesome and smart they are, so being down in the dumps about yourself doesn’t mean that you’re correct
  • in a lot of contexts I’m perfectly fine being mediocre. I was thrilled when I got a B in my first big math test in college because it meant I was average among all these really smart people! And I wasn’t pleased that I wasn’t good at writing grants or conference abstracts, but I felt like it was a failure of no one taught me how, rather than I was a failure for not knowing.

Typing that all out I guess the through line is expectations? Imposter syndrome rests on the expectation that you are smarter or at least as smart as everyone around but… what if you’re not and that’s ok too?

That’s all very cheerful, and I’ve definitely felt horrible about my accomplishments and abilities more than it indicates but those are how I get back to equilibrium.


I’m not sure if this is exactly what you’re talking about, but I enjoyed this feminist takedown of imposter syndrome from a recent commencement speech:


I agree on the benchmarking comment. In school you get given an expectation, say 80% of the time correct quite good, there is usually one right answer, and you are actively told which parts of which problems are worth the most effort in that specific context. In the workplace that is not common and the ‘scoring’ for your boss could be very different from what you value as priority. You also never get to find out your coworkers marks because there is no such thing as a class average and everyone’s problems are different.

I have felt like an idiot sometimes at my jobs, but today I just explained how to solve what to me seemed like a very simple problem to some dude who has been doing a similar job for over a decade and is significantly older than me. Until he talked to me, I had no reason to interact and I would assume he would know more simply by being older and more experienced.

Eta: He knows more than me about building roads, so fair enough.


Thanks everyone for your interest and engagement! I love that I can bring topics like this here and get very thoughtful and thought-provoking responses!

@darlingpants , I find it very interesting and cool that you have all the risk factors, but haven’t experienced IS. (And I’m genuinely happy for you. It’s a stupid brain lie and it sucks!) I liked your point about expectations and internalizing that all of us will be awkward and mediocre, at least on the inside, at least locally (meaning socially-local not geographically-local). I did find myself wondering relative to your first bullet if there was someone whose work you looked up to (either in your field/attainable or not in your field/not something you’d pursue) and how you relate to them and their work, if that makes sense. Like, does it inspire aspiration, ambition, maybe even jealousy? Or is it more chill like “I’m glad they’re doing that but I’m chilling over here and I’m good.”

@tardis and @diapasoun, a great point that workplace communication is often broken down, incomplete, and/or unclear regarding how we’re doing. That has also definitely contributed to impostory feelings for me (absence of my advisor, but also her niceness/kind of sugarcoating?). Interestingly if I never get any negative feedback I don’t trust the positive either. I trust my manager more now (after getting feedback from him that wasn’t quite harsh but definitely direct) than I did for the first couple years when I don’t think I heard a negative word.

A thought that occurred to me while reading and writing these. A few weeks ago a friend shared a quote from an esoteric blog post on the subject of gender identity that went something like, if you’re a child and you say you like playing with dinosaurs and someone tells you that dinosaurs aren’t that great and you should be playing with dolls, and you hear that feedback enough, wouldn’t you (a) switch to dolls and (b) possibly eventually lose touch with what “liking” or “wanting” things feels like? I wonder if part of inoculation against IS might be a strong personality where you not only have good awareness of your capabilities, but also what you want and like (in a job, frienships, relationships, etc), therefore making you less susceptible to “shoulds” or external expectations that create a rift between “who I am” and “who I need to be for this role”?


So, I do love the central tenet of what she’s saying, in that IS (or Impostor Phenomenon, I don’t really care what we call it) arises from structural and systemic issues. To me, it’s kind of like the idea, pithily summarized in memes as “Maybe depression is a normal response to an insane world” (and I’ve seen the same for anxiety). There’s definitely been more nuanced or more specific or more long winded versions of this but I know you all know the drift of it. I think saying IS/IP (often/increasingly) arises from systemic issues is same as saying that depression/anxiety (often/increasingly) arises from systemic issues. But obviously it doesn’t follow that the solution is “don’t do anything about the depression, it just needs to be solved on a systemic level”. So I end up disagreeing with the “IS is made up to keep us down” kind of angle on it. Also because it’s not really exclusive to women or minorities, see more below.

Point-by-point, snip for length, also depression and eating disorder references

The intro was quite inspiring but she kind of lost me when addressing Myth #1: impostor syndrome means there’s something wrong with you. Or rather, by claiming this is a myth. To give her a benefit of the doubt, I’ll assume she meant that when people first get impostor feelings they may believe them (because we modern humans are bad at recognizing that feelings aren’t reality until we go to therapy, lol). But like, no one writing or talking about IS/IP professionally is like “oh yeah, people feel like that because they actually suck! Losers!” The whole reason it’s a phenomenon, syndrome, etc that is recognized and studied by NIH, APA, academics, and doctors is because it’s a feeling of not-belonging that typically persists despite objective measures of success or evidence to the contrary.

Which brings me to, the whole talk is kind of predicated on “IS primarily affects women and minorities” which is just not true? It may be over-represented in those demographics for structural reasons, the same way depression/anxiety is over-represented in lower-SES and disadvantaged communities, but the same way that depression can affect people who have “everything” and even beloved famous comedians (RIP Robin Williams), IS can affect anyone, too. In today’s seminar we discussed public admissions by Michelle Obama and Tom Hanks, and we had a lot of white guys in the room (power to them for showing up!).

Also reminds me, she mentioned that it was “never meant to be a pathology” which seemed like a meaningless statement. Orthorexia was added to the DSM in the last edition, wasn’t it? We keep coming up with new and exciting ways to mess up our collective psyche. And often, putting a name to a common thought pattern, having discourse about it, sharing coping strategies is helpful to people outside the formal medical/diagnosis system. So who cares? It’s a common thought pattern shared by so many people that impacts their quality of life. Let’s work on it.

Shifting gears back to the speech, at one point she says something about feeling like an impostor the first time she walked into the law firm, and I think that also mischaracterizes IS. Like, it’s a pretty normal response to feel out of place in a new place! I think she even says that. (Kind of how it’s normal to be sad when something sad happens, even for a while.) But the normal response is to learn and make connections and grow into the position…and if you’ve been at the law firm 5 years, have won more cases (or sealed more deals) than anyone in your cohort, have received commendations from clients and management, and still don’t believe you deserve a promotion because “all my cases were easier than Jim’s” or “I just had really good co-counsel” or “I’m only good at X type of case, I did really bad on the Y cases”…moreover if you are afraid you’ll get fired every day despite the positive indicators… that would be IS.

The thing is, since part of the issue is that you disregard the external evidence, no amount of your boss, partner, friend, or commencement speaker (with all due respect!) telling you that “you can do it!” will actually be convincing. So you need to have some kind of coping strategies to both find confidence where you are, and to progress. Maybe it’s actively seeking feedback, maybe it’s finding out someone you admire also shares impostor feelings and venting, maybe it’s keeping a written record of wins and commendations. Different things will work for different people. And I keep coming back to depression, since it’s fairly well known now and also involves some warped thought patterns (thoughts/feelings of worthlessness) but I don’t think we’d call coping strategies for that “tips and tricks”. Or even if we do, it’s a good thing? We’ve got to get through the day even when our brains are lying!

So yeah…TLDR I would say I immensely admire her achievements, but that possibly makes me more disappointed to see her talk (in my non-expert opinion) perpetuate more myths about IS/IP than it dispels. Maybe it’s just hard to make inspiring enough for a commencement speech topic? “I stopped feeling like an impostor after I argued with the President so now I think it’s fake” kind of has a ring of “world hunger is over because I just ate,” no?


I hope all that wasn’t too much. I’m just feeling rhetorical and maybe a tad argumentative today, guys.


This is a THING and one I’ve been thinking about a lot lately as I’m moving into a position at work where I do a lot more mentoring than I used to.


This is so interesting and timely for me! I read an article a colleague linked to this morning about burnout and imposter syndrome specifically in academic libraries and its starting to feel like a theme for the day --when I am trying to launch a program in a professional staff group I am new to. Things that resonate from the article ( available here but quoting two bits below because it is maybe is too niche to really matter) :

a bit about sustainability that I want to think more about:

"The nonstop demands for us to keep giving more to our work, to always be increasing our numbers, improving what we already do, and invent new things to work on, is exhausting us as a profession… In 2010, Pfeffer examined the idea of social sustainability, inspired by the work done on environmental and ecological sustainability… social sustainability might consider how organizational activities affect people’s physical and mental health and wellbeing- the stress of work practices on the human system- as well as effects of management practices such as work hours and behaviors that produce workplace stress on groups and group cohesion.”24 Building on this idea, Newman says a sustainable career is one that is interested in “protecting and fostering (rather than depleting) human and career development with a focus on balance and renewal” "

and I am still wrapping my head around the impact and idea of the economic identity mentioned below:

" When are we going to stop signaling that fear and anxiety is normal within our profession, and instead examine how these narratives are the result of institutions deflecting the need for change?”10 I would argue that the same systems that lead to imposter syndrome also cause burnout …as we spend more time at work and see it as something we should love, we invest more of emotional self into our jobs. Since 1989, Gallup polls have shown that a majority of United States workers report their job gives them an identity. The number is even higher in professions like librarianship. “Education is one of the most significant predictors of how workers approach their job, with 70% of college graduates saying they get a sense of their identity from the job”21 One doesn’t simply work as a librarian; you ARE a librarian. This viewpoint has economic implications. Akerlof and Kranton, pioneers in the field of identity economics, first tied job satisfaction to a worker’s sense of identity, and then studied the effort put into their jobs… Perhaps forebodingly, they conclude that workers who think of themselves as ‘insiders’ require less pay in order to put in effort.22"


This topic reminded me of a letter I saw over in Ask A Manager a couple of days ago. The letter writer was AFAB, and transitioned to a man. He shares his observations on how he was treated differently when he presented as a female versus a male. It supports the idea that for women, Imposter Syndrome comes in part from being treated differently and taken less seriously in the workplace.

From the letter writer:

I tell people that transition has only made me more of a feminist, which I already very much was.

The bar for certain things is so much lower for men than for women. It’s really astonishing. I went from being seen as off-putting, unapproachable, and unsociable to approachable, easygoing, and friendly. That’s not just an assumption, that’s based on my actual performance reviews and colleague feedback. On the appearance and grooming front, I went from being seen as, at best, a relatively low-maintenance woman, to being a very sharp and put-together man. I wouldn’t say that I’ve changed all that much as far as how much I socially engage with colleagues, and I spend way less time/money on things like clothes and hair. I feel like so much time and energy has been freed up for other things. I wish everyone could have that kind of choice in the matter without facing so much judgment.

I get questioned on my authority far less, even by people who know little to nothing about my experience and credentials. They assume that because I have a job that I have successfully performed for going on three years now, I must know what I’m talking about. Initially, that backfired. Whenever I made a point, I’d front-load justifications and arguments since that was what I was used to doing to be heard, and people reacted with surprise and confusion. Additionally, I had to learn to stop pushing so hard for space to speak in any given discussion, since everyone in the conversation automatically made room for me. I had to learn to more mildly state my opinion and offer the rest only if asked.

I do try to use my powers for good by signal-boosting my more timid and/or non-male colleagues’ voices. If they’re spoken over or ignored, I’ll say “Hey everyone, did you catch what Colleague said? Pretty good point, Colleague” and turn to them, offering them the opening in the discussion that I just made.


Another thing I think contributes to Imposter Syndrome is the relative lack of training in a lot of jobs these days.

I’ve never been in the older system, and maybe this still happens in the trades, but there was a time when someone would start off as an Apprentice, and then proceed to Journeyman, and then finally to Master. There was (I’m assuming) a lot of personal mentoring in the process, although maybe it was also rife with abuse, as I think the medical residency system currently is in the US. It’s my impression that there’s less of that one-on-one training, that someone completes training at a vocational school and is on their own a lot earlier in their career.

What I did see in my career: training of younger employees was sacrificed to cut costs and further justified by pointing out that changing companies is so common among younger people anymore, so why should the current company provide training that is going to benefit a subsequent employer? So, instead of sending a younger and a more experience employee to the field for an inspection or start-up, they would cut costs and send only the older person. When that younger person finally was sent out, on their own of course, it was their first time and they didn’t have the experience and mentoring from prior trips with a more experienced person. In some ways, I think people feel like an imposter because on some level they are aware they are being thrown into a situation without the training that they would have received a few decades ago.


Broadening this a little bit, and going back to the idea of us being conditioned in school… Fear based motivation is as old as human society, I am sure, but… shouldn’t we be over it by now? And yet I think we are only doubling down, across all sorted of life. Sad!

I’ve seen this before, framed as a class distinction. Basically saying that people really don’t tie as much identity to janitorial or retail or warehouse work, its just a paycheck. They focus on other identities (parent, spouse, sports fan, fisherman, etc). Why do more educated professions do this to ourselves ? It kind of makes sense, we put a lot of work and money into the education and training part, and we choose something that’s not just personally important to us but we think is important to the world. So yeah, we both grant and claim status from the professional accomplishments. But also we do over invest and take it too far at the expense of non work life and I agree it contributes to both burnout and IS. Or IS can contribute to burnout.

Indirectly related: anyone else noticing a theme of extremism in our society? Like we don’t just Do Things anymore (working, parenting, hobbies). We go ALL OUT.


OMG yes this so much. Its a fascinating piece of academia especially.

& going ALL OUT for too long =burn out for me for sure. But work ( ‘purple collar’ work at least) expects you to CARE SO MUCH about everything. The paycheck is supposed to be a bonus, not your ‘why’.
Nonprofits are broken.


@JRA64 I’ve always found the bias-related experiences of people who have transitioned to be fascinating, thanks for sharing that.

Also reminds me that I didn’t get into this due to already writing too much, but there is absolutely intersection between IS and being a woman or minority in a white male dominated space. But I do see it as identity intensifying rather than causing IS, if that makes sense.

Also great points on disappearance and importance of training and support. This is very workplace and even team dependent, but definitely seems to have a negative trend overall.


This made me think of a line from a Soviet movie (workplace drama) from the 80s like “qualified labor must be compensated accordingly!”

Like been the communists knew you have to pay people. C’mon. :joy: (I recognize there were many scenarios where communists in fact did not pay people for labor.)


I definitely identify with this, so one data point in the pro column.

This is fascinating because I can’t think of anyone whose job I want? Well not that I’d ever want to/could possibly emulate. I think if I had actually wanted to stay in academia I would actually have IS, but I didn’t want to (I joke that my PhD gave me an anxiety disorder (never diagnosed) but not IS!). My sister is so good at it, it’s really impressive but it’s a huge amount of work and I find her actual work incredibly boring (watching animals for 5-10 hours a day sounds awesome but I would fall asleep). My BFF is an incredible drama teacher and playwright and I admire her immensely but I’ve never had the aptitude or the desire to do those things.

I have/had some jealousy around people who have really brilliant and elegant scientific ideas that turned out to be right. I knew some people in grad school who were dating people in their department and cohort and I couldn’t handle the direct comparison of that. Idk, this is playing into something happening right now where there’s some parts of my job that are making me an over-stimulated wreck, but I can’t think of anything I’d rather do more.


Just, all of this post! All of it. UGH.

I’m glad I landed in a weird industry that no one really enters for ~passion. I like my work but it’s not who I am, and that’s so so good.

I’m trying to get better about not going All Out on things and it’s really, really helpful. I have embraced the label of Lazy.


I think the lack of passion is part of why I like my current job- it’s just a job. No one has any delusions about that, and as someone who cares a lot as a base line, it keeps things manageable. I never would have thought this as a teen deciding what field to go into.


Same. I tried a field that was a vocation (academia). It was not good.