Imposter Syndrome in the transition into STEM PGR

I am reading a lot at the moment to better understand the transition into PGR.

My big find today was a large (n = 120) qualitative study on the ‘imposter phenomenon’ in STEM (Chakraverty opts not to use ‘syndrome’ as this might be seen to medicalise the term).

It’s worth a read, but I wanted to share the points which struck me most forcefully.

1.       Imposter Syndrome is an intense feeling that you are in some sense a fraud and someone will find out that you’re bad at your job.

I think most people have come across this term by now. My sense is that most academics feel this feeling to some extent all of the time, and we should probably talk about it more. The intensity of the emotion is an important part of the phenomenon, though, and it may be that the feelings I have are less extreme than those of others.

2.       Imposter syndrome is associated with self-handicapping behaviours

The paper pulls out some of the key ones from the broader literature: turning down career advancement opportunities; high anxiety; mental health issues; low self-efifcacy; self-doubt; perfectionism; procrastination. This seems to present a clear mechanism through which imposter syndrome might become self-fulfilling.

3.       Imposter Syndrome is overwhelmingly first experienced in grad school

Within this study, the transition into grad school was clearly the most likely (90 of 120 participants) moment to start feeling like a fraud. This Scholarly finding is a helpful, clear indication that the issue should be addressed through formal induction programmes and in the early research experience of graduate students.

4.       A large part of imposter syndrome is related to how others present you

A surprising result to me was that people reported that the student identity is tied up with the PI identity in some really odd ways. The paper gives several examples of students simultaneously representing their PI as capable of getting research finding and incapable of hiring someone better than them. Others speak to how they feel inter-academic networking has let them slide into positions they weren’t really worthy of. Feeling that letters of recommendation must have ‘talked up’ students was common, as was the sense that students are somehow a disappointment to their supervisors.


Helping those transitioning into PGR to feel worthy of their place is important for their personal happiness, but also has important for their academic success. Some attempt to address this during induction seems sensible, but is probably not sufficient to challenge an issue which is so closely tied to what it means to do research; the true cure must be cultural.