Cynthia Burrows, PhD
In this portion of the interview (which can be found below and in the second of her full length interviews on the welcome page), Cindy discusses her experiences with imposter syndrome and how she tried to help a student at SUNY Stony Brook through such issues. She brings up the important point that no matter one's experiences, there needs to be some balance between confidence and humility, and that self-reflection can be important for advancing or maintaining the integrity of one's career, but it can become pathological. She also discusses focusing on pushing her former student to expand her comfort zone, and her belief that such a focus can be essential to combatting imposter syndrome and advancing one's career.
"Now, I know what imposter syndrome is. I feel like a certain amount of that is a very healthy thing... right? Because you should always be questioning, 'Do I know what I'm doing? Do I, you know, have I prepared well enough for this lecture, for this proposal, paper, whatever, you know, have I read the background material? Am I qualified to do this?'"
The full transcript for this interview clip can be found at the bottom of the page. Additionally, closed captions can be turned on within the video (and within all other videos on this page).
Cindy may not be unique in her experience (or seeming lack thereof) with imposter syndrome and its effects on her career; not everyone who is an accomplished minority in their field will develop feelings of imposter syndrome. But her story is certainly less common. One small-scale study of women in STEM found that, among their respondents, 68% reported feelings of imposter syndrome. While this is only one particular study, a similar statistic is reflected across many other groups' findings and demonstrates that feelings of imposter syndrome are common among women in STEM fields.
" 'It's not actually a diagnosable syndrome, it has just been referred to as a syndrome over the years' " (Dr. Valerie Young).
We feel that it's important to note that "imposter syndrome" is a term used to characterize certain commonalities of feelings developed among many people, but is not an actual syndrome. The original term, "imposter phenomenon," perhaps addresses this better than the now more commonly used "syndrome" phrasing, which perhaps locates the problem in individual experiences, rather than the commonalities shared by minority groups in science, like women or people of color.
In fact, many proposed 'solutions' to imposter syndrome are heavily focused on individuals, placing the onus of resolving those feelings, to some degree, on the actual people experiencing them. This can come in the form of suggesting self-affirmations, being more willing to openly discuss your experiences, or pushing yourself to expand your comfort zone and 'prove' to yourself that you are good enough. While these suggestions can be helpful for many people, they fail to address the systemic and structural issues that are creating an environment where imposter syndrome is common.
Cindy's description of helping a student expand their comfort zone by encouraging them to study abroad is a wonderful example of mentorship support. She encourages a student experiencing self-doubt about both their abilities and desire to leave their comfort zone by reaffirming their fitness for such an endeavor and gently pushing them to move forward with an application, which ultimately results in a wonderful and enjoyable opportunity for the student. Such a relationship is highly significant for many developing STEMicists, and experiences with supportive and positive mentors can greatly reduce the impact of imposter syndrome for many people. Nonetheless, while such relationships can be highly beneficial on an individual level, they do little to address the issues leading to the onset of imposter syndrome in the first place.
Some of the structural issues contributing to our STEM environment that foster the development of imposter syndrome are, but are not limited to: perfectionist culture (which is bred from white supremacy), academic culture that does not support failure as a necessary process of learning, the myth of the meritocracy in STEM, and the exclusion of discussions surrounding social issues/identities/topics from mainstream STEM spheres. Within an academic setting, this can at least partially be combatted through greater introduction of evidence-based instructional practices, such as formative assessment and a focus on growth mindset, that develop feedback mechanisms and allow students to recover and grow from small failures.
"Even as we know it today, imposter syndrome puts the blame on individuals, without accounting for the historical and cultural contexts that are foundational to how it manifests in both women of color and white women ... Imposter syndrome took a fairly universal feeling of discomfort, second-guessing, and mild anxiety in the workplace and pathologized it, especially for women" (Tulshyan and Burey).
Outside of considering the systemic issues that contribute and lead to feelings of imposter syndrome, we also have to address the way in which we frame imposter syndrome. Cindy herself brings part of this topic to light through her discussion of the importance of regular self-reflection and limited feelings of self-doubt. She mentions that when these feelings become pathological for someone, it starts to become unproductive. This is a very interesting nuance to explore.
As research into and general use of imposter syndrome has expanded over the years, it seems to have become far more all-encompassing in that it includes not only the extreme and "unproductive" feelings of self-doubt and imposterism, but also seems to account for the more regular feelings many people experience, particularly surrounding new opportunities. As Cindy mentions, it's not uncommon for many people to experience intermittent self-doubt and self-questioning; it's a normal part of the human experience as we grow and push ourselves. However, when such feelings become constant and become interwoven with a sense of isolation and general fraudulence, they develop into the phenomenon of imposterism.
Through our general use of the terminology imposter syndrome, and the pathologizing of regular human self-doubt, we've turned something fairly standard among a number of people into something to be feared, something to be treated, and in turn have obscured the experiences of those with more extreme feelings of imposterism and the primary issues aiding in the development of such feelings.
There's a fine balance to be had with our general implementation of imposter syndrome. On the one hand we need to move away from primarily individualistic responses and develop structural changes that can greatly reduce the prevalence of imposter syndrome as a cultural phenomenon. On the other, we cannot eliminate supports for those experiencing feelings of imposter syndrome, nor should we invalidate the less extreme forms of imposter syndrome.
It's a hard balance to find, but certainly one worth working on considering the general prevalence and impact of imposter syndrome, so thank you to Cindy for providing her experiences and perspectives on the matter and allowing us to display them to the community.
Page researched and written by Marina Gerton.