Feeling Like a Fraud: The Impostor Phenomenon in Science Writing

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Sitting at my desk at my first science-writing job, I couldn’t help thinking it was only a matter of time before my deception was uncovered. Any second, I thought, my editor would walk in, tap me on the shoulder, and tell me she’d made a mistake in hiring me. Objectively, I knew I was doing fine—I was turning in my work on time, and my editor was happy with what I turned in. But I just couldn’t shake the feeling of being a fraud, of somehow having fooled everyone around me into believing I was a competent professional when I clearly was not.

It turns out I’m far from alone in feeling that way. A lot of people have trouble owning their accomplishments and worry they’re not qualified for their jobs despite evidence to the contrary, says Frederik Anseel, a professor of work psychology and behavioral economics at Ghent University in Belgium. This so-called impostor phenomenon was first described among high-achieving women, in a 1978 paper by psychologists Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes. It’s since been shown to affect both men and women, and is commonly known as the “impostor syndrome” (though it’s not a true psychological syndrome in the clinical sense).

Researchers have estimated that 70 percent of the general population has experienced the impostor phenomenon at some point, and it’s a concept that seems to resonate with many.

“I’ve had people tell me, ‘You’ve just described to me something that I have felt for so many years but I didn’t know there was a term for it,’ ” says Kevin Cokley, a psychologist at the University of Texas at Austin. His work on the impostor phenomenon focuses on how it relates to academic and mental health outcomes among ethnic minority students. Several studies, Cokley says, have shown that “people who have higher feelings of impostorism are more prone to having symptoms of depression and anxiety.” In the worst cases, impostorism can become truly debilitating, and those affected may benefit from professional counseling.

Impostor syndrome has gotten more attention in the past few years, with a number of famous figures—from Facebook executive Sheryl Sandberg to celebrated writer Neil Gaiman—publicly sharing their own experiences. That increased attention may be helpful. Often, Cokley says, “people who are experiencing or struggling with impostor feelings struggle alone. They think that they’re the only ones feeling that way.”

Most research on the impostor phenomenon has focused on graduate students or medical students, but it’s been identified in people across a wide variety of careers. Impostorism seems especially common in competitive and creative fields, and those where evaluations are subjective.

Journalism certainly fits the bill. The feeling of being a fraud is also common in fast-changing fields such as technology or medicine. “So if you also happen to be a journalist in technology, in science, in medicine, there’s also that sense of not being able to keep up like you should be,” says Valerie Young, author of The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women: Why Capable People Suffer from the Impostor Syndrome and How to Thrive in Spite of It.

Anecdotally, the impostor phenomenon seems to be common in science journalism. Many of the journalists I talked to for this article had either experienced it or heard of colleagues experiencing it. A session on impostor syndrome at the 2013 ScienceOnline conference generated much discussion among journalists on Twitter.

“It certainly rings true for me,” says Laura Helmuth, who says she felt like an impostor when she recently started a job as the health, science, and environment editor at The Washington Post. “I feel completely incompetent, I just hope nobody notices,” says Helmuth, who is also president of the National Association of Science Writers.

For most people, the impostor phenomenon is a normal part of developing a professional identity. But at the more extreme end of the impostorism spectrum, the experience can have tangible effects on mental health, job performance, and career decisions.

It’s particularly common to feel like an impostor early in one’s career. “This is something that does get better over time,” says Helmuth. But it’s situational, and can crop up when starting a new job or taking on a leadership position. “The impostor syndrome never really goes away, and each time you do something new, of course you have to deal with it again,” says Helmuth.

For most people, the impostor phenomenon is a normal part of developing a professional identity, says Holly Hutchins, a professor of human resource development at the University of Houston. But at the more extreme end of the impostorism spectrum, the experience can have tangible effects on mental health, job performance, and career decisions. “When it’s persistent and you begin having effects of depression or anxiety and it’s prolonged, that’s when it becomes an issue,” says Hutchins.

Overblown Concern or Hidden Scourge?

For those who’ve experienced it, it can be hard to imagine not feeling like an impostor at least sometimes. But not everyone suffers from this problem. Several science journalists I contacted said they had neither experienced feelings of impostorism nor heard of any of their colleagues experiencing it. Some were skeptical about whether it was a real thing or whether it was worthy of discussion.

“I haven’t experienced it personally and I don’t really recall observing it in anyone that I’ve mentored or edited,” says freelance writer and editor Robin Lloyd, who is also an adjunct professor at New York University. “I really question whether the impostor phenomenon is a useful concept,” she says. She believes it’s more important to help journalists deal with their normal feelings of insecurity and self-doubt, and says she does so by calling out good work when she sees it. “Instead of reifying this questionable concept, instead of pathologizing emotions that are quite common in any self-reflecting human, I think we need to do a better job of letting people know when their work is outstanding or shows particular strengths.”

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Sociologist Jessica Collett of the University of Notre Dame ran into similar sentiments while researching the impostor phenomenon. “It was very interesting to sit down with people who were like, ‘I have no idea what you’re talking about,’ ” Collett says. “For people who have felt that impostorism, it’s so palpable.” The impostor phenomenon is, in fact, correlated with general feelings of self-doubt and low self-confidence, she says. But studies have shown that despite its overlap with feelings of anxiety, low self-esteem, or depression, impostorism seems to be its own thing.

It’s still unclear what exactly causes the impostor phenomenon, although some studies have found that it’s associated with aspects of family upbringing, such as having parents who are overprotective or have high academic expectations; personal factors, such as a history of anxiety or depression; and the presence of certain personality traits, such as perfectionism. People who experience the impostor phenomenon tend to have trouble taking credit for success, often attributing achievements to external factors, such as luck or timing. They also tend to beat themselves up about their failures, blaming their own lack of competence.

The impostor phenomenon can be hard to spot in others, because ironically, those who experience it generally do very well at their jobs. “It results in you feeling like you have to work even harder to prove yourself, and that can look like higher levels of achievement,” says Cokley.

“There are people for whom it is so debilitating that they just never try,” says Young. “They just fly under the radar, because it’s just safer there.”

That rings true to freelance journalist Nadia Drake, who says she considers every assignment a test to be passed. “Every story has to be the best thing I can do, because I don’t want some editor to discover that, ‘Whoops, Nadia Drake actually isn’t that great,’ ” she says. Every time she takes on an assignment, she thinks to herself, “Don’t let this be the one that exposes how inept you are,” Drake says. “The consequence of that is that I just work really hard all the time, and I’m very nitpicky about things that I probably don’t need to be spending so much energy or effort on.”

Feeling Like a Fraud Takes a Toll

But even when you’re doing well at your job, the constant effort to keep others from finding out you’re a fraud can take its toll. “[For] those people who score very high,” says Collett, “the chances are good that impostorism is debilitating to them. It is in some way negatively affecting either their mental health or their tangible productivity.” Studies show that the impostor phenomenon is highly associated with emotional exhaustion, which can lead to burnout. “You might get higher grades, or perform even better at your job, but at what cost?” says Cokley.

Professional success may not serve as an antidote, either. In fact, it can actually exacerbate the impostor phenomenon by making people feel more exposed and more likely to be found out. That can lead to a fear of success, which causes people to actively avoid putting themselves in a position to succeed. “There are people for whom it is so debilitating that they just never try,” says Young. “They just fly under the radar, because it’s just safer there.”

How Do You Score?

Researchers use a tool called the Clance Impostor Phenomenon Scale to measure the severity of a person’s sense of being an impostor and to differentiate those feelings from anxiety and low self-esteem. Use this online tool to find out how you score.

A recent study found that experiencing the impostor phenomenon can decrease people’s career planning and their motivation to pursue career goals or leadership positions. Other research, not yet published, found that among women in academia, increased impostorism played a major role in their greater propensity to “downshift” their professional goals and to give up on ambitions of becoming tenure-track research professors, compared to their male counterparts.

What does this look like among journalists? For one thing, it may manifest as a reluctance to apply for awards or pitch high-profile publications. “I’m always talking myself out of pitching things,” says freelance journalist Diana Crow. According to Drake, “I spent a lot of time not applying to awards for a couple of years.” When she did apply, she won some awards, which of course brought its own impostor feelings. “There’s a little bit of wondering whether what won an award is actually award-worthy,” she says.

Could the impostor phenomenon play a role in gender differences in pitching? As a woman, “you’re less likely to pitch, and if you do pitch and you get rejected, you’re less likely to tweak [the pitch] and try again,” says Young. She suggests that this difference may partly explain why men account for more op-eds and science features in high-profile publications than women, although Young suggest that implicit bias may also play a role.

The Impostor Phenomenon in Women and Minorities

Although the impostor phenomenon was initially identified in women, a lot of subsequent research has found no gender differences in its prevalence. That’s not to say that its effects are the same in women and men. For example, impostorism may play a more important role in academic achievement in women than men, Cokley found. “For women, higher impostor feelings were linked to higher grades, but we did not find that in men,” he says. When it comes to dealing with feelings of impostorism, women often seem to get the short end of the stick, whether that manifests in fewer pitches or “downshifted” career goals. “Even though there are many men who feel like impostors, it holds men back less because they’re generally better at compartmentalizing,” says Young. “They’re more apt to say, ‘Well, I’m just not going to think about it.’ ”

There may be parallels to research on how men and women respond differently to burnout and stress, says Anseel. “Women will seek more social support and talk about things, while men will try to tackle the problem on their own or will just shut up about it and hope that it will pass.” he says.

Lack of diversity in newsrooms might play a role in increasing minority journalists’ feelings of impostorism.

Women do appear to be more open about their feelings of impostorism. “Some of the research has suggested that the difference between men and women is that women are just much more likely to talk about it, and also lean on social support,” says Hutchins. In contrast, she says the men she interviewed for her research told her that “[impostorism] would be seen as a weakness, there’s no way they would talk about it with their male colleagues.” In the small sample of science journalists I contacted—about 20 people—many more women than men said they had experienced the impostor phenomenon or heard about it from colleagues, and they were also far more willing to talk about it publicly.

Some researchers believe the impostor phenomenon may have an especially strong effect on any underrepresented minorities, particularly among groups for which stereotypes about competence are prevalent. Few studies have examined the impostor phenomenon among underrepresented groups other than women, though.

In a study of the impostor phenomenon among ethnic minority college students, Cokley found that both impostor feelings and the stress of being a minority student were associated with psychological distress. What’s more, these students’ impostor feelings were more strongly related to their mental health outcomes than was the stress they attributed to being a minority. Those findings hint that the lack of diversity in newsrooms might play a role in increasing minority journalists’ feelings of impostorism. “As a minority, you feel that,” says freelance journalist Sujata Gupta. “If you think about a newsroom or magazine culture, I’ve always felt like one who doesn’t quite belong.”

How Do I Get Over It?

I know what you’re saying: “Yes, it’s ridiculous that Neil Gaiman or Sheryl Sandberg or Laura Helmuth ever feel like impostors. But that doesn’t mean other people aren’t faking it. How do I know I’m not the only true impostor around?

“It’s a false question,” says Young. “Somebody may not be the best qualified for a job, but it doesn’t make them an impostor. Impostorism is an internal experience, of internally not being able to own your accomplishments,” she says. If you really need to convince yourself of your competency, it may help to make a list of all the positive things that you’ve achieved on a weekly or even daily basis. “People who experience impostorism tend to minimize all the evidence that challenges their feelings of impostorism,” says Cokley. “So sometimes you have to be purposeful and intentional in getting them to recognize the good things that they’ve actually done.”

Multiple journalists I interviewed declined to discuss the subject on the record because they didn’t want to publicly admit a lack of confidence in their abilities. That’s too bad, suggests Helmuth, “because as soon as you start talking about it, that kind of demystifies it.”

Young agrees. “I do think it’s important to name it, to give voice to the feeling, because there’s so much shame attached, and you think you’re the only one,” she says.

Writers can be overly self-critical because they see every flawed draft of their own articles, and these suffer in comparison to everyone else’s polished, published pieces.

There’s been relatively little research done on interventions to deal with impostorism, but studies suggest that social support can help. “We see that social support is sort of a buffer against the negative effects, and if you’re a freelancer working on your own, this could strengthen feelings of inadequacy,” says Anseel.

Social Support Is Key

That’s where belonging to a freelance group that functions like a true community can help. “I’ve had a really great support network, and it can make such a difference, because if you start to feel this kind of thing, you can sort of nip it in the bud,” says Christie Aschwanden, lead science writer for FiveThirtyEight and a member of several small, informal groups of science writers who discuss the trade, offer one another support and advice, celebrate successes, and commiserate about disappointments.

Writers can also be overly self-critical because they see every flawed draft of their own articles, and these suffer in comparison to everyone else’s polished, published pieces. Becoming an editor can change one’s perspective and help with feelings of impostorism, says Helmuth. “You realize, even with the very best writers, nobody writes it perfectly the first time.” She also points to The Open Notebook’s pitch database as a way to get a behind-the-scenes look at pitches and drafts.

Finding sources of honest and constructive feedback can also help combat feelings of being a fraud. Ideally, a writer’s editors would provide such feedback—but that doesn’t always happen. “Some editors can take for granted the things that are working and just focus on the problems, and I think that can be a problem for somebody wrestling with impostor syndrome,” says Helmuth.

What about Real Impostors?

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Some people have a bizarro version of impostor syndrome. People who manifest what is known as the Dunning-Kruger effect—named for the psychologists who identified the phenomenon—are overconfident despite being incompetent. They’re too clueless to realize how clueless they are, which leads them to vastly overestimate their abilities.

That’s why it’s worthwhile to seek out other colleagues and mentors who can help writers make sense of their success or failure and set realistic expectations for themselves, says Hutchins, who has found that mentoring can help people deal with impostorism. “Good mentors can create a safe space for individuals to talk about some of these concerns and struggles. Often that’s half the battle,” she says.

Feelings of impostorism can unfortunately make it more difficult for people to reach out to mentors, particularly for those who already feel like they don’t belong. “I don’t know how to find somebody that I would really connect to,” says Gupta. “The thought of reaching out to somebody who is seemingly so far above me is very unnerving,” she says. Helmuth agrees that this can be a problem, particularly for those who are new in the field. “One thing I would want people to know is that people like helping, and people like giving advice,” she says.

Competent People Who Don’t Feel like Impostors: What’s Their Secret?

Some people have suggested that impostor feelings help a person stay humble, and wonder whether those who never feel like impostors are likely to be overconfident or arrogant. “I think that kind of assumes that you’re either arrogant or you feel like an impostor, and that’s kind of a false choice,” says Young. “You can still have humility.” Not feeling like an impostor doesn’t automatically mean someone is either arrogant or is clueless about their own incompetence, she says. “Some of it is they have a good, healthy sense of their limitations.”

At some point it all comes down to changing how you think about failure and competence—or what psychologists refer to as reframing, says Young. “The only difference between people who think they’re impostors and people who don’t is that in the same situation that would evoke impostor feelings, they think different thoughts,” she says.

The journalists I spoke to who hadn’t experienced the impostor phenomenon certainly seemed to think about success, failure, and rejection differently than those who experienced impostorism. “All the jobs that I’ve had, I felt that I deserved them; all the promotions that I’ve gotten, I felt that I earned them,” says Lloyd. “When rejection or failure crops up it’s disturbing, and you have to think it through and analyze it, but ultimately I tend to just get back to work and move on,” she says.

Organizations, institutions, and managers should appreciate the impostor phenomenon’s connection to outcomes such as job performance, work satisfaction, and emotional exhaustion.

Award-winning science journalist Alexandra Witze describes a similar way of countering self-doubt: “I just remind myself, ‘You know what you’re doing, you’re good at what you do. Just do it.’ I tell myself, nobody’s going to push my career forward but me, so if I’m not doing it, it’s not going to happen.”

Such reframing is something freelancer Crow has been working on. She tells herself that “this is all a process of learning and practicing,” and as she gains more experience, “I’ll be able to blow my current self out of the water.”

Of course, it’s not always easy to change how you think, or to believe your new thoughts. “You won’t believe it—that’s why you feel like an impostor—but you have to keep going regardless of how you feel,” says Young. “Feelings are the last to change.” In other words: Fake it till you make it.

Organizations, institutions, and managers should also take the impostor phenomenon more seriously and appreciate its connection to outcomes such as job performance, work satisfaction, and emotional exhaustion, says Hutchins. “By not recognizing this, not including it in orientation, not training your mentors to recognize this and offer support, you’re running the risk of losing your top talent,” she says.

The best bet for an individual beset with feelings of being an impostor might be to try to change his or her mindset and forge ahead regardless. One could even view impostorism as an occupational hazard of working in a challenging field. “The trick,” Helmuth says, “is finding the excitement of something that’s confusing, something that you’re not good at, and learning to enjoy that as an opportunity for learning new stuff. Which is easy to say and hard to do.”

 

Sandeep RavindranCourtesy of Sandeep Ravindran

Sandeep Ravindran

Sandeep Ravindran is a freelance science writer based in New York City. He has written about life sciences and technology for publications such as Smithsonian, The Scientist, National Geographic News, Ars Technica, Popular Science, and Backchannel. Before becoming a science writer he received a microbiology PhD from Stanford University and studied science communication at UC Santa Cruz. You can find his other work posted on Twitter @sandeeprtweets and at his website.

4 Comments

  1. Imposter syndrome is sort of built into science journalism. At least as I write, not every assertion of how the world works at the microscopic or cosmological level is in quotation marks. I write and make assertions as if I know things from observation or years of formal study–and maybe even because I’ve done the math–when really I’ve just talked to a few people with impressive letterhead or prestigious looking Websites. I’m constantly having to remind my journalistically unsavvy friends and family what I don’t know. But at least there’s an obvious source of reassurance for this source of illegitimacy, which is that new scientific findings are so diverse, technical and esoteric, no reporter hits the ground already an expert or even necessarily well prepared.

  2. My professor and mentor at NYU in the 70s, Bill Burrows, who went on to found the J-school’s science writing program, put us through a “boot camp” of writing about arcane or unfamiliar topics–to burn into us that the tools and skills of basic reporting (curiosity, dogged research, fact-checking, clarity, balance, skepticism, more research, refusal to be “snowed” by jargon) were all we needed.

  3. Strange. Too say no more. People are not hired by editors in science writing.
    Most of questions in the questionnaire do not have correct answers. They start “if” and the correct answer is of course “if…”. Otherwise it is a fallacy. The questions have to conditions one of each is almost always false. Do you feels that your success is due to luck? Sorry, no success. Do you feel that you are worse than what people think about you? People hav a pretty correct opinion about me. And so on.

  4. Pingback: Miscellaneous: books to read, a new QM journal, the imposter syndrome, the US presidential elections | Ajit Jadhav's Weblog

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