The fear of being found out

  Let’s take S. as an example. S. passed her undergraduate degree with a First, has a Master’s degree from a prestigious university, completed her PhD a couple of years later and now holds a postdoctoral position in a highly acclaimed lab. All these achievements seem like objective indicators of ability and intelligence. You would expect S. to be confident, proud of her accomplishments and feeling she deserves to be in her position. This, however, is less likely than you might assume. In fact, rather than feeling they deserve everything they have gained, it is not uncommon for people in a situation similar to S.’s to feel like frauds who got their position with luck rather than knowledge, constantly worried they will be found out. This phenomenon has become known as the Impostor Syndrome, which, rather than referring to a clinical syndrome, is a concept affecting high–achievers across disciplines. It seems to be particularly prevalent in academia and is more common in women than men (Collett, 2013).

  It seems rather contradictive that people who are objectively amongst the highest achieving experience the most self-doubt. One possible explanation is that people with Impostor Syndrome tend to compare themselves only to the “best”, for example in academia, the ones who receive the biggest grants, publish the most papers, give the best talks and whose research has the highest impact, and never to those on the same level or below. Crucially, as we have only insight in our own inner-self, we are unaware of any self-doubts bothering the “Science-Stars”. Maybe they are just as much “faking it” as everybody else.

  It lies in the nature of science – and arguably most other disciplines – that nobody knows everything. If anybody did, why would we bother looking for answers running complicated experiments? People with Imposter Syndrome most of the time dramatically underestimate their skills and knowledge. But even if there is a lack of knowledge and one is proven wrong, this should not feel like a failure but rather motivate us to continue (re)searching. As people with Impostor Syndrome are constantly afraid of being found out, they might be less likely to ask questions (as it might give away their lack of knowledge), which can make studying unnecessarily more difficult and even pose a disadvantage at a later stage in someone’s career, for example at conferences. Also, as reported in Science Careers (Price, 2013), if plagued by Impostor symptoms, you are less likely to strive towards even higher goals but rather readjust to less ambitious ones.

  Unsurprisingly, Impostor symptoms are correlated with depression scores (Oriel, Plane, & Mundt, 2004). I am not suggesting here that the first necessarily causes the latter but it definitely doesn’t pose particularly uplifting prospects for affected people and shows that the Impostor Syndrome should be taken seriously. Like depression, the main problem is that people who experience the Impostor Syndrome are reluctant to talk about it. (Why would anyone point out to someone that they are less able than everybody thinks they are?) But sharing our doubts and fears is the key to overcome them. Once you realise that many bright minds around you experience the same worries, it puts your own thoughts into perspective. It is important to raise awareness of this – rather unhelpful and hindering – phenomenon and share your own worries with other people. Putting you fears into words is unlikely to make people think bad of you, but on the contrary might be a way out of this downward spiral of negative thinking.

  And in the end of the day, if it doesn’t help and you still feel like an impostor, well, at least very good at one thing: deception. And maybe that alone deserves a tap on the shoulder.




Oriel, K., Plane, M. B., & Mundt, M. (2004). Family Medicine Residents and the Impostor Phenomenon. Family Medicine, 36(4), 248–252.

Science Careers DOI: 10.1126/science.caredit.a1300188



Learning from the mirror

How to not do something