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collett’s impostor research

Jessica Collett, scatterista and social psychologist supreme, has a thoughtful post summarizing her recent research on “impostor syndrome” among academics. If you aren’t familiar with the idea, it means that people feel like they are fakes and subsequently curtail their ambitions or work. From her post at Scatterplot:

At this year’s ASA meetings in NYCJade Avelis and I presented research on the effect of impostorism (also known as the impostor syndrome or feelings of fraudulence) on academic career ambitions. We were specifically interested in impostorism as a potential causes of “downshifting”* (entering graduate school programs aspiring to a tenure track position at a research institution and changing during the course of study to a non-tenure track position or one with an emphasis on teaching), a trend almost twice as common among women as it is among men.

In the literature to date, researchers attribute higher rates of downshifting among women to their increased concerns about family friendliness compared to men. Drawing on qualitative and quantitative days from PhD students at a private, research institution in the Midwest, Jade and I test both this common explanation and an impostorism account. As reported today in Science Careers, over at the website for Science, we found trends consistent with previous research. Women were more likely to suffer from impostorism, more concerned about family friendliness, and more likely to downshift during graduate school than men were.  However, we also found that women’s increased concerns about family friendliness did not explain their increased likelihood to downshift. Impostorism, on the other hand, played a significant role.

This is crucial research for anyone interested in gender disparities in the academy. Jessica has a concrete suggestion at the end – that imposterism might be combated by changing the atmosphere within PhD programs. Knowing that other people have anxiety is a nice way to help people overcome it. Fabio’s suggestion: RCT where some programs implement an anti-imposterism program for 1st years, then we follow up every few years to see if it made a difference.

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Written by fabiorojas

September 12, 2013 at 12:04 am

Posted in academia, education, fabio

47 Responses

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  1. Link to actual article? Let’s talk magnitudes: 89% of female respondants *don’t* downshit, as opposed to 94% of men. Looks good to me in absolute terms. Continuing to talk magnitudes: statistical significance is not a magnitude. It’s a signal to noise ratio. The variable measuring imposterism’s effects is good. That doesn’t mean it’s big. Did Jessica control for objective measures of performance like course grades, GRE scores, dept evaluations? The decision to downshift is Bayesian rational for someone who isn’t performing well in their program, and we don’t know whether controlling for prior performance would drain the discrepency between women’s and men’s downshifting.

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    Graham Peterson

    September 12, 2013 at 12:47 am

  2. There is no article to link to, as it’s a work in progress.

    The magnitudes are significant considering that only about 1/3 of men and women enter graduate programs aspiring to a tenure track position at a research intensive institution (R1-TT). To have twice as many of those women as men decide to pursue something else over the course of study (1/3 compared to almost 1/6 of the students originally aspiring to the R1-TT) is significant. The Science coverage of the presentation didn’t even touch women graduate students’ significantly higher likelihood of considering downshifting, even if they didn’t actually do so, and impostorism’s relationship to this uncertainty. Such uncertainty is one of the reasons that I am not that concerned about measures of performance. While I understand their usefulness, and in an ideal world I would have much more data than I do, we’re looking at shifts in career aspirations over the course of graduate study and have no reason to assume that the women have weaker profiles early in graduate school than men (GRE scores, grades, etc.) or that impostorism springs up in response to poor grad school performance (as most psychologists argue it is a condition acquired early in life). Sure, impostorism might make people less attractive R1-TT candidates over time and influence their career goals, but this is still lost talent due to impostorism’s effect on performance and not due to a lack of innate ability among “impostors” (who tend to score quite high on conventional measures of ability in other studies). If this is the case, addressing impostorism should improve their performance and reduce these cases of lost talent.

    Although the data isn’t ideal, the reception of the Science article–coupled with the discussions throughout the popular press and in academic circles (e.g., in the Chronicle and on blogs) about the impostor syndrome–suggests that this is important preliminary research and points to a potentially fruitful way to approach gendered career ambitions (as well as raced and classed, two other social distinctions that map on to to impostorism) in academia and other spheres.

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    jessica

    September 12, 2013 at 1:48 am

  3. I see where this is going. Now we will have 10 years of people demanding more and more control variables and fancier models to attempt to wipe out this effect. This will include male graduate students condescendingly lecturing their female comrades on basic statistics in the hallways. When the evidence is finally irrefutable in the most elaborate longitudinal fixed effects model (or whatever they’ve invented by then), somebody will declare that it is substantively small and call it a day. Like the gender earnings gap in general and the motherhood penalty.

    Anyways, I think this is awesome and I will be taking it to our first year student pro seminar first thing on Monday. Thanks!

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    Philip N. Cohen

    September 12, 2013 at 2:36 am

  4. Jessica: thoughtful reply. I only mentioned cotrollig for material, institutional feedback like grades and standardized test scores because in my own experience with imposter syndrome, I recognize that my expectations of myself are conditioned heavily on for instance not graduating high-school, and what that institutional feedback does to damage identity and future expectations once internalized. When I said it’s “rational” thus to expect poorer future performance, I was implying (poorly! and with doses of contratian provocation), that actual human beings can buck against purely Bayesian rational expectations in order to acquire new skills and change identities. I don’t blame you at all for not collecting more data; it’s expensive, and you’ve done a thorough job with what you have. Congrats.

    Phil: mellow out a little, yeah? Every criticism of gender research by a man doesn’t constitute condescention. I had theoretically and experientially founded reasons for asking about further controls, and the confusion between statistical significance and magnitude is a pernicious and ubiquitous problem in social science, as has been highlighted by political scientists, psychologists, and economists ( though no sociologists who I’m aware of). The write up in Science Careers on Jessica’s article was actually exemplary in saying that the variable was “statistically significant” rather than just “significant.”

    I’m trying here, on your blog, and in the discipline in general, to have a conscientious discussion about gender. If you can’t do that without filing me into your “one of Hannah Rosen’s minions” category and swatting at anything I say, it’s not going to happen. That would be a sincere loss, considering the volumes of learning I stand to lose from you, and at least the potential that you might be able to profit similarly in time.

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    Graham Peterson

    September 12, 2013 at 3:07 am

  5. Jessica, I wanted to follow up on Fabio’s suggestion. Do you think different people may have a different effect in combating impostor syndrome, based on their position in the academy? In other words, do faculty have to address this issue with incoming students? Could I play this role as a veteran PhD student mentoring an incoming student? I understand that the answers to these questions may not be in your data. But this is such valuable work that I think a lot of us may want to try and act on it as best as we can!

    Building on Fabio, maybe we can test different kinds of anti-impostor programs?

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    Noah

    September 12, 2013 at 8:22 am

  6. I’ve got to say, Graham, that my initial reaction was a lot like Phil’s (and I appreciate his comment above and him talking to his students about these ideas). That said, I’ve seen enough GP in action to know that you would have given almost anyone–especially a relative stranger like me–a similar criticism, so tried not to draw too much from it.

    I recently applied for a grant, not to collect more data on graduate students, but to get at some of the roots of impostorism that you mention. More on that later, hopefully. However, according to previous research, most “impostors” don’t have negative experiences. They are extremely high-achieving students with no chinks in their armor, so to speak.

    I want to clarify two things. First, both men and women suffer from impostorism, so these discussions are not just about women (as Graham’s comment notes). However, women are more likely to suffer from impostorism and to downshift, so they should benefit more from them. Second, and this is important for both Phil and Noah (as well as others) going forward, the impostor syndrome isn’t something that people have or not. It’s a continuum. This is one of the reasons that I prefer the term impostorism to the impostor syndrome. When I talked to my own students about it last week in Prosem, I told them that feelings of self-doubt and impostorism among academics are normal. Most of us have had them at one time or another and they can inspire us to work harder and to be conscientious scholars. It’s when they become debilitating–when they lead to emotional exhaustion, psychological distress, prolonged anxiety and rumination, or keep people from speaking up in class, presenting at conferences, sending papers out, etc.–that they are problematic. Both faculty and fellow students should be on the lookout for that. Offer encouragement, but also be willing to refer someone to therapy for it. Know that you might have had your own feelings of impostorism, but that doesn’t mean that you have any idea what someone further along the continuum is feeling or that you can just fight through it. Ask if your campus mental health center offers support groups or 1-on-1 counseling for it (ND’s does). In my interviews with students, I found that social networks in graduate school were profoundly important for keeping students involved, engaged, and moving forward. This is, in part, because students come to see their peers as whole people, with similar doubts, struggles, issues, interests, etc. that help normalize what they’re experiencing. As the Science Careers article notes, seeing faculty as whole people can help too (both with family-friendliness concerns and impostorism).

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    jessica

    September 12, 2013 at 11:14 am

  7. Jessica,

    This looks like a real minefield. I am glad you are looking into it – grad school can be emotionally difficult at spots – but it can’t help but conclude that the message here is paternalistic. I know little about other academic disciplines, but is it really imposterism-driven “downshifting” to look around after a couple of years in graduate school in sociology and realize that, (a) my department – if I am lucky – will maybe place the top student in each cohort at a Top 20 department each year, (b) I ain’t that top student, and (c) I had better start considering all my options in earnest? Couple this with what you see from faculty as a student at the sort of department that can place their top students at top departments – extreme overwork, 24/7 work schedule, broken families/childlessness, the occasional touch of outright madness (see thread on CR) – all of which can be yours after 5-7 years – if you are lucky – for the princely starting salary of 70-80K (i.e., what your good undergraduate business majors get one year out). Is it really surprising that some students might become less than enthusiastic about asking, “Where do I sign?” Moreover, the premise that all should be enthusiastic to do so – the problematizing of student self-selection – is ultimately bad faith given that – if you are lucky – your department will maybe place the top student in each cohort at a Top 20 department each year. Why not simply encourage and mentor students to do the best research that they can and, having done your best to provide them with options, let them exercise them? Surely, there are worse fates than choosing to teach at a liberal arts college.

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    onceiwasagradstudent

    September 12, 2013 at 2:27 pm

  8. I think that you misinterpret our goal with this research. There’s nothing wrong with choosing a different path, and the majority of students start grad school with a different path in mind (often a tenure-track teaching position because it was a professor in such a role that convinced them to go to grad school). Students who enter with the R1-TT goal in mind are going to opt for something else later, just as some opt into the “fast track” (although far fewer). It’s completely normal to change one’s mind, to find out that you’re better suited for something else, that your passion lie elsewhere, etc. What is a difficult pill for me to swallow is the link between impostorism and making that choice (or seriously considering doing so, perhaps slowing down your progress toward a portfolio that would help you get a “top job”). That suggests that it’s not always just people looking around and deciding the rat race is not for them. Instead, talented people can be hampered by the insecurity that accompanies impostorism and this can partially account for the under-representation of women in R1-TT positions and over-representation among adjunct and non-TT faculty. To date, the predominant narrative explaining those trends is concerns about family-friendliness. This is an alternative, and complementary, approach.

    Given the use of quotes in downshifting, you might be interested in other discussions that I’ve had about that in reaction to this paper. It is not meant normatively, and is based on previous work that calls R1-TT positions “the fast track” and the growing “downshift” movement to give up status or prestige for balance or a life spent pursuing things one is passionate about. This is not a story of wanting to do research-intensive and deciding that liberal arts is more your style. Some of the shifters are taking that path, but others are deciding to get out of academia all together or to give up on pursuing their degree for fear they are not worthy of it.

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    jessica

    September 12, 2013 at 3:00 pm

  9. From what I’ve learned about the term “downshifting” it does not relate to a change in status or prestige, but instead in stress and responsibility.

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    Terry McGlynn

    September 12, 2013 at 3:41 pm

  10. Jessica – Thank you. That does help clarify my initial reaction. I’m still stuck on this: “What is a difficult pill for me to swallow is the link between impostorism and making that choice [to downshift].” I suppose that I’m more inclined to see imposterism as a perverse kind of self-protective “reasoning why” (Margolis 1987) than a “cause” of anything. There seems reason enough for (boundedly) rational grad students to explore all options, especially when it becomes clear that they are unlikely to be anointed by faculty in the department…a tough pill to swallow after a lifetime of receiving the “great student” signal, and likely sparking a variety of (probably gendered) post-hoc explanations/adjustments. Might those suffering from imposterism simply be internalizing real signals from others that they aren’t “good enough” (i.e., just because I’m neurotic doesn’t mean there is nothing to be distressed about)? I don’t want to start the “battle of controls” that Phil Cohen alludes to above, but what else is imposterism associated with? Do imposters, for instance, receive the same messages and support from faculty as non-imposters?

    On the gender differences in downshifting: This is interesting, but might they simply be attributable to good old fashioned institutional sexism? Total institutions breed all manner of mental disorder. Based on my experience in grad school, I could show you an angry/resentful male for every female imposter. The difference is that more of the angry/resentful males survive the institution and go on to comment at Orgtheory Offering palliative care, while humane, doesn’t render the institution any less total, or sexist, or does it?

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    onceiwasagradstudent

    September 12, 2013 at 4:54 pm

  11. This is one of those situations where all of these things are happening at the same time. I’m reminded of Macleod’s classic book Ain’t No Makin it. The hallway hangers internalized real constraints in their opportunity structure, leveled their aspirations in order to protect their dignity, and this turned into a self-fulfilling prophecy. We know there are real constraints on women in academia and I would suspect a lot of the same mechanisms are operating here.

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    someone

    September 12, 2013 at 5:13 pm

  12. I really appreciate this dialogue as we revise the paper to send out. Thank you for the thoughtful commentary and to Fabio for linking this here.

    Both points above are well-taken. In the paper we presented and my other thinking on the topic, we draw a lot on Correll’s “constraints intro preferences” work and performance expectations for ourselves (from ourselves, others, and cultural messages). We control for a variety of tangible constraints–children, live-in partners, first-generation college students–but there are many other factors that go untapped (we do have some in the data, like time spent on childcare). Our data suggest that these constraints are not related to impostorism or to downshifting (although people with children are much less likely to shift toward an R1-TT position while in grad school). In the same way that we’re not arguing that all shifts occur due to impostorism, we’re not asserting that impostorism is all that matters or that it’s not linked to other important factors. It is something that many psychologists believe stem from early childhood experiences, and it’s found as early as adolescence, but I agree that there must be more sociological factors at play, too, that may exacerbate it in graduate school. However, I didn’t come across any previous research that linked impostorism to true deficiency (unless arguing that it came as as result of it). Impostors tend to be highly talented people who experience tremendous success.

    With regard to institutional sexism, I’d have to go back and really look at the interviews to see if it’s factoring in to students’ experiences and decisions (because this isn’t at all about actual job placement and only aspirations). I certainly pick up on the ideal worker norm (which we also discuss in our paper) as a salient attribute of many (although not all) departments and important in career decisions, but found that it’s just as concerning for men today as it was for the women I interviewed.

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    jessica

    September 12, 2013 at 6:02 pm

  13. someone: well said. That’s what I was after in relating my own experience.

    Jessica: “They are extremely high-achieving students with no chinks in their armor, so to speak.” How do you know if you don’t have data on GRE scores and grades? Those data should be relatively easy to get on your subjects, and I guarantee you there is significant variation among 184 graduate students sampled in terms of their performance. Surety that conditional expectations of subjects’ future performance don’t explain any of your variation is probably the best reason to include those controls and put the potential alternative hypothesis to bed — it should be an easy win for you.

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    Graham Peterson

    September 12, 2013 at 6:47 pm

  14. Graham: I’m not sure why you think that it should be easy to get data on 461 students who I anonymously surveyed 4 years ago, but it’s impossible. I could ask my interviewees, as they’re easier to track down, but there were only 51 of them or I could get department averages by gender, but this isn’t just a gender story. Instead, I (rather conventionally) draw from previous research on impostorism, that doesn’t find a difference in achievement in school or intelligence to infer that there shouldn’t be differences among my subjects in talent. I allow that differences in performance may emerge over time, but–once again, based on previous research–as a result of impostorism rather than a cause of it.

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    jessica

    September 12, 2013 at 7:13 pm

  15. Two lines of thought. (1) Imposterism as you are studying it is actually “feeling like an imposter” which is different from BEING an imposter. The stereotypically-white-male [but by no means only white male, nor do all white men do it] stance of know-it-all is the real imposter, but those folks psychologically insulate themselves from awareness of their own weaknesses or errors. That’s who drives me crazy. I’ve had a huge desire periodically to whack some people upside the head to try to get them to accept self-attribution rather than other-attribution for their own screw-ups. I have also learned to spot the important discursive move: person is busy pontificating and I start to speak assertively from my own expertise about the topic; suddenly Mr. Pontificator switches the subject to something else about which he can continue to pontificate. I’m not good at tolerating mansplaining, but that is another example of the phenomenon.

    (2) The interactionality of it. Women with mansplainers or working class people or people of color with clueless privileged people experience the interactional consequences of being treated as stupid or inferior. I know you know this, but just telling people to stop feeling that way denies all the impact of the years of interaction that have fed into that. I have argued myself blue in the face trying to talk some people who are objectively very talented and competent out of their negative self-evaluations or fears, but the emotional baggage of years of experience cannot just be sloughed off with a pep talk. I don’t carry that kind of baggage and find it pretty easy to take an objective stock of where I stand in a particular situation (and roll with it when it is clear I’m over my head or have said something stupid), but that is a product of a lifetime of experience. There have been quite a few times when men have tried to patronize me in an area in which I feel competent, and that never goes well. This is why I’ve often been considered to be abrasive. For all that folks seem to be appreciating my blunt style in my old age, being viewed as “difficult” has hurt me in the younger years of my career.

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    olderwoman

    September 12, 2013 at 8:42 pm

  16. Thanks, OW.

    I thought we were pretty clear on (1), but appreciate the clarification. To flip your example around, “impostors”–as conceived in this data–are people who would attribute the same successes to luck or mistake that those without impostorism can more easily attribute to self.

    With regard to (2)… I sincerely hope that I haven’t given the impression that a pep talk will “cure” impostorism. These are deep-seated issues and in-depth treatment like cognitive behavioral therapy is most effective for dealing with the personal manifestation of the syndrome. The structural issues that contribute it require a very different approach.

    My own concern that impstorism is currently conceived of as too much “personality” and not enough “structure” drives the work I’m doing now to locate the structural sources of impostorism to improve our chances of fighting it in institutions. A careful reader of the Science Careers article will note that when it came to the “what can we do about it?” question, the author had to find someone else (Valerie Young) to speak because I see the issue as much more complex than a psychological social psychologist would. That said, evidence supports that CBT works well, not unlike some of the tactics Steele suggests for combating stereotype threat.

    Finally, I wouldn’t sell yourself short. You’ve argued yourself blue, and some people have certainly benefited from those efforts.

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    jessica

    September 12, 2013 at 10:06 pm

  17. Jessica: ooof, didn’t realize you didn’t have access to your subjects. It does sound like the data you do have are quite good, so that’s a feather in your cap. I’m still skeptical that there aren’t differences in talent driving down-shifting (within-group, at least), but I don’t know the lit so will have to hand that point to you. Good showing; nice chat.

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    Graham Peterson

    September 13, 2013 at 1:28 am

  18. Hey Jessica, I didn’t mean this as a critique of what you wrote, more my own musings on the topic.

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    olderwoman

    September 13, 2013 at 3:22 am

  19. Graham, I am sure you don’t mean to come across this way, but I am just stunned by how incredibly condescending you come across as being toward Jessica. Even though it’s not my research being discussed, I find it really alienating and demoralizing (because it reminds me of my own experiences of being condescended to like this; it’s exhausting). Again, I am sure that you don’t mean it this way, so this is feedback about unintended consequences of your posts that I hope you will consider. Your posts convey that you see yourself as the arbiter of good social science and Jessica as needing to earn your approval. She is talking about research she has actually conducted, and you are a first-year graduate student. Knock it off.

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    Anonagrad

    September 13, 2013 at 4:15 pm

  20. Condescending: “Let’s talk magnitudes: 89% of female respondants *don’t* downshit, as opposed to 94% of men. Looks good to me in absolute terms. Continuing to talk magnitudes: statistical significance is not a magnitude. It’s a signal to noise ratio. The variable measuring imposterism’s effects is good. That doesn’t mean it’s big.”

    Communicating directly (e.g. treating the other person as an equal, not your student): “I like the way you measure imposterism and see there is a statistically significant difference between men and women, but the magnitude of that difference still seems small.”

    Also, don’t both men and women shit downwards? :)

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    formycomments

    September 13, 2013 at 5:04 pm

  21. (Also, it’s not lost on my that my last comment was, in itself, condescending, but I hope, Graham, you still take the point…)

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    formycomments

    September 13, 2013 at 5:05 pm

  22. To what degree do you all think there is a basic belief in sociology that patriarchy, and the hierarchy it’s created historically, is a foundational and pernicious social problem? If that belief is commonplace and tacitly understood, to what degree do you think you guys believe that it’s marked and expressed by stereotypical male aggressiveness and competitive impulses? And finally, do you think that if that belief is widespread in sociology, it has resulted in both male and female sociologists disproportionately and actively trying to solve social problems, by countervailing these mannish cultural tendencies with on-the-ground behavior modification, both elected-into by individuals and enforced with informal and formal sanctions?

    I’m aggressive and indignant because: (a) I’ve always liked attention and a good debate, and more importantly (b) I learned the indignant, critical, and contrarian demeanor from my UG advisor, a transgendered woman. Deirdre’s first reply to an email I sent her as an undergraduate, back when I thought I was going to Trojan Horse economics and construct a mathematical derivation of a social utopia, was, “You should stop getting your economics from Michael Moore movies.”

    I realize that my behaviors fulfill just about every stereotype sociologists have of white males, cocky graduate students, and especially economists. I’m not sure I care that much. I’ll keep doing my best to be nice. Ya’ll keep doing your best to control for your own priors about the superficial manifestations of 20th century American masculinity in academic discourse, and the so very many feelings George Stigler and Gary Becker seem to have hurt with their crusade in the 1970s, leaving generations of sociologists with the impression that economists and their students are essentially a gaggle of condescending douche bags.

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    Graham Peterson

    September 13, 2013 at 6:47 pm

  23. @Graham Peterson: Is it really that hard to not be a dick? And, for the record, assholish behavior is still assholish even when validated by a transgendered woman.

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    The Worst

    September 13, 2013 at 7:27 pm

  24. Let’s not turn this into another school Graham Peterson thread. Haven’t we all by now learned that there’s no hunting dog in that well?

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    cwalken

    September 13, 2013 at 7:29 pm

  25. Does the literature suggest that imposterism can influence career path choices in other arenas outside of academia? If it’s something that starts in early childhood it might have an effect elsewhere. On the other hand, graduate school in particular features a presentation of self that might exacerbate imposterism.

    On a side note, I’m an upper level graduate student who has been asked to speak to my department’s first year proseminar about stress and anxiety in grad school. In light of your tip on scatterplot about naming imposterism as a way to raise awareness I thought about bringing attention to this study during the discussion. Any specific advice on naming imposterism and making this kind of thing visible to first year grad students.

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    someone

    September 13, 2013 at 7:38 pm

  26. Let’s all just wait for another one of Graham’s creative and groundbreaking guest posts. Those make it all worth it.

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    GP FAN CLUB

    September 13, 2013 at 9:50 pm

  27. You know, every discipline has Naked Emperor, group-think problems. I’m no expert but I haven’t seen one that vigorously supports and defends that kind of culture by throwing a temper tantrum and abolishing critical disourse every time someone challenges some mainline idea, as much as sociology.

    I’m willing to take the hit and admit that I’m arrogant, like attention, and need to pick battles better. Are sociologists willing to own that there’s something to the common criticism of the discipline that it’s infested with identity politics and invested in maintaining status quo and social advocacy above all else? This isn’t scientism, materialism, reductionism, or any of the other boogey men talking — respect for critical discourse and academic sportsmanship are basic liberal arts.

    I mean, Healy made some cracks about armchair meta-theory and there was a trail of tears longer than anything I’ve been able to provoke. Is everyone so bent on identifying with victims and promoting their cause in sociology that any significant criticism that doesn’t begin with “I really like your argument and think you’re a swell person,” is received as some kind of domineering attack on the little guy? You all want to break down in-group out-group boundary maintenance, but have no problem violently defending your own in-group.

    It’s not that the revolution won’t be televised — it won’t even be read so long as the rest of the academy has the not-all-together incorrect impression that sociology is a mere breeding ground for ideology, indoctrination, and political advocacy.

    I have a world of respect for Fabio, Phil, olderwoman, and the myriad other people here and IRL whose politics and analysis I often times disagree with. Most of these people are admittedly light years smarter and better educated than me, including the graduate students I’ve had the pleasure of meeting and debating. But seriously, to the anonymous posters obsessed with my character flaws: you’re embarrassing your discipline and making it much harder for people who are actually interested in substantive debate and discovery in sociology to make progress and gain audience. Go Occupy something else.

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    Graham Peterson

    September 13, 2013 at 10:22 pm

  28. I’d just like to point out that “group-think” is not a synonym for conformity or homogeneity of beliefs and is not an explanation for why members of some diffuse group (e.g. Sociologists, Economists, Democrats, Republicans, Evangelicals, etc) tend to have similar values to each other. It’s one of the most consistently misused words in the social sciences.

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    JD

    September 13, 2013 at 11:29 pm

  29. JD: that’s interesting. I was thinking of Damon Centola’s paper in naked emperors when I said that. Where does group think derive from if not to the kind of situation I’m thinking?

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    Graham Peterson

    September 13, 2013 at 11:40 pm

  30. Irving Janis originally coined the term. He used it to describe decision making processes in tight-knit working groups. One of the examples he used in the original book was the decision by JFK had his senior advisers to launch the bay of pigs invasion. In all instances he used it to refer to how decision making processes can go awry in small groups who directly work together. He never applied it to large, more diffuse groups like professions or political parties (as the term is usually used in the popular press).

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    JD

    September 14, 2013 at 12:24 am

  31. Wow. Yeah I was pretty far off, then. Whupsadaisey!

    There’s actually a really interesting emergence/complexity paper out by some of the Wisconsin kids at their complexity center, which shows pretty convincingly that you get some kind of rational inattention (I’m bastardizing the result some), and I think therefore Naked Emperors, even in small groups like the Supreme court. http://arxiv.org/abs/1306.5004

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    Graham Peterson

    September 14, 2013 at 12:53 am

  32. Graham: I read anonagrad’s original comment on the condescension as less about being an asshole or aggressive and more about how it suggested some sort of assumption that I was ignorant of quantitative methods or hadn’t thought carefully about my research. I think that, to some–especially in light of sociological research on the stricter standards that women are held to in evaluation–it came off like unintentional gender bias. It also came off a bit like the mansplaining that OW was talking about and could have been perceived as patronizing. I assumed that you would treat anyone that way, as you’re a self-proclaimed, equal opportunity aggressor and so didn’t take it personally. But, it is worth thinking about. If the work had been Fabio’s, would you have taken the same stance (explaining magnitudes or green-lighting the data)? Looking back at your reaction to Fabio’s “more tweets, more votes” post, the tone of your disagreement about analyses or findings is markedly different. Maybe you can find a place where your reaction was more akin to the one here, but I didn’t have the time or inclination to wade through orgtheory archives to do a systematic analysis.

    someone: As far as I know, I’m the first to systematically explore career choices and impostorism, but there is anectodal evidence on women’s under-representation in the tech fields and various articles about the experiences of first-generation college students, students of color, and women in higher education and the prevalence (and negative effect) of impostorism in their college experience. There is also a neat MA thesis on impostorism and propensity for job burnout. When talking to the first-years, I would just mention this as one type of anxiety that some people experience in graduate school and about how it can be significantly related to psychological distress and emotional exhaustion. Although some degree of it is common among grad students, it is important that students are attuned to whether or not their level is interfering with their work. Some colleagues might discount feelings of impostorism and say that all grad students feel that way, but there are varying degrees and it’s not something that everyone can just fight through. Normalizing the experience, while destigmatizing having to seek help for it if necessary, might be a good combination. There are also a ton of websites and videos online about dealing with it. Here’s one that’s circulating around right now that is nice about considering structural factors that might exacerbate impostorism.

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    jessica

    September 14, 2013 at 12:47 pm

  33. Thanks for the thoughtful comments Jessica

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    someone

    September 14, 2013 at 1:22 pm

  34. To elaborate on the interactional stuff and why it matters in a way that makes it not about GP or any other personality in this thread, let me give my own example of why I think it is essential to call attention to the problematic behavior of people in privileged categories and not just focus on the “problem” of feeling like an imposter. (And, again, Jessica, this is not a critique of what you wrote but a critique of how these discussions often go down.)

    Here’s the context. I’m on a university committee that is majority female and includes staff. It’s a tense committee, I’ve been over the course of many meetings aggressive and argumentative about positions that I think are important and have in the process clearly made many of the women angry with me. I can read their anger.

    In giving a report, I make an apologetic discursive turn, saying “I may be wrong about this.” I assume the women reading this will immediately know why I am doing it: I am trying to (unsuccessfully by the way) to humble myself with the other women to see if I can get them less mad at me.

    A male professor on the committee says to me: “You should never apologize. Women apologize too much. We need to teach women not to apologize. We used to have a fine of 50 cents every time someone apologies. I work with my students all the time to teach them not to apologize”

    Pause, everyone, what do you think is going on discursively in this moment? Do you think this is an important and legitimate way to work on the problem of imposterism? Because if you do, you are part of the problem.

    I am a senior full professor. I have been a department chair. I have exhibited for a year of meetings that I have no problem speaking my mind. What is the discursive meaning of this man who is younger than I am publicly telling me I should be more assertive and not apologize? Why did he feel comfortable saying that? Can you imagine any many publicly telling a man who is senior to himself that the older more senior man should be more assertive?

    This is an example of the kind of condescending and patronizing behavior that [some] men engage in all the time with women. They refuse to offer deference to a woman who is older and senior to them, and they engage in discursive moves that imply their own superiority among women who are their equals or betters in status. And when the woman takes umbrage, she is difficult and arrogant and abrasive. By the way, many women and men of color (especially but not only African Americans) experience exactly the same kind of discursive moves.

    If people can behave this way to others who are their objective superiors in seniority or status (and I’m agreeing this is often unconscious behavior) what does it mean when it is applied to people who are equal or junior to them?

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    olderwoman

    September 14, 2013 at 2:46 pm

  35. As a follow up study, it might be interested to see how much pluralistic ignorance there is about impostor syndrome. From the anecdotal evidence that I have, it seems like everyone–perhaps excluding Graham Peterson–experiences impostor syndrome at some point during graduate school, and many of these people go on to develop academic careers anyway. I wonder if graduate students, and disproportionately women, feel like a plurality of people do *not* experience impostor syndrome, and thus feel singled out in their own mind, although this is a mismatch with reality.

    Additionally, academia is full of cases of the “overworked American” and it may be mentally healthier to choose careers outside academia even if one does it for ostensibly wrong reasons. It could be that men are being risk takers to an unhealthy degree by ignoring their feelings of impostorism, and contributing to their risk of mental illness down the road. Thus, in an ideal world we might have fewer women downshifting *and* more men downshifting.

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    Chris M

    September 14, 2013 at 3:59 pm

  36. Just going to respond to Jessica here and bow out. The statistical significance stuff is a hobby horse of my former adviser’s, so I hunt for it. http://tinyurl.com/ol2oqpu I questioned Fabio on it, for Tweets and Votes, in an email. I also went after him aggressively for talking about direction of variable instead of size in an orgtheory post. All three of my UG referees were women, and I owe a life to them for all the astounding mentorship and training. I admit I have a bias against quant work by sociologists, but definitely not scholarship by women.

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    Graham Peterson

    September 14, 2013 at 6:19 pm

  37. OW, while I do not doubt that this is the case in your setting, I had to read the following sentence 2-3 times: “Can you imagine any many publicly telling a man who is senior to himself that the older more senior man should be more assertive?” because I was sure there was something I had missed. Answer: Of course I can, and I have seen this happen at least once. Wouldn’t be a big deal and I would personally find it a lot easier to say to a man, than to a woman. Granted, power distance is a particular thing in Denmark.

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    Anonymous

    September 14, 2013 at 6:49 pm

  38. Jessica, have you controlled in your study for mental health problems like depression (prior diagnosis) or given them a screening during the survey? People who are depressed have all kinds of vocation-specific problems. It’s hard to imagine having a *serious* case of imposter syndrome without also having at least a moderate level of depression.

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    formycomments

    September 14, 2013 at 7:35 pm

  39. Anon: assuming you parsed the typo ok (“many” should have been “man”), then I stand corrected, at least about your experience. I’m asserting that offering advice in that context is patronizing and therefore insulting. I am not sure from your comment whether you don’t think the advice is patronizing/insulting or whether you can imagine a younger man patronizing/insulting an older man in that way.

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    olderwoman

    September 14, 2013 at 7:38 pm

  40. By the way, I hope I’m not trying to derail the discussion of downshifting, which is the main point of Jessica’s post. Although I am trying to argue for the interactional/structural side of the story over the psychologizing side.

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    olderwoman

    September 14, 2013 at 7:43 pm

  41. I think getting ‘advice’ that was not sought always has a condescending/patronizing tone to it, no matter the positions or attributes of the people involved. But I also agree with olderwoman’s point that this sort of interaction is more likely to occur along status hierarchies, e.g. senior to junior, man to women, white to minority, etc.

    The practical question then might be how can advice and mentoring be given that won’t reinforce status and potential feelings of inadequacy?

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    cwalken

    September 14, 2013 at 8:02 pm

  42. I do not have depression measures, although have both distress and satisfaction measures (on aspects of both academic and personal life). Research shows that impostorism is highly correlated with psychological distress, including, for some, depression. Most people seem to assume that the distress stems from impostorism, rather than the other way around, but I can see it going both ways (or simply in tandem). In my interviews, there were a handful of clearly depressed students and a number with impostorism. The two groups seldom overlapped. In the two cases where they did, though, those students dropped out without finishing. Others, with one or the other condition, largely persevered in their original career paths. It makes me think that other mental health issues compound the effects of impostorism but probably don’t explain them completely. However, the n is too small, and measures of depression and impostorism imprecise as it was just my impression in talking with the students, to say anything meaningful. Future research will have to tackle it.

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    jessica

    September 14, 2013 at 8:09 pm

  43. How specific is imposterism to academia? Do we know if a similar phenomenon is common in other professions like law or medicine?

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    JD

    September 14, 2013 at 9:17 pm

  44. Similar effects (gender differences, uncertainty about future career) have been found among medical students and a handful of studies show impostorism is relatively high in such programs. I don’t know about law, but generally it’s any high-achieving people who are prone to impostorism, so I’d assume it’s true there, too.

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    jessica

    September 14, 2013 at 9:36 pm

  45. Catching this late, but this is really interesting work. I wonder if you have thought about work and gender construction vs. family formation goals / partner support, given the average age of PhD students? I imagine the guys feel like imposters but get a lot of push and support, but in addition, know that they can realistically find a wife who picks up the slack. (Or just don’t really think about it.) Whereas women can’t count on finding that less traditional arrangement and so are downshifting in response to a situation or even pre-emptively?

    That might be anticipatory (within self) and/or with realized interactions and pressure from partners, friends, family. I see you controlled for partner status, but I could imagine less supportive partners exacerbating imposter feelings, discouraging harder work, etc. and that also increasing the distress you find that predicts pulling back. For example, a good partner who says “of course it’s hard, but you can do it” vs. a partner who said “Why do you need to go to London to do fieldwork? Plenty of people have finished their dissertations in Chicago.” (Not that I’ve ever heard these sentiments from a former partner…)

    In other words, it might seem like in order to be “right for” a top job as a woman, you have to be able to break gender norms in both employment and in family labor arrangement, which might seem too difficult, compared to breaking just one norm. Well, three gender norms if you also count needing to move for a job and need a man to be the trailing spouse.

    Of course if you find imposterism isn’t strongly related to family formation goals and partner support/lack-of, that would also be very interesting.

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    Erica

    September 26, 2013 at 4:47 am

  46. Thanks, Erica. These are interesting ideas that are consistent with my interviews. My collaborator, Jade, did a bit with family formation plans and they certainly concern women much more than men! It would be interesting to see how they link up with impostorism.

    The interviews reflected the importance of partners’ support, especially for women. Some women attributed their success to their partners pushing them and convincing them that they were capable and others talked about how the men in their lives suggested that the women would be happier if they just got out of the whole academic rate race and focused on other things (those women both dropped out of school). Gender norms might not only push women out of academic, because they see various decisions as gender-inconsistent, but I think that they also pull women out. It seems like “giving in” to impostorism is easier for women because choosing something else (particularly for women with children or who want them) is completely consistent with a widely-accepted norm for women to opt out of careers and stay home with kids, to prioritize family. In a way, men don’t have that luxury.

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    jessica

    September 27, 2013 at 7:11 pm

  47. Very interesting. And I do wonder if there are guys who are actually deciding to opt out due to imposterism, but because they don’t stay home with kids, it just looks like they decided they wanted a non-academic job. (And they can say as much.)

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    Erica

    September 30, 2013 at 2:17 am


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