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Imposter phenomenon rife among academics, studies find

Feelings of inadequacy and not being up to the job are a real issue for many academics, two exploratory studies have suggested.

The imposter phenomenon is a psychological condition first described in 1978. Sufferers are beset by unjustified feelings of inadequacy and live in fear of being ‘found out’ by others.

Holly Hutchins, an associate professor of human resource development at the University of Houston in the United States, carried out a pilot study of 61 academics, published on 24 April in the journal New Horizons in Adult Education and Human Resource Development. A follow-up study, looking at 321 faculty members at a research-intensive university and medical school in the US, is due for publication later this year.

The pilot study identifies “moderately high” levels of imposter phenomenon in the group and one statistically significant correlation: tenure track academics reported higher levels than tenured or non-tenured faculty members.

The larger study also reports a rise in the phenomenon among tenure track academics, Hutchins says. That study highlights the importance of social support.

In face-to-face interviews, some participants in the larger study told Hutchins that the transition from “a doctoral experience of collaboration with professors and peers to a very autonomous, independent role as a faculty member” is fertile ground for the phenomenon to take root.

This is something Hutchins, whose interest was sparked by her own experience of the phenomenon, can relate to. She says: “I didn’t even have a name for what I was living through until, talking to colleagues hired at the same time, we realised we shared the same experiences.”

Anecdotal evidence has long suggested that the phenomenon is common in academia—it is thought to flourish among conscientious, achievement-oriented individuals and those working in competitive jobs—but studies of higher education have rarely investigated early-career researchers.

“There was nothing looking at a cross-section of the academic faculty,” says Hutchins.

Pilot study participants were sourced from a US academic professional association. They filled in a 45-question survey including 20 questions to assess their level (if any) of imposter phenomenon, five questions examining any recent history of tiredness and exhaustion, and 20 questions on coping strategies.

This article was also published in Research Fortnight