Am I Phony?

Katie Kloska's picture
Over the past year, my interest in chemistry has finally begun to take off in a tangible direction. I am finally able to speak confidently at conferences, I am doing research that I love, and I have found an unwavering interest in my chemistry courses. However, I have noticed one thought that has been recurring in my head, “When will they find out that I’m a fraud?”.

 As the applications for graduate school creep closer, this self-deprecating question seems to pop up more. I will often convince myself that I don’t deserve to apply to certain graduate programs because I’m not smart enough, or I will try to stop my interest in theoretical chemistry from growing because I don’t know enough. I have set goals that I plan to execute, but in the back of my head I feel that these goals are unattainable—no matter how much work I plan to put into them. At the end of my undergraduate career, I believe I will walk on the graduation stage and retrieve a degree in chemistry that I know nothing about.


However, because of my involvement with the #IAmAWomanInSTEM program at the University of Kentucky, I know this belief is purely problematic. One issue that faces women in academia has been called the “imposter syndrome”. I first learned about this phenomenon freshman year with my #IAmAWomanInSTEM cohort, but I didn't realize it would ever apply to me. In 1978, Dr. Pauline Clance and Dr. Suzanne Imes coined the term "imposter syndrome" to effectively describe an invalid feeling of being a fraud in an academic or professional setting which often undermines one's own accomplishments or merit.


Just as the original definition puts it, I feel like a phony scientist. To a certain degree, this feeling is somewhat valid. Because I am still an undergraduate, having an expertise in the field is not yet expected. Most juniors in college, women and men, cannot claim to know everything about their major. However, "imposter syndrome" has made it hard for me to identify myself as a decent chemistry student and it has lead me to believe that I will never understand chemistry well enough to perform research independently. In addition, I will write most of my accomplishments off as "pity prizes" and that I don't truly deserve them. 


Dr. Peggy McIntosh, former associate director of the Wellesley Centers for Women (WCW), gave the speech “Feeling Like a Fraud” which gained popularity because of its relevance. Speaking on women struggling with "imposter syndrome" she said, 
“One feels illegitimate in doing something, or appearing as something; one feels apologetic, undeserving, anxious, tenuous, out-of-place, misread, phony, uncomfortable, incompetent, dishonest, guilty. Many women and men I know seem to share these feelings. But some research and much observation suggests they are especially severe in women, both in chronic life-long forms and in acute forms in particular situations.”
Reading the quote from Dr. McIntosh may seem eerily familiar to you if you are somebody who has fallen into the cold hard grasp of the imposter phenomenon. You are not alone. In fact, there have been numerous blogs and published studies that have focused on this topic (links at the bottom of the page) indicating the widespread nature of this matter. Oddly enough, by understanding that this is simply a sociological issue that faces women, it becomes easier to dismiss these feeling of phoniness and fraudulence. 


So what else can we do to cope with “imposter syndrome”? Inward reflection and personal recognition are two keys here. By identifying personal accomplishments without judgment, it is easier to accept them as authentic realities. It is very important to feel good about the work that we do. Self-identity plays a huge role in determining whether or not we persist in our fields. Hopefully the effects of "imposter syndrome" will deplete as our workforce becomes equitable for all.

Do you have any practices that help you deal with "imposter syndrome"? Please share below in the comments.



If you want to read more about "imposter syndrome" below are links to articles and blogs provided on the #IAmAWomanInSTEM website:

Faking It: Women, Academia, and Imposter Syndrome by Kate Bahn

​The Confidence Gap by Katty Kay and Claire Shipman

Stuff Mom Never Told You: The Workplace Fear Factor by Cristen Conger

Never A Fraud: Combatting Imposter Phenomenon by CathyCat

​Feeling Like a Fraud by Peggy McIntosh