PhD Student Experiences with the Impostor Phenomenon in STEM

Devasmita Chakraverty
International Journal of Doctoral Studies  •  Volume 15  •  2020  •  pp. 159-179

This US-based study explored various facets of impostor phenomenon experienced during PhD training in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). Specifically, the purpose of this research was to identify certain experiences that trigger this phenomenon.

Competent high-achievers who do not believe in their efforts leading to accomplishments sometimes experience the impostor phenomenon. It is characterized by the notion that one has fooled others into overestimating their ability, not attributing one’s accomplishments to ability, and living with the fear of being discovered as a fraud.

Data were collected using convenience and snowball sampling. Qualitative, semi-structured interviews from 90 PhD students were analyzed thematically.

Study findings contribute to a less-understood area of what constitutes triggers for the impostor phenomenon among PhD students in STEM fields.

Participants described the following themes that triggered impostor phenomenon during PhD training: 1) Progress and public recognition, 2) Comparing oneself with others, 3) Developing skills: public speaking and scientific writing. 4) Application of new knowledge, and 5) Asking for help.

PhD faculty, mentors, advisers, and administrators should be cognizant of the triggers that could give rise to the impostor phenomenon among their students. Professional development activities for students could focus on earlier and more rigorous training for improving scientific communication.

Future research should continue to explore if other stakeholders in academia such as postdoctoral trainees and faculty also experience similar stress due to the impostor phenomenon.

Institutes of higher education should continue to focus on improving student mental health and retention rates, alleviating some of the PhD training stressors by designing interventions that improve students’ mindset and self-efficacy.

Findings point to avenues for further research on how to support those with impostor phenomenon. Future research could explore the topic in other disciplines outside STEM and examine if long-term interventions could mitigate impostor-feelings, including the nature and length of interventions that could be helpful.

impostor phenomenon, impostor syndrome, doctoral training, STEM training, graduate school, mindset
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