The Impostor Phenomenon Among Black Doctoral and Postdoctoral Scholars in STEM

Devasmita Chakraverty
International Journal of Doctoral Studies  •  Volume 15  •  2020  •  pp. 433-460

This study examined experiences related to the impostor phenomenon among Black doctoral and postdoctoral scholars in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM).

Research on the impostor phenomenon is usually focused on undergraduates, especially for Blacks, with sparse research on Black doctoral and postdoctoral scholars. This phenomenon was originally investigated among Whites. Due to fewer studies on Blacks, culturally-relevant understanding of the impostor phenomenon is limited.

This study used surveys and interviews (convergent mixed-methods) to examine the impostor phenomenon among U.S.-based doctoral and postdoctoral scholars (together referred to as “trainees”) in STEM. Participants took a survey (that used the Clance Impostor Phenomenon Scale or CIPS to individually compute impostor phenomenon scores) and a one-on-one, semi-structured interview. Survey (with CIPS scores) and interview data were converged from the same participants, who were recruited from a national conference focused on minorities in STEM (convenience sampling). Using constant comparative method and analytic induction, interview-data were categorized into themes.

Findings documented race-based impostor-experiences, possibly culturally relevant to other groups of underrepresented minorities (URMs). Findings have implications for research, policy, and practice. These include future initiatives to broaden participation in STEM careers among the underrepresented groups, support those who might experience this phenomenon and transition challenges in academia, and create greater awareness of the challenges trainees face based on their background and life experiences.

Surveys indicated moderate to intense impostor phenomenon among 15 participants at the time data were collected. Interviews with the same participants found six themes linked to the impostor phenomenon: 1) Being the only-one, 2) Lack of belonging, 3) Stereotyping, micro-aggression and judgment, 4) External appearances, 5) Feeling like the “diversity enhancers,” and 6) Complications of intersecting identities.

Practitioners should consider the tensions and complications of Black identity and how it ties to training experiences in STEM as well as how race-based impostor phenomenon could shape an individual’s interaction with faculty, mentors, and peers. This knowledge could be helpful in designing professional development programs for Blacks.

Study findings could have research implications on the way doctoral and postdoctoral training is reimagined to be more inclusive and welcoming of diversity across multiple axes of gender, race/ethnicity, class, first-generation status, ability, sexual orientation, and country of origin, among others.

Black trainees could be vulnerable to leaving STEM fields due to their underrepresentation, lack of critical mass, racial discrimination, and other unpleasant experiences. Conversations around training, development, and means to address psychological distress could focus on culturally-relevant experiences of the impostor phenomenon.

Future research could look at the experiences of other underrepresented groups in STEM such as Native Americans and Hispanics as well as among faculty of color and individuals from other fields beyond STEM.

impostor phenomenon, impostor syndrome, Black, STEM, doctoral train-ing, postdoctoral training, higher education, STEM PhD, STEM postdoc-toral scholar
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