PhD Imposter Syndrome: Exploring Antecedents, Consequences, and Implications for Doctoral Well-Being

Anna Sverdlik, Nathan C. Hall, Lynn McAlpine
International Journal of Doctoral Studies  •  Volume 15  •  2020  •  pp. 737-758

Research on doctoral students’ well-being suggests that an interplay of social and psychological factors, such as integration into the scholarly community and perceptions of self-worth, shape students’ experiences. The present research examined the role of these factors in the well-being of doctoral students.

Imposter syndrome has long been discussed both formally and informally as a prevalent experience of doctoral students. Existing research provides empirical support for the role of perceived belongingness to one’s scholarly community in maladaptive self-perceptions (i.e., imposter syndrome), as well as the role of imposter syndrome in doctoral students’ well-being. However, no studies to date have directly explored the extent to which imposter syndrome mediates the relationship between perceived belongingness and well-being in a single model.

The present research sought to evaluate perceived belongingness as a predictor of imposter syndrome and how imposter syndrome, in turn, predicts well-being (i.e., depression, stress, and illness symptoms) in doctoral students. Depression, stress, and illness symptoms were identified in the literature as the most prevalent well-being concerns reported by doctoral students and therefore were evaluated as the outcome variables in the present research. In line with previous research, we expected perceived belongingness to negatively predict imposter syndrome, and imposter syndrome, in turn, to positively predict depression, stress, and illness symptoms. Two studies evaluated the proposed model. Data for both studies was collected simultaneously (i.e., one large sample) with 25% of the sample randomly selected for Study 1 (cross-sectional) and the remainder included in Study 2 (longitudinal). In Study 1, we tested this hypothesis with a cross-sectional design and explored whether imposter syndrome was a significant mediator between perceived belongingness and well-being. In Study 2, we aimed to replicate and extend the results of Study 1 with a prospective design to further assess the directionality of the relationship from perceived belongingness to imposter syndrome and, in turn, the role of imposter syndrome in changes in depression, stress, and illness symptoms over a five-month period.

The present results represent evidence of the process by which doctoral students develop imposter syndrome and some of the consequences of imposter syndrome on doctoral well-being. Additionally, the present study includes a large-scale sample of international doctoral students across the disciplines, thus revealing the prevalence of imposter syndrome in the doctoral experience.

Overall, the results of the present research provided support for our hypotheses. In Study 1, perceived belongingness was found to be a negative predictor of imposter syndrome that, in turn, predicted higher levels of depression, stress, and illness symptoms. Additionally, imposter syndrome was found to significantly mediate the relationship between perceived scholarly belongingness and the three outcome variables assessing psychological well-being. Study 2 further revealed perceived scholarly belongingness to negatively predict imposter syndrome five months later, with imposter syndrome, in turn, predicting increases in depression, stress, and illness symptoms in our doctoral student sample.

Several recommendations are made for practitioner based on the present findings: First, by acknowledging the critical role of perceived social belongingness in students’ well-being, faculty and administrators can establish structures to better integrate students into their scholarly communities, and departments can foster a supportive social atmosphere for their doctoral students that emphasizes the quality of interactions and consultation with faculty. Second, information sessions for first-year doctoral students could highlight the prevalence and remedies of feeling like an impostor to normalize these otherwise deleterious feelings of inadequacy. Finally, professional development seminars that are typically taught in graduate programs could incorporate an explicit discussion of well-being topics and the prevalence of imposter syndrome, alongside other pragmatic topics (e.g., publishing protocols), to ensure that students perceive their departmental climate as supportive and, in turn, feel less like an imposter and better psychologically adjusted.

Researchers should continue exploring the various antecedents and consequences of imposter syndrome, specifically focusing on at-risk students, as well as the role of imposter syndrome in doctoral-level dropout.

Imposter syndrome is a harmful experience that can lead to a variety of life-altering outcomes, such as developing or intensifying a mental illness. Doctoral students, as society’s future researchers and high-skilled professionals, have a great impact on society as a whole, and efforts should be extended into maintaining doctoral students’ well-being in order for them to perform at an optimal level. The present research sheds light on one aspect of the doctoral experience that is detrimental to the well-being of doctoral students, thus informing doctoral students, advisors, and departments of one area where more resources can be allocated in order to facilitate the health, both physical and psychological, of their students.

Future research should explore additional outcomes to fully understand the impact of perceived belongingness and imposter syndrome on doctoral students. Some such outcomes may include academic performance (e.g., presentation/publication rates), motivation (e.g., perseverance vs. intention to quit), and more general psychological adjustment measures (e.g., satisfaction with life). Such research, in combination with the present findings, can help the understanding of the full impact of imposter syndrome on the academic and personal experiences of doctoral students and can contribute to psychologically healthier and more academically productive experiences for doctoral students as they navigate the myriad challenges of doctoral education.

doctoral education, doctoral well-being, imposter syndrome, mental health, graduate education, doctoral socialization
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