Impostor Phenomenon Among Engineering Education Researchers: An Exploratory Study

Devasmita Chakraverty
International Journal of Doctoral Studies  •  Volume 16  •  2021  •  pp. 757-776

The purpose of this study was to explore reasons that engineering education researchers experience impostor phenomenon.

Experiencing impostor phenomenon includes a psychological discomfort experienced by some high-achieving individuals who, by the very virtue of being successful, mistakenly believe that they are fraudulent and faking their success. Impostor phenomenon has been studied more broadly in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM), with little research specifically in engineering and computer science and none, to the author’s knowledge, in engineering education research. As an emerging discipline, some of the challenges in engineering education research include its poor connection with engineering teaching and learning, establishing multidisciplinary collaborations, and advancing global capacity. As a result of its poor connection with engineering fields, and being a new discipline, it is possible that engineering education researchers hold an identity that is different from engineering researchers. Some of them could be experiencing their training differently, struggling to find mentors from a similar background, and possibly feeling like impostors.

Using purposive sampling and snowball sampling, US-based engineering education researchers participated in a short survey and a semi-structured interview. The survey consisted of demographic questions, items of the Clance Impostor Phenomenon Scale, and an open-ended question about an instance when participants experienced impostor phenomenon. Interviews examined, in detail, reasons for experiencing impostor phenomenon as engineering education researchers. The scale provided a measure of the intensity of impostor phenomenon. Interviews were analyzed inductively through constant comparison using a constructivist approach.

Findings indicate various axes of othering that made it difficult to develop a sense of belonging, especially for women, and contributed to impostor phenomenon. Othering occurred through identity-based experiences (gender-identity, engineer-identity), different methodologies used to conduct research, and different vocabulary used for academic communication.

The sample comprised of eleven participants (PhD students, postdoctoral scholars, and faculty), all of whom experienced high to intense impostor phenomenon (range: 61-91/100; mean 75.18). Participants were predominantly white women from twenties to forties. Interviews indicated two reasons for experiencing impostor phenomenon: (1) existing in a separate world from engineering (referring to cultural differences between engineering and engineering education including differences in communication styles, methodologies, and identities); and, (2) facing gendered experiences (for women).

It is recommended that practitioners are mindful of the tensions between worldviews, commonly used methodologies, and demographic differences between engineering research and engineering education research that could shape one’s experience in the field and contribute to “othering” during doctoral training and thereafter.

Doctoral and post-doctoral training in engineering education research could be more inclusive and open to different research methodologies. Future studies deeply exploring various training challenges experienced by engineering education researchers could illuminate how the field could become more inclusive.

The current study provides a nuanced understanding of the dichotomy between engineering and engineering education research, including the different styles in academic communication, research methodologies used, and identities. It also provides an understanding of the gendered experiences women have in the field, pointing to an overt or covert lack of recognition. Both these factors could make some feel like outsiders or impostors who question themselves and doubt their competencies and belonging in the field. Attrition from the field could be costly, even to the society, at large, given that the field is relatively new, evolving, and not (yet) as diverse in its worldviews, methodologies, and the demography of those it attracts for doctoral training and beyond. The study provides evidence-based understanding of how training in engineering education researchers could be re-imagined.

Future research could examine, in detail, aspects of engineering education research training that may contribute to impostor phenomenon, poor belonging, poor identity, and othering experiences.

engineering education, engineering education research, STEM education, higher education, impostor phenomenon, impostor syndrome
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