Factors Contributing to Imposter Phenomenon in Doctoral Students: A US-Based Qualitative Study

Sara Bano, Cailen O'Shea
International Journal of Doctoral Studies  •  Volume 18  •  2023  •  pp. 251-269

Our study explores the factors contributing to the Imposter Phenomenon among doctoral students in the United States.

Many studies show that Imposter Phenomenon impacts women doctoral students and students from minority groups, especially if they are enrolled in Predominantly White Institutions. Our study focuses explicitly on contributing factors to the Imposter Phenomenon among doctoral students in the United States. The study also explored how Imposter Phenomenon is related to doctoral students’ academic goals and achievements.

We utilized a qualitative phenomenological research design and conducted semi-structured interviews (45-90 minutes) in person and via Zoom. This study was conducted at a public research university in mid-western United States. A total of 14 (3 male and 11 female) doctoral students participated in the study. These students self-identified as White (9), African American (1), South Asian (2), mixed race (1), and Latina (1). Of the 14 students, 4 were international, and 10 were domestic. These students were from various disciplines, such as Education, Economics, Anthropology, Biology, Plant Sciences, and Engineering.

The study contributes to the field of psychology and higher education and helps us better understand doctoral students’ conceptions and experiences of the Imposter Phenomenon. The study provides empirical support to some of the previous claims by researchers and provides new insights related to the Imposter Phenomenon.

In our study, participants did not consider the Imposter Phenomenon merely a personal or internal feeling or mental condition as presented in previous studies. We found there are multiple layers of the issue, and sociocultural factors play a contributing role to the Imposter Phenomenon. In our study, we found that relations with family, siblings, peers, and faculty played a significant role in shaping our participants’ sense of self and impacted how they responded to challenges in their academic life. We also noted that institutional culture impacts doctoral students’ self-concept and academic performance. Female doctoral students mentioned institutional culture and prevalent sexism in STEM fields as contributing factors to the Imposter Phenomenon. Overall, gender, race, age, and mental health emerged as major contributing factors to the Imposter Phenomenon among doctoral students.

We recommend that higher education institutions should help doctoral students, especially students from underrepresented groups, by providing social, emotional, and economic support. To mitigate the challenges of institutional sexism, racism, and ageism, higher education institutions should consider creating peer support groups and try to foster a healthy and supportive environment for doctoral students. These groups could build on ontological inquiries to bolster student resiliency and self-perception. Also, there is a dire need for easily accessible mental health services on campuses, especially for graduate students.

Doctoral students, if successful, can play a significant role in society’s future growth. However, doctoral completion rates are currently staggeringly low, and the degree program is long. The situation is exacerbated due to the COVID-19 pandemic. This impacts doctoral students’ emotional, psychological, and economic well-being, and may affect their health and family relationships. Incomplete doctoral degrees can be costly for individuals and society. Higher education institutions must provide better mental health and economic support to help doctoral students succeed in their programs so they can positively contribute to society and the world.

Doctoral students, if successful, can play a significant role in society’s future growth. However, doctoral completion rates are currently staggeringly low, and the degree program is long. The situation is exacerbated due to the COVID-19 pandemic. This impacts doctoral students’ emotional, psychological, and economic well-being, and may affect their health and family relationships. Incomplete doctoral degrees can be costly for individuals and society. Higher education institutions must provide better mental health and economic support to help doctoral students succeed in their programs so they can positively contribute to society and the world.

We plan to expand our study to better understand the Imposter Phenomenon among doctoral students from cross-cultural perspectives to see if the same factors exist there.

imposter syndrome, imposter phenomenon, doctoral students, qualitative study, higher education
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