Students, faculty reflect on the imposter syndrome at the University

Sunday, April 21, 2019 - 6:38pm

This past semester, The Michigan Daily conducted a survey which received close to 400 responses about the nature of imposter syndrome at the University of Michigan. Imposter syndrome refers to a psychological pattern in which an individual dismisses their accomplishments and fears being exposed as lacking or just simply a “fraud.” The survey included questions that asked students to self-report their demographics.  Demographics questions that had the most significant results included income and gender, while others such as race did not provide conclusive data. The survey was intended to gauge how students perceived themselves in relation to the rest of their peers at the University in their respective fields of study.

Originally, LSA senior Ciara Hancock wanted to attend Alma College to train as a cheerleader. In her rural, predominantly white, hometown of Charlotte, Michigan, Hancock outlined two distinct post-high school paths: either belonging to the top 10 percent that transition to college, or falling within the other 90 percent that attend a trade school. After getting her ACT scores back, Hancock decided to relinquish her dreams of back-spotting a basket toss and set her sights on a more academic path: the University of Michigan. Yet her decision was met with hesitation from her peers, parents and even her teachers, causing her to fully realize the “name that Michigan carries.”

“A lot of the teachers that I came across when I told them about my plans were kind of like ‘Oh wow, really? That’s kind of a reach school,’” Hancock said. “Not a lot of people from my school move on to bigger name schools. An important professional at the school pulled me aside and told me, ‘I think it’s good that you’re going to Michigan, but I think you need to be ready and aware that you’re going to go from being top to the middle or bottom.’ It seemed like really good realistic advice then, but now that I think about it, it feels like it was really discounting. I went to a small school where they weren’t prepared to prepare to students to strive for more. So, I think that kind of set me up for feeling a little anxious here.”

Hancock is not the only student harboring anxieties about being in “the middle or bottom.” According to the survey of 400 students conducted by The Michigan Daily, 87.9 percent of undergraduates said they often compare their academic ability to those around them.

By attending a university ranked fourth in “Best Public Universities,” 20th in the world for research-intensive universities and one which routinely generates captains of industry, Nobel laureates and Hollywood elites, Hancock wondered: How can you not have imposter syndrome?

“You look at that student and think, ‘Holy cow, how are you so smart? How are you doing so much? How are you on the executive board of six different organizations?’” Hancock said. “It kind of makes you feel like shit. I’m struggling to sometimes remember to take a shower.”

The students polled by The Daily reported symptoms of imposter syndrome, a term coined by psychologists Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes in 1978. Imposter syndrome refers to the feeling of “phoniness in people who believe that they are not intelligent, capable or creative despite evidence of high achievement.” While these people are “highly motivated to achieve,” they regularly “live in fear of being ‘found out’ or exposed as frauds.”

Overall, Hancock said imposter syndrome affects her day to day life, hindering her ability to succeed at the University.

“I feel like there has not been enough acknowledgement of the impact it can have,” Hancock said. “I feel like for me at least it might be a combination of other things, but it’s had a big impact on my mental health and just my hope for the future. When you believe that you don’t belong here, you don’t believe that it is going to give you the potential to be great.”

Counseling and Psychological Services psychologist Dr. Christine Asidao has recently noticed a growing trend among students with symptoms of the imposter syndrome.

“It’s not typically students directly say they have imposter syndrome — it’s typically the qualities that I see such as feeling inadequate, maybe having experiences of just low self-confidence, low self-worth, there’s a lot of social comparison,” Asidao said. “Thinking about the motto of the university: leaders and best. Does that mean everyone can be a leader and everyone can be the best?”

Socioeconomic status can also heighten the impact of imposter syndrome. Every semester since her freshman year Hancock has worked a part-time job. For three years, Hancock operated as an assistant manager at a bar, serving drinks from 6 p.m. to 3 a.m. multiple days a week. During football seasons, she said would work up to six days a week.

“I actually feel like I don’t think I made it work that well,” Hancock said. “My grades went down. They’ve gotten way better this semester, as it’s the first semester I haven’t worked since my freshman year. For me, that’s cold hard evidence that having to work in order to survive is not really beneficial for students here.”

Hancock is also a residential adviser at Bursley Residence Hall, a position she said she took to compensate for the lack of affordable housing in Ann Arbor.

In The Daily’s survey, 68.1 percent of respondents from households with a yearly income of less than $100,000 said they found it challenging to accept compliments, compared to half of respondents with a yearly family income of  $100,000-200,000 and only 35.9 percent of those whose families made more than $200,000 a year.

Paired with a lack of interest and insufficient funding for books, Hancock said she felt discouraged and switched her focus from pre-med to gender and health.

“I had a hard time thinking of being this put-together professional when I kind of come from a ‘white trash’ family — and anticipating that I don’t know how to work a job that’s not like my parents in a factory,” Hancock said. “I had to be taught by my partner, like, whether you wear a belt with dress pants or not. A lot of it is just trying to separate where I come from and where I’m going. I don’t have to remain completely the same as where I’m from, I’m here, so I should be on the same bar as all these other people.”

Like Hancock, LSA junior Nicoletta Philippides is in the 8 percent of first-generation undergraduate students at the University. From Long Island, New York, Philippides considers her family “well off,” yet she still works as a server to, as she puts it, “just survive.” Attempting to balance a STEM major and working, she finds it hard to finish all that she needs to do and make time to enjoy herself.

“It scares me, this financial burden — it kind of shapes the person I am,” Philippides said. “I’m fortunate, I think my parents live pretty comfortably, so they’re helping me with it. But, I want to go into research. To do that I have to work in a lab every semester, I have to be able to manage that as well as my academic work. I also have a job because my parents don't give me money — I work Saturday and Sunday because my weekdays start at nine a.m. and end at five or six, and then you have to do homework from six to either one, two or three o’clock, it’s just not doable.”

According to a 2017 article by The New York Times, “The median family income of a student from the University of Michigan is $154,000, and 66 percent come from the top 20 percent. About 1.5% of students at Michigan came from a poor family but became a rich adult.”

Hancock said while she knows other students in her situation exist, she definitely senses the majority presence of more privileged students.

“I feel like I’m aware of other students who may not have planned to come here or thought a lot about college,” Hancock said. “I know that there are other students like me, that they exist. But as an RA, I work with freshman and I feel like the predominant story still is that they went to a really elite school or private school or college prep.”

In addition to income, gender showed a level of association with imposter syndrome in the results of The Daily’s survey.

When presented the question “I think most people at The University of Michigan are smarter than me,” roughly 55 percent of respondents who identified as female stated that they agree, while 39.9 percent of males agreed. Additionally, 34 percent of men surveyed disagreed with the statement, compared to 16.7 percent of females.

Kristine Wang, LSA junior, was one of the students who believed that most people at the University are smarter than her. She questions if this is a reality she might just have to accept.

“I feel at least within the people that I am around, I’ve just met a lot of people that I think are smarter than me,” Wang said. “I definitely feel like it’s discouraging, maybe not in my actions, but I feel like I sometimes I wonder if there's anything I could even do to get to their level. It definitely wears me down mentally.”

Wang is majoring in computer science, a department that is largely comprised of male students. Due to this imbalance, Andrew DeOrio, lecturer for EECS 280, finds it important to dedicate a portion of his semester confronting imposter syndrome.  

“We know that imposter syndrome is one of the problems affecting the climate in EECS,” said DeOrio. “One piece of evidence there is we have a really big gender imbalance. Another clue is that the balance of people from underrepresented groups is skewed with the wider population and even the wider campus community. We know that the imposter syndrome is one piece of the puzzle, so we said, ‘Well, what can we do to make a dent in this?’”

By utilizing presentation slides within his lectures that define imposter syndrome and providing suggestions on how to combat the phenomenon, DeOrio hopes to raise awareness about the issue. More recently, the EECS program has also implemented an experimental exercise in their labs relating to stereotypes about gender in engineering.

“It’s a normal programming exercise, but students have flexibility to choose their employee characters in a program and they get to choose aspects of that character like the gender and the position in the company,” DeOrio said. “Then we look at what choices students made, and then we report back to them. We usually see a reflection of the stereotypes in computer science, and then that’s another opportunity to talk about ‘Hey, these are some of the stereotypes in computer to science, but they’re not always true.”

Yet, Wang said she was never bothered by the gender imbalance in EECS. The competitive nature of the field and the pressure it contains is what really made her begin to feel imposter syndrome.

“The gender barrier is not something that I have explicitly experienced, but sometimes when you get put into labs or something you start to notice ‘Oh my goodness, I am the only woman in this class,” Wang said. “I’ve never felt like I was less than because I was woman, but, I feel like sometimes engineers in general can just think they’re so good at something … also seeing so many people around you doing so well could be a positive to push you to do better, but also with other pressures, you kind of just feel that if there is still space to push harder, than you should.”

Like Wang, about 73.9 percent of respondents surveyed by The Daily agreed that they “constantly feel under pressure.” Philippides echoed Wang’s observation, stating this pressure is related to the competitive nature of the University in general. Some of this inherent competition Philippides mentions is part of the reason why she changed from a pre-med track to cellular molecular biology.

“Everyone in STEM is bright,” Philippides said. “Most people want to go to med school or grad school, so you have to want to be the best to get the career you want, so it’s naturally competitive. Encouragement, though … well you can’t have both. Encouragement entails ‘Oh, if I help this person and give them some of my knowledge, it means I’m going to do worse inevitably.’ This inherent selfishness, it’s in everyone, all of us, we all just want to do well.”

Hancock, like Philippides, also said the competitive nature of pre-med compelled her to switch her major.

“Instead of working to study with each other and talk about exams, it’s always ‘What’s your grade,’” Hancock said. “There’s always the idea that you’re competing against each other. I mean in reality some of us will go on to compete with each other because we’ll be applying for jobs, I just feel like I have friends who are like ‘Oh my gosh I have a 3.5 GPA and it’s so bad’ and like I went to get graduation stuff and got my honors cord for graduation with my 3.4 GPA and I was like ‘That’s good?’”

Yet, Engineering senior Charles Velis disagreed with Hancock and Philippides, arguing that competition and the pressure to succeed are just the nature of the academic environment.

“I have friends who are in sciences that find it extremely competitive and cutthroat,” Velis said. “In engineering school, you fail a lot more than you succeed. It takes a lot of failures to reach a success point. Without a doubt, everyone feels they want to quit, it's just something you learn how to deal with. People who are good at those kind of classes are good at not staying frustrated at things and staying relaxed and being able to check in and out from stuff.”

In a 2016-2017 study, CAPS surveyed undergraduates’ responses relating to perfectionism, self-compassion and discrimination. In that survey they found three different types of behaviors: adaptive perfectionism, or individuals with high goals, standards and expectations without high self-criticism of their performance; maladaptive perfectionism, or individuals with high goals, standards and expectations with high self-criticism of their performance; and non-perfectionism, or individuals without high goals, standards and expectations for their performance

In that study, CAPS reported that “students with a disability, transgender, women, racial/ethnic minority students, (especially African American), international, lesbian, gay, bisexual, other self-identified sexual orientation and Muslim students reported significantly higher frequency of maladaptive behavior.”

Asidao suggests that this “maladaptive behavior” tends to magnify the effects of imposter syndrome, especially at such a reputable university.

“For folks who tend to do a lot of comparison, it can be heightened,” Asidao said. “Because typically the comparison is “I’m not doing as well as this person,” but I think part of that is affected by this environment…  that feeling of I need to be perfect, or I can’t fail, or it seems that everyone else is doing better than I am is there. Some of those factors, the self-confidence, the self comparison, the perfectionist piece, just some of those messages that they may have received over the years. But part of it is what are these personal statements people are making.”

A few ways Asidao suggested to combat this thinking are being self-aware instead of self-critical and cultivating an environment of cooperation instead of opposition.

“Checking your thoughts, or being mindful on how you speak to yourself can be really helpful,” Asidao said. “Because typically for someone who has more of the imposter phenomenon the way they talk to themselves is pretty unkind. Also thinking about the environment and encouraging some culture change … Are they fostering a sense of connection amongst individuals, because again, people who are just coming to the University might not know anyone so they might feel sort of isolated or alone.”

Asidao also suggested that having mentors can be helpful too.

“Having faculty members or high-profile people to just share their story that includes obstacles and how they got through it is so beneficial,” Asidao said. “Although they seem super successful, there was a journey there, it wasn’t always smooth.”

Lecturer James Juett teaches EECS 280 and said he hopes to normalize this phenomenon by sharing his personal experience with imposter syndrome, as Asidao suggests.

“I try to be sort of open with my students, I feel like it is something that impacts me as well,” Juett said. “It really hit me when I was in grad school, and I can certainly relate to the fact that it makes everything else harder; it makes normal setbacks more discouraging. But, it's also something that is manageable. It is something that in fact most people have felt throughout their career at least to some degree.”

Since Clance and Imes’s initial study in 1978, literature on the phenomenon of imposter syndrome has varied widely. Surveys by the peer-reviewed journal Personality and Individual Differences conclude that under pressure, men experience imposter syndrome at a higher rate than women, thus resulting in greater levels of anxiety and an overall worse performance. In a study from the University of Texas, Austin, researchers found that imposter syndrome affect minority students to a greater degree, as they are already experiencing prejudice. Asidao emphasized this variety in research.

“I see it with women; I also see it between the intersection of race and gender as well, again some of the fields that are predominantly more men can have that too,” Asidao said. “Just because that’s not always the easiest environment so they feel and prove themselves to others can contribute as well. So, yeah women, people of color, I’ll definitely see quite a bit of grad students. It really cuts across, the literature is really mixed about it.”

Despite a large majority of students feeling pressured and incomparable, 55.8 percent of those surveyed disagreed with the question “sometimes I wish I went somewhere else.”

Philippides was indifferent. Though she enjoys the University, Philippides said similar sentiments could be felt regardless of the specific university setting.

“It’s not that I want to go anywhere else, I just know that everything is the same,” Philippides said. “You can go to an Ivy league and still have the same amount of stress, the same amount of workload, the same amount of everything … I just wish that the system was different. Michigan is special, Ann Arbor is special. The people you meet, the social interactions you have, it changes you as a person, I’m appreciative of that.”