Feeling Like a Fake: Imposter Syndrome

Image of college student stressed out and overwhelmed with work with head pushed into a book

By: Brenda Straka

Read time: 2 minutes

Now that the fall semester is well under way and new first-year students have (maybe) finally met most of the people in their departments, we can take a moment to state the obvious: graduate school is overwhelming. Of course, any new endeavor is fraught with challenges and most new graduate students were probably expecting to experience a good amount of stress. Yet, many new students may find themselves attempting to navigate academia with internal feelings of inadequacy or fraudulence looming over them.

The imposter phenomenon (or “imposter syndrome”), first described by clinical psychologists Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes, refers to feelings of “intellectual phoniness.” Clance and Imes first observed this phenomenon amongst some of their high-achieving female clients, and several studies since have documented this phenomenon (Clance & Imes, 1978; Parkman, 2016). In particular, many high achievers (e.g., most graduate and PhD students) describe experiencing feelings that in spite of their successes and achievements, they are in fact unqualified for their positions and are fooling people (Henning, Ey, & Shaw, 1998; Hutchins, 2015; Bernard, Dollinger, & Ramaniah, 2002; Gibson-Beverly & Schwartz, 2008).

It is important to note that women and ethnic minorities in particular are often affected by imposter syndrome (Harvey & Katz, 1985; Cokley, McClain, Enciso, & Martinez, 2013; Bahn, 2014), yet anyone is susceptible. If you are experiencing imposter syndrome, know that you are not alone, and more than likely, many of your peers and mentors have experienced similar feelings. Although commiserating with others may not be a cure, hopefully being able to identify these kinds of feelings as normal, and even very common, may offer new graduate students some solace.

For some more advice on dealing with imposter syndrome, check out this article: http://www.apa.org/gradpsych/2013/11/fraud.aspx


Bahn, K. (2014). Women, academe, and impostor syndrome. Chronicle of Higher Education, 60(30), A51.

Bernard, N. S., Dollinger, S. J., Ramaniah, N. V. (2002). Appling the big five personality factors to the imposter phenomenon. Journal of Personality Assessment, 78(2), 321-333.

Clance, P.R., & Imes, S. A. (1978). The impostor phenomenon in high achieving women: Dynamics and therapeutic intervention. Psychotherapy: Theory, Research, and Practice, 15(3), 241-247.

Cokley, K., McClain, S., Enciso, A., & Martinez, M., (2013). An examination of the impact of minority status stress and impostor feelings on the mental health of diverse ethnic minority students. Journal of Multicultural Counseling and Development, 41(4), 82-95.

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Hutchins, H. M. (2015). Outing the imposter: A study exploring imposter phenomenon among higher education faculty. New Horizons in Adult Education & Human Resource Development, 27(2), 3- 12.

Parkman, A. (2016). The Imposter Phenomenon in Higher Education: Incidence and Impact. Journal of Higher Education Theory and Practice. 16(1) 51-60.

Weir, K. (2013). Feeling like a fraud? American Psychological Association. gradPSYCH. 11 (4), 24.

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