- Imposter syndrome can dramatically impact students’ confidence in their accomplishments
- Faculty can play a key role in encouraging students to build a supportive network of peers and campus connections
- See related article: To thrive in college, students need academic self-empowerment
According to Psychology Today, about one-quarter to one-third of high achieving individuals–which encompasses many, if not most, college students–may feel the impact of imposter syndrome. Some research shows that as many as 70 percent of adults will experience some level of imposter syndrome during their lifetime.
Imposter syndrome defines feelings of unworthiness or lack of competency that some feel about their academic achievements. Sufferers do not feel that they are worthy of the academic or other accolades that they might receive. They often feel less competent than their peers. This is particularly common in the highly competitive settings of many colleges and universities.
University faculty and staff need to make efforts within their academic communities to raise awareness about impostor syndrome, provide support, and promote self-confidence and resilience among students and academics themselves. Counseling services, mentorship programs, and workshops focused on building self-esteem and combating impostor feelings are increasingly available in many educational institutions to help individuals cope with these challenges.
What can faculty do to assist students struggling with imposter syndrome? Provide affirmation to all students that they are in the right place and that belong in the program or course. The approach of having new students look to the left and the right and then telling them “Only one of you will remain,” though time-tested, is not a supportive approach. Faculty need to hold students to high expectations, but at the same time, provide equitable grading and support practices to ensure that they have the tools to be successful.
Students need to hear that they are valued. Students need to hear that they are a value to the program and provide a unique contribution. One recent doctoral graduate related: “I felt like my unique contributions and thoughts were valued and there was not one right way to do something. We each had something to bring to the table–that was powerful.” Let the students know that you believe in them.
One student wrote: “People believed in me more than I believed in myself many times, and this helped lift me up.” Faculty need to develop a mantra of affirmation and support for all students. Administrators and faculty leadership must encourage staff to support and affirm the students as well. It is common for our program support staff to be acknowledged by students as key to their success. Make sure those office managers, advisors, and others realize how important their role is to student success. Programs need to encourage students to look to each other for support, particularly in cohort-based programs. Students should never feel isolated and should have multiple avenues available for support.
One faculty member articulated that she realizes students will not do much learning in the first weeks of class until she helps them build a network and confidence. We start out easy. When students start connecting with other students, they feel much better about being there. We always cover where resources are located, such as the bathrooms, food, library, etc., so no one has to ask. We discuss how family might not always be there for support, but the students will help and support each other because we are on the same journey. I learn their names, have them learn each other’s names, and make sure they do group work to build relationships up front in each course. We openly talk about the challenges that we face when in unfamiliar situations and how they make us feel. Share your personal stories of dealing with imposter syndrome. Be kind and caring. Make sure every student knows you are there for them. One memory came from an undergraduate professor who encouraged us to stop by for office hours just to chat or “even if you just need to borrow $20.” We later found out he was married to a banker, and it was not unheard of for him to give students money when they ran into problems.
Beyond what faculty and staff can do, students need to be given the tools for self-care and for overcoming imposter syndrome and feelings of inadequacy. Encourage students to continue to work through the feelings. If you are unsure of whether you are on the correct path with an assignment, ask the professor to review a draft before the due date and take their feedback. It is okay to feel like your paper is the worst draft. Getting words is important. Those words can then be crafted into a great piece of work. Failing is progress; learning from mistakes will help you improve and overcome self-doubt. Encourage students to keep a positive outlook and encourage positive self-talk. Make sure students know that the entire program faculty, staff, and their peers are all there for support throughout their academic career.
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