Impostor phenomenon. Impostor syndrome. Impostor experience. No matter what you call it, you’ve most likely felt it. The feeling that, no matter how much you have accomplished, you aren’t worthy of the success you’ve earned.
You’re not alone. The phenomenon was originally introduced as a feeling that affects only high-achieving women. Some recent research shows that men struggle with this feeling in the workplace as much as women. According to recent research1, 70 percent of people experience impostor syndrome at some point in their lives.
Almost everyone experiences it. But how do we fight it? To find out, we asked five fearless women engineers at the University of Missouri.
Trust the expert
When asked about impostor syndrome, Dr. Heather Hunt, associate professor in the Department of Biomedical, Biological & Chemical Engineering at Mizzou, is quick to point out that this popular name for the feeling is actually not the original name. Dr. Pauline Rose Clance coined the name “impostor phenomenon” in a 1978 research article, and has since written various publications on the subject.
“When I give seminars about impostor phenomenon, I always go back to the book The Impostor Phenomenon: Overcoming the Fear that Haunts Your Success by Dr. Clance,” said Hunt. “She’s the leading authority on this subject. The book is evidence-based. It’s practiced. It’s practical.”
Hunt is part of the estimated 30 percent of people who haven’t experienced impostor phenomenon. Despite that, she is able to use the book’s suggestions when teaching and mentoring her students.
“Even if you don’t experience it, it’s really valuable to understand what your peers might be experiencing, because I think it helps us to build empathy,” she said. “Empathy is important to have in a field like engineering where everything we do leads toward this idea of making the world a better place.”
EMPATHY IS IMPORTANT TO HAVE IN A FIELD LIKE ENGINEERING WHERE EVERYTHING WE DO LEADS TOWARD THIS IDEA OF MAKING THE WORLD A BETTER PLACE.
-DR. HEATHER HUNT
Talk about it
In addition to soft skills like empathy, critical thinking, and creativity, an engineering education can help you find a global network. Tojan Rahhal, adjunct assistant professor, notes that the first step in overcoming impostor syndrome is reminding yourself of this network and realizing that you’re not alone – and then sharing your feelings with others.
“Numerous CEOs, professors, and executives will tell you they have gone through impostor syndrome at different stages in their careers,” said Rahhal. “Talk about it, form a peer network or group you can talk through your doubts with because everyone deals with it.”
Seek out diverse thought
As Assistant Dean for Inclusive Excellence, Rahhal works to help engineering students from underrepresented populations to overcome barriers in their college experience and beyond.
Christine Costello, assistant professor in the Department of Industrial & Manufacturing Systems Engineering, is on the university’s Diversity & Inclusion (D&I) committee led by Rahhal. This committee helped establish the new Advocates and Allies (A&A) program at Mizzou. The program facilitates conversations among male faculty, staff, and students about unconscious gender bias in STEM fields. The ultimate goal is to increase the recruitment and retention of female students, faculty, and staff.
In addition to bringing A&A to campus, the committee hosts multiple events throughout the year to encourage a dialogue about shared experiences such as impostor syndrome.
Seeking diverse thought not only helps engineers learn more about the experiences of others — diversity can further the engineering industry as a whole. “The more we bring in different backgrounds into engineering, the better chance we’ll have of discovering something new,” said Hunt. “Diverse thought arises from diverse backgrounds.”
THE MORE WE BRING IN DIFFERENT BACKGROUNDS INTO ENGINEERING, THE BETTER CHANCE WE’LL HAVE OF DISCOVERING SOMETHING NEW. DIVERSE THOUGHT ARISES FROM DIVERSE BACKGROUNDS.
-DR. HEATHER HUNT
Be a lifelong learner
Costello embraces this idea of diverse thought to its fullest. She has degrees and experience in civil and environmental engineering and has held academic appointments in industrial engineering and biological engineering. But she didn’t always know she would be an engineer.
“I started my college career as a fashion design and merchandising major,” she said. “I loved the art form of high fashion. But I realized I didn’t have the artistic flair for it. Through a process of soul searching, I realized that I really liked the field of environmental sustainability.”
When students have feelings of self-doubt, Costello encourages them to continue learning and realize that their path won’t always be clear. “A lot of you don’t know what you want to do, and that’s okay! You can come here and figure it out with us. Or take an online class to explore a subject area on your schedule.”
Hunt, who leads a new online master’s program at Mizzou, agrees that learning new skills helps engineers with not only fighting impostor phenomenon, but with furthering their careers. “The reason we encourage people to continue their education five years into your career, is because you recognize that the industry has shifted or you might need a different set of skills to move up or move into the area that you want. A master’s degree can help set you apart from your peers.”
Become your own biggest fan
Kate Nolan, a materials and process engineer at Boeing, earned her undergraduate degree on campus at Mizzou. Despite having a successful career, Nolan experiences impostor syndrome. She fights it by reminding herself of her achievements.
“It’s so good to look back at everything you’ve accomplished,” she said. “I didn’t get all of this just by being lucky. You didn’t just get there by being lucky!”
Rahhal seconds this: “Own your accomplishments. If that means writing down a few accomplishments a month until you have an enormous list to look at when you are having a bad day, then do it.”
OWN YOUR ACCOMPLISHMENTS. IF THAT MEANS WRITING DOWN A FEW ACCOMPLISHMENTS A MONTH UNTIL YOU HAVE AN ENORMOUS LIST TO LOOK AT WHEN YOU ARE HAVING A BAD DAY, THEN DO IT.
Find your people
Even though looking within is instrumental to overcoming this feeling, you can’t do it alone. Elizabeth Loboa, the first female dean in the College of Engineering at Mizzou, encourages engineers to seek advice and guidance from those that inspire them. She welcomes students to reach out to her in times of hesitation.
“You will be scared sometimes, you will question yourself sometimes,” said Loboa. “But the world will be your oyster when you're done. Stay with it and contact me if you get scared.”
Nolan seeks advice from her fellow SWE members. “I’ve been able to become friends with people my age to people that have retired from their engineering career. Finding that really supportive network has been so important to me. There aren’t that many things that have been a part of my life for 10 years, but SWE has.”
YOU WILL BE SCARED SOMETIMES, YOU WILL QUESTION YOURSELF SOMETIMES. BUT THE WORLD WILL BE YOUR OYSTER WHEN YOU'RE DONE.
-DEAN ELIZABETH LOBOA