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Home » University Students and Imposterism: Its Relationship with Happiness, Self-Efficacy, and Perfectionism

University Students and Imposterism: Its Relationship with Happiness, Self-Efficacy, and Perfectionism

University Students and Imposterism: Its Relationship with Happiness, Self-Efficacy, and Perfectionism

Imposter syndrome is a pertinent issue in academia. The phenomenon was first defined by Clance and Imes (1978) as an experience of feeling inadequate in one’s work or academic setting, and undeserving of rewards, promotions, and recognition. Furthermore, research has shown that university students with high levels of imposterism are more likely to report low self-efficacy, which is defined as a belief one holds about their ability to succeed (Pákozdy et al., 2023). This lack of self-confidence in their own abilities frequently leads to stress and anxiety, therefore these individuals strive to minimise both by working longer and harder, and adopting perfectionist behaviours (Holden et al., 2021). Imposter syndrome can be especially pronounced for women (Muradoglu et al., 2022) and racialised groups (Ayorech, 2021) during their early career, as institutions often lack representation and lack spaces where diversity and inclusivity are prioritised and welcomed (Ayorech, 2021).

A recent article from May 2023 titled “The imposter phenomenon and its relationship with self-efficacy, perfectionism and happiness in university students” (Pákozdy et al., 2023) sheds light on this pressing issue. This blog aims to summarise the key findings of the article, discuss its strengths and limitations, evaluate its evidence, and provide a personal perspective on how this evidence can inform practice and future research.

Summary of Pákozdy et al., 2023

Pákozdy et al., (2023)’s article explores the association between imposter syndrome and happiness, maladaptive perfectionism, and self-efficacy in university students. Specifically, the authors were interested in whether this association differed between male and female students, given that research has shown that women are more likely to experience imposterism than men (Muradoglu et al., 2022). An online survey was completed by 261 students from universities across the world, such as the United Kingdom, Mexico, Portugal, United States, and Poland. The students were recruited either via the survey platform (www.prolific.co) or via a convenience sample at the home institution. The authors found that, unsurprisingly, high imposterism amongst these students was related to low self-efficacy and low happiness. Individuals with high imposterism were also more likely to exhibit high perfectionism, agreeing to statements such as “It is important to me to be perfect in everything I attempt”. Additionally, consistent with previous research, women reported higher levels on average of both imposter syndrome and perfectionism compared to men.

Some key findings include:

  • Imposter syndrome in university students is linked to negative outcomes such as lower self-confidence in their own abilities, lower happiness, and maladaptive perfectionist behaviours.
  • Female university students reported higher levels of imposter syndrome and perfectionism compared to their male counterparts.
  • The negative impact of maladaptive perfectionism on happiness is fully mediated by imposter syndrome, suggesting that interventions targeting imposter syndrome may have positive effects on wellbeing in students.

“Individuals with high imposterism were also more likely to exhibit high perfectionism, agreeing to statements such as “It is important to me to be perfect in everything I attempt”.”

Strengths and Limitations of the Research

This study has a comprehensive approach in examining multiple psychological constructs and their interrelations among university students. The use of well-established scales, a large-scale online survey, and robust statistical analyses lends credibility to the findings. Furthermore, by highlighting the unique challenges faced by women, the article provides valuable insights into the intersection of gender and professional identity. Future studies could investigate female students’ exposure to gender stereotypes and/or gender discrimination, and the development of imposterism and perfectionism. These results may shed light on why women are disproportionately affected compared to men, providing higher education institutions with information on how to remove the barriers that women may experience.

However, the study has some limitations. For instance, the cross-sectional design means that causality cannot be established. While the study shows a correlation between imposter syndrome and negative outcomes, it cannot definitively state that imposter syndrome causes these outcomes. Longitudinal studies would be beneficial to track changes over time and provide a clearer picture of the cause-and-effect relationship. Furthermore, the reliance on self-reported data could introduce bias, as individuals may underreport or overreport their feelings and experiences. The study also did not include gender minority groups, such as transgender young people, therefore the findings may not generalise to these groups. Finally, although the survey reached students from a variety of universities across the globe, the majority (67%) came from European universities. Additionally, because the sample includes a convenience sample, there is underrepresentation from universities in the Global South and North America. This means the findings may not be generalisable to the general student population.

Commentary on the Evidence

The evidence presented in the article highlights the importance of addressing imposter syndrome within university settings, and particularly in female students. The negative associations with self-efficacy and happiness indicate that imposter syndrome can significantly reduce a student’s academic and personal wellbeing. To address this, academic institutions could promote a growth mindset, emphasising that intelligence and abilities can be developed through effort and perseverance. It may be helpful to also implement mentorship programs that provide support and guidance, particularly for women, and foster inclusive environments where diverse perspectives are valued and respected.

There have been a number of attempts to address imposter syndrome in university students. For example, MIT and California Technology have implemented support programs and myth-debunking programs about belonging, which helps students recognise and reduce imposter syndrome tendencies. Various workshops and books serve as resources on beating imposter syndrome, such as the Center for Creative Leadership’s book titled “Beating the Imposter Syndrome” (Mount and Tardanico, 2014) or, and the University of Oxford’s “Common Approach to Support Student Mental Health” program (www.ox.ac.uk/students), which includes workshops on tools to approach perfectionism and imposter syndrome.

“The negative associations with self-efficacy and happiness indicate that imposter syndrome can significantly reduce a student’s academic and personal wellbeing.”

A Personal Perspective

As an early-career researcher in developmental psychology at King’s College London, I have felt imposter syndrome frequently. There are high expectations to produce the best quality work, which can be stressful, especially when surrounded by highly accomplished colleagues. However, the collaborative and supporting nature of my team prevents me from experiencing this anxiety in isolation, and we foster a great sense of camaraderie in our office. For example, when I first joined the team, I felt pressure to make a good first impression and worked hard to complete my work quickly. My colleagues recognised my anxiety and assured me I had set unrealistic expectations, joking about how I did not have to worry about my performance. We often have coffee breaks and team outings together, which has created a tight-knit team where open discussions and shared experiences are encouraged. They have been instrumental in reducing these feelings of isolation and self-doubt.

Finally, rejection is a common experience in academia, and may come from journal publishers, job and grant applications, and supervisors. For example, before receiving an offer from King’s College London to work as a research assistant, I had been rejected from countless jobs over the course of several months. I found that having open and honest conversations about these rejections with early-career researchers have helped me to understand that I was not alone, and it is a normal part of academic life.

This personal experience highlights the importance of creating supportive networks within academic institutions. By fostering a culture of openness and collaboration, we can help mitigate the effects of imposter syndrome and empower early-career researchers, especially women early-career researchers, to thrive.

Conclusion

Imposter syndrome is a significant and common barrier to success and well-being for many early-career academics, particularly women. The article “The Imposter Phenomenon and its Relationship with Self-Efficacy, Perfectionism, and Happiness in University Students” provides valuable insights into this issue, highlighting the need for change in academic culture. By promoting a growth mindset, implementing mentorship programs, and fostering supportive environments, we can create a more supportive academic culture. To tackle imposter syndrome, we may need to further adopt an intersectional lens to tackle structural inequalities in institutions, as imposter syndrome is also a particular issue within minority groups.

NB this blog has been peer-reviewed

References

  • Ayorech, Z. (2021) Intersectionality in academia – the edit blog, The EDIT Blog. Available at: https://blogs.kcl.ac.uk/editlab/2021/03/08/intersectionality-in-academia/ (Accessed: 18 June 2024).
  • Clance, P.R. and Imes, S.A. (1978) ‘The imposter phenomenon in high achieving women: Dynamics and therapeutic intervention.’, Psychotherapy: Theory, Research & Practice, 15(3), pp. 241–247. doi:10.1037/h0086006.
  • Holden, C.L. et al. (2021) ‘Imposter syndrome among first- and continuing-generation college students: The roles of perfectionism and stress’, Journal of College Student Retention: Research, Theory & Practice, 25(4), pp. 726–740. doi:10.1177/15210251211019379.
  • Introducing a common approach to student mental health at Oxford (2023) University of Oxford. Available at: https://www.ox.ac.uk/students/news/2023-05-30-introducing-common-approach-student-mental-health-oxford (Accessed: 10 June 2024).
  • Mount, P. and Tardanico, S. (2014) Beating the Impostor Syndrome. Center for Creative Leadership.
  • Muradoglu, M. et al. (2022) ‘Women—particularly underrepresented minority women—and early-career academics feel like impostors in fields that value brilliance.’, Journal of Educational Psychology, 114(5), pp. 1086–1100. doi:10.1037/edu0000669.
  • Pákozdy, C. et al. (2023) ‘The imposter phenomenon and its relationship with self-efficacy, perfectionism and happiness in university students’, Current Psychology, 43(6), pp. 5153–5162. doi:10.1007/s12144-023-04672-4.

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