Every early-career scientist has hit a stumbling block: a bad grade on an exam, a low score on a grant proposal or the first rejection from a journal. But for many, this normal stuff of science twists into something darker and more insidious — a creeping sense of professional inadequacy that prompts them to question their place in the field, no matter their area of study or their level of brilliance.

There is a term for this type of self-doubt, coined in the 1970s by two US psychologists who saw it in their clinical practices: the 'impostor phenomenon'. Now commonly known as impostor syndrome, the condition can manifest itself in myriad professions, from office workers to artists to athletes, says Frederik Anseel, a psychologist at Ghent University in Belgium. Scientists, he says, are especially vulnerable, largely because they work in a hero-oriented field that treats its highest achievers as if they were sports stars, leaving many others to wonder in silence whether they are second-stringers or worse. “Young people think that no one else is having these feelings,” he says.

Credit: Adapted from Tomacco/Getty

Researchers who struggle with the syndrome have to learn how to tune out feelings of inadequacy and develop a more realistic view of their abilities and their value, he says. In a profession where sporadic failure — in grants, in jobs, in publications — is the norm, the real failure is unnecessarily giving up on a promising career.

Unhappy successes

In 2014, Anseel and his colleagues took a closer look at impostor syndrome in a study of more than 200 Belgian workers in finance, education and human-resource management. The team found that workers who reported feelings that are consistent with impostor syndrome tended to score higher on measures of neuroticism and excessive perfectionism in personality tests (J. Vergauwe et al. J. Bus. Psychol. 30, 565–581; 2015). They were also not as happy with their jobs as were colleagues who did not experience the syndrome — even though some of the afflicted had advanced to the upper levels of their professions.

Anseel says that his other work — which includes ongoing studies of mental-health issues among young researchers — gives him confidence that his findings about impostor syndrome in the white-collar world apply to science as well. He says that it is easy to see how even successful scientists can feel that they are actually underperformers. Scientists, he says, often trivialize their own achievements. “You get a paper published in PNAS, and you tell yourself, 'That's doable. I'll never get a paper in Nature or Science'.” Similarly, any grant could be larger; any job could be better; any paper could be more highly cited. “You set yourself up to fail one way or the other,” he says.

The phenomenon shows up across academia, including at top research institutions. Josh Drew, an evolutionary ecologist at Columbia University in New York City, has seen PhD and master's degree students struggle with self-doubt at the Ivy League school. Every student had passed tough admission standards — but that was not enough to bolster their confidence. For many, their classes at the university represented the first time in their educational experience that they didn't feel as if they were the smartest person in the room. “They were all outstanding students as undergrads,” he says. “Here, being at the top of your class is just average.”

In a highly competitive arena, self-doubt can be a career killer that prompts would-be contenders to dismiss chances to vie for important opportunities. “I saw many students who were shooting themselves in the foot,” Drew says. “They weren't applying for grants and awards that they would be competitive for.” He began to address the syndrome in an introduction-to-graduate-school class. The talks drew some buzz, and he soon developed a formal presentation to deliver to other departments at Columbia and beyond (see 'Help for impostors'). Clearly, he had struck a chord. “Every talk I give, people say, 'I thought I was the only person who felt this way',” he says.

Timeless condition

Drew reassures people who feel like frauds by pointing out that they are in some lofty company. Two years after publishing On the Origin of Species in 1859, Charles Darwin complained that “one lives only to make blunders”. And while working on The Grapes of Wrath (1939), John Steinbeck wrote, “I am assailed by my own ignorance and inability,” fretting that “sometimes, I seem to do a good little piece of work, but when it is done it slides into mediocrity.”

Ecologist Josh Drew loads samples of reef fish into a tank of liquid nitrogen in Nagigi, Fiji. Credit: Josh Drew

While preparing his lecture, Drew solicited Twitter comments from scientists who had struggled to overcome the syndrome with various degrees of success. One respondent, an associate professor of biology, tweeted: “It has crippled my professional life from day one.” Moses Milazzo, a planetary scientist with the Astrogeology Science Center in Flagstaff, Arizona, tweeted, “Because of Impostor Syndrome: I have decided not to pursue opportunities; I am never ready to publish my papers; etc.”

Milazzo thinks that impostor syndrome is nearly universal among scientists — at least among those who are self-aware enough to realize that they don't know everything. But he also says that he experienced particularly severe effects of it, and he traces at least some of his unease to his background. He grew up in an off-the-grid adobe house on the border of the Navajo Nation reservation in northern Arizona, which later contributed to his sense that he did not belong in the university crowd. Not many of his instructors, advisers or peers could relate to hardscrabble desert life in a house that had no reliable electricity and little contact with the outside world.

“I didn't even know what Cosmos was until I got to grad school,” he says of the popular 1980s TV show. Then again, life in middle-of-nowhere Arizona did give him an intimate familiarity with the night sky. During the long walk along a dirt road to the school bus stop, he often navigated by the light of the Milky Way.

Milazzo says that he first heard the term impostor syndrome early in his graduate-student days at the University of Arizona in Tucson — and he recognized it immediately. “Having a name put to it made it clear that other people felt it,” he says. But knowing that he was not alone didn't keep him out of the trap. He decided not to apply for a NASA grant for satellite-based research, out of fear of exposing his own ignorance. “I removed myself from the grant process because it would be obvious that I didn't know what I was talking about,” he says. As it turned out, one of the successful proposals was very similar to his idea. “If I had pursued it, I might have been competitive,” he laments now.

boxed-textAnd even after helping to win a NASA grant to develop a middle-school curriculum that would be based on the space agency's exploration of the Solar System, Milazzo still struggles to persuade himself that he belongs in science. “We put a lot of work into that proposal, but I wasn't very confident that it would get funded,” he says.

Matt von Hippel, a researcher at the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics in Waterloo, Canada, says that he, too, feels like an impostor from time to time, but he has a strategy that helps him to push through it. Instead of second-guessing the people who admitted him to graduate school and awarded him a PhD, he decided to embrace their judgement.

“You can trust the system to have put you in vaguely the right job,” he says. “If you're invited to give a talk, that's a sign that you're ready to give a talk.” Late last year, he was asked to give a colloquium on mathematical techniques in particle physics at Oregon State University in Corvallis. It was a big opportunity that came sooner in his career than he expected, and he thought about turning it down. Ultimately, he opted to adhere to his strategy. “I decided to say 'yes' and see how it goes,” he says. In his view, the talk was a success.

Uphill battle

Biologist Victoria Metcalf had plenty of opportunities to doubt herself and second-guess her career choices. Her low point came in early 2000 during her PhD studies in New Zealand, when television-news crews surrounded her lab and a regulatory authority threatened to throw her and her supervisors in prison. Her lab had cloned genes from the tuatara (Sphenodon punctatus) — a treasured native New Zealand reptile — but lacked the permits that a new law had retroactively made mandatory. Authorities eventually dropped their threats, but her research was stalled for six months while she obtained the proper permits. “Those were really soul-destroying times,” she says. “It had a huge impact on how I perceived my worth in academia.”

Scientists are accustomed to measuring things in precise detail, but their own value can be difficult for them to quantify. Anseel thinks that many researchers would be more confident — and thus more likely to write the grant, submit the paper, apply for the job — if they were to embrace the inevitability of failure. “When one of my students gets a rejection letter, I can show them five or ten of my own,” he says. “The academic environment should be more open to failure stories.”

You can trust the system to have put you in vaguely the right job. If you're invited to give a talk, you're ready.

Drew reminds young researchers that even the chairs of their departments — scientists who seemingly have it made — do not always get their grants funded or their papers accepted. It would be telling, he says, if everyone published a 'shadow CV' of all their rejections to go along with the standard CV that lists successes.

Researchers can also help to ease their distress by making an effort to stop comparing themselves with colleagues in their lab or department. “Comparisons won't make you happy, so don't do it,” Anseel says. Instead, he says, researchers should set their own personal standards of achievement and then do their best to meet them.

Metcalf has mostly won her battle over her sense of inadequacy, although her career has had its ups and downs. After she earned her PhD, she took a postdoc position in the United States that she quit after only six months, an outcome that made her feel even more like a scientific impostor. “I had a low sense of self-worth,” she says. But she pushed through it, quickly found another post and went on to have a successful career that included research trips to the Antarctic and a highly sought-after faculty position at Lincoln University in Christchurch, New Zealand.

Yet her troubles didn't end. In 2011, she lost her faculty job after an earthquake damaged much of the city. Instead of taking that setback as a sign that she needed to abandon science completely, she shifted from research to outreach. She is now the national coordinator of the Participatory Science Platform, a New Zealand government programme that promotes research collaborations between scientists and communities. “Anyone who knows me knows that I was meant for this job,” she says.

As part of her duties, Metcalf has had many chances to speak to young people with different backgrounds and career aspirations. Many of them are already experiencing the symptoms of impostor syndrome, which gives her an opportunity to inspire by example. “My story really resonates,” she says. “I've had my battles. You just have to keep fighting.”