Impostor syndrome isn’t experienced in just certain industries or disciplines or only by certain individuals. It’s much more widespread than you may think. In fact, consider any time in the past when you felt you didn’t belong. Whether at school or in your professional status, it’s not hard to feel uncomfortable—or even unfit—for a position you hold.
If you’re in the technology field, you may be familiar with this sentiment, but maybe you’ve never heard the term impostor syndrome. So, what exactly is impostor syndrome? What causes it? And how do people in data science, the tech field or STEM industries overcome it?
Impostor Syndrome: What Is It?
In the late 1970s, two college students, Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes, worked on research together to find out the underlying causes and “cures” for what they called the imposter phenomenon. Basically, impostor syndrome, as they saw it, is overall insecurity because of internal feelings of inadequacy or, in other words, feeling as though you’re being “phony.” Clance and Imes’ work sought to discover why women in highly successful positions disproportionately suffered from the impostor phenomenon.
Sometimes, people feel inadequate when reaching an achievement that others would celebrate. If the achievement doesn’t make you feel successful, you likely suffer from impostor syndrome. The good news? According to Adam Rosenstein and colleagues at the University of California in San Diego, this isn’t uncommon in STEM and tech fields.
Surrounded every day by people who seem so incredibly intelligent can be daunting. You might wonder, “How will I ever be as (smart, successful, etc.) as that person?”
Suppose you’re suffering from impostor syndrome in tech. In that case, it also means you could feel as though you haven’t been smart enough, fought hard enough or otherwise lack the appropriate skills or credentials to enjoy your successes—especially if you’ve made any of the common data science rookie mistakes.
Another aspect of imposter syndrome is feeling not only like you’re a fraud, but that eventually your peers will uncover this “secret”—that you truly don’t belong or haven’t earned your place—and they’ll render you beneath them, inferior, and not as smart as people think you are. All the while, these ideas are self-imposed. You’ve merely convinced yourself that you’re not worthy of anything you earn or achieve.
The good news is these feelings aren’t good or bad—feeling like you’ve got impostor syndrome in tech is both.
Imposter Syndrome in Tech: Why Is It a Good Thing?
Suffering from impostor syndrome is a good thing because it means:
- You’re constantly striving to learn as much as you possibly can.
- You’re a perfectionist who can’t stop until:
- You’ve absolutely perfected something.
- You’ve learned all there is to know about a subject.
- You’re considered the best in a particular field or subject.
Imposter Syndrome in Tech: Why Is It Not Such a Good Thing?
In tech and STEM fields especially, where you may feel like an island, impostor syndrome can lead to:
- Devastating sadness or depression
- Overwhelming feelings of self-doubt
- Damaging desire to be alone
How Common Is Imposter Syndrome in STEM and Tech?
It’s actually much more common than you’d expect. In fact, Rosenstein’s research at UC San Diego (noted above) found that 57% of students in computer science degree programs felt the effects of imposter syndrome. The demands imposed by tech careers are tough, so it’s not uncommon for people already in a great tech position at a major company to go through imposter syndrome in tech from time to time. Some people report feeling it all the time, while others only experience feelings of inadequacy or “faking it” when they’ve got a difficult project to complete.
How else are people in this sometimes demanding field affected?
How Does Imposter Syndrome Affect Professionals in the Tech and STEM Fields?
People just starting a data science career and those who already have jobs in the tech industry can feel insecure and unworthy in various ways. In essence, there are five ways impostor syndrome affects people in tech:
They try to be superheroes. These tech workers overwork themselves due to competition and demanding workloads. They strive to be the absolute best in their particular field, which means they believe if they were to take off a few days or shirk the responsibilities of a deadline, they’d be shunned.
They feel drastically unqualified. This hits tech workers when they consider their current level of knowledge insufficient—even when others consider them to be the field’s expert, possessing all the necessary data science career skills.
They try to do everything on their own. Women in tech and STEM fields are especially gifted. They may, however, experience times when they feel overwhelmed and scared because they’re too afraid to ask for assistance. To them, admitting they need help is the same as showing weakness or incompetence. Working alone helps them protect their inner feelings of anxiety.
They try to be unequivocally perfect. And this affects so many people in the tech industry. Programmers might get hung up on that one coding error and treat themselves as coming up short, not in league with their colleagues, and don’t even notice the incredible contributions they make to the industry as a whole, even when they receive accolades.
They’re disappointed in their perceived shortcomings. They say that genius and superior intellect walk a fine line right next to madness. Employees in tech jobs are incredibly smart individuals with extensive experience in their specific field. This knowledge and experience often cause them to set unrealistically lofty goals. If they don’t meet these impossible standards the very first time they try, they suddenly feel a profound disappointment in themselves.
So, how does this happen?
What’s the Cause of Impostor Syndrome in Tech?
On its face, it might seem like imposter syndrome is a mental illness—it’s not as it isn’t a listed condition in the DSM, or Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, 5th Edition. It’s merely the person responding to outside stimuli against internal belief systems. In other words, there isn’t some list of symptoms a doctor or psychologist can check off and use to definitively diagnose impostor syndrome. Some of the aspects of it correlate with:
- Biases and marginalization in cultural and societal expectations
- Gender-based and systemic stereotypical structures
So, how can students and professionals in tech and STEM fields overcome impostor syndrome?
- Understand and acknowledge the issue.
- Be a warrior for yourself and challenge your belief systems.
- Stop comparing yourself to anyone else but you—strive to do and be better than you were yesterday.
- Look to friends and family for support.
- Never stop learning.
No matter what, you can manage your feelings of inadequacy, overcome impostor syndrome in tech and have a wonderfully successful career. Challenging yourself is one of the key methods to proving you have what it takes to not only grow but thrive in the tech and STEM industries—really, at whatever you put your mind to.