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  • Writer's pictureGayle Scroggs

Stop feeling like a fraud: 5 expert tips to conquer your ABD impostor syndrome

By Eva Ross, Ed.D., and Gayle Scroggs, Ph.D.

Originally published in the ABD Survival Guide.


Ever feel like a fraud while working on your doctorate? Do thoughts like these nag you when you try to work on your dissertation?


• "I am too tired to work on the lit review—I'll wait until a more ideal time." 

• "My chair tore my chapter apart; I must not be as good at writing as I thought." 

• "I just need to read a few more books before I get started." 

• "I am determined to do this on my own—I will not lower myself to ask for help." 

• "I should be able to juggle it all—work, family, and school—and not drop a ball." 

• "I don't need to know everything, I just need to find it when I need it." ~ Albert Einstein


If any of these sound familiar, chances are you have developed a good case of the impostor syndrome. Let's look at how to cure it—or at least tame it into submission.





Statistics and experience show that you have considerable company, including ours.


Eva's experience: When I received the acceptance letter from my chosen doctoral program, I worried that it might just be a clerical error. I called a colleague to make sure it was for real. As time went on, I learned that I was in fact "good enough," although there were moments of impostorism.


Gayle's experience: While finishing my dissertation as a full-time instructor, I suddenly became haunted by a crippling fear of not having created a doctorate-worthy masterpiece. At a faculty meeting one wintry afternoon, I gazed around the table at some of my less-than-amazing Ph.D. colleagues and realized, "If they merit a doctorate, surely I do too!" I defended in March.


The fear of not being good enough, of being an intellectual phony, is pervasive among doctoral candidates. These counterproductive thoughts provoke perpetual anxiety about being unmasked as a fraud, as unworthy of the degree—even after earning it.


In The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women, Valerie Young, Ed.D., develops the impostor syndrome concept first proposed by Pauline Rose Clance, Ph.D., and Suzanne Imes, Ph.D. She reports that a surprising 70 percent of her respondents suffered from impostor syndrome symptoms at one time or another, especially high achieving individuals. Graduate students and women appear to be especially susceptible.


Drawing on the work of Clance and Imes, Young, and others, we will explain what makes you vulnerable and how you can banish the impostor syndrome. It’s time to finish your dissertation and move on with confidence.





A healthy sense of competence develops in parallel with your actual mastery. Explaining away your successes as to luck, favoritism, or other circumstance leaves you vulnerable to the twin arrows of anxiety and doubt when new challenges arise, providing fertile ground for the impostor syndrome.


When caught in its grip, you are more likely to describe your competence in self-sabotaging ways that are inherently unsustainable. Young describes five such types: the Perfectionist, the Natural Genius, the Expert, the Rugged Individualist, and the Superwoman/Superman/Super-Student, each with unrealistic, self-imposed rules about competence.


As you peruse Young's classifications below, highlight any that resonate strongly with you. Then read on to learn how to overcome these handicapping thoughts so you can wrap up your dissertation and tackle future projects with confidence.


The Perfectionist: "My work must be not just good or great, but flawless." 

The best way to describe the perfectionist perspective may be "Everything I do must be 100% perfect, 100% of the time." Do you put off writing until the time is just right, when you feel inspired, rested, etc.? Do you keep revising the same section to get just the right word—thus getting far behind schedule?


The Natural Genius: "It should always come easily for me." 

If you are "a natural genius," you judge success based on ability, rather than effort put into working on the task. For you, having to work hard implies inherent incompetence. For example, "If I were really good at writing, I would not have to rewrite anything."


The Expert: "Um, am I qualified to speak on this yet?" 

Do you create self-imposed hurdles by imagining that you need more study, more certificates, or another diploma before you can put yourself out there? The fear of not knowing enough easily paralyzes you. The expert is always in rehearsal, never quite getting to the accomplishment stage.


The Rugged Individualist: "I don't need anyone's help." 

Do you stand on your firm principle that you need to accomplish this all on your own—and that this will establish your competence? Do you refuse to ask for legitimate help—and thereby add unnecessary obstacles and delays to finishing your dissertation?


The Superwoman/Superman/Super-Student: "Watch my juggling act!" 

As you juggle multiple roles, are you convinced that you must do them all well at the same time? Do beliefs like this plague you: "I can be an ace employee, a wonderful mother, and a stellar dissertation student all at the same time."





Highly successful people who fall prey to the impostor syndrome see the proverbial glass as more than half empty. They find it hard to appreciate their own inherent worth, personal strengths and talents, and demonstrated accomplishments. Instead, they focus heavily on real or imagined deficiencies.


When feelings of vulnerability consequently arise, they attempt to combat them by overusing their strengths in ways that ultimately backfire: A commitment to excellence morphs into perfectionism, independence into rugged individualism, and so on.


Self-acceptance is thus sabotaged not only by feeling "not enough," (Brown, 2010, 2013) but also by a "fixed mindset" that equates self-worth with performance, with no allowance for mistakes, a doomed perspective (Dweck, 2010).


What can you do?


Adopt a "growth mindset," one which makes room for learning from mistakes. It can help you overcome impostor syndrome thoughts. Also, learn to "dial back" strengths appropriately. Develop an appreciation for the power of vulnerability can move you forward. Let's see how to do that for each of Young's types.





If you are dogged by impossible standards, it's time to shoot for merely excellent, and at times, just “good enough.”  Your perfectionism will impede your success. As Brené Brown, Ph.D., writes, "In fact, it's often the path to depression, anxiety, addiction, and life paralysis." Give yourself permission to write a lousy draft that you can edit later. You'll finish sooner if you do.


Your new motto: "Giving 100% is not required in all situations."





Instead of focusing on proving yourself in everything you do, focus on improving an ability through practice, urges Stanford professor Carol Dweck. Neural plasticity research shows that most capacities, even intelligence, can increase over time with effort. When struggling to master coding or to revise difficult sections, try this reframing: "Mastery is a good thing; I just need to recognize the time and effort I will need to get there."


Your new motto: "Success does not happen overnight; it takes time and effort."





Do you feel in constant need of rehearsal, yet never ready to go on stage? Are you putting off finishing your lit review until you have read everything under the sun on your topic? Consider this reframe: "A good knowledge base is important, but it is unrealistic for me to try to learn everything about the subject." After all, your dissertation is your first book—not your life's masterpiece. Keep a growth mindset here.


Your new motto: "The learning journey never ends."





Successful scholars regularly enlist aid from others, from colleagues and family to stats consultants and coaches. Experiment with this reframe: "It is great that I can be self-sufficient if I need to be, but I need to be thoughtful about it. There are times when it's better to draw on other resources." Brown also challenges the myth of going it alone, noting that it hampers the cultivation of connection and authenticity, two ingredients for thriving.


Your new motto: "Part of being competent is asking for what you need."




We see this as the perfectionist on steroids. Before you drop from overwhelm, see how these reframes work for you:  "I can honor my desire to do many things well, but I do not need to do it all simultaneously." "Just because a person can do it does not mean that she must do it."


We get sucked into perfection because we imagine that it will protect us from feelings of vulnerability, notes Brené Brown. "Perfectionism is the belief that if we live perfect, look perfect, and act perfect, we can minimize or avoid the pain of blame, judgment, and shame," she asserts. Authenticity is messier, but it's a lot more sustainable.


Your new motto: "Letting go is liberating."


From ABD Impostor to Dr. You


As you replace dysfunctional beliefs with healthy ones, the old ones may surface occasionally as critical voices from the past that can still provoke anxiety if you grab on to them. A good strategy here is to simply acknowledge them and tell them to "go to the back of the bus" because you intend to hang on to the wheel.


Then step on the gas: Write that next paragraph or analyze that next set of data. And keep going even if those bullies holler, because you are driving this bus to your defense and beyond.


When you at last reach the end of your dissertation journey, go right ahead and savor being called "Doctor"—without the shadow of an impostor's doubt. You will have earned it.



Recommended Resources




Clance, Pauline Rose, and Imes, Suzanne. "The Impostor Phenomenon in High Achieving Women: Dynamics and Therapeutic Intervention," Psychotherapy Theory, Research and Practice, Fall 1978. [pdf available here]



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