Felder, Richard, "Impostors Everywhere."
Chem. Engr. Education, 22(4), 168-169 (Fall 1988).

IMPOSTORS EVERYWHERE

Richard M. Felder
Department of Chemical Engineering
North Carolina State University
Raleigh, NC 27695-7905

"Hi, Don---what's up?"

"It's the test tomorrow, Dr. Felder. Um...could you tell me how many problems are on it?"

"I don't see how it could help you to know, but three."

"Oh. Uh...will it be open book?"

"Yes---like every other test you've taken from me during the last three years."

"Oh...well, are we responsible for the plug flow reactor energy balance?"

"No, it happened before you were born. Look, Don, we can go on with this game later but first how about sitting down and telling me what's going on. You look petrified."

"To tell you the truth, sir, I just don't get what we've been doing since the last test and I'm afraid I'm going to fail this one."

"I see. Don, what's your GPA?"

"About 3.6, I guess, but this term will probably knock it down to..."

"What's your average on the first two kinetics tests?"

"92."

"And you really believe you're going to fail the test tomorrow?"

"Uh...."

Unfortunately, on some level he really does believe it. Logically he knows he is one of the top students in the department and if he gets a 60 on the test the class average will be in the 30's, but he is not operating on logic right now. What is he doing?

The pop psychology literature calls it the impostor phenomenon.[1] The subliminal tape that plays endlessly in Don's head goes like this:

I don't belong here...I'm clever and hard--working enough to have faked them out all these years and they all think I'm great but I know better...and one of these days they're going to catch on...they'll ask the right question and find out that I really don't understand...and then...and then....

The tape recycles at this point, because the consequences of them (teachers, classmates, friends, parents,...) figuring out that you are a fraud are too awful to contemplate.

I have no data on how common this phenomenon is among engineering students but when I speak about it in classes and seminars and get to "...and they all think I'm great but I know better," the audience resonates like a plucked guitar string---students laugh nervously, nod their heads, turn to check out their neighbors' reactions. My guess is that most of them believe deep down that those around them may belong there but they themselves do not.

They are generally wrong. Most of them do belong---they will pass the courses and go on to become competent and sometimes outstanding engineers---but the agony they experience before tests and whenever they are publically questioned takes a severe toll along the way. Sometimes the toll is too high: even though they have the ability and interest to succeed in engineering they cannot stand the pressure and change majors or drop out of school.

It seems obvious that someone who has accomplished something must have had the ability to do so (more concisely, you cannot do what you cannot do). If students have passed courses in chemistry, physics, calculus, and stoichiometry without cheating, they clearly had the talent to pass them. So where did they get the idea that their high achievements so far (and getting through the freshman engineering curriculum is indeed a high achievement) are somehow fraudulent? Asking this gets us into psychological waters that I have neither the space nor the credentials to navigate; suffice it to say that if you are human you are subject to self--doubts, and chemical engineering students are human.

What can we do for these self--labeled impostors?

One final word. When I refer at seminars to feeling like an impostor among one's peers, besides the resonant responses I get from students I usually pick up some pretty strong vibrations from the row where the faculty is sitting. That's another column.

Reference

  1. Pauline R. Clance, Impostor Phenomenon: Overcoming the Fear that Haunts Your Success. Peachtree Pubs., 1985.

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felder@eos.ncsu.edu