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Feeling like an Imposter in STEM?

Impostor syndrome – feeling like you don’t belong or are a ‘fraud’. Feeling like you’ll be found out for not belonging, or that you haven’t earned your achievements. 

Many of us have felt overwhelmed or out of place at some point, and for lots of people these feelings come in relation to STEM subjects. This article will hopefully break down how to identify these feelings, and ways to combat them. 

So, what does impostor syndrome look like to me? It might be one of these things:

  • Comparing yourself negatively to your peers/other people in your class. 
  • Feeling underprepared/not as worthy as other people around you
  • Feeling like your achievements (such as good grades, awards, positive feedback) come as a result of external factors (such as luck or help of other people) and not your own talent or hard work

Impostor Syndrome is more common in minorities, and can be linked to pressure to achieve or perfectionism.  New or unfamiliar settings can also lead to feeling out of place. STEM can often be unfamiliar or more daunting, especially when you might seem to be one of few interested in these topics amongst your school or friend group. 

Two students in our university WISTEMS community (both studying advanced and high achieving versions of their respective degrees) described their experiences with impostor syndrome:

Molly, studying a Bachelor of Science (Advanced), says that “impostor syndrome is something I and a lot of other people deal with. It’s very easy to feel like you’re not “smart enough” or “deserving enough” to be studying in the STEM field but you just have to remind yourself that you made it there for a reason.” 

Similarly, Siobhan, studying a Bachelor of Mathematical Sciences (Advanced) as well as a Diploma of Languages (German), says she often “feels out of place, whether it be because of all the unknown faces in the room or because everyone else seems like Einstein.”

It’s helpful to understand that you’re not alone when it comes to these feelings, and that often others aren’t looking at you as critically as you are looking at yourself. 

These are some indicators of impostor syndrome, but what can you do to combat it? 

  • Talk to people about it: talk to your friends, you might be surprised that you’re not alone. 
  • Find a mentor – someone further than you in their career (this could be a teacher, a parent, or someone else) to talk about it, and compare experiences with you. 
  • Build a support network of friends that build you up. WISTEMS as a university society aims to do just this – bring people together to support females in STEM. At school this might be your friendship group, or your STEM class. 
  • Reflect on your strengths – not your weaknesses. Don’t compare yourself to others – think about what makes you unique and talented. Remind yourself that you do belong, and that you are capable. 
  • Notice that your achievements result from your efforts and skill.
  • Remember that this is an ongoing process – there are lots of recurring traps towards impostor thinking.  Keep practising the skills listed above to remind yourself of your skills and reward your efforts. You deserve the recognition!

We want to show you how cool and exciting STEM careers can be – and provide support so that you know that you do belong and can make a difference in a STEM field. Hopefully reading this magazine – all written by female STEM university students who are just like you- provides you with more confidence in exploring your interest in STEM. You are not an impostor!

Alice Miller

Alice is a second year undergraduate student at the University of Adelaide studying Environmental Engineering and Mathematical Sciences (Advanced). She is also an Outreach Officer for WISTEMS, and is passionate about encouraging more females to study STEM.