Magazine article The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE

Ever Feel You Don't Belong? Well, You're Not Alone

Magazine article The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE

Ever Feel You Don't Belong? Well, You're Not Alone

Article excerpt

University life can bring on impostor syndrome in students as well as staff, David Walker hears

Although they look, talk and work just like any other undergraduate, they feel that they do not belong among "genuine" students. They feel the same as a well-dressed beggar might upon bluffing their way into the palace ball: an interloper waiting to be outed as lesser.

Such students may be suffering from impostor syndrome - a condition characterised by delusions of inadequacy; the feeling that the status, role and reputation they enjoy is unwarranted, and that they are secretly out of their depth despite an abundance of evidence demonstrating their proficiency. They may project an outward impression of confidence, but when they observe in their peers the self-assuredness that they lack they may feel like frauds.

It is an issue that some believe is endemic to higher education - among staff and students alike. Even in the current societal drought of self-esteem, the particular stresses of higher education can greatly exacerbate the issue.

Jessica Collett, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Notre Dame, researches the phenomenon. She is of the opinion that "universities and academia are ripe for impostorism" because of the particularly subjective nature of assessment.

"With few objective measures for success or value of contributions in academia, it is easier to discount success and think that someone made a mistake or just passed us or accepted our paper for some other reason not related to its merit," she said.

Professor Collett links impostorism within academic settings to cultural perceptions of intelligence. "Given unconscious biases that certain groups are more intelligent, people who don't fit those characteristics might also hold the assumption that they're likely lacking in that innate intelligence."

Ruth Caleb, chair of the UK's Mental Wellbeing in Higher Education Working Group and head of counselling at Brunel University London, echoes this sentiment. She notes that "students coming from a low-income or minority ethnic background, and those with learning disabilities, are sometimes more susceptible" to the phenomenon.

"We let our counselling clients know that the Brunel admissions process means that students studying at Brunel have been taken on because we believe them to be fully capable of obtaining a degree, which often surprises them," she said.

Many students and counsellors discuss the rising rates of impostorism in the context of a wider student mental health crisis.

A recent high-profile report on student mental health referenced figures showing that more than a quarter of UK students are thought to experience mental health issues at any one time. And just last week, a new survey of 6,500 undergraduates found that one in eight believed that they had a mental health condition.

For young people, university, especially at the start, is a time of particular susceptibility to mental health issues such as impostorism.

Anoushka Bonwick, projects and relationships officer at the university-focused mental health charity Student Minds, said that "a lot of individuals are moving away [from home] for the first time and they'll be working independently for the first time".

She believes that university not only introduces a flurry of often stressful new situations - independent living, managing finances and social upheaval - but that, quite uniquely, it provides "a very stark way to compare yourself to people. …

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