Developer Impostor Syndrome: How to Overcome It
“Each time I write a book, every time I face that yellow pad, the challenge is so great. I have written eleven books, but each time I think, ‘Uh oh, they’re going to find out now. I’ve run a game on everybody and they’re going to find me out.’”
― Maya Angelou
We’ve all experienced it one time or another. We look around at other students in the classroom, and our colleagues and peers sitting next to us in meetings and think, “I don’t really belong here. Not like they do.” When something in our work is difficult or challenging, we suspect that someone who was actually talented enough to be doing this wouldn’t be having this problem. We downplay our accomplishments in our mind because on some level we convince ourselves that we hadn’t really accomplished anything.
This is called impostor syndrome. It’s more common than you may think, particularly in highly competitive fields like data science. Learning how to beat impostor syndrome can be tricky, especially for those in STEM fields who are often more comfortable with very concrete, fact-based solutions. The truth is impostor syndrome is all in your head, a mental hurdle to overcome, and fixing it can require a great deal of simply talking yourself out of these feelings. This might seem easier said than done, but we have ascertained the most common causes of impostor syndrome, and what you can do to fight this instinct.
What is Impostor Syndrome?
First identified in 1978 by psychologists Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes in their paper The Imposter [sic] Phenomenon in High Achieving Women, impostor syndrome is now understood to affect people from all walks of life, regardless of gender, age, or background, be they doctors, dancers, or data scientists. In fact, according to the International Journal of Behavioral Science, an estimated 70% of people experience it in their lives, and some estimates put this percentage even higher.
So, what exactly is it? Impostor syndrome is the idea that you’ve only succeeded due to either luck, chance, or some sort of unconscious subterfuge on your part rather than by traditional metrics like hard work, experience, or talent.
Why do people feel this way? Even those who seem to be incredibly qualified from an outsider’s perspective? It can be hard to determine the cause. For some it may have to do with psychological issues like anxiety, while for others these feelings may have behavioral or family causes, i.e., feelings of competition with siblings or that your parents or other authority figures never thought you were “good enough.”
Additional environmental factors, particularly for women and minorities, include institutionalized discrimination. Often, those who feel like they fall into a category of ‘other’ can feel as if they need to work twice as hard and achieve twice as much before they’re looked upon as equals by their colleagues. All too often these feelings are brought on by their environment. This can be particularly true in STEM and data science fields where stereotypes exist about perceived competence.
You may be tempted to think of impostor syndrome as a good thing, something that pushes you to succeed and overprepare, keeping you from getting complacent. Unfortunately, this comes at a cost. Beyond experiencing what can become nearly crippling anxiety, you might find yourself feeding into a vicious cycle: feeling like you only succeeded (or, worse, “skated by”) because of the overwhelming pressure you’ve placed upon yourself. This in turn can cause you to repeat this pattern at every opportunity, keeping you from discovering that your achievements are a natural result of your talent and experience.
Do I have impostor syndrome?
Impostor syndrome is bad enough. Let’s make sure you’re not an impostor syndrome impostor! Ask yourself the following questions?
- Do I consider myself a “phony”? Am I afraid others will find this out?
- Do I struggle even with helpful, constructive criticism?
- Is my instinct to downplay my own expertise rather than talk it up?
- Do I find myself unable to offer a frank evaluation of my performance?
- Do I believe my success largely depends on myself or on external factors beyond my control?
- Am I constantly agonizing over perceived flaws in my performance?
- Do I live in fear that I won’t live up to my or others’ expectations?
- Do I set unrealistically challenging goals for myself? Am I devastated if I fail to achieve them?
A “yes” to many or most of these questions may indicate that you’re suffering from some degree of impostor syndrome. That’s the bad news. The good news? Once you’ve accepted that you’re being influenced by impostor syndrome, combatting it becomes that much easier.
How to Overcome Impostor Syndrome:
Four Steps to a New Perspective
1. Remind Yourself What You’ve Accomplished
Looking for a silver lining to your impostor syndrome? If you have it, it means you’ve already accomplished something. No one suspects they don’t deserve to be where they are if they feel like they’re nowhere at all. If you believe you might be suffering from impostor syndrome, that means you’re currently surrounded by people who believe that you’re smart and good at what you do, even if you yourself are not entirely convinced. So, take value in that to begin with. It may seem like a backwards equation to think of it this way, but it’s both logical and reaffirming.
A second and more solidifying step you can take is to keep a list of accomplishments. People can memorize their own resumes so well that it can feel like all they’ve done is what’s listed on that one page. Consider upgrading from a simple resume to the type of true curriculum veritae (CV) that is often maintained by academics. It can be as long as it needs to be and can go into great detail about everything you’ve ever achieved and every award or credential you’ve received. You can use your CV professionally or just for yourself when you need a reminder that you’re already “somewhere” and it’s highly unlikely you tricked the countless number of people you would have had to in order to get there.
As an added bonus, writing things out tends to cement them in our minds. Creating a CV or other list of measurable accomplishments might make them a little easier for you to call to mind as doubts creep in, or as certification in professional conversations. Soon, reminding yourself of everything you’ve achieved to date might become second nature, and when it does it also becomes more recognizable as “fact” versus fake.
2. Reframe Your Thinking
Remember that you (and only you) are the one who gets to decide the metrics by which you measure your own success. First, determine whether the current metrics you’re working with are even the right ones. It could be possible that whatever the level of expertise you believe you “should” be at is always going to be one or more rungs beyond where you are. This doesn’t have to say “shortcoming” or “shortfall” – on the contrary it can be a helpful setting of the bar in the sense that it may push you forward to achieve more. To keep this in balance one need only keep it in perspective.
Data science influencer Damsel in Data commented on this in her video about how she conquered impostor syndrome. “It was a gamechanger to realize that I had the power to change the scale on which I was measuring my own worth,” she says. “Absolutely nothing was stopping me from separating my worth from this one superficial metric. I could choose something else to give me the same feeling of accomplishment.”
When these feelings of doubt or insignificant worth creep up, recognize what’s happening and work swiftly to correct your thinking to silence the negative feedback loop. If you’re struggling with one aspect of your career, remind yourself of all the areas where you’re not struggling.
All of this is particularly true when it comes to metrics that involve you comparing yourselves to others. Whether it’s a colleague getting a promotion, an opportunity you were hoping for that goes to someone else, or you find out someone you know in the same field makes more money than you, sometimes the success of others can feel like our own personal failure. But that’s not the case. Remember, these factors, or something similar, can come about based on any number of reasons–some valid and some not. Likely it’s unrelated to any elements within your own professional career and doesn’t reflect on you or your abilities at all.
It may be impossible to stop comparing yourself to others entirely but be aware that you can only control what’s actually in the realm of your influence.
3. Share Your Feelings with Others
Part of what makes impostor syndrome so stressful is that it can feel like a secret you can’t reveal. If you feel like you don’t deserve the position you’re in and feel like a fraud around your colleagues, it can be natural to want to keep anyone from finding out. You haven’t actively deceived anyone, so it can be helpful to share your fears with others. Not only does this potentially relieve pent-up stress and anxiety, it can often alleviate your concerns when receiving positive feedback on your professional contribution and expertise.
Another possible outcome of talking to others is the surprising discovery that so many others feel the same, dealing with the same fears, doubts, questions, and insecurities. You’re likely to get assurances from the colleagues who know your work best (and can look at it from an outside perspective that we’re not always capable of ourselves) that you’re not an impostor, and you might even be able to return the favor.
4. Gain Experience
By its very nature, impostor syndrome suggests you might be suffering from unrealistic expectations about how much experience you should have to succeed in your role. That said, it’s never a bad idea to gather more experience and push yourself beyond your current standing – not rest on the laurels of your current placement but push forward. Brushing up on your own data science skills can be an effective way to boost your self-confidence while also boosting your resume.
Though there’s plenty that can be done with an undergraduate degree in data science, one surefire option to gain experience is to get a Master’s degree or even PhD in data science. It’s not a decision to be made lightly, as getting a degree can be a major time and financial commitment, but if you decide you want to pursue it, you can expect to increase your hireability, gain valuable connections and insights from your school’s faculty, and gain skills and expertise that should help put gnawing feelings of impostor syndrome away for good.
Best of all, while undergraduate degrees that can be completed entirely online or at night are comparatively rare, even in a STEM field like data science, online data science degrees are far more common when it comes to post-graduate degrees. You’ll likely be able to study at the school of your choice, regardless of where you live and without having to sacrifice continuing to earn an income while completing your degree.
Data Science Bootcamps or Certifications
If you already have an undergraduate or master’s degree in the data science field, consider boning up with a data science bootcamp or data science certification. They’re quicker and far more cost effective compared to traditional programs. Not only do they look great on a resume, but they can also be specifically tailored to whatever area of your background makes you nervous, whether that involves a refresher on the basics or filling a specific knowledge gap.
Popular data science bootcamps include Mthree, DataCamp, and General Assembly. Some of the most competitive schools that offer data science certifications include Columbia University in New York, Boston University in Greater Boston, and Northwestern University in the Chicago area. Regardless of geography, keep in mind a wide range of data science related programs can be completed online.
The best-case scenario for enrolling in a bootcamp or certification course is that you get a chance to polish your skills and can simultaneously grow convinced that you are qualified for the roles you pursue. The worst-case scenario? You discover you were already far more versed in these areas of knowledge than you’d questioned and more equipped for your career than your doubts had acknowledged. So you either gain advanced knowledge and credibility, or gain a credible determination and certification that you already had it. A definite win/win.
Looking to gain more experience but not quite prepared to embrace the expense (both in terms of money and time) of getting a postgraduate degree or attending a bootcamp? For a quick-fix, the open-source community may have you covered. Online groups like thenewboston or LinkedIn Learning provide tutorials and insights that can help you brush up on your skills and get brand new insights into building up your data science experience.
Discover Data Science offers a series of next steps for pursuing a variety of gained experience through the links above for bootcamps, certifications, and degree programs. What’s more, we have amassed a wealth of research on data science programs nationwide and have experts on hand to walk you through your search for your next data science opportunity.
As much as impostor syndrome is by definition an uninformed fear, having the data and advanced standing to unquestionably refute it, is still the surest way to eliminate its effects.
Return to Discover Data Science Articles