Stop! Impostor Syndrome

Article by Laura Grindey AMIChemE and Martyna Cepaite AMIChemE

Many of us feel impostor syndrome at some point in our careers. To help generate more understanding around the phenomenon, Laura Grindey and Martyna Cepaite from IChemE’s National Early Careers Group surveyed chemical engineers about their experiences

COINED in the 1970s by psychologists Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes, impostor phenomenon, or impostor syndrome, affects individuals across various professions and walks of life. Despite their accomplishments and competence, those struggling with impostor syndrome persistently doubt their abilities and feel like frauds awaiting exposure. It can have profound effects on mental health, career, and overall well-being.

The authors of this article recently entered fields which have many years of accumulated knowledge. It was all too easy to compare ourselves negatively to the more experienced engineers around us while we found our feet. That’s why, as part of IChemE’s National Early Careers Group, we felt compelled to start a discussion about the roots of impostor syndrome, using your experiences and advice to develop strategies to help overcome it.

TCE reader survey

We compiled a questionnaire for volunteers on the TCE Reader Feedback Panel. To get a comprehensive understanding, our questionnaire delved into various aspects that can cause impostor syndrome, encompassing demographic characteristics, experiences, and qualification levels.

Recognising the significance of the topic is paramount, particularly in light of feedback from one chartered member who asked to remain anonymous: “I am surprised that this is a ‘thing’, but perhaps that is part of the problem. We believe we are the only one experiencing this issue, so we don’t speak up.”

Richard Boocock, an IChemE Fellow, said: “Some may say that ‘impostor syndrome’ is another invention of the current generation. Such statements simply reaffirm the unacknowledged privilege enjoyed by some in the profession.”

In all, 159 members answered the survey with 109 saying they had experienced impostor syndrome at some point during their careers. Across almost all IChemE membership grades, over 65% of people said they had experienced impostor syndrome (there were no responses from technician members). We then looked to unveil patterns and nuances of those who had experienced it, shedding light on where impostor syndrome presents itself most prominently. By gathering such data, we aimed to contribute valuable insights that can inform targeted strategies to address and alleviate impostor syndrome in diverse professional contexts. While the dataset is from a relatively small sample size of engineers, the findings should help spark a wider discussion in the community about how prevalent impostor syndrome is among engineers and how we can help each other cope with and overcome it.

Roots of impostor syndrome

Individuals who are high achievers, for example as a result of their upbringing, are likely to develop impostor syndrome as they struggle to be content with their achievements. Similarly, those who have negative encounters with criticism may also experience impostor syndrome as they dread underperforming and take on fewer challenges to avoid the possibility of failure.1 Equally, gender, age, and culture can also play a pivotal role in the development of impostor syndrome. For example, as can be seen in Figure 1, women in chemical engineering appear more likely to experience impostor syndrome than men. This chimes with peer-reviewed studies which have found that matters such as continuing biases, discrimination, and even underrepresentation of women in a particular field can induce feelings of impostor syndrome.2,3

Figure 1: Have you experienced impostor syndrome during your work?

Experiencing impostor syndrome

Detailed studies have identified various circumstances that can trigger feelings of impostor syndrome. You may recognise some of these yourself. We have provided some examples, including anecdotes from chemical engineers that align with these common causes and effects.

1. Comparisons with others: Individuals with impostor syndrome often compare themselves to those around them by overfocusing on others’ successes which can lower their own confidence. This was found to be a common feeling throughout the survey feedback. Chartered member David Claxton shared how “very early on (in my career), I had the feeling of being in the presence of people who knew a lot more than I did, so who was I to challenge what they said?” IChemE Fellow Chris Williams said when he started his career he was “surrounded by scientists who sounded much smarter than me”. This comparative behaviour can make it a struggle to feel of equal worth to your colleagues.

2. Overworking: To make up for self-perceived inadequacies, individuals with impostor syndrome may work over and above what is expected of them to assure themselves as worthy of the position in their career or personal life. This can put intense pressure on the individual, causing high levels of stress and can even lead to burnout. “I put a lot of pressure on myself to get tasks which I was not confident with right first time,” said one associate member.

3. Overachievement: People with impostor syndrome often set high standards for themselves which can lead to self-doubt in instances where they do not know everything about a topic or are unable to meet an unrealistic personal goal. Even with years of experience, individuals can encounter impostor syndrome in this way. Chartered member Howard Thomas shared how “even after 35 years in industry I still feel like an impostor because I am aware there is so much I still don’t know”. It is clear impostor syndrome has no bounds on age, as can be seen in Figure 2.


Figure 2: Proportion of those who say they have experienced impostor syndrome by age

4. Fearing failure: Impostor syndrome is strongly linked to fear of failure; individuals experiencing this may have a belief that any misstep will expose them as frauds, despite their qualifications and capabilities, which can lead to anxiety, stress, and even missed opportunities. Taking on more responsibility can lead to these feelings. When chartered member Mgawa Mkandawire started his managerial role at a new company, he says he felt “way out of my depth and that the company would fail” and “felt like a liar especially when presenting budgets and other financial statements”. Similarly, when IChemE Fellow Michael McCann transferred from ships chief engineer to the pharmaceutical industry he believed “other engineers knew more, even though my experience subsequently turned out to be greater than all [the] others due to a different training and practice regime”.

5. Downplaying achievements: It is typical for those dealing with impostor syndrome to dismiss praise and put their successes down to luck or other factors out of their control. Individuals may be self-critical and therefore feel unworthy of their achievements despite their accomplishments and support from people around them. Associate member Laura Fonseca’s response was a familiar one: “When receiving recognition, I tend to look for others to share the spotlight or feel like the recognition is more given for sympathy, because I’m nice.”

Overcoming impostor syndrome

Now you are familiar with some commonly identified impostor syndrome traits, we have called on advice from psychologists, business leaders, talent acquisition experts, and TCE readers to help you overcome it.

1. Acknowledge and accept feelings: The first step towards overcoming impostor syndrome is acknowledging and accepting these feelings. The data collected in Figure 3 shows that impostor syndrome can be felt throughout people’s careers. Though it is more prevalent in early careers, it may help you to know that you are not alone. Chartered member Andrew Rawstron suggests you should “record your achievements and look back at what you have done and where you have come from”. This will help you in accepting the feelings but will also encourage you to praise your accomplishments.


Figure 3: When in your career have you felt like an impostor?

2. Reframe negative thoughts: Challenge negative thoughts and beliefs by reframing them in a positive light. Instead of focusing on perceived shortcomings, celebrate your accomplishments. A chartered member who asked to remain anonymous recommends to “lower down our self-expectation…Try to ignore and control negative thoughts. Praise others too”. All of this will contribute to a motivating work climate where you feel empowered to pass along this positivity to those around you.

3. Seek support and mentorship: Share your feelings with trusted friends, family, or mentors. Sometimes, an external perspective can help provide a more realistic assessment of your abilities. If you are in a senior role, spend time coaching new or young staff, specifically reinforcing their achievements and encouraging confidence. Try to bring people into work-related discussions so that they have a chance to be heard and make a contribution. IChemE Fellow Hong Wai Onn suggests that “seeking feedback from colleagues, supervisors, or mentors provides valuable insights into areas for improvement and reinforces one’s strengths”.

4. Professional help: In severe cases, seeking the assistance of a mental health professional can be invaluable. Therapy and counselling can provide tools to navigate and overcome impostor syndrome.

5. Set realistic goals: Establish achievable goals and recognise that perfection is unattainable. Embrace the learning process and understand that mistakes are an integral part of growth. In fact, IChemE Fellow Andrea Hosey recommends “using the feeling [of impostor syndrome] as a motivator”. She says: “Identify the skills you think are missing and add those to your CPD plan.”

6. Be open to learning: Associate member Refilwe Seabi mentions that you have “to be ok with being a learner especially when entering a new field. It does not mean that you don’t know anything, it just means that you don’t know THAT particular thing”. Company culture can play a massive part in feeling like you can ask for help during your learning process. IChemE Fellow Peter Carew says “impostor syndrome comes when people do not feel psychological safety in the team or organisation, they are part of. Companies need to foster psychological safety so that people are willing to raise diverse ideas and suggestions, as business needs these ideas to be innovative”.

7. Be honest: Sometimes, impostor syndrome comes from a lack of experience or knowledge on a topic. People often don’t expect you to know everything, especially early in your career. IChemE Fellow Bill Marsden says: “I just told myself I had to accept that my lack of experience was the principal cause rather than any technical or personal issue so in time things would sort themselves out – and they eventually did.” When you don’t know the answer, be honest! Saying “I don’t know but I will find out and get back to you” is enough! Figure 4 shows that people often feel better over time. For our readers who felt impostor syndrome, the majority grew more confident by their mid-30s, and their feeling of impostor syndrome subsided.

8. Build professional confidence: Joining societies and groups like the National Early Careers Group or local Members Groups can help build confidence in a professional but social setting. “Most people are glad to help if you are junior, and glad you are interested in the detail if you are senior,” says IChemE Fellow John Wilson, with associate member Gerard Byrne adding: “You will benefit in more ways than you think by reaching out in terms of building contacts and respect.” Additionally, voluntary roles can give a sense of achievement while potentially undertaking a completely different range of tasks from your day-to-day work.

Figure 4: Do you still feel like an impostor?


Recognising the manifestations of impostor syndrome and understanding its roots are crucial steps toward overcoming this mindset. As expected, our results show that impostor syndrome is most felt during the early years of our careers, and it is likely to reduce with experience. However, TCE readers have proved that not everyone manages to get rid of the feeling. We hope that by fostering self-compassion, seeking support, and reframing negative thoughts, readers can break free from the clutches of impostor syndrome and unlock their true potential. We would like to thank all those who contributed to this article and the results. Remember, you are not alone in this journey, and acknowledging your worth is the first step towards a healthier and more fulfilling life.

As part of Mental Health Awareness week, we want to emphasise the importance of seeking support for this issue or any other challenges that you may be struggling to navigate. We’ll be carrying on the conversation on IChemE Connect. Come join us in Mental Health Week (13–19 May) to be part of the conversation.



Article By

Laura Grindey AMIChemE

Chemical engineer, Eternis Fine Chemicals UK and member of IChemE's National Early Careers Group

Martyna Cepaite AMIChemE

Graduate UK&I maintenance planner at Air Products and member of IChemE's National Early Careers Group

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