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Aug. 1, 2008

Study Explores Why Smart Young Women Sometimes Feel Like Intellectual Phonies

NORTHAMPTON, Mass. – It’s called the Imposter Phenomenon and it happens when an academically successful young woman feels like an intellectual fraud despite her high achievement. Surprisingly, those women are often the most accomplished among their siblings, according to a new study by a Smith College graduate student.

Researchers interviewed 10 female undergraduates between 18 and 22, who were enrolled at two of the nation’s selective colleges and who were identified through an independent assessment as feeling like frauds in academia, an experience known as the Imposter Phenomenon by those in the mental health field.

While previous research has identified family dynamics as playing a significant role in the development of the Imposter Phenomenon, the Smith College study plumbed the reasons behind that conclusion by delving into the personal history of participants, said Sara E. Wiener, lead researcher and a master’s degree candidate at the Smith College School for Social Work.

Nine of the 10 women studied said that they are the sibling within their immediate family who is academically high achieving and that one or more of their siblings is academically low achieving.

Associated with this, said Wiener, the participants noted that their family holds much higher expectations for them than their lower-achieving siblings. As one participant noted during her interview: “The expectations for my brother are lower. In some ways, with him, the family is like ‘we just want you to finish college.’ No one would ever say that to me!”

The study participants hailed from educated families. Nearly all of their parents or primary caregivers had earned a bachelor’s degree; half had achieved a master’s degree or higher.

“Interestingly, maintaining that tradition may be one major source of stress or factor contributing to women’s feelings of fraudulence,” Wiener said. “All participants noted the fact that historically to the present day, compliments from their parents have primarily centered around academic achievement.”

First identified by a pair of psychotherapists three decades ago – a relatively short time in the field of mental health – the Imposter Phenomenon can cause people to experience generalized anxiety, a lack of self-confidence, depression and frustration due to their inability to meet their own standards of achievement.

Certainly, more research needs to be done about the reasons  for the occurrence of Imposter Phenomenon, notes Wiener, who completed the study as part of the requirements for her master’s degree in social work, which she will receive on Friday, Aug. 15.

However, she added, college mental health providers, along with faculty and staff, can at least begin to alleviate much of the isolation associated with these feelings by engaging in discussions about the issue.

The Smith College School for Social Work

One of the oldest and most distinguished schools for clinical social work in the United States, the Smith College School for Social Work enrolls women and men pursuing master’s and doctoral degrees in social work with a concentration in clinical practice. Students alternate three summers of intensive on-campus classroom instruction with two eight-month periods of extensive fieldwork in agencies across the country. Founded in 1918, the school marks its 90th anniversary this year.


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Kristen Cole
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