York researcher unmasks the imposter

Why do many academics suffer from feelings of inadequacy and incompetence? How is it that even accomplished scholars fear that they will be exposed as frauds? According to the research of doctoral candidate Diane Zorn, many academics suffer from Imposter Phenomenon (IP).

Zorn, who teaches courses in business ethics at the Atkinson Faculty of Liberal and Professional Studies and applied business ethics in the Schulich School of Business, has been researching the imposter phenomenon, which is commonly defined as “an internal experience of intellectual phoniness common among high-achieving people”. She has found that IP can affect anyone from PhD candidates preparing for their comprehensives to established and tenured professors. “At one workshop a professor who was two years away from retirement told me that he still lived in fear of being revealed as a fraud,” said Zorn.

Pauline Rose Clance of Georgia State University first identified the Imposter Phenomenon as a psychological trait in the late 1970s. Since then, researchers have focused on using therapy to overcome the feelings of fear that the phenomenon brings about. Zorn’s research, which is influenced by the philosophy of mind and emotions and based on the theory that emotions are publicly and collaboratively formed, is unique in its suggestion that the phenomenon is not merely psychological but rooted in the culture of the university itself. Zorn has identified five factors which cultivate IP in North American universities: scholarly isolation, disciplinary nationalism, aggressive competitiveness, the valuation of product over process and lack of mentoring.

Zorn suggests that the feelings produced by the phenomenon can only be diminished by changing the structure of universities. A key change would be to establish a mentorship program for all incoming PhD students. “It’s strange, when you think about it. In every other occupation, you have mentorship, or on the job training. Senior professors need to take an active role in mentoring,” says Zorn. This is especially important in the humanities, where many departments at universities around the world maintain a sink or swim mentality. According to the book The PhD Trap by Wilfred Cude, only 17 per cent of humanities students and 48 per cent of science students who begin a PhD in a university in the western world will complete their degree. Although 48 per cent is hardly ideal, the reason the completion rate is higher in the sciences is in part because these students work and publish with their supervisors.

Zorn says this mentoring needs to extend past graduation – new professors need to be supported while they get accustomed to the pressures of teaching. Zorn points to York’s own Centre for the Support of Teaching, which helps to train new faculty and teaching assistants, as an example of the kind of services which need to become available throughout academia.

To help promote awareness of the phenomenon, Zorn runs a workshop with the intent of teaching graduate students and faculty members about IP and the ways to reduce its impact. The workshops, which run two to four times a year at York, have been a resounding success. Zorn has been invited to present at the University of Toronto, Brock, McMaster, the University of Calgary, Harvard and the University of Hawaii.

For the past two years, Zorn has also been invited by York’s Faculty of Environmental Studies to speak at their orientation session for master’s students. According to Mora Campbell, FES associate dean, the course evaluation ranked Zorn’s presentation as one of the top two of the 2004 term. Zorn is encouraged by the positive feedback. “The response has been overwhelming. People are always so relieved. They want to talk about it,” she said.

Zorn plans to run her next workshop at Brock University in the early months of 2006.

This article was written by YFile graduate assistant Chris D’Agostino, master’s student in English.