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Navigating Imposter Syndrome: Reflections of a Female Minority in STEM at the University of Oxford

By Millie Zhou

Have a look around the streets of Oxford, and you might notice crowds of students from University of Oxford that know exactly how to carry achievement, charisma, and intellect. Yet, even students at Oxford cannot avoid the plague of imposter syndrome. Research has found that up to 77% of people experience imposter syndrome (Kumar et al., 2019).


At the University of Oxford, imposter syndrome can be even more aggravated due to the university's academic standards and world-renown reputation. While the prevalence at Oxford is uncertain, it is not surprising that students feel like an imposter – myself included. By all outward standards, I may be considered accomplished. Yet, walking along High Street, I often battle my inner critic that nags: “I am too different. I am not good nor smart enough. I will fail.” Every so often I even get an anxious panic, where I fear I will get exposed as fraudulent and unqualified.


Imposter syndrome is defined as a psychological phenomenon where intellectual individuals have a persistent feeling of inadequacy or fraudulence, despite evidence of accomplishments and qualifications (Clance & Imes, 1978). The feeling of fraudulence is particularly more prevalent among minority groups in STEM fields (Zajacova et al., 2017) due to challenges such as bias, discrimination, and stereotype threat.


As a female from an ethnic minority background pursuing STEM at the University of Oxford, the pressure to succeed has felt daunting. The expectations from society, friends, and family have added to the burden of pursuit. The lack of representation of women and minority groups in STEM fields can forge a feeling of isolation and belief of not belonging, despite evidence of high achievements. Along with the academic rigour, the demand to perform well is exacerbated because of the feeling that I represent entire groups; my successes and failures will be attributed to the capabilities of my communities. Ruminating subconsciously is always the fear of conforming to negative stereotypes ascribed to minority groups (AKA the stereotype threat). Not to mention, there is additional pressure to succeed and meet cultural expectations – as there is often a mix of guilt, obligation, and filial piety to justify the sacrifices my family has made to provide me with opportunities they never had.


To combat my imposter syndrome, I have found it essential to practise self-compassion. It has empowered me to see challenges (and mistakes) as opportunities for personal growth. Self-compassion has slowly allowed me to acknowledge my own accomplishments and empathise with the burdens others carry as well. By seeking out supportive communities, such as OxWEST (Oxford Women in Engineering Science and Technology) and OxWoCS (Oxford Women in Computer Science), I have met individuals who share similar experiences. By recognising that others struggle as well, I have learned to be supportive of myself and others in the face of difficulties.


For anyone that resonates with the feelings of imposter syndrome, it is helpful to keep in mind that imposter syndrome is a common experience and that feelings of inadequacy do not reflect your abilities or merit. By recognizing your achievements, seeking out supportive communities, and seeking mental health resources, you can cultivate resilience and succeed in your academic pursuits. Remember, your unique experiences and perspectives are valuable contributions. You belong in STEM.



References


Clance, P. R., & Imes, S. A. (1978). The imposter phenomenon in high achieving women: Dynamics and therapeutic intervention. Psychotherapy: Theory, Research & Practice, 15(3), 241-247.


Kumar, S., Jagannathan, A., Waldrop, R., Chaudhry, H. J., & Hammer, H. (2019). Imposter syndrome among physicians and physicians in training: A scoping review. Journal of General Internal Medicine, 34(10), 2423-2429.


Zajacova, A., et al. (2017). "Gender and the structure of self-rated health across the adult life span." Social Science & Medicine 236, 112387.

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