Graduates: How to slay impostor syndrome

Recent studies have highlighted the negative impact of Impostor Syndrome on young graduates transitioning to the workplace. An expert says it is important to identify and understand the signs of impostor syndrome early in one’s career, to avoid losing confidence and to become an empowered, valued and productive team member.

“According to a study conducted by UK career development agency Amazing If last year, as much as a third of millennials – young people between the ages of 18 and 34 - suffer from Imposter Syndrome at work,” says Dr Gillian Mooney, Dean: Academic Development and Support at The Independent Institute of Education, SA’s largest private higher education institution.

She says locally the situation is likely to be much the same, with a large number of young graduates who will be able to identify with a persistent fear of being “found out” or exposed as a “fraud” in the workplace.

“Impostor syndrome is commonly reported by recent graduates who are starting to formally work for the first time,” she says.

“While Impostor Syndrome is not a formal psychological diagnosis, the concept has been used since 1978 to describe people who have an ongoing fear of being uncovered as being a fraud, or persistently feeling that they are ‘phony’. So there is good news for those who have been experiencing these confidence-sapping feelings in the workplace: firstly, there are many millions of people around the world who feel the same way, so you are not alone; and secondly, there are some solid ways in which you can rectify the situation.”

Dr Mooney says that a further characteristic of those ‘suffering’ from Impostor Syndrome is that they tend to struggle with internalising their achievements.

“Many high achievers make external attributions about their success, for instance that they have been ‘lucky’ and that their success has little to do with who they are and what they know, or hard work and intelligence. This means that these people believe that they are not intelligent or capable enough, in spite of the objective evidence to the contrary.”

Dr Mooney adds that there is no clear pattern or type of person who may suffer from imposter syndrome.

“People from diverse backgrounds, with different levels of intelligence and personality types can experience the feeling that they are not capable or qualified enough for their position. But it is important that these feelings are addressed, because it is clear that they can detract from your performance and can keep you from reaching your full potential.”

So how does one tackle Impostor Syndrome? By taking the following action:


When these destructive thoughts and feelings emerge, recognise them as such. It will be easier to manage these feelings and thoughts once you know what they are. Note negative self-talk, such as ‘I can’t do this work’ or ‘I don’t know how to do this presentation’, and determine whether your insights are based on fact, or fear.