7 Tips To Help Women Scientists Overcome Impostor Syndrome And Transition Into Industry

what is the imposter syndrome from women scientists | Cheeky Scientist | women science postdoctoral researcher
Written by Catherine Sorbara, Ph.D.

The further I progressed through graduate school, the more I felt like an imposter.

No matter how many papers I published or lectures I taught, I still felt like I didn’t belong.

I absolutely knew that I was not as smart or talented as my peers.

I kept waiting for everyone else to see me for the fraud I was.

My fears turned into stress and eventually depression.

When it came to applying for positions outside of academia, my chronic self-doubt told me I would never be qualified for anything outside my current field of expertise. 

Was I even qualified for my current field of expertise?

I looked around my institute and noticed that the majority of high-level academic positions were employed by individuals who had an air of confidence I simply did not possess.

Why did I always feel I could not compete?

What was holding me back?

It wasn’t until I started talking to others about my fears of being a phony that these fears started to go away.

Eventually I overcame my impostor-like feelings and transitioned into industry.

Why Female PhDs Feel Like Impostors

If you’re a woman scientist and feel like an impostor, you’re not alone.

A report in Psychotherapy Theory, Research and Practice shows that up to 70% of high-achieving women have suffered from Impostor Syndrome at one time or another.

This is significant when you consider what it means to have Impostor Syndrome. 

According to the California Institute of Technology, people suffering from this Syndrome persistently see themselves as inadequate or as failures despite information indicating that they are adequate or successful.

These people chronically experience feelings of self-doubt and intellectual fraudulence.

One study reported in the Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology found that people who frequently suffer from Impostor Syndrome, labeled as impostors, perform less well and are more anxious in general than those who suffer infrequently, labeled as non-impostors.

Impostors also feel worse and suffer a greater loss in self-esteem than non-impostors after a perceived failure.

They feel poor and unhappy no matter how much career success they’ve achieved.

Other studies show that Impostor Syndrome is strongly correlated with self-sabotage and feelings of shame.

If you’re a woman researcher and want to transition into industry, you must overcome your fear of not being good enough.

You can have all the expertise in the world, but none of it will mater if you don’t know your own value and feel like an impostor.

imposter phenomenon for female scientists | Cheeky Scientist | women in science

7 Tips For Women Who Want To Transition Into Industry

The first step to transitioning into industry is knowing your worth.

The second step is knowing what you’re up against.

A study last year commissioned by the Women in Science and Engineering (WISE) of the UK labour market, showed that women make up just 12.8% of the STEM workforce.

That’s an increase of only 0.2% from 2012.

A census by the United States Census Bureau in 2013 concluded that among science and engineering graduates, men are employed in a STEM occupation at twice the rate of women (31% compared to 15%).

Even more staggering is the fact that nearly 1 in 5 female science and engineering graduates are out of the labor force compared with 1 in 10 male graduates.

These statistics were not easy to look at.

I hid from them at first. But hiding was a mistake.

I should have faced these odds head on.

Once I started facing and preparing for these odds, my career took off.

The first thing I did was join the Cheeky Scientist Association.

This is where I learned to embrace my self-worth, regardless of my gender. I also learned how to start fighting for the future I really wanted.

Here are some of the lessons I learned along the way…

1. Ask The Difficult Questions.

There is no room for women to be meager and shy in science. 

A report called “Double Jeopardy?” by the University of California’s Hastings College of the Law found that 64% of female students feel they have to provide more evidence of their capabilities than male colleagues in order to receive the same recognition.

This means women have to go that extra mile to prove their worth.

They must speak up and speak out about what they are passionate about.

2. Find Support And Be Supportive Of Others.

Unfortunately, in the battle to stand out, many women tend to turn their backs on one another to get ahead.

By doing so, these women hold themselves back.

A better strategy is for women scientists to bind together and support each other in their pursuit of STEM careers. 

There are many non-profit organizations for women in science that can help to build your network and provide mentorship along the way.  Here are just a few:

UK:  WISE, Women in Science and Engineering

US: AWIS (Association for Women in Science)

Canada: SCWIST (Society for Canadian Women in Science and Technology)

Europe:  WiTEC (European Association for Women in Science Engineering & Technology)

Australia: Women in Science Australia

Global: HBA (Healthcare Businesswomen’s Association), Lean In Circles

3. Fail Forward.

The best accomplishments are achieved after many rounds of trial and error.

Even the most brilliant minds have made mistakes.

Did you know that Linus Pauling won the Noble Prize after asserting his triple helix model of DNA? 

His paper proposing the triple helix structure was published in 1953 and he won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1954.

It’s true.  Yet, of course, the structure of DNA is a double helix.

We do not expect absolute perfection from others at all times and should not demand absolute perfection from ourselves at all times. 

As long as we learn from our mistakes, we will continue to grow and become stronger and more intelligent.

4. Wear Many Hats.

Scientist. CEO. Mother. Athlete. Writer.

You do not have to be defined by any one job or any one thing.

Too many women confine themselves to a single pursuit.

They falsely believe they can only be scientists or businesswomen or mothers.

In reality, these women can be many things at once. They don’t have to fit themselves into a box.

In academia, all PhDs are constantly asked what we will do when we are done.

As if there is some perfect job waiting for us once we graduate.

But there is no perfect job and the women who go on to be successful in industry are those who are willing to wear many hats and refuse to fit into any one mold.

5. Stop Apologizing.

Constantly apologizing for oneself is a habit not exclusive to women but it is a very prominent and problematic characteristic nonetheless.

In a recent opinion article in the New York Times, Sloane Crosley eloquently wrote, “The sorrys are taking up airtime that should be used for making logical, declarative statements, expressing opinions and relaying impressions of what we want.”

When you constantly apologize, you communicate to both yourself and the outside world that you’re always wrong.

This hurts both your self-esteem and your integrity.

A study published in the European Journal of Social Psychology shows that refusing to apologize provides several psychological benefits, including empowerment, confidence, and greater feelings of integrity and self-respect.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that you should never apologize.

If you did something legitimately wrong or failed to deliver, own up to it, learn from it, and move on.

However, if you’re apologizing for your beliefs, your desires, your goals, your past, or the fact that you are a woman, you must stop if you want to move forward.

6. Celebrate The Small Victories

While woman face many difficulties in the workplace, it’s important to know that you don’t have to be a martyr.

You don’t have to carry the torch for all women.

Instead, all you have to do is fight your own battles and do what’s best for you and your career.

By doing this, you will set an amazing example for women around you and for the women scientists who will follow you.

An important part of staying motivated is celebrating even the smallest victories in your career.

Stop waiting for your peers and superiors to take notice and start validating your own victories.

At the end of each day, review your accomplishments and acknowledge that you are one day closer to achieving your career goals.

7. Embrace Your Self-Worth

Women scientists have many advantages over other job candidates.

Female researchers are mentally strong and courageous people. 

From Emilie du Chatelet (1706–1749) to Marie Curie (1867–1934) to Jane Goodall (1934–), women have changed the world of science while also giving birth and raising children.

You have all the skills you need to be successful in industry. You are valuable.

If you’re a woman and have a PhD or are on your way to having one, the future is yours.

The only thing that can hold you back is yourself.

Know your value and get the training you need to transition into the non-academic career of your choice. Women scientists are desperately needed in industry, but you have to step up and seize the position you want. You can do this by asking the difficult questions and by finding a supportive network. By wearing many hats, refusing to apologize for the fact that you’re a woman, and celebrating even the smallest victories—you will be successful.

To learn more about transitioning into industry, including instant access to our exclusive training videos, case studies, industry insider documents, transition plan, and private online network, get on the wait list for the Cheeky Scientist Association.

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Cathy Sorbara, Ph.D.

Cathy Sorbara, Ph.D.

Cathy has a PhD in Medical Life Science and Technology and currently works as a publishing editor in Cambridge, England where she is involved in peer review of scientific literature as well as writing and public speaking. Cathy is passionate about science communication including translating science to lay audiences and allowing access of scientific research to the public. She is also a steering member in the Cambridge AWiSE, a regional network for women in science, engineering and technology in both industry and academia.
Cathy Sorbara, Ph.D.
  • B K

    There aren’t “women scientists.” There are scientists who are women. Please don’t contribute sexism by insinuating the default gender of any noun is male. Please remember to spellcheck.

  • JohnnyPhd

    The feeling of not knowing anything properly is the worst thing any postdoc can have. Such feelings are killing you from inside and prevent your growth. So what I suggest here is working hard and don’t doubt your own skills and expertise. If you have any doubt, work hard to overcome it.

    • Cathy Sorbara

      Great advice JohnnyPhD, I completely agree. These thoughts are indeed paralysing and 99.99999% of the time completely untrue. Thanks for sharing!

  • Celia Smith

    I agree with you here, your inner fear and lack of self-confidence holding you back. And we all have imposter syndrome at some level in our life. Especially women have such feelings and there are many reasons behind it. So I think these are some great tips which can help them to get rid of it.

    • Cathy Sorbara

      Thank you, Celia Smith! I am happy to hear you echo the comments from the article. We have all been there but we can beat it!

  • Dr. Wilson

    The feeling of an imposter in female postdoc prevents them from transitioned into industry. Because academia taught you that you have no self-confidence and you have to this work for the rest of your life. So it’ll take a lot to move from academia to industry. But as you suggest these tips can help you with that. Stop constant apologising to someone and celebrate small wins play an important role to remove imposter behaviour.

    • Cathy Sorbara

      Yes! Exactly, Dr. Wilson! Thank you for your comments. I agree that academia can leave you feeling that nothing you ever do will be good enough. I hope to see more female academics make the successful transition.

  • Graham Weber

    I can’t believe that 64% of women think that they need to provide more evidence and proof of their capabilities than male. We have to change this scenario. Women are equally capable if you compare them with men in any field today. I’ll surely share this article with my colleagues. Thanks.

    • Cathy Sorbara

      Thank you, Graham Weber! I also found that statistic to be absolutely shocking. I appreciate your help and hope we can make this statistic disappear.

  • Emily Fischer PHD

    I appreciate your suggestion to help each other’s back for women scientists. It’s really a good strategy if you are in a male dominated area. Thanks for providing the list of non-profit organizations, I’ll add them to my knowledge bank. A great article I read after a long time. Keep up doing good job.

    • Cathy Sorbara

      Thank you for the kind words, Emily Fischer! It truly means a lot.

  • DocJulian

    The best way to move ahead is trial and error in this field. No one can get perfect results in just one try, you have to try different combinations and then one of them will work perfectly at the end. So as you said learn from your mistakes. Nice idea of “fail forward” I must say.

    • Cathy Sorbara

      Thank you, DocJulian. It is an idea that was hard to wrap my head around initially — when it was easier to give up and feel worthless. But I have learned that there is no perfect career path and now I am enjoying the ride. Thanks for the comments!

  • Teresa Shakespeare

    Cathy, thank you for this article. I admit sometimes the feelings of self doubt are suffocating. Pushing though these feelings and putting your best self forward is the only way to reach our goals. Deep inside we know what works, and have the stuff to do it, but it helps to have a little reminder. Great article and words of encouragement!! I am printing this article and putting it on my bulletin board in my office.

    • Cathy Sorbara

      Thank you for your kind words, Teresa! It is wonderful to hear that the article bring you some encouragement. Push forward and celebrate the small victories — we have all been there!

  • Dr. Linda

    For women, it’s very difficult to handle all kinds of roles in her life. And as you described in 4th point, they can wear as many hats as they want. All they need is to have the self-confidence to wear all the hats and play every role perfectly. You can be anything if you want.

    • Cathy Sorbara

      Exactly, Dr. Linda. Well said. We should not limit ourselves – there endless possibilities out there!

  • Kate Rogers

    Frequently apologising can make you feel always negative about you. Every time you think that it’s your fault. So stop apologise to everyone without any reason. It will hurt your self-esteem and ego. Thanks for the tips.

    • Cathy Sorbara

      You’re welcome Kate! That was definitely a challenge for me — constantly apologizing and feeling inadequate. Definitely NOT a good combination.

  • MattDanielPHD

    Being happy for small achievements and celebrate the small victories will motivate you and boost your confidence. It’s not about other who appreciate your achievements or not, it’s about your own happiness and goals.

    • Cathy Sorbara

      Exactly MattDanielPHD!! Don’t measure your success based on others – such an important point. Thanks for your comment!

  • LivPhd

    Women are more mentally strong and courageous than male candidates because they have more responsibilities in their life. So they can leverage this advantage and increase their chances to get a well-paid position.

    • Cathy Sorbara

      Thank you for your comment LivPhD – I agree, women have so much value to give. We know how to multi-task like no one else!

  • https://twitter.com/wcyeong Woon Chin Yeong

    A post that made me smile because it came at the right time. Thanks, Cathy! 🙂

    • Cathy Sorbara

      Oh that makes me happy!! You are most welcome Woon Chin Yeong 🙂