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Williams Describes Imposter Phenomenon


Keelah Williams
Keelah Williams

In a room full of aspiring law students and philosophy academics, Assistant Professor of Psychology Keelah Williams’ discussion on imposter syndrome does not seem inherently related to the Hamilton College Summer Program in Philosophy (HCSPiP). After days of debating and applying various philosophical theories, a talk on the mechanics of imposter phenomenon might have come off as on anomaly to the students and scholars on campus for the two-week philosophy program.

But before Williams began her lecture, she asked all the attendees to introduce themselves and say whether they were interested in a graduate program and, if so, what type of program. Most students said yes, they were interested, and then Williams passed around an imposter syndrome survey for everyone to fill out on their own. The survey asked people to rate on a scale of one to five the degree to which they agreed with 20 statements, all of which expressed some form of self-doubt. It was only then, after she had met each person and involved the attendees in her presentation, that she began.  

Williams explained how she became interested in the intersection of law and psychology while doing undergraduate research, which eventually led her to enroll in a joint psychology Ph.D. and juris doctor program. She recalled how, as a fresh graduate student with a lot of psychology experience and a minimal law background, she felt insecure and out of place taking law classes with others who had done similar studies before. This led Williams to question her ability to succeed, even after doing well in classes and, at one point, doing better on an exam than the rest of her peers. To her, achievements came not as the product of her abilities, but rather as the result of luck. “If it sounds incredibly ridiculous and overwrought, that’s exactly right,” she said.

Williams said that this is how imposter syndrome manifests itself in an educational setting. “Achievement tasks,” such as tests or essays, present themselves, an individual stresses over their ability to complete the task well, after submitting the task he or she then agonizes over the task’s success. Once the individual receives a positive response to the submitted work, he or she believes that only external, non-personal factors contributed to the task’s success.

Williams warned the students that imposter feelings could start or worsen when they themselves enter graduate school. However, she referred to the achievement task model, and pointed out places where students could lessen the extent of the phenomenon. Her recommendations included not viewing achievement tasks as inherently evaluative, talking about feelings of fraudulence with role models, and if needed, getting professional support. Though it never completely goes away, Williams described “self-doubt in the face of evidence to the contrary” as diminishable.

Williams then opened the floor to the attendees to share their experiences and ask questions to one another, making it clear that her presentation was intended as a conversation. Finding the psychology discussion relevant to their own lives, even at philosophy camp, the participants talked about how they manage their own anxieties and asked faculty and graduate students for their advice. In all, Williams’ talk was a collaborative, honest look at the things that make us doubt ourselves and a guide to taking ownership over our accomplishments.

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