Imposter Syndrome: Exploring Challenges Faced by Black Students in STEM Academic Programs

ASCCC Treasurer

In recent years, the underrepresentation of minorities in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields has received a lot of attention. Black students specifically face unique challenges that often result in imposter syndrome, a psychological condition where individuals doubt their qualifications and accomplishments and fear being exposed as frauds. Black students in STEM programs suffer from the imposter syndrome due to various causes and with various consequences. However, potential strategies exist to help these students overcome this issue.

Causes of Imposter Syndrome

One of several causes of imposter syndrome is racial stereotyping. Historically, Black individuals, especially males, have been subjected to negative stereotypes regarding their intellectual abilities. In institutions of higher learning, these harmful biases can contribute to feelings of inadequacy and a constant need to prove oneself in academic environments. Another cause of imposter syndrome is the lack of representation. The scarcity of role models and mentors who share the same racial background can create a sense of isolation and self-doubt among Black students. This absence of representation makes envisioning success in STEM fields difficult and increases the likelihood of experiencing imposter syndrome in STEM academic programs. Additionally, discrimination and microaggressions can lead to imposter syndrome. Experiencing discrimination and microaggressions within STEM academic programs creates an overwhelming sense of exclusion and marginalization. The consistent exposure to such negative academic environments can increase feelings of imposter syndrome among Black students, making them question their abilities, qualifications, and ultimately why they are in the programs in the first place.

Consequences of Imposter Syndrome

Many consequences of imposter syndrome occur, including self-doubt, fear of failure, academic underperformance, lack of persistence, and attrition. Black students experiencing imposter syndrome often doubt their competence despite their accomplishments, and this self-doubt can result in a constant fear of failure, which can limit their willingness to take on additional challenges or pursue higher-level opportunities. In addition, imposter syndrome can impact academic performance in a negative way. Black students may feel unworthy of their achievements, underperform academically, disengage, and sabotage their own success. This behavior ultimately ends up hindering their academic progress in STEM programs. Further, imposter syndrome can cause many Black students in STEM programs to experience decreased motivation, reduced engagement, and an increased likelihood of dropping out of their academic programs. This increased lack of motivation and engagement, along with a fear of being exposed as an imposter, can overwhelm their desire to persist and thus contribute to the high attrition rates of Black students witnessed in STEM programs and in STEM fields.

Strategies to Overcome Imposter Syndrome

Research in this area suggests some strategies that institutions of higher learning can implement to help Black students deal with these feelings of being an imposter. The first strategy is to build supportive communities. Programs such as Umoja are examples of such communities but can be even more intentional if the supportive community specifically gathers Black students in STEM programs. Programs such as TRIO STEM, Black Students in Science Organization, and National Society of Black Engineers demonstrate the success of such efforts. Creating this sense of belonging for Black students in STEM programs is crucial. Therefore, encouraging the formation of support groups, mentorship programs, and networking opportunities can help create supportive communities where Black students can share experiences, seek guidance, and find reassurance.

Another strategy that institutions of higher learning can implement is to emphasize the importance of representation. In order to combat imposter syndrome, Black students should see themselves both within the STEM faculty and student population of the institution. In addition, institutions of higher learning should encourage the involvement of successful Black professionals in STEM fields as guest speakers, mentors, and role models in order to help reinforce positive self-perception and confidence.

As important as the outside learning environment is, another strategy is to cultivate a growth mindset within Black STEM students. Colleges should emphasize the importance of effort, resilience, and mental growth instead of focusing solely on achievement. Black students often need help in understanding that mistakes and setbacks are essential for growth and should be seen as learning opportunities rather than failure. Further, targeted and intrusive student support is a necessary strategy to battle imposter syndrome. Colleges need to recognize the unique challenges faced by Black students in STEM programs and provide tailored student support systems. This effort can include additional tutoring, academic resources, and counseling services that are specifically designed to address imposter syndrome and related challenges.

Most importantly, Black students in STEM programs need to feel a sense of belonging in the classroom environment. Curriculum and pedagogical strategies can create safe spaces where open discussions about race, imposter syndrome, and diversity-related issues can take place. Even in STEM disciplines, faculty and students should be encouraged to challenge biases, stereotypes, and microaggressions in order to cultivate an inclusive and supportive academic environment.

Imposter syndrome poses significant obstacles for Black students in STEM academic programs. Overcoming this phenomenon requires collaborative efforts to dismantle systemic barriers, decolonize curriculum, provide Black professional and peer mentorship, and create inclusive educational environments. By addressing the causes of imposter syndrome head-on and implementing relevant strategies, educational institutions can create a more inclusive environment where Black students feel empowered, confident, a sense of belonging, and supported in their pursuit of STEM careers. Realizing and encouraging the true potential of talented Black STEM students, and ensuring their success, benefits not only the Black students themselves but also the global STEM economy as a whole.

The following resources can provide additional information on imposter syndrome:

Bidwell, A. (2015, May 7). African-American men: The other STEM minority. U.S.News & World Report.
Chakraverty, D. (2020). The impostor phenomenon among Black doctoral and postdoctoral scholars in STEM. International Journal of Doctoral Studies, 15, 433.
Chakraverty, D. (2022). Faculty experiences of the impostor phenomenon in STEM fields. CBE—Life Sciences Education, 21(4), ar84.
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.
Collins, K. H. (2018). Confronting color-blind STEM talent development: Toward a contextual model for Black student STEM identity. Journal of Advanced Academics, 29(2), 143-168.
Markle, R.S., Williams, T.M., Williams, K.S., deGravelles, K.H., Bagayoko, D. & Warner, I.M. (2022, May 2). Supporting historically underrepresented groups in stem higher education: the promise of structured mentoring networks. Frontiers. doi: 10:3389/feduc.2022.674669
Peteet, B. J., Montgomery, L., & Weekes, J. C. (2015). Predictors of imposter phenomenon among talented ethnic minority undergraduate students. The Journal of Negro Education, 84(2), 175-186.