First-generation university students are more likely to struggle with imposter syndrome

First-generation college students are more likely to suffer from imposter syndrome in competitive science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) classroom environments, according to new research published in Social Psychological and Personality Science.

Impostor syndrome (also known as impostor phenomenon or impostorism) describes the unjustified feeling of being someone who is undeserving of their accomplishments.

“First-generation college students are inspiring. These students are the first in their families to go to college and are paving the way to higher education for themselves and for their families, all while facing many challenges navigating an often confusing and unwelcoming academy. My goal is to identify and transform harmful contexts that might create barriers for these students,” said study author Elizabeth A. Canning, an assistant professor of psychology at Washington State University.

At the beginning of the study, 818 freshmen and sophomore students at a large U.S. university completed a survey in which they reported their perceptions of classroom competition in their STEM class. The students then received text messages immediately following their specific STEM class during a two-week period, which directed them to complete a survey about their imposter feelings during class. Finally, they completed another survey at the end of the semester.

Students who perceived their STEM class to be highly competitive tended to experience greater feelings of being an imposter. Participants who agreed with statements such as “”Students tend to be very competitive with each other in this class” also tended to agree with statements such as “In class, I felt like people might find out that I am not as capable as they think I am.”

This was especially pronounced for first-generation university students, who tended to experience more feelings of being an imposter than continuing-generation students in competitive classes. When it came to non-competitive classes, there was no difference between first-generation and continuing-generation students.

“We found that when students think their class is competitive, they feel more like an imposter on a day-to-day basis and this is most problematic for first-generation college students. These imposter feelings are associated with less engagement, lower attendance, more thoughts of dropping out, and lower course grades. Our results suggest that perceived classroom competition may be one overlooked barrier for first-generation college students in STEM courses,” Canning told PsyPost.

The researchers controlled for socioeconomic status, prior academic achievement, gender, and racial minority status. But as with all research, the study is not without limitations.

“One major caveat to this research is that it is correlational in nature. All research methodologies have tradeoffs. By using experience sampling methods, we were able to capture students’ classroom experiences in real time, but it will be important for future research to replicate our findings using other methods,” Canning said.

“We still need to understand what behaviors and messages signal to students that a classroom is competitive. Our hope is that such work will lead to useful practice and policy recommendations for faculty and students, which will transform competitive STEM classroom environments into collaborative spaces where all students (and especially FG students) thrive.”

“This work was conducted in collaboration with Dr. Mary Murphy and colleagues at Indiana University and was supported by the National Science Foundation,” Canning added.

The study, “Feeling Like an Imposter: The Effect of Perceived Classroom Competition on the Daily Psychological Experiences of First-Generation College Students“, was authored by Elizabeth A. Canning, Jennifer LaCosse, Kathryn M. Kroeper, and Mary C. Murphy,