How long do you think you’ll last before they find out that you are a fraud? The first quiz? The first exam? Do you think you might make it all the way to graduation on a fluke before they realize that you don’t deserve to be there?
When I walked into my first engineering class, I was a sophomore. I had played with a few circuit kits and poked around in my guitar amplifiers enough times to earn myself a few shocks, but I was pretty clueless about the breadth of Electrical Engineering as a field of study. From day one I realized that I would have to work incredibly hard to keep up. My classmates, all freshmen, were asking intelligent questions and showing off their depth of understanding of computer architecture and circuit theory while I could barely write fast enough to take notes. I would later find out that many of them were experienced programmers. I don’t know if my high school even had a computer science class. In almost every engineering course since, I have gone in completely fresh-faced and feeling intimidated when anyone answers a question faster than I can comprehend it. I have that unfortunate habit of comparing myself to other people even when I know that I should avoid it, and this is my experience with the phenomenon that is known as imposter syndrome.
Imposter syndrome is the belief, despite evidence to the contrary, that you are not good enough to be in your chosen field, and that someday someone will find out you have been coasting by without getting caught. It comes from many places: the pressures of school, comparisons to other students, and even factors out of our control, like race, class, and gender.
If high school was a struggle, college is a whole different ballpark of stress. College students are learning to live by themselves, many of them for the first time. Engineering students, fresh from the pressures of senior year where they had to make sure their college applications were complete and in order, now find themselves faced with career fairs, internships, and the task of crafting a solid resume. The first few semesters may be full of general education classes, but it is not long until an engineering student is looking at a schedule full of advanced mathematics and engineering courses. When your fellow students start taking internships with prestigious companies, you start to worry about your future job opportunities. It is a lot to take in.
The aforementioned is in addition to classes and, of course before classes even begin. Engineering lectures are like being sprayed with a firehose of information. Learning the basics will not guarantee that you pass the tests. If you see a simple RLC circuit in class, solved using quick shortcut methods, you can be certain that the test problems contain much more complicated RLCs which force you to question whether you understood them in the first place. Why not study that problem more for the next exam? Because every day, chapters of material are taught at a time and it is difficult enough to keep up with it all. Add all of this up at the end of a semester and you get students who stumble and slide through courses, who can hardly remember much of what they were supposed to learn. Hearing “that was easy!” from a classmate after a test that you were sure you failed is a hard pill to swallow.
Comparing ourselves with and being intimidated by others is the main component of imposter syndrome, which is difficult enough for a white male like me, but for women and underrepresented minorities, feeling out-of-place is not merely a matter of ability but also an identity problem. From my personal experience, some classes will be made up of, at most, 25% women. White, Indian, and Asian males have plenty of classmates with whom they can identify, but Black and Hispanic men, as well as women in general, can get the impression that they stick out like a sore thumb. Of course, gender and ethnicity have no effect on one’s ability to be a great engineer, but when you have trouble finding people you can identify with, you can form your own self-fulfilling belief that you are not good enough. Social class is another important factor in one’s identity and belief that they will succeed. For me, entering a field based on cutting-edge technology when you have only been able to afford secondhand computers was a bit of a culture shock. I was taking notes in 70 cent spirals while, all around me, more well-off classmates hid behind a wall of glowing apples. In any engineering program, not only do you have to pay for textbooks but also for some expensive computer programs as well. When you start to compare yourself with those who have it easy, both intellectually and financially, it is easy to feel like an imposter.
Not only may we believe ourselves to be unworthy, but occasionally someone else will fan the flames. I have had professors and TAs who do not shy away from calling students stupid or making fun of them for getting things wrong in class. For some reason, other students love this behavior – it shifts the attention away from their inadequacies and allows them to feel like they are better than someone else. Belittlement happens in the industry, too. The creator of Linux regularly and publicly berates people and seems to pride himself on being a jerk. This attitude towards failure has influenced some of my TAs, who have gotten passionately angry at students who make small errors or even venture to use the wrong software for doing certain tasks (e.g. using Microsoft Visual Studio to write code instead of GNU/Linux tools like Vim). I don’t believe that this fosters the right kind of learning environment: engineering is stressful enough without people cutting each other down. It also contributes to imposter syndrome. People in power (professors, professional engineers, etc.) directly insulting people who are still learning (but nonetheless capable) does unnecessary damage to a person’s self-esteem and sense of pride in their work. Holding engineers accountable for their mistakes is important for the safety and success of a product, but it is certainly possible to do so while stressing that failure is a step in the learning process, not the end of your chances of being successful.
The worst part of Imposter Syndrome is that it doesn’t simply go away when you graduate. Professional engineers have to deal with feelings of inadequacy just like students. The corporate environment is different from school: instead of working alone, engineers often work in teams; instead of suffering the consequences of your failures alone, your coworkers hold you accountable for every mistake, as well as help you when you need it. But the amount of pressure remains, in the corporate world perhaps even more so. Failure on the job can mean hundreds of thousands of dollars down the drain for your company. If you feel inadequate, what kind of pressure does that put on you?
Benjamin Miller is an Electrical Engineering junior at the University of Texas at Austin and Mouser's Technical Marketing intern for the summer. He plays guitar with the Mansfield rock band MP3. During the school year he can be found playing with electronics or doing homework outside of the Cactus Cafe, where he works as a doorman.
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