Imposter Syndrome In The Medical Field


Brenda Varriano and Matthew Welch

Part 1: Imposter Syndrome and Current Model (Brenda Varriano)

“You’re a genius.” I am sure many medical students heard this claim. While I am confident my peers are intellectually gifted, I still question my own acceptance. How did I make the cut-off, and do I really belong here?

Much of this self-deprivation stems from the concept of Imposter Syndrome (IS). IS is a psychological pattern in which an individual doubts their skills, talents or accomplishments and has a persistent fear of being exposed as a “fraud.” The concept of IS was first described in an article by Clance and Imes in 1978. However, it is likely that IS had been around before its appearance in the literature. Many highly respected individuals such as Meryl Streep and Albert Einstein have reported experiencing IS. (Buckland, 2017) IS is the opposite of the Dunning-Kruger effect, which is a cognitive bias in which an individual overestimates their ability. While it is possible that some physicians and medical students overestimate their ability, IS is something experienced by most of my peers and my mentors in the ED. Therefore, the goal of this article is to discuss IS, it’s prevalence in the medical field, the current model used to describe it, how it is identified, treated and what we can do at the individual level when there are no other solutions. This article is timed when IS is highest in many US Medical students, when we prepare for our STEP 1 Boards Examination, the most important exam in our medical career. Therefore, I invited my colleague Matthew Welch to co-author this article with me, as we navigate studying and avoid the negative implications of IS.

IS was first described by Clance and Imes in a group of high achieving women (Clance and Imes, 1978). The authors noted that no matter how accomplished these women had become, they mostly expressed feelings of inadequacy, and that they were not deserving of their successes (1978). Research from academic settings has built on the work of Imes and Clance, stating that IS has been associated with certain personality traits (Langford and Clance, 1993). Some of these traits included introversion and trait anxiety (1993). Moreover, IS has been linked to a desire to appear intelligent in front of one’s peers, a propensity to experience shame and is more common in those with a non-supportive family (1993). In a study of 2,612 medical students that attended Jefferson Medical College between 2002-2012; it was found that IS was highly linked to burn out (Villwock et. Al, 2016). Furthermore, there appears to be differences among gender in those who are impacted from IS (2016). Females appear to be more likely to experience IS compared to males, however, there is a high level of burnout in both males and females that suffer from IS (2016). Villwock purports that the reason for burn out in medical students may be due to the environment of a medical school, where shame-based learning, may be a contributor to IS (2016). In such an environment, students experiencing IS may be less likely to participate in medical learning and can experience psychological distress, which may be contributing to burnout (2016). A more recent study has supported findings from Villwock, stating that gender and institutional culture were associated with higher rates of IS, and as a result, led to high rates of burnout among physicians and physicians in training (Gottlieb, 2020).

Figure 1: Clance’s (1985) model of the Imposter Cycle, as depicted in Sakulku & Alexander (2011).

To date, the concept of IS is based around the imposter cycle (Sakulku, 2011), as depicted in figure 1. The imposter cycle describes the theory behind IS, and the futile cycle between accomplishments and feelings of inadequacy. First an individual has a goal, which leads to anxiety, self-doubt and worry. In order to achieve this goal, the individual describes either procrastination or over preparedness. Once achieving the goal, the individual attributes it to luck if they had procrastinated to achieve it or effort if they had over-prepared. Despite the method to achieve the goal, accomplishment of the goal does not result in positive feedback, but leads to feelings of fraudulence, self-doubt, depression and anxiety.

Part 2: Solutions and Pitfalls (Matthew Welch)

My name is Matthew Welch, I am a second-year student at the Central Michigan College of Medicine. I am the first in my family to obtain a college education. Subsequently, the topic of IS is quite personal. In reviewing the literature, it has become apparent that the pitfalls and solutions to IS should be divided into three distinct categories: (1) Personal actions (2) Institutional actions (3) Actions for peers. Table 1 summarizes our findings regarding both the solutions and the pitfalls within each category.

Table 1: A summary of solutions and pitfalls of addressing IS in medical students divided into three categories based on the literature: (1) Personal actions (2) Institutional actions (3) Actions for peers.

Within the category of self, the consensus seems to be that a focus on one’s own mindfulness and emotional regulation can be successful in combating IS. I began a personal mindfulness meditation practice during my M1 year, and my experience aligns with the literature. By practicing mindfulness meditation for 10 minutes daily, I have noticed a dramatic difference in my ability to recognize and soothe my feelings of inadequacy. Beyond my anecdotal experience, research has shown that daily mindful practice leads to a significant reduction in activity within the amygdala, the brain’s stress center (Kral, 2019).

The strengths and weaknesses of institutional contributions to IS is vast. One theme that remains steady among all the literature however, is the effect of transitional periods. For example, IS seems to be higher during periods of transition from one life “chapter” to another. As anyone in medicine can attest, the years of training to become a physician often feel like a series of transitional periods. Beginning in undergraduate education, we transition into preclinical years, followed by clinical years and residency where expectations of our competency are continually increased.  After residency we are independent and expected to have an all-encompassing grasp on the vast information, we spent our entire medical education acquiring. While every step of this path is necessary for educating physicians, softening the harsh transition from one step to the next may be an area to explore solutions to the IS epidemic in medicine.

Finally, the subject of how our behavior affects our peers can be best summarized by a quote from Dr. Edward Hundert, Dean of Medical education at Harvard University;

Hundert likens this to a duck swimming in a swift current. On the water’s surface, the duck sits serenely, floating without effort, while below it is paddling furiously.

To help our peers, we must stop masking our own feelings of insecurity with blind confidence. Despite research showing rates of IS in medical students being somewhere in the range of 40% (Villwock, 2016). Any medical student will tell you that number is larger than reality. Moreover, the worst part of IS is the feeling of isolation. Therefore, as medical students, residents, and practicing physicians, we should be willing to admit that we are equally impacted by IS. While I frame this as a personal issue, I also recognize that medical education is designed to breed this behavior. We are constantly told that we are the “best-of-the-best,” and while some schools have moved to pass-fail curriculums, many of us are still continually ranked against our peers, even if inconspicuous in nature. This mentality can have a negative impact on student wellness in the classroom and beyond.

Finally, in the United States, it has only been recently announced that our score on the USMLE Step 1 examination has been altered to a pass fail. For example, previously if you scored below the 96th percentile, specialties such as dermatology/neurosurgery are no longer feasible options. While Brenda and I still must take part in this Hunger Games practice, I am happy that we are the last class to do so. In reducing the burden of the Step 1 examination, I believe we are supporting the mental wellbeing of students. However, IS still exists, and future discussions are warranted to reduce its impact and support the well-being of medical students and physicians at any stage in their career.


A special thanks to my colleague Matthew, who worked with me on this paper, which I believe is a particularly important topic in medicine. Please join me for my next article.

References and Further Reading

  • Atherley A, Meeuwissen SNE. Time for change: Overcoming perpetual feelings of inadequacy and silenced struggles in medicine. Med Educ. 2020;54(2):92-94. doi:10.1111/medu.14030Buckland, F. (2018). Feeling like an imposter? You can escape this confidence sapping syndrome. The Guardian, Health and Wellbeing, 1–8.
  • 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.
  • Dyrbye, L. N., Thomas, M. R., & Shanafelt, T. D. (2006). Systematic review of depression, anxiety, and other indicators of psychological distress among U.S. and Canadian medical students. Academic Medicine, 81(4), 354–373.
  • Ingraham, B. L., Lerner, R., Nagai, A. K., & Shepard, J. D. (2001). Letters to the editor. Society, 38(2), A5–A6.
  • Jensen, D. M. (2018). 肌肉作为内分泌和旁分泌器官 HHS Public Access. Physiology & Behavior, 176(1), 1570–1573.
  • Klassen, R. M., & Klassen, J. R. L. (2018). Self-efficacy beliefs of medical students: a critical review. Perspectives on Medical Education, 7(2), 76–82.
  • Ladonna, K. A., Ginsburg, S., & Watling, C. (2018). “Rising to the Level of Your Incompetence”: What Physicians’ Self-Assessment of Their Performance Reveals about the Imposter Syndrome in Medicine. Academic Medicine, 93(5), 763–768.
  • Langford, J., & Clance, P. R. (1993). The impostor phenomenon: Recent research findings regarding dynamics, personality and family patterns and their implications for treatment. Psychotherapy, 30(3), 495–501.
  • Miller, J. (2020). Tailored for Perfection. Harvard Medicine Magazine, 1–40.
  • Sakulku, J. (2019). Impostor Phenomenon. Encyclopedia of Personality and Individual Differences, 1–5.
  • Villwock, J. A., Sobin, L. B., Koester, L. A., & Harris, T. M. (2016). Impostor syndrome and burnout among American medical students: a pilot study. International Journal of Medical Education, 7, 364–369.
Cite this article as: Brenda Varriano, Canada, "Imposter Syndrome In The Medical Field," in International Emergency Medicine Education Project, July 26, 2021,, date accessed: December 11, 2023

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