First generation university students are at greater risk of experiencing imposter syndrome

Competition in STEM subjects left students feeling like imposters.

Kaveh Kazemi/Getty Images

Increasing efforts have been made in recent years to encourage students to pursue STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) subjects.


There's been a particularly positive emphasis on getting a more diverse group of people onto such courses: women, black and ethnic minority groups and working class people have all been the focus of drives and campaigns designed to help them enter STEM careers.

But, a new study suggests, the competitive nature of STEM courses may be having a knock-on effect on the confidence of certain students, in this case first-generation college attendees (those who are the first in their family to go to university). Such students, the paper argues, are more likely to experience "imposter syndrome" — the feeling that they don't belong or don't have the skills or intelligence to continue on their studies — precisely because of this atmosphere of competition.

In such environments, previous research has shown, students are more likely to compare themselves (often unfavourably) to others. When we feel our peers are our adversaries, rather than colleagues or comrades, we look to their successes and failures to judge ourselves: often, we believe we fall short, and our confidence falters.

In first-generation students, the paper argues, this can be even more damaging. First-generation students are often raised with communal values, relying on other people rather than seeing them as rivals. When this meets the competitive, individualistic world of STEM courses, it can have a particularly detrimental impact.

To study the impact of competition on first-generation college attendees, researchers enlisted 818 freshmen and sophomores enrolled in STEM courses at a large U.S. university. Participants were first asked to complete a survey, once at the beginning of term and once after the deadline to drop courses, measuring perceptions of classroom competition; participants rated statements such as "the professor seems to pit students against each other in a competitive manner in this class" on a scale of one to seven. Demographic data was also collected during these surveys, including information on whether participants were first-generation students.

Six weeks into term, students were sent further surveys to complete daily, asking whether or not they had been attending class. Those who had been attending were asked to explore imposter feelings, rating statements like "in class, I feel like people might find out I am not as capable as they think I am" on a scale of one to six; those who had not been attending were asked to explain why. The team also recorded how engaged students felt, how often they attended class, how much they thought about dropping out, and their grades.

As anticipated, those who felt classes were competitive were far more likely to feel as if they were an imposter, unable to keep up with the demands of their course. And compared to those with family members who had gone to university, first-generation students were more likely to experience feelings of imposter syndrome on a daily basis — but only in classes perceived to have high levels of competition. In non-competitive environments, imposter feelings were equal in both first-generation and continued generation students, suggesting that the atmosphere of the classroom really is a key driver.

By increasing their imposter feelings, the students' perceptions of classroom competition also had a negative impact on their achievement, reducing engagement, attendance, and performance, and increasing dropout intentions. This effect was much greater amongst first-generation students

The team do note that repeatedly seeing questions about imposter syndrome may in fact have triggered those feelings: although measures were limited to once per day in the second part of the study, contemplating competition and achievement may in fact have enhanced feelings of insecurity or inadequacy.

How other identities intersect with the phenomenon was also left unaddressed. Women and people of colour are both more susceptible to imposter syndrome, for example, and exploring how such identities interact with one another could be a focus of future research.

Creating a welcoming, supportive environment for everybody to study STEM subjects, no matter their background, is key to a diverse and inclusive field. Understanding more about how students of different backgrounds experience STEM studies and actively developing strategies to counter inequalities are both vital steps towards making sure this happens.

Feeling Like an Imposter: The Effect of Perceived Classroom Competition on the Daily Psychological Experiences of First-Generation College Students

Emily Reynolds (@rey_z) is a staff writer at BPS Research Digest.

Reprinted with permission of The British Psychological Society. Read the original article.

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Welcome to Hurricane Season 2020. 2020, of course, scoffs at this calendric event much as it has everything else that's normal — meteorologists have already used up the year's A and B storm names before we even got here. And while early storms don't necessarily mean a bruising season ahead, forecasters expect an active season this year. Maybe storms will blow away the murder hornets and 13-year locusts we had planned.

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According to NOAA's Climate Prediction Center, an agency of the National Weather Service, there's a 60 percent chance that we're embarking upon a season with more storms than normal. There does, however, remain a 30 percent it'll be normal. Better than usual? Unlikely: Just a 10 percent chance.

Where a normal hurricane season has an average of 12 named storms, 6 of which become hurricanes and 3 of which are major hurricanes, the Climate Prediction Center reckons we're on track for 13 to 29 storms, 6 to 10 of which will become hurricanes, and 3 to 6 of these will be category 3, 4, or 5, packing winds of 111 mph or higher.

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This year's El Niño ("Little Boy") looks to be more of a La Niña ("Little Girl"). The two conditions are part of what's called the El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO) cycle, which describes temperature fluctuations between the ocean and atmosphere in the east-central Equatorial Pacific. With an El Niño, waters in the Pacific are unusually warm, whereas a La Niña means unusually cool waters. NOAA says that an El Niño can suppress hurricane formation in the Atlantic, and this year that mitigating effect is unlikely to be present.

Second, current conditions in the Atlantic and Caribbean suggest a fertile hurricane environment:

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  • There's reduced vertical wind shear.
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  • There have been strong West African monsoons this year.

Here's NOAA's video laying out their forecast:

But wait.

ArsTechnica spoke to hurricane scientist Phil Klotzbach, who agrees generally with NOAA, saying, "All in all, signs are certainly pointing towards an active season." Still, he notes a couple of signals that contradict that worrying outlook.

First off, Klotzbach notes that the surest sign of a rough hurricane season is when its earliest storms form in the deep tropics south of 25°N and east of the Lesser Antilles. "When you get storm formations here prior to June 1, it's typically a harbinger of an extremely active season." Fortunately, this year's hurricanes Arthur and Bertha, as well as the maybe-imminent Cristobal, formed outside this region. So there's that.

Second, Klotzbach notes that the correlation between early storm activity and a season's number of storms and intensities, is actually slightly negative. So while statistical connections aren't strongly predictive, there's at least some reason to think these early storms may augur an easy season ahead.

Image source: NOAA

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If 2020's taught us anything, it's how to juggle multiple crises at once, and layering an active hurricane season on top of SARS-CoV-2 — not to mention everything else — poses a special challenge. Warns Treasury Secretary Wilbur Ross, "As Americans focus their attention on a safe and healthy reopening of our country, it remains critically important that we also remember to make the necessary preparations for the upcoming hurricane season." If, as many medical experts expect, we're forced back into quarantine by additional coronavirus waves, the oceanic waves slamming against our shores will best be met by storm preparations put in place in a less last-minute fashion than usual.

Ross adds, "Just as in years past, NOAA experts will stay ahead of developing hurricanes and tropical storms and provide the forecasts and warnings we depend on to stay safe."

Let's hope this, at least, can be counted on in this crazy year.

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