Kevin Cokley, University of Texas at Austin – Impostor Syndrome

Do you feel like a phony?

Kevin Cokley, distinguished teaching professor at the University of Texas at Austin, examines why college students often feel like they don’t belong.

Kevin Cokley’s research can be broadly categorized in the area of African American psychology, with a focus on racial and ethnic identity development, academic motivation and academic achievement. A theme of much of his research is understanding the psychological and environmental factors that impact African American student achievement. Cokley’s research and scholarship have led him to challenge the notion that African American students are anti-intellectual, and to critically re-examine the impact of racial and ethnic identity and gender on academic achievement. Recently Cokley has started exploring the impostor phenomenon and its relationship to mental health and academic outcomes among ethnic minority students.

Cokley’s publications have appeared in professional journals such as the Journal of Counseling Psychology, Journal of Black Psychology, Cultural Diversity and Ethnic Minority Psychology, Individual Differences and Personality, Measurement and Evaluation in Counseling and Development, the Journal of Multicultural Counseling and Development, Educational and Psychological Measurement, and the Harvard Educational Review.

Cokley has a joint appointment in the College of Education’s Department of Educational Psychology and the College of Liberal Arts’ Department of African and African Diaspora Studies. He is the Past Editor-in-Chief of the Journal of Black Psychology and the Director of the Institute for Urban Policy Research & Analysis.

He has written several Op-Eds in major media outlets including the St. Louis Post Dispatch, Dallas Morning News, San Antonio Express, The American Prospect, The Huffington Post, The Conversation and The Hill on topics such as Blacks’ rational mistrust of police, police shootings of Blacks, the aftermath of Ferguson, the use of school vouchers, racial disparities in school discipline, and Black students’ graduation rates.

Impostor Syndrome

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During the academic year, many students will experience heightened impostor feelings in academically competitive and stressful college environments. The impostor phenomenon, often referred to in the popular press as the impostor syndrome, is the sense among high achievers of feeling intellectually phony and fraudulent.

While high achievers are typically thought of as individuals who have excelled academically, in many ways college attendance, retention and graduation make students high achievers given that more than 20% of freshmen do not return for a second year.    

Research has found that impostor feelings negatively impact the mental health of college students, increasing feelings of depression and anxiety. Students who feel like an impostor have difficulty internalizing their accomplishments. They see themselves as incompetent and believe they have fooled others into seeing themselves as intelligent and accomplished. Impostor feelings have been linked to maladaptive perfectionism, or excessive high personal standards. Impostors and perfectionists are similar in that they are both driven to excel. They differ in that perfectionists are driven by an internal pressure of having high standards while impostors are driven by an internal experience of intellectual phoniness and self-doubt.   

My research has found that impostor feelings are especially salient among students of color. However, it is important to keep in mind that students of color are not monolithic. For example, my research has found that Asian American students tend to have higher feelings of impostorism than African American and Latinx students. Additionally, we found a stronger impact of perceived discrimination on impostor feelings among African American and Latinx students.    

Professors can address impostorism among students of color by 1) including books and articles written by scholars of color, 2) discussing the contributions of scholars of color in your field, and 3) having meetings with students of color and affirming your belief in their potential and deservedness to be there.

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