Impostor Syndrome & Dev Schools

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By Mercedes Bent

Mercedes is the Global Program Manager for GA’s Web Development Immersive.

Something I hear from a lot of students when they first enter the Web Development Immersive program at GA is they feel as though their particular background does not lend to success in this environment they’ve found themselves in.

Students know that the environment they are entering is grueling and that the learning experience will be unlike anything they’ve done before. But then comes the first day where they don’t grasp something as quickly as the majority of the class does, and a creeping sensation that their achievements to date are invalidated by the current “failure” forms.

I’ve heard all of the following:

  • “I have a design background, I’m not sure my mind can ever fully think in the developer way. I think this is holding me back.”

  • “I have never been so acutely aware that I am a woman and somehow the fact that the class has more males than females, including students and teachers, has made me feel that I can’t do well.”

  • “I took a few computer science courses in college and thought I’d be much better prepared for this as a CS minor, but I feel like I’m as slow or slower than the rest. I’m not sure I’m cut out for this.”

  • “I feel like because I’m 10 years older than the average age of the class I might not pick up things as quickly.”

Crazily enough, these students were all doing perfectly fine in the program! After hearing an expert in diversity and identity, Dr. Atira Charles, speak at an event, I realized a short while ago that what some of these students are experiencing  is known as impostor syndrome.

Impostor syndrome is a psychological term coined in the 70s to describe individuals self-doubt in their abilities despite accomplishments that tell the contrary and what others think of them. Feeling like an impostor originates when someone fails to believe that their relative accomplishments and success in a field are a true reflection of their skills and background. They struggle to internalize successes and any failures seemingly prove their fraudulent being.

Although everyone is a beginner at most developer schools, there are still pre-conceived notions of what being a successful developer looks and feels like. I’ve realized there are several key aspects of developer schools that can sometimes induce impostor syndrome:

  1. The first is the very fact that a student is attending a developer school can be reason for self-doubt. This is due to the fervent argument of some tenured developers that true developers learn how to code on their own (see a GA alumni’s article on hacker elitism for more info).

  2. Another aspect of developer schools that induces impostor syndrome is the admissions process. While an admissions process varies from school to school, it is true of any educational institution that students admitted must meet some bar the school holds. Being accepted into the school can lead a student with self-doubt to worry that their selection was faulty and that they don’t actually have what the school believes they have to be successful. The flip side of this is that someone who doesn’t encounter self-doubt immediately after being admitted may encounter self-doubt later on because the admissions process falsely led them to believe they were selected for traits that would automatically make them successful in the program. For example, the student may believe they were selected for aptitude to programming because there was a programming test to get into the program, when in fact grit may be a more accurate indication of success with new material. These students also suffer from impostor syndrome, having felt an assuredness in their abilities to date because of a test, yet finding early successes do not translate to future successes, they may ultimately feel like a fraud. This is why having a flexible, growth-oriented mindset and ability to take constructive feedback well are so important in learners.

  3. A third factor that can induce impostor syndrome in students at developer schools, and one that students point to most often, is the impact of a skewed class demographic breakdown. It goes like this: despite how well they’re doing, a student begins to feel self doubt about their abilities, wonder why they were let into the program and if they’re cut out to be a developer in the long-run, and then they start to look around them and notice a difference between themselves and others. Students cling to the differences they find between their background and the backgrounds of others that are not “failing” or struggling in class. Moments of failure are no longer discrete actions but become a validation of their impostor identity. Impostor syndrome is thought to occur in women and minorities more often than majority males, which means in a class that is heavily male and white, you’re more likely to end up with students that feel impostor syndrome.

Many times I’ve seen the problem simply “diagnosed” as the student lacking confidence and the “treatment” is for instructors to show the student what they’ve accomplished and that they’re actually doing fine. Knowing how impostor syndrome works, you can see why this wouldn’t be effective. I myself used to try to combat student’s low confidence and feeling like their successes weren’t fully their doing by telling them how great they were doing and the proof to show it relative to others!

What I’ve come to understand from research and interactions is that in these situations, students need to understand a little bit more about themselves. Specifically, they need to understand that everyone has multiple identities, that we associate with each identity more or less strongly at certain times, and that their self-doubt results from more strongly associating with an identity that they perceive is not the main identity of others who seem to be excelling. An identity can be something like “I’m from Georgia” or “I’m female” or even “I am a TV junkie” – all of which could lead people to believe that their identity means they shouldn’t necessarily do well. In developer school, students begin to attach moments of failure to their ”minority” identity and other’s lack of it.

I sat down with a student almost a month ago to have a conversation about how she was feeling in class. We talked about how she came from an industry where women were the majority and always succeeded, and why this part of her identity that she so strongly clung to was making her feeling like an impostor in class. I told her something I almost never tell anyone: that as a black woman who is still learning to code, I feel like an impostor on many levels every day at work! But I’ve been able to get over this by having confidence in my abilities to do the job and knowing that I will continue to learn for years. Once she realized that her feelings of being an impostor were identity based, and almost everyone in the class shares some doubt about how part of their identity matches up with the idealized success figure in this industry, she felt much better.

Everyone’s insecure about something, and can think of a reason why they shouldn’t be where they are today or why they’re not doing well. Don’t let this slow you down.

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