OPINION: Don’t let imposter syndrome scare you away from STEM

(Quinn Nachtrieb • The Student Life)

From refugee and humanitarian crises to cyber security issues, our society faces more challenges than ever before. To tackle these modern challenges, we need modern solutions — and oftentimes, science has the answer.

The number of women in STEM has been steadily increasing, with a 31 percent increase between 2011 and 2022. But women still make up a minority of fields such as computer science and engineering.

This underrepresentation in certain fields can lead to feelings of imposter syndrome, or an internalized feeling that one is incompetent and doesn’t deserve their accomplishments. This is the reality for many women, particularly in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM).

I for one know this feeling all too well.

As a biochemistry major, I have to take many classes in STEM fields. Whether it’s quantum chemistry, physics or linear algebra, I find myself scrambling to keep up. These classes are difficult for me (as they may well be for others). To keep up with them, I grind long hours in the library, attempting problem after problem to understand these concepts.

Oftentimes, I convince myself that I am the only one working hard to understand these concepts: everyone else just ‘gets it.’ And if I do well on an exam, I tell myself that my success was due to external factors, such as the teacher being a lenient grader. But as with anything else, chances are that I am not alone. And neither are you.

Across the 5Cs, women are struggling to feel like they belong in their fields of study and this isolation often leads to all-encompassing self-doubt. Larissa Chung SC ’25 is a biology major at Scripps College hoping to attend graduate school. After reflecting on her conversation with her research advisor, she was able to find connections between her imposter syndrome and perceived opportunities.

“Even though some of my professors that I know will say that I’m doing well, I still think that I need to have everything all together, or be better to be good enough for a lot of opportunities and think that some opportunities are just out of reach for me,” Larissa told me.

Pratya Poosala PZ ’24 is studying behavioral neuroscience with a self-designed major in narrative medicine. She also struggles with feeling imposter syndrome in an academic context, specifically in her classes.

“As a woman in STEM whose interests were in the humanities prior to college, I have experienced bouts of self-doubt in several of my classes,” Pratya told me. “Even when I perform well on a STEM exam or receive some sort of validation of my work, I still fall into the trap of wondering whether I’ve truly earned it.”

Evelyn Chan SC ’25 is majoring in molecular biology and hopes to attend medical school after graduation. She spoke about imposter syndrome’s effects on how she perceives her abilities.

“Whenever attending STEM program informational panels, which are often held with the intention to bolster student confidence, I often feel worse heading out,” Evelyn told me. “Hearing about other students on the panel having done amazing research and extracurriculars made me actually not apply to some programs because my qualifications seemed so low in comparison.”

I relate intimately to the experiences of other 5C women. In my role as an organic chemistry lab teacher’s assistant (TA), I want to be perfect and have the answers to all questions that the students could ask, an example of perfectionism. Or I put an insane amount of pressure on myself to achieve at all costs. When I score what I deem to be ‘poor’ on an exam, it drives me to work longer hours in an honestly unhealthy way. Ironically, this pressure leads to worse scores on exams.

The competitive and rigorous environment of the 5Cs leads many students, particularly female ones, to overemphasize their successes and be afraid to mention their failures. Yet, mentioning these ‘failures’ may very well be what the 5Cs need.

For the women in STEM who feel undeserving and unworthy, continue taking those hard STEM classes. Keep raising your hand in class and ask the ‘dumb question.’ Chances are that the question isn’t dumb and someone else has it, too. If you start making those small changes, who knows, this may inspire other women in STEM to take on those actions too.

“I think there’s a lot of value in holding space for these kind[s] of conversations because STEM can feel like an isolating experience for many women,” Poosala told me.

And if you feel this way, talk about it with your therapist or a loved one. Hearing from an outside perspective what you’ve accomplished and how you got there can be healing.

“As a first-gen Latina, I’m not just breaking barriers in the world of science,” said Bertha Posada PZ ’26. “Every day, I challenge the boundaries within myself, confronting doubts and redefining what I once believed was possible.”

I urge all of you to continue your pursuit of STEM. Although you may feel inadequate now, keep relentlessly pursuing knowledge. Whether it’s reading papers, continuing to work in a research lab or taking on a TA role that you don’t feel you’re ready for, continue stepping out of your comfort zone. Mastery has never been achieved in a day –– it is achieved over time, through making mistakes and learning from them.

So, don’t give up. The world needs you. And who knows, maybe you’ll be the next 5Cer to win a Nobel Prize.

Joanne Oh PZ ’25 is a biochemistry and sociology major. She definitely feels imposter syndrome and hopes to help other students understand their imposter syndrome as well.

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