What causes impostor syndrome in engineering: Social influence

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Impostor syndrome is a concept that is prevalent among high achievers across all industries. This condition is described as “feeling like a fraud” and can affect even the most successful engineering students. The first step to overcoming self-doubt is determining what causes impostor syndrome in engineering. From personal experience, social influence played a huge role as a contributor.


Everyone knows what studying engineering should be like

My classmates, friends, and family have plenty of opinions about what studying engineering should be like. I’ve heard it all: sleep-deprived, anti-social, almost-failing, you name it.

Student studying behind pile of books
What studying engineering looks like according to everyone

I’m not blaming anyone, in fact some opinions were genuine warnings and encouraged me to work hard. However I’d like to shed light on how society’s one-sided depictions of engineering students can cause self-doubt and impostor syndrome. The following are some of the wild things I’ve heard from people:

“Engineering is pretty hard, maybe you should do something easier.”

– Mom

My mom, who previously also studied electrical engineering, urged that I study something easier. She was only looking out for my best interest, but it fully convinced me that I was going to have a rough time studying engineering.

“Expect a 15% drop in your GPA from high school to university”

– High school teacher

My teacher was trying to convince perfectionists that they shouldn’t always expect an A+. His advice definitely had good intentions for our mental health and encouraged me to work harder. I might have taken it too seriously, because I convinced myself it was a fluke if my GPA did better than a 15% drop.

“I heard engineering students don’t have time to shower!”

– Friend

A lighthearted comment that got me thinking. Was I supposed to be so swamped in work that I didn’t have time for personal hygiene? Part of me thought that I was doing something wrong if I managed my time well and took care of myself.

Reality didn’t match social expectations

Because of the expectations set by people around me, I was incredibly paranoid of failing. I gave up most of my hobbies to study and dedicated my free time to securing a summer internship. I worked so hard to made sure I got enough sleep, made friends, and ate right.

When everything was working out, I assumed I got lucky. The feeling of impending doom was always present and haunted me throughout my engineering career. Everyone told me I should have been struggling through my undergrad. However when I managed to stay afloat, I believed it was by some sort of miracle.

Ironically, impostor syndrome might be a self-destroying prophecy. Fear can drives students to work harder, but I sacrificed self-confidence and free time. Maybe it’s good that engineering students feel incompetent while they’re learning? It certainly instills better work ethics and careful practices.

This is definitely not the only contributor to impostor syndrome, but many engineering students have experienced this. Additionally, women in engineering also experience the unintended consequence of affirmative action which contributes to self-doubt. Whether impostor syndrome is helpful or not, societal influences certainly make a huge impact.

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