Debilitating doubt: Most first-year medical students struggle with imposter syndrome

PHILADELPHIA, Pa. — Navigating and graduating from medical school is notoriously stressful, time-consuming, and difficult. Now, a new study finds most aspiring medical professionals are dealing with a debilitating sense of doubt in their skills. Researchers from Thomas Jefferson University say up to 87 percent of first-year med students report experiencing a “high or very high degree” of imposter syndrome.

Researchers define imposter syndrome as a psychological pattern in which an individual constantly second guesses themselves. They also question why others see them as intelligent, talented, or competent. This affliction has a connection to depression, anxiety, self-sabotage, and low self-esteem.

Addressing mental health in the medical community

“Distress and mental health needs are critical issues among medical students,” says lead study author Susan Rosenthal, MD, in a university release. “This paper identifies how common imposter syndrome is, and the personality traits most associated with it, which gives us an avenue to address it.”

Attaining MD status is a prestigious accomplishment. While it certainly shouldn’t shock anyone that medical school is challenging, it’s still alarming just how many med students report high levels of anxiety, depression, and general burnout. Study authors hope their work can help inform more useful mental health interventions for these students.

A total of 257 first-year med school students took part in this research. Each of those students filled out a survey inquiring about feelings relevant to imposter syndrome. Among the 87 percent experiencing imposter syndrome, most experienced the most intense symptoms at the end of their first year. High imposter syndrome and neuroticism/anxiety scores also displayed a link with low scores for self-worth, self-compassion, and sociability.

“Imposter syndrome is a malleable personality construct, and is therefore responsive to intervention,” Dr. Rosenthal explains. “Supportive feedback and collaborative learning, mentoring by faculty, academic support, individual counseling and group discussions with peers are all helpful. For many students, the most powerful first step in addressing and ameliorating imposter syndrome is normalizing this distorted and maladaptive self-perception through individual sessions with faculty and mentored small-group discussions with peers.”

The study is published in Family Medicine.