Research: CERI explores 'Imposter Syndrome' in medicine

A new study from the Centre for Education Research & Innovation (CERI) is creating buzz with the medical community online, gaining traction and sparking conversation on social media platforms like Twitter. The article, co-authored by Dr. Kori LaDonna from the University of Ottawa, CERI scientist Dr. Chris Watling and Dr. Shiphra Ginsburg from the Wilson Centre at the University of Toronto, explores an aspect of medical education that isn’t often talked about – underperformance and failure.

The fact that their results are resonating with the medical community online is encouraging to the team that they may have hit the nail on the head.

“Resonance is one way of assessing the rigor of qualitative research,” said Dr. LaDonna, an assistant professor at the University of Ottawa, who just completed her post-doctoral fellowship at CERI and is the lead author on the study. “Our team is thrilled with the uptake on social media, particularly that our work seems to have provided an opportunity for people to safely talk about both their failures and feelings of imposter syndrome.”

The study, which was published in the journal, Academic Medicine, identified that during times of struggle or when confronted by error, physicians reported experiencing feelings of self-doubt.

“We set out to study how physicians in practice navigate moments of failure or struggle,” said Dr. Chris Watling, Scientist at CERI and the associate dean of Postgraduate Medical Education at Schulich Medicine & Dentistry. “We wanted to see if there were approaches that would be useful to struggling learners in the context of medical education.”

Rather than studying those who were consistently underperforming, the group studied very successful people to see what they do to navigate and overcome those struggles.

28 practicing physicians were interviewed about their experiences and the researchers say that early in the data collection process, participants spontaneously identified ‘imposter syndrome’ as a feature of their experiences. The study results identified that many of the study participants—even those at advanced career stages—questioned the validity of their achievements.

“There was this strong and unexpected thread of imposter syndrome that Dr. LaDonna identified during those interviews,” said Dr. Watling. “We thought it was important to explore. Qualitative research requires us as researchers to follow compelling leads we identify in the data, so we started specifically asking questions that would elaborate on that idea.”

One of the reasons they suspect that the medical community is so interested in this data is because the concept of underperformance is not talked about a lot in medicine.

“It’s a very confidence-oriented profession,” said Dr. Watling. “There aren’t a lot of venues for physicians to share self-doubt and the sense that maybe they aren’t up to the task that they’ve been given.”

The hope now is to explore how these imposter syndrome feelings might influence a mentor’s ability to help learners through their own struggles.