Impostor Syndrome in Computer Science

The Guardian explores how impostor syndrome reinforces the gender gap for computer science students.

Everyone has experienced feelings of self-doubt or of not belonging at some point. Such impostor feelings are extremely common among those pursuing science, technology, engineering, and mathematics fields because the fast-paced nature of these disciplines fosters comparison and makes it easy to feel behind. Especially at a competitive, STEM-oriented university like UC San Diego, these feelings of impostor syndrome are likely to be more prevalent than many probably think.

Impostor syndrome is a persistent psychological feeling in which an individual doubts their accomplishments and feels like an “impostor” in a role they are in fact qualified enough to have. Those with impostor syndrome feel as if they don’t deserve their success, often attributing their achievements to luck, timing, or other external factors instead.

“They let everybody in.” “If I can do it, anyone can.” “I don’t deserve this position.” “I feel like a fake.”

Impostor syndrome is a basic human feeling that nearly everyone experiences at some point. But it’s especially common among high achievers who tend to exhibit perfectionist tendencies, and it disproportionately affects minorities and women, who face unique barriers to success and attaining respect.

In 2017, UCSD’s Computer Science and Engineering program was ranked 14th in the nation. UCSD’s computer science major is notoriously challenging and intense; many students are deterred from even trying it due to the elite association the program carries in the first place.

Computer science, as an industry, is also culturally associated with those who are predominately white and male. This continues to discourage others from entering an industry where they might feel less welcomed, or where they might face feelings of isolation, on account of deviating from the typically experienced, white, male-centric cultural norm.

However, some people are surprised to hear that computer science was once dominated by women. According to a New York Times piece about the history of gender balance in the field, women played a crucial role in programming and cracking code during World War II. Coding was considered to be mundane, non-elite labor, surprisingly accessible to the average white-collar woman or to anyone who possessed basic skills in logic, math, and reasoning. Making the actual hardware was viewed as masculine and interesting, whereas writing the code was viewed as feminine and secretarial. In many ways, women working with computers aligned with the traditional gender stereotype that women should execute instructions; they were needed to do the menial work of testing the programs until they finally worked.

The Times piece proceeds to explain that it was only with the advent of the personal computer in the 1970s and ‘80s that the demographics of computer science began to change. As personal computers entered wealthier households, more privileged children began to spend their spare time tinkering with them and exploring the functions of computers. Parenting techniques shifted to reflect the presence of the computer as yet another gendered factor of raising children. Unsurprisingly, it became more likely for boys to be gifted computers than girls. Boys played with electronics and girls played with dolls — that’s just how it was.

Privileged boys started to enter university computer science classes with heightened levels of programming experience in relation to other students, especially women, who had little to no knowledge of programming due to their lack of exposure to computers. An elite culture developed around computers and computer science, leading many of those who lacked the privilege of having satisfied what became these unspoken coding prerequisites for many university CS programs, as well as those who struggled to keep up with the pace of these programs, to feel like impostors.

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While many of these computer science stereotypes continue to persist, UCSD is taking steps to combat impostor syndrome and make CS more accessible to a broader variety of students. CSE Professor Christine Alvarado, who focuses on engaging underrepresented groups in computer science, is at the helm of many of these efforts.

As a professor in a highly competitive field like CS, she frequently notices signs of impostor syndrome among her students. “There are a good number of students who feel like they don’t belong,” she observed. “It’s often because they struggle and they think that nobody else is struggling. They think something along the lines of ‘Oh, somebody’s going to notice that I’m struggling and point out that I shouldn’t be here.’”

Alvarado has started to check in on her students via i-clicker questions to better understand to what extent impostor syndrome impacts her CS students at UCSD.

“I’ll ask, ‘Have you ever doubted yourself or felt like you didn’t fit in because of something we did in this class?’” she said. “And a preposterously high number of students will say yes. They’ll say that they doubted their fit, because the class was challenging or because they got stuck on something they feel like they shouldn’t have been stuck on.”

Many of these feelings of inadequacy can also be attributed to a more UCSD-specific CS microculture. A lot of UCSD CS students tend to prioritize a certain level of academic achievement that leaves little room for mistakes or uncertainty. Alvarado also described the pressure to earn a prestigious internship, preferably at Google or Facebook, as yet another factor contributing to feelings of imposter syndrome.

There seems to be an unspoken narrative that there’s one correct, career-driven goal of being a UCSD CS student and that any deviation from the path marks you as an outsider from the predominant culture.

Yet one of the most unique things about UCSD, Alvarado believes, is the diversity of the student body. Students from all backgrounds and levels of experience enter the program, but upon seeing the strength and prestige of the CS department, it’s easy for many to believe that such a heightened level of experience and achievement is the norm even when it only represents a small percentage of UCSD’s undergraduate population. Such feelings additionally contribute to feelings of imposter syndrome among CS students.

Because not all students enter UCSD with the same level of CS experience, Alvarado developed the Early Research Scholars Program to engage undergraduate students in CS research.

“The hypothesis was that, by engaging students in research in their first two years, they would become more connected to their peers and the CS department,” Alvarado explained. “This was particularly for students who weren’t as experienced coming into college. So women, students from underrepresented racial and ethnic groups, first-generation college students — all of these students tend to have less exposure to CS before college. And that can basically make them feel more excluded when they come in because they see all their peers and feel like imposters.”

The program puts second-year undergrads into teams of four and matches them with already existing research projects in the department. Then, later on in the year, they get to engage in their own independent research. Examples of research projects have focused on analyzing cancer research, ranking the relevance of online reviews, and estimating ocean depth.

“My hope is that [the program] show[s] them what they could do,” Alvarado said. “That it gives them confidence to see that they can do more than just the problem sets in their classes, but they can actually have an impact on a real-world problem.”

UCSD is taking other initiatives to make CS more equitable. Even so, there is still much for students to do because many cultural factors furthering impostor syndrome are perpetuated by the student body. “Some of it is just getting away from this notion that you either get it or you don’t,” Alvarado said about steps students can take to combat impostor syndrome on a personal level. “Taking more of the attitude to realize that some people learn quick, but also that it takes some people a lot of time. It takes some people less time and sometimes that’s because they’ve had a lot of experience that they learn it faster, but treating it as something that everybody can learn, rather than you’ve got it or you don’t.”

Photo from Medium.