Impostor syndrome in dental students

The journey to receiving that acceptance letter is not easy. A student — let’s call her Jamie — must complete all necessary prerequisite courses with good grades, then accumulate a competitive overall and science GPA. Additionally, Jamie must show her dedication to service and her interest in the health care field through extracurricular activities.

The journey doesn’t stop here.

Jamie has to show her commitment to dentistry by shadowing a dentist. Then she has to study for the dreaded Dental Admissions Test and hope for, at least, an average score. Jamie may have the opportunity for interviews and even better, an admission. She must go through these necessary checkpoints in addition to whatever personal battles she is experiencing. And even then, she may have to repeat the whole process if things don’t go as planned.

Let’s say Jamie is finally admitted to dental school. During her experiences at school, she notes that many of her fellow classmates’ parents were dentists. Hers were not. Her family and friends are so proud of her, but she wonders if she will live up to their expectations. Many of her classmates received high DAT scores, but Jamie performed just below average. The majority of her bench instructors have given her great evaluations, yet she questions her abilities because she has to remediate a competency. She has passed all of her classes, but her class rank is not in the top 40%. Many of her classmates seem to be crushing their clinic requirements, yet she is struggling to find patients. Now Jamie is wondering if she is even fit to be in dental school, let alone become a dentist.

If you resonate with any of Jamie’s experiences, you may be experiencing something called impostor phenomenon (IP) or impostor syndrome. The term “impostor syndrome” was coined by psychologists Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes in their 1978 study, “The Impostor Phenomenon in High Achieving Women: Dynamics and Therapeutic Intervention.” Their study involved 150 high-achieving women who did not feel like they were truly successful and feared that they were impostors in their own environments, despite having doctoral degrees, academic honors and accolades from respected colleagues.

The Clance IP Scale was later developed to identify traits related to IP and measure its degree in an individual. Higher scores are attributed to a more frequent and severe impact on an individual’s life. Although impostor phenomenon is not recognized in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders as a disorder, it can have far-reaching mental health implications including depression and generalized anxiety. 

Dr. Juliette Daniels, assistant dean of Student Services and Enrollment Management at the University of Detroit Mercy School of Dentistry, published her doctoral dissertation, “Impostor Phenomenon in Dental Students,” in January 2020. Dr. Daniels pursued this topic because she found that many students she spoke to did not attribute their success to their own talent.

“I felt a prevailing sense, among a very high-achieving, goal-oriented population of students, that many people feel they’re not good enough and don’t feel they deserve to be in dental school,” she says.

Managing impostor syndrome in dental school can be challenging. Dr. Daniels states that an important first step is self-awareness. To help combat this, she recommends objectively looking at your accomplishments, as if you were reading a letter of recommendation. You can also make a list of all your accomplishments and failures. Dr. Daniels states that those suffering from impostor syndrome “tend to over-inflate their failures because they take it very personally … reinforcing feelings of being a phony.”

Because of the highly competitive environment of dental school, there is constant comparison amongst students. Dr. Daniels believes dental schools can play a role in combating IP. She presented this topic to administrators this past March at the ADEA Annual Session & Exhibition. She recommends normalizing these feelings and offering workshops and individualized mental health support. Further, she says that schools should be transparent with their acceptance data (number of students who applied vs. interviewed vs. accepted, etc.) to show students how successful they truly are.

If you are someone who experiences feelings of being an impostor in dental school, make sure to take a step back to evaluate and accept your accomplishments. If you’ve realized these feelings have inhibited your growth as a student, seek advice and comfort from family, friends and mental health professionals so you can become the dentist you were meant to be.

~ Christina Espinosa, Detroit Mercy ’22

Christina Espinosa

Christina is a Michigan native and graduate of Wayne State University in Detroit. Before dental school, she worked as a registered dietitian. In her free time, she loves to cook, play the piano and travel.

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  1. Ben jimenez says:

    Great topic

  2. Juliette Daniels says:

    Wonderful job Christina! You outlined how impostor feelings show up for students in a very straightforward manner. Thanks for including me and I hope this blog article is helpful for students everywhere.
    Dr. Daniels

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