• Estimated read time: 7 mins
  • Date posted:25/02/2019
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Have you ever felt like a fraud? That you don’t deserve your job, your career success and that your colleagues will oust you at a moments notice? Then you’re not alone. Many high achievers from all walks of life suppress a nagging doubt about their abilities. And it’s called imposter syndrome.

But left unchecked, imposter syndrome can impact your career and reduce your chances of landing your dream life science job. In this article, we take a look at imposter syndrome; it’s causes, traits and what you can do to prevent imposter syndrome from derailing your executive job search.

What is imposter syndrome?

An astounding 70% of senior managers and executives in the life sciences will experience imposter syndrome at some stage in their career. Imposter Syndrome is defined as a collection of feelings of inadequacy that persist even in the face of information that indicates that the opposite is true. It is experienced internally as chronic self-doubt, and feelings of intellectual fraudulence.” (The California Institute of Technology Counselling Centre, 2018).

Ironically, imposter syndrome often coincides with events of significant accomplishments, for example, after an individual has won an industry award or earned a promotion. Contradictory to these achievements, the feelings of self-doubt and intellectual fraudulence are completely unjustified. 

In her book, The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women, Dr Valerie Young explains the five traits of imposter syndrome:

1. The Expert.

Constantly seeking accreditation, experts believe that their worthiness is based on how much they know and what they know is never enough.

2. The Soloist.

The Soloist feels as if asking for help will expose their fraudulence to others, so they avoid teamwork and collaboration to conceal this.

3.  The Genius

Feeling as if they should be naturally good at everything, natural geniuses feel ashamed if they struggle to learn a new skill.

4. The Superwoman/man

Convinced of their inadequacies, these superstars continue to push themselves in order to measure up against their colleagues.

5. The Perfectionist

By setting excessively high goals, the perfectionist is constantly unsatisfied in everything they do.

Root causes of imposter syndrome

Although we cannot pinpoint an exact cause, those who have studied the phenomenon have discovered there are personal and environmental factors which contribute to this debilitating condition.

Often, the root of such fraudulent feelings can be traced back to adolescence where influential role models – parents, family members or teachers – either overpraised or unashamedly criticised the individual for their achievements and failures. These circumstances can lead to the development of highly ambitious individuals with a tendency to suffer from imposter syndrome later in life.

Likewise, ‘friendly’ competition between siblings and peers to gain good grades can have a lasting impact which extends far into adulthood. Psychologist Audrey Ervin states in Time Magazine that people often internalise their ideas. In other words, it is impressed upon us from a young age that in order to be loved or be lovable, one first needs to achieve. 

Finally, society’s ‘impossible’ standards further fan the flames, especially among millennials.  Perfection is expected in social media feeds and many base their self-worth against ‘influencers’ Instagram, Facebook or LinkedIn profiles. As such, we are fast becoming a population of critical individuals whose perceptions of reality are not aligned with truth.

Warning Signs

Criticism, failure and mistakes are the three most common triggers of imposter syndrome in executives and senior managers. But they’re not the only warning signs. If any of the following situations ring true, you might be harbouring feelings of self-doubt or self-worth which could undermine your confidence, holding you back when you should be rising to the challenge:

  • Difficulty accepting praise
  • Over preparing for tasks
  • Comparing yourself to others
  • Avoiding asking for help
  • Feelings of inadequacy
  • Always seeking to overachieve
  • Not applying for jobs unless you tick every box

How imposter syndrome can jeopardise your job search

Senior managers and executives who suffer imposter syndrome risk sabotaging their life science careers due to lack of faith in themselves. And this extends to their job search too.

First and foremost, imposter syndrome can evoke complacency. Despite having outgrown their role, self-doubt in their abilities holds them back from applying for new life science jobs or an internal promotion. They figure that they have made it this far without being found out, but more responsibility could be their undoing. Instead, they sit tight, letting opportunity pass them by.

Others might be confident in their ability, but their over-critical nature means they don’t apply for opportunities unless they tick all the boxes. They view the skills, qualifications and competencies listed in job specifications and job adverts as ‘must-haves’ rather than ‘nice-to-haves’, and will only put themselves forward if they can assure themselves that they meet every requirement.

Finally, having made it through shortlisting to interview, their problems don’t magically dissipate. There fears, doubts and tendency to over-analyse can manifest themselves during interview, leading to unnecessary anxiety and the delivery of a below-par interview performance, thus compromising their chances of landing the life science career they deserve.

One way to help lessen anxiety ahead of a senior-level interview is preparation. For tips and guidance, read out article: How To Prepare For A Senior-Level Job Interview In The Life Sciences.

Types and Solutions In Depth

The Expert

As the expert, you need to constantly prove your competence and ability. You fear that you will never retain enough information and be seen as inexperienced. While you could be an ambassador for life long learning, you can’t possibly be an expert on everything. In fact, by being a jack-of-all-trades, you lose focus, and with it, your ability to be an expert. 

Try to understand there is no shame in asking for help when you need it and enjoy equipping others with the knowledge you have attained. Few things are as rewarding as mentoring; acting as someone’s north star and watching them grow and develop in the role with the knowledge and experience you once retained. And with it, your reputation as an expert will gain a boost.

Finally, try mastering the art of just-in-time learning, acquiring and apply a new skill while working on a task or project. Not only is this a very time efficient form of learning, but by applying your knowledge to the task at hand, you gain experience, which in turn means you will retain this information for longer than had you simply studied it. It’s a win-win situation!

The Soloist

While it’s OK to be independent, not asking for help can hold you back in your life science career. Obstacles that can hinder an individuals progress can easily be overcome as a team.

Many Soloists refuse help to prove to others that they can do it on their own, fearing that they risk undermining their authority if they act otherwise.

By seeking advice and help when you need it, your talents shine brighter. Rather than seeing this as a sign of inadequacy, seek to view this as a chance to improve your knowledge.

The Genius

When faced with a setback, the genius feels ashamed that they have not lived up to expectations. That’s because geniuses judge their competency based on the ease and speed at which they master a task. Like the perfectionists, they set incredibly ambitious goals. But the genius can become unstuck when they encounter a task that they have little or no prior experience dealing with.  

Obstacles that would not phase the average executive can throw a genius. Progress risks grinding to a halt and career stagnation can become a very real threat.

By labelling yourself as a ‘work in progress’ and embracing lifelong learning, you can begin to overcome some of these fears. Rather than pulling yourself down for stumbling on a task, recognise specific behaviours that you can work on and improve over time. That way, you can embrace the unknown and overcome obstacles that would have once caused you much anguish. 

The Superwoman/man

If you cannot meet your high standards without assistance from others, you feel like a fraud. This becomes a toxic cycle of self-sabotage as you are continually held back by your misplaced belief that you are not as capable as your coworkers. You may feel stressed and anxious if you are not accomplishing, to the detriment of your mental health, relationships and your life science career.

To bridge the perceived void in your ability compared to your coworkers, you push the envelope. You become a workaholic, working overtime in order to measure up. But by continually putting in long hours, you increase your chances of burnout, which can sabotage all the hard work you’ve accomplished and inadvertently harm your prospects for promotion or career change.

But you’re not addicted to work. You’re addicted to the sense of validation that comes from a job well done. Move away from external validation and look to yourself to be your main source of power. That way you can nurture your inner confidence and put in the hours necessary to get the task done, not the work necessary to ease your sense of self-worth.

The Perfectionist

As a perfectionist, you will find that you have difficulty accepting praise for your achievements, brushing them aside or playing them down. 99% isn’t good enough, and you will be constantly focusing on that 1%, making you question your competence. After all, you’re being paid to do a good job. Your work has the potential to further life science. How can second-best be good enough?

This inability to accept your accomplishments for what they are can prove detrimental, especially if you wish to advance your career in the life sciences. If you play yourself down or are fearful that you don’t measure up, you won’t make the most of your potential. You may hesitate when new opportunities arise, both within your organisation or when applying to new job opportunities.

By looking back at your career and celebrating your past achievements, you will realise that you could not have come this far by winging it. Mistakes should be viewed as part of the learning process, and you should challenge yourself to act decisively rather than plan excessively. Learn to accept that your work will never be flawless and that the perfect moment rarely exists. 

Imposter syndrome will affect many senior managers and executives at some point in their life science career. If you’ve experienced it, you’ve no doubt attributed previous success to luck, networking or another factor out of your control. You might have even passed on opportunities which would have been the perfect match for your experience, skills and competencies.

That stops today. Take comfort in the knowledge that you’re far from alone, and use the tips and guidance in this article to start accepting and embracing your competencies.


For more job search advice tailored to senior managers and executives…

* Fraser Dove International is a talent consultancy operating exclusively across the life sciences industry. While our roots lie in executive search, we provide more than the traditional recruitment services. Uniquely placed within the market, we have been providing cutting-edge talent solutions and insight to organisations at all stages of their journey – from start-up to established leaders – since 2013.