Volume 37 Number 3 | June 2023
Ali Nussbaum, MA, MLS(ASCP)CM, ASCLS Leadership Development Committee
Clinical laboratory science stereotypically attracts highly motivated, intelligent, but introverted people. With any group of high-achieving individuals, a phenomenon called impostor syndrome can occur. As laboratories grow and take on new projects, more positions become available, which also increases the need for employee advancement. However, among other compounding causes, the introverted tendencies of even the best employees can lead them to feel unworthy or not ready for their next step.
Webster’s Dictionary defines imposter syndrome as the persistent inability to believe that one’s success is deserved or has been legitimately achieved as a result of one’s own efforts or skills. This phenomenon is first apparent when students move from internships to the working world. At this point, these post-internship employees have mostly theoretical knowledge and serve as important assets to their teams. However, when they enter the profession, they tend to lose confidence in their abilities and knowledge. Hence the initial form of imposter syndrome that many new employees need to overcome.
“The best way to avoid or overcome impostor syndrome is to dedicate time working on the areas that lead to self-doubt and to block out the negativity that may be unfairly holding strong individuals back.”
After medical laboratory professionals get over that first hurdle of impostor syndrome, others arise that plague the profession. One such hurdle stems from the lab’s reputation for “eating their young”—meaning that seasoned laboratorians are less likely to mentor or support newer team members. Instead, these members commonly complain of patronizing behavior by their more experienced colleagues. These intelligent employees feel inadequate and may not seek out mentorship, support, or other tools to improve their self-esteem. Ultimately, this environment leads to feelings of incompetence or not belonging in more advanced roles.
To compound this problem, the distinct divisions of education that form the foundation of clinical laboratory practice can lead to perceived inadequacy. Hence, someone with an MLT degree may feel inferior to someone with an MLS, who may in turn feel less prepared than someone with a master’s degree. Education levels, however, do not equate to leadership ability. A good leader may work on projects in the lab or initiate change within their working area. It does not necessarily mean taking on a supervisory or even a lead role. However, people find it difficult to translate their abilities and strengths in the profession as attributes that make them quality leaders, whether formally or informally, or deserving of other responsibilities, especially as it relates to their education level. Impostor syndrome may be more evident in the laboratory community because imposter syndrome seems to impact women more strongly than men, and women have historically predominated the field. According to the book, She Thinks Like a Boss, by Jemma Roedel, women often need to feel extremely confident in themselves before taking on a role or challenge. They tend to have a harder time recognizing their personal achievements as attributes that would make them successful in other positions and will feel inadequate for opportunities that present themselves.
Becoming a medical laboratory professional, on any level, is no easy feat. The rigorous nature of the education, intense clinical internships, and a highly technical certification process makes each professional a highly sought-after commodity. However, there still seems to be a lack of confidence that leads individuals to believe they are not ready to take on new challenges.
The best way to avoid or overcome impostor syndrome is to dedicate time working on the areas that lead to self-doubt and to block out the negativity that may be unfairly holding strong individuals back. There are numerous opportunities to develop skills to make one feel less like an impostor and be ready to take on the world. Skills of interest include resilience, negotiation, networking, patience, and communication. Challenges are inevitable and a constant burden to overcome. By continuing to grow and learn, you can be prepared for those challenges and have less anxiety when they arise (and they will arise).
An additional resource is ASCLS, which has a mission to improve leadership skills among its membership. There is a conference in January dedicated to teaching management skills—the Emerging Laboratory Managers Collaborative Conference (ELMC2). Additionally, the Leadership Development Committee is putting together a Laboratory Leaders Institute Certificate that will be available, and ASCLS Labucate.org provides online courses in leadership. Lastly, programs like the Leadership Academy and Mentor Match are available to develop skills. Almost any conference that ASCLS sponsors will have management or leadership-focused topics. The dedication toward improving leadership and the overall confidence of their constituency is honorable by ASCLS, which is an amazing member benefit that should be taken advantage of.
Feeling like an impostor does a great disservice to our profession since it takes highly motivated, intelligent people to complete the educational requirements to get into this field. Regardless of the working conditions or the level of education, having confidence in personal skills and achievements is a must in the laboratory. Taking advantage of all the offerings available through ASCLS and other places can help reduce the feelings of impostor syndrome and improve the profession.
Ali Nussbaum is a Lead Technologist at NorthPoint Health and Wellness in Minneapolis, Minnesota.