The elephant in the lab: Impostor Phenomenon

Shortlisted for The Cancer Researcher-EACR Science Communication Prize

by Tamara Sutus Temovski

Impostor phenomenon (IP), impostor syndrome or fraud syndrome is a term coined in 1978 by clinical psychologists Dr. Pauline R. Clance and Suzanne A. Imes. It occurs among high achievers that are unable to internalize and accept their success, attributing their accomplishments to luck and charm rather than ability and fear that the others will eventually discover them to be intellectual frauds. Studies have found that 70 percent of all people feel like impostors at one time or another. This feeling is not exclusive to the female population, but is particularly more common among high-achieving women.

Studies have found that 70 percent of all people feel like impostors at one time or another.

When it comes to impostor phenomenon, scientists are a especially vulnerable group, largely because they work in a “hero-oriented” field, where high achievers are treated like “rock-stars”, leaving many others wondering if they are second-stringers. In a society where the pressure to achieve is huge and you are as good as your publications impact factor, self-worth becomes contingent on achieving. Another crucial factor is that we, scientists, are accustomed to measure things in precise detail, but it is always difficult to measure objectively one’s own value.

The impostor phenomenon and perfectionism often go hand-in-hand, especially self-oriented perfectionism, where one’s personal goal is to be perfect in everything he does. Perfectionism and attachment to details ore not unknown for the scientific community either…

So, what should you do if the impostor syndrome is “the monster under your bed”?

1Trust the system

You are here because you deserve to be here. Trust that the system has put you in the right job. You are not here because of your charm, you are here because you bring a lot to the department.

2Advocate yourself

Try to avoid words as “just” and “only” when describing your work. Don’t constantly apologize for every mistake, whether real or perceived. The academic environment will have to evolve to be more open to stories of failure!

3Recognize your expertise

Tutoring or working with younger students, for instance, can help you realize how far you have come and how much knowledge you have to impart.

4Remember what you do well

Write down the list of areas you are very good at, and the areas that might need work. That can help you recognize where you are doing well. Become aware of your own strength and value.

5Realize no one is perfect

The task can be done “well-enough”, it doesn’t have to be done “perfect” in all times. Practice that! Implement reward for success, even when the success seems minor to you. Learn to celebrate!

6Don’t be scared, share and care, but do not compare

Share your feelings with others. Once you see how many people are dealing with the same challenge, you will start feeling as a part of a community. Talk about your problem even with your mentor/supervisor, but don’t compare yourself with the others. So, share but don’t compare! 🙂

And for an end, I would like to unravel a little secret to you… Do you know how you eat an elephant?

One bite at a time… 🙂


  • “Feel like a fraud” by Kirsten Weir
  • Henning, Ey, et al. “Perfectionism, the impostor phenomenon and psychological adjustment in medical, dental, nursing and pharmacy students.” Medical Education 32 (1998): 456-464
  • “Faking it”. Nature vol.529 (2016): 555-557

About the author

Tamara Sutus Temovski is a Biomedical Laboratory Specialist at 2cureX. She is currently working on a platform with the mission of improving treatment efficiency of cancer patients with the focus of matching the patient with the right medical treatment. She is yoga enthusiast, speaks 6 languages and she is passionate about writing and science communication.

Contact: Email / LinkedIn

About this article

This is one of our shortlisted entries for The Cancer Researcher-EACR Science Communication Prize. Choosing a winner was incredibly difficult and we’re delighted to be able to share our amazing shortlist here.