Career advice

Imposter syndrome: don’t be too hard on yourself when you transition to a new nursing role

Career transition can be uncomfortable, so be realistic about what you expect of yourself

Career transition can be uncomfortable, so be realistic about what you expect of yourself

Picture: iStock

Much has been written about the impact the transition from student to registrant can have on the health and well-being of newly qualified nurses.

But the effect of going from junior to more senior roles, changing specialties or moving from clinical practice to nurse education, is less understood.

The degree of instability that occurs when changing roles can leave nurses feeling threatened and vulnerable, as they move from the familiar to the unknown.

The risk of developing imposter syndrome

The sense of shock that can be generated as nurses go from expert to novice is particularly challenging, and even the most experienced among us can feel threatened by the transformation required.

Furthermore, nurses can often feel they don’t belong – that securing their much sought-after job was a fluke, and eventually someone will realise they are not up to scratch and will be exposed as the fraud they are.

Commonly known as imposter syndrome, this can leave nurses feeling vulnerable, unsupported, bewildered and increasingly anxious.

Tips for a smooth career transition

  • Don’t expect too much of yourself You need thorough orientation in a new role, so take the time you are given to settle in
  • Request mentorship or coaching It is important that you have a key person to advise and guide you
  • Set realistic, achievable goals with your mentor or coach
  • Don’t yearn for your previous role – it's counterproductive. There's a reason why you left, so keep this in mind
  • Give yourself time to settle into the new routine 
  • Realise that transitions can be painful and that your emotions are probably normal


Failure to recognise your own achievements

Those who experience imposter syndrome are commonly thought to be high-achievers, but they often fail to recognise their own achievements and instead, compare themselves to others. The sense of being an imposter never goes away for some people and can escalate, the more successful they become.

Personality traits are a possible indicator of who will experience imposter syndrome. In her book The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women Valerie Young, an expert on imposter syndrome, identifies a number of competence types that increase risk, one of which is perfectionism.

Perfectionism and imposter syndrome are inextricably linked, with many perfectionists needing validation through the praise and success they get from work.

This need can lead to heightened stress levels, and when professional outcomes, for example mistakes, do not meet personal expectations, the world of the perfectionist can come crashing down.

Picture: iStock

The anxiety of being a perfectionist nurse… or of working with one

This can be catastrophic for perfectionist nurses, who may develop increasing levels of anxiety. The perceived failings simply validate their belief they are imposters, and the sense of failure becomes overwhelming.

Managers must be aware they have a perfectionist employee if they are to offer the right support and guidance, and perfectionists can learn to listen to their colleagues and recognise that some behaviour is counterproductive – you achieve nothing by becoming ill.

Feeling safe is important for perfectionists, and a judgemental approach is counterproductive. Talking to someone who listens to their concerns is essential, so try and understand your perfectionist colleagues and don’t ridicule them, even if their thoughts and behaviours seem a little strange. Above all, treat your colleagues with kindness and compassion, as you would the patients in your care.

Catherine Best, honorary visiting lecturer at the School of Nursing and Healthcare Leadership, University of BradfordCatherine Best is an honorary visiting lecturer in the School of Nursing and Healthcare Leadership at the University of Bradford, and chair of the RCN Yorkshire and Humber regional board


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