An interview with Nichola Griffiths on shyness, imposter syndrome and believing in yourself

by Fiona Farmer BVSc MRCVS

Nic Griffiths has a special warmth to her, and she had me laughing from the very start of our conversation. She has had an interesting and fulfilling career path, from helping out in care homes as a young teen to a decade working as a veterinary nurse, before joining NationWide Laboratories where she now works as Senior Laboratory Scientist. However, a perhaps unwelcome companion through life has been the steady presence of imposter syndrome. Throughout our conversation she repeatedly told me that “I’m not very good at that,” yet her actions repeatedly defy her words. I finished our time together happily: how nice to get to shine a light on somebody who would never demand it, and how joyful to find the extraordinary in the ordinary.

“My mum worked in a in a rest home when I was a teenager and I got a part time job there, just helping out the carers and talking to the residents. And I thought, ‘I could do this, I could nurse people.’ And so that was the plan.” The plan did not come to fruition, as following from GCSEs Nic went into to college to start a science diploma but terminated the course after the first year. “The course wasn’t at all what I was expecting, so I left and then didn’t really know what to do! And then a nursing job came up at my local vet practice and I thought, ‘Oh wow, I’ve had cats all my life, I am the crazy cat lady, you know what, I’ll go for the interview and see how it goes.’” Laughing, she adds “I couldn’t believe I’d never thought of it before, as I actually prefer animals to people!”

As we began to talk about her years in practice it soon arose that imposter syndrome and shyness have been a large part of her working life. “I felt like a fraud. You hear so many stories of people who have wanted to work in the veterinary industry all their life, and I sort of stumbled on it by accident.”

“But I loved it. Absolutely loved it. Although I almost didn’t make it past my probation period.”

I was curious why. “I was so painfully shy. They extended the period for me, and I’m so glad they did. I am forever grateful to my old principal there, that he saw enough in me to put me through my training.”

We delved into shyness, and how this very common characteristic could potentially be holding people back from reaching their full potential. In both her career and personal life, Nic has flourished, but she seems unable to see it in herself. By this stage in our conversation, she has already told me “I’m not very interesting, there’s not much to say,” several times.  

I asked how she managed to handle the feeling of imposter syndrome, a feeling that is well known and experienced among veterinary professionals. “I think you just have to dig down deep. There are certain situations where you can’t think about yourself, as everything is all happening so quickly, like if an animal that has been in an accident has come in. The whole team just snap into their jobs and do what you have to do and then it’s afterwards, you’re like, ‘Oh wow. Did that really just happen?’”

I wanted to know a bit more about her 10 years in practice. “I worked for a lovely, small, independent practice, by the sea. It was busy but nice and we had a lot of clients we knew well. As with all first opinion practice you never knew what was going to walk in the door next and that kept it exciting. We were a small team and we all just did it. Everyone worked together and it is great when you work as a team, especially if the outcome is successful, you feel part of something and that’s quite a nice feeling.”

As well as the challenges of practice Nic was happy to reminisce on the good moments. “It helped to always remember that the pet was the centre of someone’s world. A standout moment for me was receiving a lovely card, and in it they called me a “Doggy Florence Nightingale”. I’ll never forget it. I have still got that card. It’s packed away with all my wedding cards. I’m quite sentimental!”

There wasn’t a nursing degree at the time that Nic trained to be a nurse. Yet she still had ambitions on further development and had begun a science degree with the Open University alongside her clinical work. “I studied for three years alongside my job, but planning my upcoming wedding and later becoming a parent, soon meant I didn’t have the time to finish the degree.”

Not to be put off by this, when a job came up at NationWide Laboratories, Nic decided to apply. “I knew Nationwide Laboratories as we used them at our practice and I was fortunate to do some of my lab training at their labs. When the job came up, I thought, ‘I know I don’t have the degree but I’ll still try.’”

Nic was successful in her interview and joined NationWide Laboratories in 2002 as a lab assistant. 22 years later she is thriving in the company and has progressed to Senior Laboratory Scientist.

“It was a scary move. I remember sitting in my car on the second day thinking, ‘What have I done?’” she laughs. “I enjoyed practice, and this was now a completely new way of working, and there were no animals! Although I do still feel like I play a small role in animals’ care now as we process the samples. And whereas in practice I only saw dogs and cats, here I deal with samples from all types of weird and wonderful things, not just your dogs and cats but horses and livestock, as well as more exotic species from the zoos.”

I was interested to know more about her role at NationWide Laboratories. “I wear many hats; I suppose because microbiology is such a big department. There are a lot of smaller sub departments within, such as bacteriology, antibiotics testing, microscopy, faecal parasitology and lots more. I guess because I’ve got a lot of experience now, I assist more junior members of staff when they come in and help train them as we’ve got quite a big team here. We all come from different backgrounds as well, so it’s great because you listen to all the people where they’ve got their knowledge from and you think, ‘Oh wow, that sounds really cool.’”

It reminded me of how she would listen to the stories of the residents in the rest home, always finding interest in other people and making them feel special. I wondered if the senior team leader position had helped ease the imposter syndrome at all?

“Oh, it’s definitely still there. I just try to be honest. If I don’t know something, I don’t know it. If I can find information for something, I will. And if I know the answer, well that’s brilliant. Someone once told me you’re only as strong as the weakest member of your team, and I hope I’m not that person.” I wished she could see in herself what was obvious to others. “But yeah, we all pull each other along. We each have our own areas we’re skilled in and we bounce off each other. At the end of the day, we’re all trying to get the same thing. We’re trying to get the result to the client as quickly as possible. Ultimately, that is helping the patient, which I no longer see, but I feel like I have this tiny part to play in whatever they’re going through.”

I probed into how it feels to be part of the veterinary team but in a “hands-off” role in the lab. “You just feel like you have a small part to play. There are lots of people with different roles, who all help the bigger picture. I suppose it’s a bit like a jigsaw puzzle. I’m just a tiny one in the corner maybe.” I laughed and pointed out how crucial the corner piece was, and she was of course horrified to think she had given herself such an important role. “I would hate to be thought of as arrogant. I would rather people thought I was low in confidence than arrogant.”

There isn’t an arrogant bone in her body. Skilled, yes. Compassionate, hardworking, of course. But definitely not arrogant.

She takes pride in her work at Nationwide Laboratories, and explains that the feeling of pride she had as a vet nurse feels more like the satisfaction of doing a good job in this role. “It’s really important. If vets are sending us their tests, we have to get it right. That’s why we have such rigorous processes in place.”

It has proved to be a good move to diversify into laboratory work. Nic maintains her vet nurse status still, as she likes to keep up with the veterinary industry and be aware of the new medications and techniques that are being used. “I am very proud of my qualification. A lot of work went into getting it, which is one of the reasons I maintain my status today, even though I am not in clinical practice anymore. When I think about practice now, I think mental health needs to be improved, but at the same time it’s a very exciting time for vet nurses and there are loads of new interesting things they can do now.”

I pressed her on advice for any other vet nurses looking to expand beyond clinical work. “There are so many different career paths that you can do now within animal health. You just have to look at what you enjoy. And if there’s an aspect of your job that you really like – have a look! I mean, it’s easy now online, you can Google anything. And don’t be afraid to ask questions, and if there’s an area that you’re interested in, try to make a connection and ask about it. And if you maintain your status, that option to go back into practice is still always available to you.”

Nic is a self-professed crazy-cat lady, and we went on to share stories of our cats for longer than I’m prepared to admit. “My husband thinks I’ll end up as a little old lady surrounded by 20 cats” she laughs. She freely admits they are treated like third children. Her son and daughter, navigating apprenticeships and GCSEs are at an age that means Nic has a bit more time for herself. She of course told me that she doesn’t do very much, but this isn’t the case.

“I have an allotment,” quickly followed by “But I’m not a very good gardener at all,” although when listing what she was growing, she sounds pretty green-fingered to me. “This will be our second summer. I’ve made lots of mistakes, but you know, it’s getting there.” Along with a lot of fruit, some potatoes and prepping to get the veg sown, she also plants wildflowers, “For the bees. They’re so important, we need more of them but if one lands on me, I’ll scream my head off and run away.”

I wanted to know what else she got up to in her spare time. “Oh, I’m pretty boring…. But I do play the drums.” Where did this passion arise from, I asked, “I was a sea cadet when I was younger, and I used to play military snare in the marching band. On and off I’ve been playing the drums for eight or nine years now, I’m a Grade Four, although I’m not very coordinated. I’m surprised that I can actually do it at all, to be honest.”

It turns out that Nic has further strings to her bow. She used to be a runner, but painful joints now mean she spends more time in the gym. “I want to stay healthy, or at least try. I love food and I love cooking so I can balance the gym with that!” she laughs. Her father is German and has passed down some German dishes she enjoys creating. “I also love Christmas as there are so many cakes and biscuits to cook. I do love cooking, and it’s a great excuse to keep scoffing food really,” she laughs.

It came as no surprise that Nic squirmed when I asked her to describe herself in one sentence, “A crazy cat lady, I’m loyal, and I’m fun but I can come across quite serious. ‘Oh, sorry this isn’t a good answer, is it?’”

So, I asked, what advice would you give if you could go back to 14 year-old Nic, working in the rest home? “Well, it’s funny because I still do, but try not to worry about the small things. Just believe in yourself, really trust that you are better than you think you are. I would love it if I could somehow bolster the confidence up from somewhere, that would be amazing.”

I asked her if she could take that same advice and give it to herself now. On paper her life is a huge success – a long happy marriage, two children who she is close to, a fantastic career in science, interesting hobbies. Yet her self-doubt still lets her believe she’s “pretty average”. Whatever average is. By what do we measure success? To me, Nic has cracked it. She’s happy, in a job she loves and thrives in, and a shining role model to all the shy women out there who think they aren’t enough or aren’t good enough. Being shy and feeling like an imposter needn’t get in your way of achieving your goals. They certainly haven’t stopped Nic (she just needs to believe it).

NationWide Laboratories is committed to making a positive impact on animal health by offering innovative products, technology and laboratory services to your veterinary practice. They have been providing a comprehensive range of veterinary diagnostic services since 1983. Their expert teams can assist you in making decisions on relevant testing for companion, exotic and farm animals. They offer full interpretation in a range of testing areas including biochemistry, haematology, cytology, histopathology, endocrinology, microbiology, etc. Their sample collection service is powered by National Veterinary Services.



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