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PhD vs ME
October 4, 2012 9:36 AM   Subscribe

So, I just started my PhD program. Are my feelings normal? I'm worried that I'm not working enough and that my ideas are bad.

I started a PhD program and I feel like I'm not doing enough. All of the 2nd-7th years tell me that I should just relax and enjoy the process, but it's difficult. I came into a lab without a current project and so I need to figure out what I'm doing. I dread my advisor meetings because I seriously am not making much progress. My advisor told me that it'd be nice for me to be publishing right away. I feel like I'm always behind deadline and it makes me nervous. I'm worried that my advisor is regretting letting me in the lab. I feel at home here and really love my program, but I just feel so...slackerish all of the time. It feels like everybody is doing 10 times more than I am. My grades are good and I've been steadily getting caught up with the literature each week, but it feels like I should have so much more now. Are these feelings normal? If not, should I just be working harder? What can I do?
posted by anonymous to Education (21 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
 
Are you literally in the second month of your first year in your program?
posted by Nomyte at 9:39 AM on October 4, 2012


It could be Impostor Syndrome.

If at all possible, try to get some objective data on whether or not everyone else is really doing "ten times more" and similar. If you are experiencing Impostor Syndrome, the best antidote is to get objective, measurable facts which more accurately show your actual performance. And if you really are behind, finding out by how much will help you create a plan of attack for catching up.
posted by Michele in California at 9:44 AM on October 4, 2012


Yes, this is very common and there is even a name for what you are feeling - Imposter Syndrome.

The only thing that seems a little weird is your supervisor saying that you should be publishing right away. If you're in any kind of science program I don't see how you could do that without collecting data first.

That being said, a supervisor giving difficult (ie. physically impossible) tasks is not completely out of the ordinary.
posted by Midnight Rambler at 9:48 AM on October 4, 2012 [1 favorite]


I don't know about normal, but they're within normal limits. It's a lot of work, and you're brand new while everyone else looks like they know what they're doing, so it's easy to be intimidated. Your advisor will tell you if he thinks you're slacking. Try to stay calm — a lot of people have done this before you and lived to tell the tale.

And read Piled Higher and Deeper. You'll see you're not alone.
posted by ubiquity at 9:48 AM on October 4, 2012 [1 favorite]


I felt this way in my PhD program--during coursework, while studying for qualifying exams, especially while writing my dissertation. I felt this way after graduation, while on the job market. Now, here I am, with a TT faculty position, and I sometimes still feel like I could be doing more. It's not a reasonable belief.

try to get some objective data

This. You say you "feel" like you've missed deadlines. Either you have or have not. Find out. You "feel" like everyone does 10x more than you do. Find out. Ask others. Also know that lots of other grad students are as insecure, and they may lie to you.

I think PhD programs should require psychological counseling as a mandatory part of the process.

If you love it, and aren't drowning in debt, hang in there!
posted by reverend cuttle at 9:55 AM on October 4, 2012 [2 favorites]


Spend some down time on these fora:

http://chronicle.com/forums/

It's full of people from academe discussing ALL manner of issues and there is one just for those in grad school.

I can't tell you how wonderful the folks there are!
posted by michellenoel at 10:00 AM on October 4, 2012


I think for a lot of people the biggest hurdle in grad school is the lack of clear expectations. It feels like you're just expected to know what to do by osmosis or something.

You have to take initiative to set expectations for yourself. Talk to your supervisor, the grad adviser, anyone on the faculty you feel comfortable with, senior grad students, post docs. Ask them to help you build a timeline towards graduation (yes, you can do that now).

Like, have your lit review done by X date. Have your courses done by your Yth semester. Have your preliminary data collection done by Z. These don't have to be set in stone, but you want to have a clear checklist for the things that need to be accomplished each year. Then you can build smaller checklists of actionable items to accomplish each task. This way you'll only have the stress of getting things done -- not the stress of not knowing what you're supposed to do.

I didn't do this till I was already falling behind a couple years in. If you start doing it now you'll be much better off. Grad school doesn't *have* to be a crazy stressful experience.
posted by no regrets, coyote at 10:08 AM on October 4, 2012 [4 favorites]


Hell, I've been in the business for 15 years and I still feel like that sometimes. Totally normal, if not pleasant. "Get publishing straight away" is good advice, but might mean anything from "Plan a years data collection that targets a particular question with a paper at the end of that time" to "Write up your initial literature work as a review paper" to all manner of impossible goals. Pin your advisor down (politely) to details; it'll help frame your subsequent working relationship.
posted by cromagnon at 10:21 AM on October 4, 2012


All of the 2nd-7th years tell me that I should just relax and enjoy the process, but it's difficult.

That's because while there are many technically competent first years, they usually don't know what the hell they are doing at a high level. Your ideas might, in fact, be bad. Doesn't matter; your ideas don't need to be good until quals. It's going to take time for you to figure things out no matter how hard you work, so working your ass off to burn out in your first year is not a good approach.

Yeah, it'd certainly be nice for you to publishing right away. In Cell. Your adviser would probably like a pony too. You should try to make a plan and timeline with your adviser for your first publication. It might be a good idea to try writing a little every day in addition to experiments, even if it's just captions for figures, materials and methods, and introduction. When your data is ready you'll have half the paper written.

I'm worried that my advisor is regretting letting me in the lab.

Your adviser has seen worse, I promise.
posted by grouse at 10:28 AM on October 4, 2012 [3 favorites]


Regarding your research: If you don't have much serious lab experience, it will probably be about six months before you're comfortable doing basic tasks by yourself, a year before you can carry out an entire process from start to finish by yourself, a year-and-a-half before you're able to come up with executable new ideas, and two years before you're competent enough to execute those ideas to produce useable data.

Sure, give or take some time and it depends on the complexity of the tasks, but the point is there is floundering uselessly is completely normal and a sadly inescapable part of the process.

When it comes to cumes, lit reviews, ORPs those are things you can actually schedule and plan for. But as for the research, competent production of unique data is a matter of practice and experience.
posted by schroedinger at 10:30 AM on October 4, 2012 [1 favorite]


Feelings like yours are so totally normal, omg. I know more people who are ABD than actually PhD.
posted by elizardbits at 10:34 AM on October 4, 2012


I dread my advisor meetings because I seriously am not making much progress.
I feel like I'm always behind deadline and it makes me nervous. I'm worried that my advisor is regretting letting me in the lab.
Are these feelings normal?

Ph.D. stress you're describing is entirely normal, and built into the Ph.D. process by design (although not necessarily deliberate design). A PH.D. is in very large part a hazing ritual.. Similarly, the demand that you publish right wa

My advisor told me that it'd be nice for me to be publishing right away.
This suggestion was made for two reasons: 1) It would help your career. 2) Impossible demands are part of hazing.

It feels like everybody is doing 10 times more than I am.
Part of survival strategy in a hazing ritual is to put on a show of suffering more than you actually are as a way of preventing people from inflicting more suffering on you. These people are not working harder than you. They are better at putting on a show of working hard than you are. They are putting on the show as a way of making sure that professors know that they're busy so that the professors don't give them additional work that the students can't handle.

I feel at home here and really love my program
My grades are good and I've been steadily getting caught up with the literature each week
You're doing fine.

If not, should I just be working harder? What can I do?
Understand the rules of the game. Play the game. Do the work that needs to be done. Put on a show of doing it. Recognize when work does not actually need to be done. Learn how to say know without saying know. Complaining about only getting 3 hours a sleep a night (even if you need and get 12) is a good start.
posted by yeolcoatl at 10:52 AM on October 4, 2012 [5 favorites]


Also, side note: You don't have Impostor Syndrome. Having Impostor Syndrome suggests that other people do not have Impostor Syndrome and that there are other people who do not feel the way you do. Every graduate student has these or similar feelings at some point. It is built into the Ph.D. process. You don't have a "syndrome." There is nothing wrong with you or different about you in this respect. Your feelings are completely normal. Everybody has had them (although some people forget the experience).

Quite the opposite. Not having these feelings -- a person being able to stand up to the pressure of a Ph.D. and continue believing that he/she are totally awesome and super competent -- means that there is something wrong with that person's Ph.D. program, or there is something very wrong with him/her. I've seen people who can maintain that kind of arrogance before. They're usually terrifyingly incompetent because they've never felt a need to improve.
posted by yeolcoatl at 11:12 AM on October 4, 2012 [2 favorites]


At only a month in you're happy, you're getting good grades, and you're even finding time to read the literature? No, this doesn't sound normal to me.

This sounds way better than average.
posted by ootandaboot at 11:15 AM on October 4, 2012 [2 favorites]


Have you stripped naked and burned your initials in the lawn on the quad? No? You're fine.

If you like the program, and you're getting good grades, the rest will come.

When you meet with your advisor, ask for suggestions. See if you could be doing something that dovetails with someone else's work. When those 2nd-7th year people are complaining, ask if they can off load some lab tasks to you. (I'm just guessing here, I was a lit and business major, I know shit about science stuff.)
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 11:52 AM on October 4, 2012


Every graduate student has these or similar feelings at some point. It is built into the Ph.D. process. You don't have a "syndrome." There is nothing wrong with you or different about you in this respect. Your feelings are completely normal.

Yep. I wish I could favourite this a thousand times for accuracy.
posted by randomnity at 12:19 PM on October 4, 2012


All I meant was "this is so common, they have a name for feeling this way". I didn't really mean to suggest "there is something wrong with you and it sounds like this Syndrome".
posted by Michele in California at 2:14 PM on October 4, 2012 [1 favorite]


Every graduate student has these or similar feelings at some point. It is built into the Ph.D. process.

I feel that this kind of advice should be qualified slightly. My experience from the advisor end of things is that these feelings are common but not universal among my students. As surprising as it may feel to those of us who did (or do) have to battle constantly against the feelings of inadequacy and the (mis)perception of laziness, there really are quite a few grad students who don't feel that way. They seem to be a minority in my experience, but they do exist. I mention this because, if it turns out that you work in a lab like mine, you might run into some grad students who genuinely do feel confident and unworried, and always have. And you might end up thinking that this Ask MeFi thread is just telling you what you want to hear.

If this does happen I would argue against drawing that conclusion. Although there are some grad students who don't suffer from this problem, I've never detected any obvious correlation between confidence and competence among my students. Confidence is influenced by too many other variables for it to be reliable. Some of the very best students worry incessantly about their own ability to do the job. Some of the worst are very (over)confident in their self-assessments. The fact that you feel that your ideas are bad and you don't work hard enough is not evidence. Neither is it informative to compare yourself to academics, 6th year students, postdocs etc. They will certainly have better work habits and better ideas than you: both of these things come with experience. They are poor measures of competence when applied to people of different ages and different experience.

If you really want an honest assessment of where you're at, talk to your advisor: he/she has heard all this before, I guarantee it. Try to arrange a meeting to discuss questions relating to your development as a researcher. Where are you up to? What skills do you need to work on? How does your advisor view your progress so far? That kind of thing. Don't panic, and try to focus on getting an objective assessment of your development. You don't need to hide your worries, but try to avoid making them the central topic of your discussion: you want clear feedback, not reassurances. If it turns into a conversation about PhD anxiety, your advisor can't really do much other than restate the same things we have said here, and you won't learn anything new. If it remains a conversation about your development, you'll probably hear some good things (about what you're doing well) and some uncomfortable things (what you need to work on). Few if any experienced PhD advisors will lie to you: if he/she doesn't want you in the lab, you'll be given very blunt advice about how you need to really need to get your act together. More likely, you'll be told that doing okay but you need to work on X, Y and Z. This means exactly what it sounds like: you're doing okay, you're pretty much on track, and you have work to do. Your worries won't vanish, but you'll have concrete evidence that they're misplaced.
posted by mixing at 2:22 PM on October 4, 2012 [3 favorites]


My experience from the advisor end of things is that these feelings are common but not universal among my students. As surprising as it may feel to those of us who did (or do) have to battle constantly against the feelings of inadequacy and the (mis)perception of laziness, there really are quite a few grad students who don't feel that way.

Are you completely sure that those students don't feel that way?

I've literally never met a single person in 3 years of grad school who has never felt that way.

I would never in a million years tell my advisor that I ever feel that way, even though she's completely amazing and she probably wouldn't even judge me for it. If she asked me directly I would probably even lie.

It's possible that I work in an especially modest/insecure environment, or that it's a cultural thing (I'm in Canada), or that I just haven't talked to enough students about it, but my first guess would be that they just aren't telling you that they feel insecure.
posted by randomnity at 6:31 PM on October 4, 2012 [1 favorite]


Are you completely sure that those students don't feel that way? I've literally never met a single person in 3 years of grad school who has never felt that way. I would never in a million years tell my advisor that I ever feel that way, even though she's completely amazing and she probably wouldn't even judge me for it. If she asked me directly I would probably even lie.

(Quick response: I don't want to derail, but it might be relevant enough to OP to include)

No, of course not: it's impossible to be completely sure. Some people are very good at maintaining the appearance of confidence without actually feeling it. So it's possible that every student that I've met who has looked confident has been secretly worrying at great length; and I'm pretty sure that many of them are. But I've probably known hundreds of grad students, from my days as a grad student, a postdoc and an academic. And to be honest, I hear a lot more people sharing their worries now than I ever did as a student, possibly because imposter syndrome is a topic that we have talked openly about in my lab several times over the last few years. Most people feel it; a few don't. And it seems to be systematic: the people who don't feel imposter syndrome also tend to be the people who don't get worried over other things either. The way I see it, either I've known a lot of very competent liars over the years who are also very dedicated to maintaining the appearance of confidence across the board, or some people really aren't particularly prone to worrying. Personally, I think the latter is more plausible.

Just to stick to the core of the OP's concern though, I don't think it matters: my point is that there may be some people you run into that don't seem to have any major worries about the PhD process, and that this may appear to run counter to the general tone in this thread. If that happens, don't worry. It might be a genuine feeling, or it could be a false front they're putting up. But either way, apparent confidence is not correlated with competence: your advisor is a better source of evidence than the strength of your anxieties.
posted by mixing at 8:22 PM on October 4, 2012 [1 favorite]


For what it's worth I finished my PhD in 2005, did a postdoc, got a grant, landed an adjunct spot, and STILL feel the same way. You are surrounding yourself with smart, hard-working people. You are always going to feel like someone else has better ideas or puts in more work or has a better grasp of the background than you do. What makes it easier is when you realize that there are people who think that about YOU. I remember being surprised when a senior colleague asked my opinion about his grant and realized that he wasn't asking to be polite - he actually wanted to know what I thought regarding his plan to secure future funding. I recall clearly the first time a grad student told me I was (in her mind) exactly the picture of what a successful scientist should be. It made me think gee, maybe I am really doing this right after all.

Be patient, you'll get there. You will always be learning and there will always be someone else doing it faster or better or smarter than you - but not necessarily all at the same time. But you will also be faster or better or smarter than someone else - again, not necessarily all at the same time...
posted by caution live frogs at 6:53 AM on October 6, 2012


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