Rebuilding shattered self-confidence after grad school?
May 9, 2013 2:12 PM   Subscribe

So, now I've got a PhD. But I'm crippled by zero self-confidence as I start applying to industry jobs. Did you rebuild your self-confidence after a PhD?

My PhD was five years of "failure," of nothing working right, of having no idea what I was doing, of feeling incredibly stupid, a grueling marathon of slow-burning anxiety and impostor syndrome, culminating in three quick successes (dissertation chapters) and a successful defense. Now I've got a few months before my funding runs out, and I'm trying to turn my mess of a dissertation into a couple publication-quality papers. And it's like those first five years all over again.

I did take a break for a few weeks. And I've only been picking apart my dissertation for a few days. But, I feel like nothing's really changed in that I have zero self-confidence in my capacity to function in the real world, I think because I've delivered so few "complete and done" things in five years. My success' have been little blips in half a decade of "failure."

Anyway, I realize this is just a feeling and not reality, it's barely even a "belief." I satisfied my committee, I'm really smart or something, etc., etc., etc. Probably lots of grad students feel this way, and then they get out into the world and input from reality re-teaches them that they actually are perfectly functional in a much-faster-moving work world of daily, weekly, and monthly deliverables.

But I don't *feel* like I'll be successful in the working world. I compare myself to the published grad students in my lab. I feel like I'll sit down and something that needs to be done in a day or a couple weeks will seem impossible to me, just like my research was "impossible" and took years--which I don't have in the workplace. And it'll be really stressful, and it'll prove I'm as thick and useless as I feel, and I'll get fired and stuff.

I'm in a great relationship, I've got friends, I've got passionate hobbies (that don't involve "deliverables"), and I can talk about this stuff openly. So I don't really think I'm globally depressed. And, I *realize* this is irrational, so I'm not too keen on doing CBT or something. But it is distressing. And it's making it hard to network and submit resumes as systematically as I'd like to be doing. (But I am doing it, in fits and starts.)

And, I've tried doing some little projects. I learned the fundamentals of JavaScript (my PhD was programming-heavy) and put a little interactive demo on the web, all in a few hours. But my relief in being able to learn something quickly and deliver was short-lived.

So, my question is, was your confidence completely, irrationally shattered by your graduate program? How did you rebuild it or how did it get rebuilt?
posted by zeek321 to Work & Money (16 answers total) 26 users marked this as a favorite
I can't speak to having my confidence completely shattered, but here's something that might help based on something you wrote above.

my PhD was programming-heavy...But my relief in being able to learn something quickly and deliver was short-lived.

Since you mention that your PhD was programming-heavy, can I put in a plug for Project Euler? There are a lot of questions on there that are to be solved by writing little programs. Earlier this year, when I was in a I'm-a-complete-failure mood for like a month (don't ask), I found that losing myself in that website and solving the problems really helped. You get little awards and stuff as you make progress. Having many little triumphs over some of the problems really helped me feel better about myself.
posted by King Bee at 2:21 PM on May 9, 2013 [3 favorites]

How did you rebuild it or how did it get rebuilt?

About 1.4% of the population has a PhD. If you consider yourself "thick and useless", then the implication of that is so is at least 98.6% of the population.

My PhD was five years of "failure," of nothing working right

The average student takes 8.2 years to get a PhD. So, not only are you in line with the top 1.4% of education for the population, you're faster than average.

But I don't *feel* like I'll be successful in the working world.

If a highly competent and educated person like yourself can't be successful in the working world, the rest of the world is utterly screwed.
posted by saeculorum at 2:27 PM on May 9, 2013 [13 favorites]

I have never been a PhD student, but I have bounced back from confidence-hurting career experiences, and honestly, you kind of just have to fake it till you make it. Act like you're qualified for every job you apply for and let your emotions follow. The real confidence will come with success.

Also, one thing that I forgot when I was in my master's program and that really surprised me on re-entering the "real world" - the standards for success are so different. In academia, you produce these things and are judged on them with a grade or at least feedback from the designated authority (your professor, your advisor, your committee). In most office jobs, projects are a lot more complex, and the standards for success are somewhat more nebulous.

That can be stressful, but it also means that, if something you work on does "fail," it doesn't mean you will be fired. You may well be congratulated for other aspects of the work, like working well with the project team. Or - horrors! - your boss might not even notice. Or! You might feel like it failed, but everybody else is just happy it got done. And so on.

Also shocking: how many people have truly horrible time-management skills. If you made it through a PhD program, your time management skills are probably better than 90% of the people you'll be working with.
posted by lunasol at 2:29 PM on May 9, 2013 [6 favorites]

I feel like you do with some frequency. One thing that is highly likely to help is actually getting an industry job.

I mean, it does depend upon the industry, certainly. But I struggled mightily with feeling stupid, feeling like an impostor, beating myself up over sub-excellent contributions. Gradually, however, I realized (and this is gonna sound like a horrible thing, said by an asshole, but...) that in an average office environment, my ~40% effort was about as fast, as clear, and as much "to-spec" as most peoples' absolute top effort. If I put in my absolute best, people actually kind of hated me for showing them up. Except for those times that I totally borked some stuff, but that happens to everyone sometimes...

It never stops me from feeling like an impostor when I START a project, but it sure helps me cope with getting things out the door on time, even if they're not "perfect." Your "okay" is most peoples' home run. It's virtually guaranteed. You'll be fine.
posted by like_a_friend at 2:51 PM on May 9, 2013

Yeah, I'm reading this as a 6th year PhD student with a dissertation that is still meandering around a research question, and thinking "Wow!" As in, Wow! You're done in 5 years. Wow! You wrote three good dissertation chapters! Wow! You're finished with your defense and even have a couple extra months of funding! Wow!!

It's true there's a whole emotional side to getting a PhD, and to success in academia. You have to have a thick skin and a high estimation of your own worth and abilities, even sometimes in the face of evidence to the contrary.

Some thoughts to stick in your pocket:
(1) You can get a good non-academic job without publications.
(2) You can probably publish at least one chapter of your dissertation in a not-very-competitive journal/conference without much revision. Since you can get a job even without a publication, this is a bonus.
(3) Maybe with more work, you can publish 2 of them, or aim for a somewhat more competitive journal/conference. What does your committee think might be a good place to submit to?

It might also help to talk to the career office at your university. Get a better sense of the jobs that will be available with your qualifications. How much difference would a publication make in the application process? What do employers look for? Also, researching future jobs will hopefully get you excited about the next step. You made it through your PhD! Con-graduation! Maybe once you can envision where you're headed next, the excitement about starting that chapter will help carry you through the interim.
posted by pompelmo at 2:57 PM on May 9, 2013 [1 favorite]

Well, I can relate to this completely.

I now have a job lined up in industry, at a place where I have worked a couple years already. I defend my PhD this summer. I hated 90% of the whole experience of grad school, primarily because the problems I worked on were "impossible" and working on such things stressed me out. Just *fiddling* with things all the time. My chair tells me I'm "the real thing". Well, being the real thing doesn't matter if you're not into academia or if it's stressing you out. The only people who give a sh*t about academia are academics. Apparently you might not be one of them. Most people aren't. But you do sound smart and capable.

In my experience: the greatest thing about industry is nobody wants to pay you to work on impossible things! All your problems will be possible, deliverables are a matter of course, and nobody cares all that much about theory. Also work life balance is better, and people seem to be happier. I was worried I wouldn't be able to function in the "real world" cause I had such a hard time with the fake one. Actually, the real world is easier than academia. It's more structured and high performance is easier both to measure and attain. Who knows clocking in and out at the same time each day would improve my output and happiness so dramatically?

Also, on failure. I know you've heard it, but, failure it is part of the road to success. The sooner you put little axiom into your your brain the sooner you will know its truth. Good luck! I am nearly certain things will feel downhill from here.
posted by powerbumpkin at 3:53 PM on May 9, 2013 [3 favorites]

If you consider yourself "thick and useless", then the implication of that is so is at least 98.6% of the population.

No, the comparison is to the OP's peers and their specific training and abilities.

The average student takes 8.2 years to get a PhD. So, not only are you in line with the top 1.4% of education for the population, you're faster than average.

Drop the humanities, and this average goes way down. The duration is shorter in STEM. Depending on the field, five years may look long, short, or typical.

If a highly competent and educated person like yourself can't be successful in the working world, the rest of the world is utterly screwed.

No, the comparison is to the OP's peers and their specific training and abilities.

That being said, I think this feeling is very common. I just celebrated a colleague's PhD defense today, and was recalling that it took a year after my own defense (two years ago) to finally emerge from the anxious state of being a grad student, to recognize that---after many years of stress---the degree had been awarded and couldn't be taken away, and to be able to look objectively at the accomplishment.

I think you will feel much, much better after some time has passed.
posted by Mapes at 4:08 PM on May 9, 2013 [2 favorites]

As a PhD student who suffers from a fair amount of stupidity, self-loathing and impostor syndrome, I will share what works for me. I have no idea if it will make sense to you.

Most people trying to pep you up say things like "But you really are so smart! Look at all the great things you've accomplished! You're wrong to worry about failing; you're so brilliant you couldn't do anything but succeed!"

Here is what I say: "Maybe you actually aren't that bright. Maybe you're just kind of a mistake-prone doofus who muddled your way through a PhD program and now are more than likely to keep puttering along through life, occasionally bolloxing it up completely but mostly just kind of figuring it out as you go along."

So what? Legitimately, who cares? Welcome the world. Nobody else is doing that great either. Most people are actually pretty dumb, the same as you, same as me. So what if you're not that great at your next job? Now that you've got your PhD (which, whoa, impressive accomplishment for a not-that-bright person) they'll probably keep throwing jobs at you for the next decade or so, and even if they don't, it seems very unlikely you'll actually starve to death or anything. Grad school is filled with people who are laboring under the delusion that being even slightly stupid or failure-prone is the Worst Thing In The World. Guess what? It's not. It's the human condition.

Caitlin Moran put it best. It's phrased in a gendered way, but it's applicable to anyone:

"You've got to be on top of your shit twenty-four hours a day. THAT is exhausting. It's just far better to go, you know what? I'm just basically a monkey in a dress, and the best I can hope for every day is just to be nice, to smile as much as possible, to be gentle, try and be a bit understanding, work really hard, go and smell some flowers, have a cup of tea, ring your mum if you get on with her, just kind of dial it down a bit. There's a more sustainable idea of being a woman rather than feeling like you're in a fucking movie twenty-four hours a day."

You don't need to feel smart again. You need to feel like being smart isn't as important as you currently believe it to be. As long as you think of failure as meaning you're stupid, and stupid being the worst thing that you can possibly be, you will be miserable, no matter your actual failure to success ratio. Get over that, and you will be much happier both in academia and in the real world.

Good luck.
posted by pretentious illiterate at 4:20 PM on May 9, 2013 [25 favorites]

was your confidence completely, irrationally shattered by your graduate program?

How did you rebuild it or how did it get rebuilt?
The world of a regular day job, even in jobs I didn't particularly like, had the strong advantage of providing structure and somewhat clearly defined projects and regular interaction with other people in the same department. It was so, so much better than amorphous chunks of time in relative isolation in which to chip away at endless work that I didn't know how to define or limit and was never good enough. They are such different environments and I used to think that because I was a miserable wreck in one, the other had to be even worse - when in fact it was the opposite. Even when I did get handed occasional confounding/unreasonable projects at work that I hated, I got by, because at least it wasn't all day every day and nothing to look forward to but more of them. You'll be fine, it'll be better in the "real world!"
posted by citron at 4:42 PM on May 9, 2013 [3 favorites]

I am 2 years out from getting my PhD (almost to the day!). The first 3 years of my PhD were actually pretty good, but the second 3 years were everything you're describing and more. I felt stupid and worthless and lazy and every other bad word you can think of. And yet somebody hired me to be a professor and my committee let me leave (after making me feel as horrible as possible at my defense).

Now, I've been a professor for 2 years. People call me Dr. and Professor all the time. I teach tons of classes. I do research. Papers keep getting published. I meet with students one on one and offer not just academic but life advice. I serve on committees and folks actually think I have valuable things to say.

The other day, I had brunch with a friend who was in town who had finished her PhD the year before me. We were actually mostly able to laugh about all the self-loathing (and advisor-loathing in our case) and recognize that we are real, functional, happy doctor-people now.

I wish I could tell you how it happened. Some of it was all at once on August 1, 2011 when I showed up for new faculty orientation and suddenly everyone was treating me like I was competent. Some of it has been gradual as I've seen myself succeeding, and as I've seen that the failures now are minor and short-term.

I think one of the biggest differences between grad school and real life is that in real life nothing ever takes as long as a dissertation. There are lots and lots of short term deadlines and daily goals. And, maybe most importantly, most of the time I'm just too busy to feel like shit anymore.
posted by hydropsyche at 4:49 PM on May 9, 2013 [8 favorites]

So, my question is, was your confidence completely, irrationally shattered by your graduate program?


How did you rebuild it or how did it get rebuilt?

I got a job outside academia.

It took me a year to find the job, during which time I cobbled together part-time work (and availed myself of a one-year post-graduate extension on my doctoral university's student health insurance policy). The protracted job search was not fun, but I ended up in a job that's a very good fit for my temperament, skills, and interests.

Industry really is different from academia. This is very unlikely to happen: I feel like I'll sit down and something that needs to be done in a day or a couple weeks will seem impossible to me, just like my research was "impossible" and took years. Much more likely, you'll be able to "learn something quickly and deliver" on a regular basis.
posted by Orinda at 5:56 PM on May 9, 2013

Seconding Orinda that academia and industry are really different. I can never go back to academia; even my worst 'industry' day is never as bad as grad school could be, primarily because I can just go home. There is a lot less of the self invested. It is never 'your' project (even if they say it's 'your' project - if you die tomorrow, they will just reassign the project.) I felt better and better once I graduated by being in industry and thus being able to see how ridiculous grad school had been.

First, in my experience, industry projects are a lot more short term and a lot easier to 'drop'. If it's a good place, you will be encouraged to piggyback on the success that the company has already had and apply already developed techniques to new problems. If the company doesn't have the technical skills to solve a problem, they're more likely to drop the problem than have you invent another wheel. You have a lot of experience with problems; think about what you would have done differently, which things you would have dropped and why. In industry, deciding which projects are hopeless timesucks can be as good a skill as coming up with a million possible ways to solve it (and trying all of them).

Second, unlike academic projects, which tend to be 'owned' by the PI and his/her minions, people tend to get less involved in a company-owned projects and will be more willing to share with you. You may feel like 'the man' is sucking you dry for his own profit in industry (vs academia, where there is no 'man' and, if it's your project, you reap all the benefits), but your peers/coworkers will be way more collaborative and generous in industry than they can afford to be in academia, especially if you are appropriately appreciative and reciprocal. People will be especially helpful to you when you first start. Management will always be a thorn in your ass though.
posted by Tandem Affinity at 7:17 PM on May 9, 2013 [2 favorites]

I have a PhD in the humanities and now work as a creative in advertising. I 110% love what I do; I 200% never want to ever set foot in a university again ever ever EVER; my job has nothing to do with my PhD.

Was my self confidence demolished by graduate school? Holy cats, yes. Every now and then I'll nurse feelings of deep regret that I wasted four years of my 20s in graduate school. But my confidence started to increase when I began mapping out my new career and taking steps towards it.

It takes a lot to start wanting more after grad school, because there's a big part of you screaming that you're an unworthy idiotic dunce who'll die alone in a ditch, so why would you even bother dreaming of a different future? You've got to learn to keep moving forward, even with all that screaming in your head. For me moving forward looked like getting in touch with everyone I knew in the industry, putting together a portfolio, and applying for internship after internship. Trust me, I looked insane, a 28 year old PhD going up against 21 year old portfolio school grads, but I did it, and I'm out, and I am never going back.
posted by nerdfish at 12:35 AM on May 10, 2013 [1 favorite]

If you have a programming heavy PhD I have no doubt that you could have a job paying you 100K+ working 40-50 hours per week in any major metro area in the US inside of 6 months.

You should see a therapist about your lack of confidence and a recruiter about a job.
posted by Aizkolari at 7:30 AM on May 10, 2013

In all likelihood, you will feel much, *much* better about the whole process in a few years. Maybe even in a few months.

The mind has a wonderful way of slowly whitewashing the difficult stuff with a sheen of nostalgia - some days, I catch myself thinking how nice it was to have the carefree lifestyle of my grad student days, when all I had to worry about was my current research problem and where to go hiking / dancing / whatever next. But at the time, that was the most stressful period in my life.

So really, don't worry about it. Congratulations, Dr. zeek321!

(If you want the cynical perspective, real life only gets worse...)
posted by RedOrGreen at 2:56 PM on May 10, 2013 [1 favorite]

Getting a PhD is a soul-crushing experience for lots of people. It was for me. A failed faculty job search at the end was the cherry on top of the depression sundae that took the suckitude to a whole new level.

I had serious confidence and self-esteem issues. Which objectively is kinda crazy, because I had just gotten the terminal degree from a department rated between #1 and #5 in the country (depending on who you ask). But within that milieu I was far from the smartest, most industriest, most published, etc., so I felt like a failure.

I started recovering when I got an industry job and realized that I was actually pretty darn smart and competant. I could actually *do* this stuff, and do it better than most of the folks around me. Today, I'd like it if I were more successful, but I'm doing well. Recovery is possible.

Try to remember: you do not in fact suck. If it seemed really hard, it's not because you're weak, it's because you have accurate powers of observation. You've done something really, really hard that within the whole population out there, virtually nobody does.

There are a bunch of reasons why having a PhD is cool, but for me the most awesome is what I'll call the Power of Confusion. I don't need to prove to anybody that I'm smart; I have a piece of paper that says so. That means I can fearlessly say stuff like "I don't understand" or ask "What does this mean?" or "Can you help me understand this?" with wild abandon. A lot of inadequate or poor or (rarely) purposefully obfuscated communication happens out there. It's great for me that I can ask what I need to without anxiety.

(Yes, people w/o PhDs absolutely should be able to ask stuff like this, too. But for me, at least, I'm kinda embarrassed at how much the PhD helps my anxiety with this.)
posted by at home in my head at 9:01 AM on May 11, 2013 [4 favorites]

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