I started my PhD in physics approximately a month ago. Now I am working on my first project with my advisor and a postdoc that follows me. I made several big mistakes for a little task that my advisor gave me, and now I feel really bad. They were stupid big mistakes that put me in a bad light, as if I didn't understand anything. It seems that I really didn't understand concepts.

I have the bad habit of always waiting for instructions, without taking initiative because in my past studies, professors usually told me what to do next as little exercises. I also have the bad habit of doing things mindlessly and not reviewing them, often resulting in errors.

I know that I am capable of completing this PhD and that I have the possibilities of doing very very well. I have the mental resources to do it(hardware) but the problem are my bad habits(software).

Now I am facing the problem that it will be harder for me to build trust with my advisor. What steps could I take to start building it again? Does a bad start affect things in the long run(like if my first two month are bad, but then I finish great my first year and do well on the other years, will my references for a possible postdoc be bad)?

I am slowly reading articles and concentrating on my little tasks, trying to understand everything I do. Apart from that I don't know what else to do.

Edit: Thank you very much! I will take all your advice and go ahead! Good luck also for the other PhDs

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    I am in my third year of Ph.D. in Physics and I faced similar problems too. Things will get better. The Ph.D. is for learning too and some issues you pointed out are usually faced by the majority of the Ph.D students. The important thing is that you are conscious of what you have to improve and you are willing to do that. I hope everything goes well to you. – The Doctor Jan 4 at 14:20
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    Your first two paragraphs describe about 80% (okay, it's a made-up number) of new PhD students... Relax. – user2357 Jan 4 at 14:37
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    Relax, phd students usually start to get actually good only around tenure :P – Fábio Dias Jan 4 at 15:47
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    I had a bad first year in my PhD and hey, I got through. The first year is for you to learn to be a researcher uniquely, so its absolutely fine. Don't punish yourself! – Ander Biguri Jan 4 at 16:49
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    Yes relax and work hard. The two are not antithetical. If you have enough talent it will work well. – Alchimista Jan 4 at 20:40

14 Answers 14

up vote 115 down vote accepted

It's your first month. You will be in the program for 3-5 years. Everyone knows this, and you will have the opportunity to redeem yourself. Be patient. Do better in the future. Everything will work out alright.

What's more important is that you understand your weaknesses. Work on them. Become a better person and scientist by figuring out how you can address your weaknesses by either addressing them directly, or working around them.

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    And remember to be patient with yourself. This is far from the last series of mistakes you'll make as a PhD student (or a researcher your entire career, for that matter). You'll be far more successful in the long run if you learn to forgive yourself and learn what you can each time you make a mistake or experience a failure. – Kevin Jan 4 at 19:58
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    This is applicable in real life too. In PhD, the timeframe is days and months. In real life, the timeframe can be as small as moments to days and as large as years to decades. Irrespective of what bad has happened, it's fine as long as the lesson from the mistake has been learned. – displayName Jan 4 at 22:27
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    To further the above, I think it's important to remember just how much learning takes place over the course of a PhD. It's an educational process with a degree awarded at the end, and you should expect the usual ups and downs that come with learning and self-improvement. Don't beat yourself up; you found a way not to make a lightbulb. – Dan Jan 5 at 15:10

Now I am facing the problem that it will be harder for me to build trust with my advisor. What steps could I take to start building it again?

Fix the problem. If your advisor's getting a bad impression, that's a symptom; like a cough, you can try to suppress it, but the long-term solution is to fix the cause, i.e.:

It seems that I really didn't understand concepts.

So, sure, some damage control can help for now. But the long-term priority needs to be personal improvement.

All that said, it sounds like you're beating yourself up a bit. That's not necessarily a bad thing; being critical of oneself is a great way to avoid becoming complacent. But at the same time, make sure that you don't overdo it and get depressed. There'll need to be a healthy balance.

Like @WolfgangBangerth said, you'll be in the program for some years yet. You probably have a bit of time to breath and figure things out.

There are occasional shakeups early on in a PhD. You may voluntarily or non-voluntarily switch groups. That may add time to your PhD. But it's going to be OK. I have friends with similar experiences who got kicked out of some hotshot's group, and they had very positive experiences with a different advisor. They have cool jobs now to boot.

The first year of a PhD can be brutal. You can go from the top of the undergrad class to the middle of the pack, or even the lower half. But don't fall into the cognitive trap of downward comparison: searching for someone above you and comparing yourself to him/her. This is virtually ALWAYS possible no matter how smart, rich, or strong you are. After all, even those achieving some maximum hold it only temporarily. We are simply points in a high-dimensional distribution of abilities and it's nonsensical, non-healthy, and immodest to consider yourself the absolute max or deserving of it.

It sounds like your anxiety and self-shaming up until now have helped motivate you to do better. And to some extent, that's a normal psyche in a PhD student and many over-achievers. But now you would do well to reign in those strategies and add balance to your life. There is more to learn than best coding practices in your PhD; there is also all the emotional management and self-care skills that will afford you the peace of mind you need to code well.

In terms of not taking the initiative, that sounds related to shame and anxiety as well - You may want to do "right" according to someone else's definition of what right is. Let this opportunity challenge that approach. So much of a PhD is about learning to think and do independently.

Go with confidence!

I would suggest you talk to your advisor about this to make clear that you realise that you are underperforming and what you think can be done about this. He probably will not trust you immediately with that but will want to see some results. But then at least it is common knowledge that you think you can do better. You don't want people thinking that you have the impression you're doing well.

You also want to mention it to him because he can better tell whether you really are underperforming. Coming to a new environment and a possibly slightly different field, it is normal that you need to take some time to adapt. (Depending on the kind of mistakes you made) he will probably tell you that there is nothing to worry about.

If there are things you want to change because you think it will help you (more/less lab work, other tasks, working more/less together with others, etc.), discuss it as well. You and your advisor need to find a way that works for you, and communicating about that is the best way to do that.

Your first month sounds a bit like mine. I completely misunderstood what my advisors wanted me to do, and kind of felt foolish. But that’s the fundamental nature of research: lots of failure punctuated by the occasional success.

The key, as you mentioned, is overcoming your bad habits, which takes a combination of willpower and willingness to reach out for help. Nobody reasonably expects somebody to completely independent in the first month of PhD studies, so it’s perfectly OK to say “I don’t quite understand what you want here: do you mean X or Y.” Asking for clarification early on helps you to become more independent later, which is your ultimate goal!

As the other commenters suggested, you should also speak with your advisor, to explain that you know things went poorly. If your advisor knows you want to do better, you’re more likely to smooth things over than if you say nothing. Your advisor may also have more specific ideas about how to help you with your project and your performance.

In the long run, your first few months as a PhD student are a lot like your first semester as an undergraduate: so long as you finish strongly, the impact of the first few months will be negligible.

Depending on your learning type, "slowly reading articles" may not be the most efficient way to get you up to speed (what you wrote gives me the impression that you do well in lectures and seminars).

Ask if they have seminars for doctoral students and attend all of them that are relevant to your topic and connect with the other PHD students. There may also be meetings on paper writing and reviewing. You can even attend relevant lectures for students if those topics weren't covered at your old university.

For the trust issue, everyone makes mistakes, you just need to learn from them and don't make the same ones again. For example, you said you made the mistake of not reviewing results, so review all results from now on. You said you don't show initiative on your own, so start doing things on your own initiative. You seem to be on the right track as you identified your mistakes, but you seem to expect some magical solution to your problems, but that doesn't exist, just learn from your mistakes, don't make them again and move on. Just treat mistakes as a learning opportunity and remember that the only way to not make mistakes in the first place is to not do anything :-) And for the first impression, you will have more than enough time to prove yourself, in the end, everything that counts are your published results.

If you do all this and it doesn't improve, make sure that there is no complete mismatch between your topic and your abilities. For example, if you never did any programming and you are expected to do programming as a large part of your work and research, you need to accept that it will take a while to learn that or change the topic, if possible.

Everyone makes mistakes. Be honest. Figure out WHY you made those mistakes, and learn from that. Talk to your advisor - tell them you know you made a mistake, why that mistake happened, and how you will stop it from happening again. Have they actually told you the mistakes 'put you in a bad light' or is that just your own embarasment making you feel bad?

If you learn from your mistakes (and don't blow the lab up), then that is the learning process!

It is early in your PhD career. Mistakes happen and they are often the best way to learn things. I struggle with similar bad habits. Sometime I make a game of trying to catch my own errors before others do. If I catch errors then I let myself by a fancy coffee or go out for lunch. Kind of simplistic idea, but it helps me.

From a university administrators point of view, speak with your advisor now before things get worse. Tell him/her you have a plan to work harder and more independently and identify the items you would like to change, the items you would like to work on. If you have questions in the future, explain to the advisor the research you have done to solve the problem, what you think the answer is and why. This will show initiative and critical thinking. Professors mentor many students so they do expect their students at the PhD level to be much more independent and resourceful.

You will need to evaluate for yourself whether the following would work in your particular situation, as you know your advisor.

You seem to have a fairly solid self-awareness of what when wrong and why. I found, in a somewhat different doctoral situation, that if you explain to your advisor the basis of your failure - what it was about your misunderstanding that led you astray - it can generate a lot of respect.

That doesn't mean making excuses, but a brutally honest discussion of what when wrong and how you intend to correct it. Honesty, humility, and resolve to improve, including a plan for improvement.

The fact that you have the self awareness is only the first part. If your advisor doesn't recognize that you do then you may be paying a price needlessly.


My context was different. In an oral prelim exam with a few faculty members, but not my advisor, I was asked a question and started to answer. After a few minutes I realized that I'd gone wrong, so I said to the faculty, "I've gone wrong here and ... is where I went off the rails and this... is why my answer is wrong. I don't think I can find my way back now." I learned later that I'd become a sensation in the faculty for my ability to analyze an error and admit it. I passed the exam and went on to earn the doctorate.

You need to assess your advisor. I have known senior people who would never forgive a bad first month and others who figure newbies make mistakes and need nurturing. If your advisor is the first type you need to get out now and do better next time. If your advisor is the second, don't worry about it.

You mention two different problems-wanting detailed instruction and making stupid mistakes. For the second, you should look at the mistakes you have made and try to understand what you could have done to avoid them. Are you making assumptions and not making sure you understand the direction you are given? Do you understand the direction at the start but are sloppy in execution? If you can find a common thread you can try to find a way to overcome it. For the first, you are progressing in your career and you are expected to understand what needs to be done at a higher level. You are still rather junior, so it is good to think about the direction you are given. Do you really understand it? If not, the best time to ask is when you are given the direction. We used to have a sign on the wall "Don't be afraid to ask dumb questions. They are a lot easier to handle than dumb mistakes." Do you understand why you are given the direction you are? This is important if you want to be more than a lab technician. You hope to be giving the direction someday. You need to understand what things are useful to do.

It is entirely normal to be disoriented when starting a PhD. First time you're in charge of yourself! It can take a bit of time to get into the right state of mind. It usually starts when you get into the depth of your subject. Focus on it, strive to understand it and make progress. A PhD is a window of time for really working hard on something, that's what you need to do. Be dedicated, you'll get something at some point, and confidence with your advisor will then develop no matter what happened before.

Your advisor should not have to tell you what to do. Presumably, you are now a scientist who needs some guidance. Eventually you are expected to guide others. As such, it is up to you to decide what needs to be done, and do it in the most academically professional manner. As this habit develops, your advisor not only trusts you, but also respects you as a "very junior" colleague.

Your advisor is there to get you out of the predicaments you will invariably fall into, due to academic naivete. But, certainly do not expect him/her to dictate each step you are taking

Friend,

I'm routing for you! I had a bad first semester in my Ph.D. Through no fault of my own. I encountered health issues which had me confined to my bed for 8 weeks. I couldn't recover from that, so I withdrew from the program and took a different direction professionally.

Enough of my story. Here's my advice:

To reprogram yourself, you need to replace bad habits with discipline/regimen. For example, a good discipline is to keep a check-list of things that you need to do and continually churn your check-list to make sure that things are getting done and add new items as they come up. I have found this approach to be an exceptional way to get things done and to stay on track for both short-term and long-term goals. You have to force yourself to do this on a regular basis or you will most certainly fail. I would say that a very powerful regimen is to review and prioritize your check-list on at least a daily basis. You may also consider having a separate check-list for daily objectives, another for weekly objectives, and a third for longer term objectives.

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