I'm an undergraduate student, rising senior. I've been immersed in academia now since freshmen year, and I'd like to pursue a PhD in Computer Science in the future. I'm posting here because I just feel hopeless right now.

I've had research experiences at top schools, like MIT, and now, at a top research company (where I've been for a couple of months).

I know to the readers these sound impressive, but with every experience, I feel like I let my mentors and advisors down. I feel like they all had really high expectations for me -- and I just disappointed them.

With every opportunity -- and in every scenario, whether it was in school or some other aspect of my life -- I noticed a common pattern in myself : I just didn't want to learn.

I did very well in high school. I do very well in college. But I just don't have the motivation to learn ... anything. I want good grades. I want to build the projects I have in mind. I want to finish my research project and get that publication. But I don't want to put the work in. Everything I achieved through academics was done under some combination of procrastination, stress, fatigue, and luck. I never really cared about what I was learning. I often did things just the day before, or late. I only learned just enough to do the assignment or get the grade I want. I always thought -- I can learn it the way I'm supposed to later. I just wanted the results. I wanted to look good on paper. I didn't want to feel ashamed in front of my mentors and co-workers, so I always did just enough to look like I was doing something.

These couple of months that I've gotten the opportunity to work as a research intern at a top research company (I didn't even get an interview to get there, I think I just got lucky), I've felt like shit. I knew nothing about NLP when I got here, and now it's the focus of my project. I've been working with neural nets for 2 years now, but I still don't fully understand the basics. I just feel like I should know this by now. And with every meeting, I feel like I'm doing the bare minimum -- just enough to look like I was doing something.

I feel too slow. Whenever I have to learn about a new topic or read a new paper, I get overwhelmed. I think I will never understand it enough to be able to contribute anything meaningful. And when I see how knowledgeable, motivated, and quick people are about their work, I get discouraged. I feel like time is quickly passing me by, and I am crumbling under every passing day.

Now I'm contemplating whether I will even have potential for an academic career in computation, or an academic career in anything, or a career at all. I know I love solving problems. I know I am creative and have good ideas when I really understand something. But that's what I'm worried about. What if I never attain that level of understanding?

I just don't know -- is this normal and must I just learn to deal with it? Am I experiencing this just because I'm at a different level than my co-workers here, who are PhD's and research scientists? Have academics gone through this phase where they feel like they just can't do it? Or is there some underlying issue? What have been people's experiences?

closed as off-topic by Richard Erickson, Buzz, scaaahu, Najib Idrissi, louic Oct 12 at 21:43

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    Have you considered depression or burn-out as a reason? Or maybe Academia is just not a good career choice to you? We act like as it would be shameful or dull, but It is not: Academia is a strange career choice, don’t fit all the people, even if they are smart. – Greg Oct 12 at 1:21
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    Do not listen to the Impostor Syndrome. – JeffE Oct 12 at 2:49
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    Imposter syndrome is getting a lot of attention these days, but I also recommend you research the connection between task difficulty and motivation. That seems to be one of the important keys to understand behavior such as procrastination. Generally tasks too hard are not very motivating because of little progress (reward) and tasks too easy are not very motivating because you get bored. Which btw. is why games are so successful in generating motivation. And the research line of work has lots of tasks, both too hard and too easy. So learning to deal with this is very important. – Oswin Noetzelmann Oct 12 at 6:39
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    Of course if you go to "top" schools expectations and pressure will be highest, maybe you can find places that will leave more space and time to be yourself. – Herman Toothrot Oct 12 at 8:13
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    Possibly related, and wonderful to read anyway: academia.stackexchange.com/questions/2219/… – ymbirtt Oct 12 at 9:38

11 Answers 11

This sounds like a classic case of burn-out. You've been working hard, maybe too hard, and it isn't fun anymore. I think a lot of academics do that at some point and you need to find a way past it to be successful.

Some of the solutions can be fairly simple and others not. Getting advice from a counsellor or therapist may be needed. Probably useful in any case.

Some people can just find a non-academic activity to spend time and effort on. I usually recommend something physical, but that will also engage your brain in a different way. My own go-to activity is Tai Chi, a mind-body fusion. In the past, I also used bicycling and skiing to get away from the academy.

Such things can even be beneficial in solving academic problems, such as mathematics. When you get stuck on a problem, often letting it go for a bit will let your subconscious mind work on the problem and get you past the block. This too is a common experience.

On a larger scale, a year away, doing things that aren't so academic or that use your mind in a different way can be helpful. Students who had the means, often spent a year "bumming around Europe" after graduation. A museum tour of the great cities.

But if you just keep pressing and increasing the pressure, you probably won't improve.

You might also want to look at some other answers here that discuss Imposter Syndrome (search for the phrase here to get some idea of what it is and how to deal with it.) I'm not reading clear signs in your question that you are "suffering" from that, but take a look.

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    +1 for this: "Getting advice from a counsellor or therapist ... Probably useful in any case." There is such a thing as preventative care in mental health! – shadowtalker Oct 12 at 11:45
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    -1 As nothing in the post described someone who was working too hard in the past. I mean, still could be burn out, but burn out tends to happen to people who describe that they used to be motivated. – David Mulder Oct 12 at 16:00

Welcome to the high ability/high achievers club, or ‘HAHA’. We’re happy to have you!

But in seriousness you make two errors. The first is thinking you are letting your advisors down, which while you don’t specify, is often a reaction to advisors constant commentary on what to change. Advisors don’t push inept students. They critique and challenge the good ones.

Second, you believe your lack of motivation is a personality flaw, when it is actually a characteristic of most successful academics. Once you find the topic that flames your fire you’ll be relentless. Topics outside of your interest just isnt worth your time, right? Join the club.

Lastly, you are falling prey to imposter syndrome - you’re too slow/not smart enough/not productive, etc. 75% of us feel that way but lie about it. The other 25% of people work 23 hour days and sacrifice the rest of their life.

Unfortunately, you likely won’t believe all of what I’ve just said...I didn’t until much later. But your feelings are the rule, not the exception.

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    All this impostor syndrome talk, but people forget there are a lot of real impostors too. I'm not judging op, I simply don't know enough about them, but this answer doesn't seem to suggest any course of action other than “suck it up“, which wouldn't have needed all that bragging speculation. – DonQuiKong Oct 12 at 11:58

There are a lot of good answers, but one topic I want to also address this:

And when I see how knowledgeable, motivated, and quick people are about their work, I get discouraged.

One aspect of it is the fact that in (young) academia, there is 1 thing people are terrified of, which is to be considered "not smart". Peers around me showcased their intellect in any single way possible. Every discussion was one to be won, mainly by technicalities. Nobody admitted not fully understanding a talk (however complex it might have been). Not (yet) knowing about an important topic was taboo.

Don't get bedazzled by your colleagues' displays of intellect. A lot of it is an act, and even when it isn't, it doesn't mean you're inferior. Even in academia, not everyone has a 150+ IQ, or needs it for that matter.

I want to build the projects I have in mind. ... I just wanted the results.

Wanting practical results on projects that are interesting to you is a great place to start when looking for lost motivation. Find a simple project you are interested in, that is not too large or abstract, and have a play with it. Learn only what you need to learn to get it working, on an as-needed basis, and see if you enjoy this. If that works out, think about extending your project to make it bigger, and learn more as needed to expand on it, until it is how you want it to be. You might find that this gives you an interest in the underlying abstract subject material, since it is now connected to a practical problem of interest to you.

Most of my own training is in statistics and economics, and like you, I muddled through classes with decent grades and often minimal effort. I have always found that learning something I'm forced to learn is laborious, but learning something I need to understand to do a project I am interested in is a lot more fun. For example, a few years ago I was playing Guess-Who with my (then) two-year-old daughter, and I wondered what the optimal subgame-perfect strategy in the game would be. That led me to muck around with the problem for a couple of weeks, and teach myself a whole bunch of game theory, and a bit of discrete math to boot. I had done classes on game theory before, but I was never really motivated to learn it properly until I needed to apply it to a problem of my own.

From your description of your education and career, it sounds to me like you are not motivated to learn because the learning has little to no connection to any project outcome that you are actually interested in. Working in a field as esoteric as neural nets, where the end product is removed from the underlying theory by many levels of abstraction, is likely to exacerbate this feeling. Since you are in computer science, you will have different interests to me. But regardless, forget about what they want you to do at work, and think about some of the fun projects you'd like to build on your own. Maybe you have an idea for a small computing project you could try in your spare time. Start by making something small and don't worry if it has any broader significance or value to others; treat it as a toy problem, solely for your own recreation. Most likely you won't know how to do every aspect of the project ab initio, so that will necessitate learning the bits you don't know how to do yet. If the project is fun and motivating, then you will probably find that learning those bits will not be a chore. You might even find that the project gives you a renewed interest in a more general field.

If you have not already done so, make sure to read the "plate story" about the physicist Richard Feynman (see his excellent book, "Surely you're Joking Mr Feynman!"). Feynman talks of having suffered career burnout, where he was not accomplishing anything. He decided to avoid trying anything important, and just work on toy problems that were interesting to him (e.g., figuring out the physics of why a plate wobbles when you throw it up in the air). As he puts it, "So I got this new attitude. Now that I am burned out and I'll never accomplish anything, I've got this nice position at the university teaching classes which I rather enjoy, and just like I read the Arabian Nights for pleasure, I'm going to play with physics, whenever I want to, without worrying about any importance whatsoever."

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    Yes, exactly: one should not self-censor on some grounds of mythical "importance"... but, rather, follow one's curiosity, without censoring. Yes, for start-up-company-oriented engineers, as opposed to academic scholars, this may not make sense. But I think it is the real crux-of-the-matter for academics. Don't self-censor. Be curious, and indulge that curiosity. Don't think about "funding" or "marketable products" and so on... unless, of course, that is really your goal... :) – paul garrett Oct 11 at 22:31

Yes, in theory it could be burnout or impostor syndrome and what not and it's not bad to ask yourself whether those things could fit. Were you in the past more motivated and did everything become too much to handle? Did you get any negative feedback from third parties or is it just you who thinks you aren't doing well enough?

Anyway, an option that's not brought up in other answers and sounds like it could fit with what you are experiencing: Is it possible you were too smart to need to learn in the past, and now that you need to learn you realize you don't really know how to motivate yourself to do so?

It's something I have seen a lot of people struggle with (including myself) and some of the more extreme cases literally end up with young people hitting a complete stone wall they aren't able to get past. This is a quite well known problem gifted people have and tends to show during the end of high school or early during their university career (although I know of people who only hit this wall during or after their PhD), but only in recent years has there been a bit more attention to this problem.

Anyway, if you think that this might be the case for you: You will have to ask yourself what you want in life. Either you can use that intelligence to allow yourself to be lazy for the rest of your life - at a not too hard and not too easy job - and focus your energy on different pursuits. Or you can go down the path of trying to learn how to study. The latter will be a long process where you will need to find small stuff that motivate you and start binding that into the things you wish to achieve. Some of the other answers touch upon how to achieve this, but the approach will be slightly different if you don't take it as "regaining past motivation", but rather as a way to teach yourself how to study.

is this normal and must I just learn to deal with it?

Yes, this is perfectly normal. You also need very much to learn to deal with it, or unhappy times will be coming your way.

You need to reframe this until you get it into a non-self-destructive perspective. For example: you say you are "only" interested in the results of your work, not in doing it "right". You are feeling bad about this. But... convince yourself that the rest of the world is also primarily interested in results; few care about how you arrived there. There are very many archetypes of how to get work done, and all of them are as valid as the next one.

Then, you are afraid that you don't really understand things that you work with. Let me assure you, you are by far not alone. I'm working in an IT company as a team lead with a lot of contact to colleagues, customers and management of all levels, and the amount of people that really understand what's going on is, on all levels, much smaller than one would expect. Things get along just fine, anyways.

What you really need to worry about is to get into a "flowy" state concerning your life. If that means that you find a few hobbies that really interest you, or get into Meditation, or go hiking a lot, or straighten up personal issues that you didn't mention, is obviously up to you (and you may need to get a bit creative there). Too much work, too little play leads easily to your current state. Also, if you really don't understand what you are doing, and this leads to internal stress all the time, you indeed may want to look into shifting your work around so it maps better.

My experience is that people automatically and effortlessly learn those topics that really interest them; and vice versa, if someone has to do something that does not interest them, they usually never really get it. So see if what you are doing is really what interests you - if you find that you don't actually care about the topic, then accept that and hunt for another. How you do that you should find out yourself - either look on the side, or make a hard cut, you should know yourself best in that regard.

Good luck!

The first thing I would recommend is asking yourself the question: "what are you trying to achieve?" Is it I want good marks/prestige or is it I want to do X? If its the first one then that might help to explain your lack of motivation, in a sense you are lacking any real goal. If it's the second one then try to remember and focus on why X excited you and try to make sure the research you do is somehow related to that. From what you wrote I suspect the answer is "I want to do X", though you may be using "I want good marks/prestige" as a proxy and therefore are starting to burn out.

Given that you did very well at high school and undergrad work so far, one possibility is that you aren't use to doing difficult things, which could be as bad as you don't really know how to learn. If you tended to just absorb things in high school then you may have missed out on learning how to learn, if that's the case (and even if it isn't) you could take a look at the online course "Learning how to learn" or the book its based on "Make it stick".

At a research level this will be much worst, most research material is written by people at least a few years into their PhDs, and each paper is on a small topic. Therefore just having a goal "I want to understand Neural networks" is too broad a goal and too undirected. You may have an ultimate goal "I want to understand why and how neural networks work" (which I believe is a research goal, i.e. nobody could answer that, though I don't know the field), but the subgoal you are working towards may be "I want to understand when I should use a convoluted Neural net" (though that may be too broad as well at the moment), or even just "What did the authors do in paper Y".

As you learn more and more reading and understanding papers becomes easier. In part because you can skip to whatever part of the paper has useful details and in part because you know where this fits into the field of research. Once this happens you can start returning to setting yourself broader goals (but if you move into a different field you tend to start again at just trying to understand a paper).

Finally with respect to your supervisors, I agree with the others with looking into the imposter syndrome (and the Dunning–Kruger effect). I think often a supervisor will try to push students if they are excited in their work or if they see potential in the student (in order to try to help them be their best).

You mentioned that you wanted the end product, the goal, but were less interested in the steps to achieve it.

This reminded me of the end of my academic pursuit of the "Next" degree. I wanted the letters after my name and it was the next step in school, which I had enjoyed up to that point. But after moving around the variety of math and computer science subjects I figured out (took a while) that the only thing I was truly interested in was the final achievement. I was not actually interested in the courses/subjects needed to get there. The path should be your passion or at least parts of it.

Side note; I know now that a skill I developed in school was "Finding the Path". This means given a goal getting all the steps in place to achieve it. I rush to do this when I hear of any result/goal/degree; make the path and get going. Then I look around and see that this is not really a goal I woke up this morning looking for.

Answers here are quite correct in that students, gifted and otherwise, will hit the wall at some point and often have a crisis when they do.

Your counselors are there to pull you along and not let you get discouraged. They already believe that you have decided on the path. If you have doubts then you must let them know or else they will not be able to give you the best advice.

I'm familiar with the Imposter idea and do not, myself, see it applying in your case.

The problem isn't you, it's the system. Globalism (one-world fascist government) leaks far down to all aspects of society designed to retard progress and reward corruption, dishonesty and stealth. Schools and colleges are particularly targeted since it is easier to dominate people whose lives have been made pointlessly convoluted; in your case you're likely being "required" to learn tons of unrelated stuff that you will never use, which also creates debt that you'll be enslaved to for decades unless you got very lucky. I'm not saying all colleges are "colleges" in name only though the less on-topic your classes are the more red flags should be flying in the wind...besides those red flags.

I left a for-profit "college" in the 2000s after I realized it was a pointless waste of time and money. I had learned nothing useful and had accrued lots of pointless debt. So, in combination with not encountering people willing to carry their own weight I spent ten years working on creating my business. Granted, mine is exceptionally ambitious, though you could learn if you knew that your efforts had purpose and build something that would help people to the extent that they would be willing to pay you. You will need to learn about the secret political corruption going on in the world - if you do not know the politics that are involved then you do not know what is involved. Disregard the tools calling "conspiracy theory", that's one of their dead terms that only effects those who can't think for themselves. You are smart to get through everything thus far and you can and will learn tons though it will be much healthier when you break away and find your real purpose. Mine? Making money while genuinely helping people far beyond what anyone else on the planet can in my line of work

Note that the question seems mainly related to psychology. So StackExchange Academia might not contain the most qualified people. I will provide my opinion which did help me, I hope it can help you (and others who stumble across this question) as well.

As a computer science student who felt 'down' pretty much all the time I have done some reading. Generally I think reading some self-help material would be beneficial for many academics. Note that self-help books do not describe formal logic. Please read material of multiple authors and don't take it too literally.

What helped me in these self-help materials was to define a clearer goal for myself based on a better life-goal. Life-goals like 'high grades' or 'get rich' are considered not good. Self-help books helped me in understanding why these goals will let one down in the long run and how one could pick them better. For me the goals also helped me in taking some difficult decisions which I now think were the right ones since I feel happier.

Edit: Easy accessible starters material can be found on YouTube. In my opinion Tom Bileu and Mark Divine are good.

Everybody here is giving you an essay. I don't have my motivational essay handy, but here's a list:

  • You Can Do It. Say it 1000 times a day. Repeat until you die.
  • Motivation is a lie. Embrace the cold hard truth of Discipline. Do the thing anyway.
  • Learning is like a hammer.
  • Hammer nails one at a time.
  • Make a list of other nails that you want/need to hammer.
  • Throw it away, make a newer smaller list of things you will actually practice on daily.
  • Hammering for the sake of hammering is masturbation. Hammer new stuff anyway.
  • When you have a hammer, everything is a nail. Always be on the look out for a bigger, better hammer. Get better at spotting nails.
  • An end goal where you are fully self-actualized, surrounded by loved ones, academic accolades, personal and professional success is vanity. Talk to friends, get the academic merit badges, and try your best anyway.
  • Unplug, unwind, tune in, and drop out. But don't run away. Run towards something.

    Childhood dreams lead to adult aspirations. When the dream dies, all that's left is to adapt. Grab a little piece of sanity, some concrete thing to stand on, and you hold on to that thing with both hands. There is no magic bullet, no secret sauce, and no quick easy path to anywhere from where you are right now. Just hammer the bloody nail.

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