I know what imposter syndrome is. But, believe me that's not the case with me. I have worked hard for the 4.5 years of my PhD, but I feel that my research is absolutely mediocre and as a result my self-confidence has taken a toll.

Now, my advisor is a brilliant person. She is well known in her field (computational mechanics) and has many high-impact publications (IF>10). I had my undergrad in materials science and was exposed to computational mechanics in my masters. I was fascinated by it and wanted to study and work on it. However, when I joined my PhD, I was asked to learn and use a different modeling technique and a different length scale which was not in the realm of my advisor's expertise. I work in continuum while she works in nano scale. Yes, the impact-factors vary in the journals for nano and continuum. But, all I am concerned with is the quality of my research work.

Post qualifiers and research proposal (my committee seemed happy with my theoretical knowledge, preliminary work and plans), I published one paper in a decent journal. But, my work was nowhere near that being done by my colleagues. I kept on working and completed three more manuscripts which are to be submitted soon. But still, my work is just mediocre and most likely will end up in average journals (IF <2).

I feel that I should not have pursued PhD and I was not fit for producing good research. I also feel that I have screwed my chance of doing anything significant in academia.

I also feel that I am still being funded and not fired because my advisor is a good person and is allowing me to stay regardless of my average performance out of pity.

Does my advisor owe me anything? Could it be that she keeps me only out of pity?

  • 5
    From a supervisor's perspective, I would say this: we make 'bets' when we do research; e.g., we suggest a direction or ask our students to explore area/tool-X. It may not pan out. We do not punish students. It is part of the research process. If it was not so, then every researcher would be guaranteed a breakthrough every time he/she thinks of an idea! Instead, the student's experience (failures or successes) helps us make better 'bets' going forward; yes, some bets will have a big payoff, but most of the time, no. Mar 21, 2019 at 20:06
  • 16
    Medicore may in fact be good enough.
    – joojaa
    Mar 22, 2019 at 6:27
  • 41
    I know what imposter syndrome is. But, believe me that's not the case with me. – Honestly, the rest of your question makes this very difficult, i.e., it strongly suggests that you are suffering from the impostor syndrome. I strongly recommend that you seek some external assessment of your progress and qualities.
    – Wrzlprmft
    Mar 22, 2019 at 6:52
  • 27
    It sounds like you're on track to get 4 of your own papers out of your PhD. In many fields that would be regarded as very successful.
    – Chris H
    Mar 22, 2019 at 9:24
  • 8
    If your performance is average, you are performing approximately as well as others. While everyone wants to be above average, statistically, that is unreasonable. :) I think you are likely being too hard on yourself.
    – Meg
    Mar 22, 2019 at 14:16

6 Answers 6


Having 4 papers published or submitted during a PhD period is actually quite substantial. Which journal they go to may be secondary, and there are many considerations. For example, at your stage of your career, getting anything accepted and published is more important than trying really hard to get that one paper into Science or Nature -- which entails a far greater risk of rejection and consequent delay, something one might be willing to accept as a well-known researcher in a field for whom one publication more or less makes no difference, but that you can ill afford.

But that's maybe not the question you're asking, so let me address that as well in the form of a story about myself: When I was a graduate student, I had always wanted to work at MIT or Stanford or a similar place, and to make breakthrough discoveries. Indeed, I know this to be true for many of my academic friends. But the longer I've been in academia (I've been a professor for 13 years now), the more I've come to realize two things:

  • By and large, science progresses not through discrete breakthroughs, but by continuously grinding problems down through the work of hundreds of people until the rare new ideas have been put into forms that can be used widely. Think about gravitational waves: yes, the follow from Einsteins equations and were theoretically well understood not long after, but then it took a hundred years until a whole community of hundreds or thousands of people had made the materials, detectors, and computational tools to actually use gravitational waves observable. All of these people made valuable contributions without which this would not have been possible, even though few of these contributions were published in the highest impact factor journals. What I'm trying to say here is that there is honor and value in doing good science, even if it never rises to the level of breakthroughs.

  • About breakthroughs to begin with: Of course, every grad student also wants to be the next Einstein. But few of us actually get to be. In fact, if you stay in a community, even if you're really really good, you will come to realize that there are people that are just so much better than you are. So not only do we not get to be the next Einstein, but almost all of us will actually never be at the top of our small sub-disciplines. But that doesn't mean that we're worthless -- there is honor in doing the everyday work moving science along and contributing to the scientific enterprise as a whole. Academia is composed of the high end of the ability scale, which is quite rarefied, and one has to learn to live with the fact that there are always people better than oneself. Take solace in the fact that the proportion of the general population who gets a PhD is already quite small, and you're in that fraction.

  • 12
    Remember that some of Einstein's contemporaries were developing the foundations of quantum mechanics. I sometimes suspect even if he wondered if he was in the top of his field when surrounded by other luminaries like those. Mar 22, 2019 at 16:40
  • 1
    @TimothyAWiseman: It's a legitimate thought for sure and it would be hard to believe that even had moments of doubt. At the same time, the work that made him famous in the physics community (and would eventually earn him a Nobel) was done in 1905, when he was 26. Few of us can say that of our own careers. Mar 25, 2019 at 0:14

Researchers which regularly publish IF>10 are in my experience not keeping any student just for pity. Usually they are also extremely clear in the communication about missed expectations if you ask directly, which is what you could do in a meeting discussing if your PHD work is ready to be written down or not and how to proceed later.

  • 3
    +1, Pity earns the advisor exactly nothing. Nor does it give the student anything of value. Good, simple, advice here.
    – Buffy
    Mar 22, 2019 at 14:37

The decision of your advisor/professor on which PhD student to keep and finance further not only depends on (# of papers) x (impact factor). Towards the end of my PhD I wrote 4 funding proposals for internal university funding and national foundation funding, although my advisor pushed me to bring further mediocre results to paper format after one top-tier publication. 2 have been granted luckily. Even if not funded finally, my advisor was impressed I made contacts to postdocs in other groups, developed ideas and managed common funding projects. This impressed my advisor more than writing another low/medium-impact research paper which is the current "sport competition" among PhD students in the light of publish or perish, who gets the higher # x IF product on researchgate.

And while there are always smarter people in academia as Wolfgang wrote, academia also needs managers, organizers and idea-givers with broad interdisciplinary knowledge apart from savants and specialists. A scientific community only consisting of Einstein alikes would be a very inefficient one. So don't make yourself smaller than you are and don't think your scientific career is already over. But also be aware it is a poker game and you have to play your cards as long as they are uncovered, it even was for Einstein, also with a smaller luck factor because the truth always wins in science in the end :-)

  1. There is something called "diminishing returns". And there can be a good argument that the amount of bodies and money being thrown at science experiences this. In other words, 10 times the Ph.D. students does not give 10 times the results. Because the last tenth (or half, or even 9/10th) of researchers are not as strong. In addition the later slew of problems may not be as tractable (less "sweet spot").

    So it is completely rational to consider that half of the Ph.D's are below average (this is not Lake Woebegone.) And this is definitely something that hits students as they experience difficulty or as they near finishing up. They ain't gonna be Dick Feynman. They may not even end up being Joe R1 Professor.

  2. This doesn't mean anything miserable. Life goes on. Do good work and look out for your own interests. Right now, you are almost done. Get it finished and collect the sheepskin. Even if you are a subpar Ph.D., it is still much better on the resume to have one, than not to have one. Especially as you move away from the hothouse of academia, into industry, into flyover country, into the long decades of your productive life. Just get it done, grab the "union card", move on.

  3. Maybe you will never be the end all be all of next gen computational mechanics. But that doesn't mean you aren't a smart guy/girl/thing in certain domains. Consider applying your skills in applied mat sci (yes, even experimental work...you don't have to be Hermione Granger in Potions class...deciding what experiments to do is way more important than technique).

    There are also huge opportunities, cool problems, and a willingness to try things in the US shale oil/gas industry. Get a gig with Halliburton. Yes, it's boom bust, but live for the moment, have fun for a few years and keep your resume updated.

  • 6
    Or, for my two cents, don't work in a field which contributes directly to climate change making the planet uninhabitable for our descendants, even if it's the most profitable one.
    – llama
    Mar 22, 2019 at 0:24
  • I agree with most of this, but while diminishing returns is real, there are also things like network effects. While I have no proof, my suspicion is that at current levels 10 times the P.h.D. students in hard sciences is likely to give more like 11 times the results because it means more community, more opportunities for collaborations, and simply more people slowly working away at the edges of the big problems to open the pathway for the big results. Mar 22, 2019 at 16:44

As a journal associate editor, I can tell you that mediocre work does not get published. I agree with many of the previous contributors that having a paper already published and another 3 in the pipeline is great for a PhD candidate. No one will ever think less of you for working on something different and/or difficult - quite the contrary!

Remember that this is a time for you to learn: learn techniques, yes, but also (and maybe more importantly) analytical skills, writing skills, organizational skills, maybe some teaching skills too. These do not depend at all on how "hot" your research topic might be. Remember too that for many Faculty positions, the search committee will look for interpersonal skills that show you would be willing to collaborate with colleagues. Even if (and that's a big if) your research is indeed only "average", this is only a tiny piece of what makes a successful scientist.

I would like to suggest that maybe the work you are doing now might not be your true passion? In which case, I would strongly recommend that you spend some time thinking about what questions you find really interesting, and see if you can't pursue a postdoctoral fellowship in this area.

Maybe also, have a heart-to-heart conversation about your feelings with your advisor, and ask her to be brutally honest, if you don't think she would naturally be. As an advisor myself, I have been blind-sided by issues I didn't know existed, thinking that everything was good because the student was always upbeat, and didn't want to "bother" me with problems. If I had known earlier, I could have done something about it. Personally, I think it is part of our role as advisors to address some of the emotional and/or life balance reality of graduate work and work in academia in general.

I hope this helps,


Don't give up, reinvent

My father got a PhD in economics--he was somewhat pressured into this, I think. He wanted to do math, but someone showed him how much math there was in econ, he was convinced or gave in or whatever. He ended up really bored with economics, but he got really into production management (statistical quality control, queuing, inventory control, etc in factory production). So, he basically reinvented his career by doing good research in that area, and taught that all his career. He couldn't get tenure since his PhD was in another field, but his articles were hot (he's really smart) and he was able to get good jobs because colleges with production management programs wanted the guy that wrote that stuff.

I think you are in at least as good of a position. You got pushed into working in another modeling scale (I have no idea what those words mean, just going by your question) that isn't what you were really interested in. If your advisor is keeping you funded after pushing you into doing work you weren't interested in, it could be guilt, or a sense of responsibility, instead of pity [I'm being somewhat harsh here, I don't know you or the advisor, but I think you should consider that you were not wanting to go in the direction you were pushed in, and, if anything, the advisor owes you].

This is the beginning of your career, not the end

Finish your PhD, and then figure out how to do the research you really want to do. If my dad could have a career in an entirely different field, you can definitely have one in the exact same field, working with a different scale. You are not tied to what you are doing now for the rest of your life, and you will not have the disadvantage my father had in that he was really working completely outside his PhD.

My advice is that feeling guilty or inadequate is using up your emotional energy in a completely useless way. You don't know yet what you would be capable of, working in the field you really wanted to work in. Learn from this experience for your future decisions--don't let people in power push you in a direction you don't want to go. Take the negative aspects of what is going on now and use them as your rock in future negotiations. "I'm not going to get into that situation again, because I know how badly it turns out."

Don't compare yourself to others when the playing field is not level

Your colleagues are working in the field of your advisor, for an advisor with a lot of expertise in that field. You are working in a field outside of your advisor's expertise and outside of what you were personally interested in (if I'm interpreting correctly). It's unfair to yourself to compare the impact of your publications, when they had a huge advantage over you.

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