41

I am in my fifth year and I am about to submit my Applied Mechanics PhD thesis in. However, I always felt absolutely incompetent in the field. I tried improving my weak areas by self study, taking up challenging projects, but always ended up with either abandoning the idea or settling with a less rigorous work.

When I used to talk to my advisor, he used to say that I am doing fine and I shouldn't worry about impact factors and rigour of a work at PhD level as I will eventually learn more and get more opportunities as I advance in my career.

However, I feel that I wasted my PhD. I am searching for postdoc positions, but I feel incompetent for the openings. I feel that even if I do get response back, I will get rejected due to my poor knowledge.

I also feel that I should have worked harder and not have wasted time in my past. I also tried making connections during my conferences, but that did not anywhere.

I screwed up big time. I am 30 years old. No work experience. And a mediocre PhD. I messed up really badly.

Is there a way to redeem my career?

  • 89
    Try searching this forum for imposter syndrome, you aren't the only one to think negatively about your work. – user2768 Mar 29 at 10:11
  • 8
    Please check out the questions for the emotional responses tag. Your question is not an exact duplicate, but the kind of issue that you are encountering is frequent. You're not alone, and your advisor is most likely right. He has more experience than you to make this assessment. – henning -- reinstate Monica Mar 29 at 10:36
  • 52
    "A mediocre PhD" is still better than what 99% of people have achieved. – Anonymous Physicist Mar 29 at 10:48
  • 32
    Do you know what people call the person who finishes with the worst score in medical school? Doctor. – JS Lavertu Mar 29 at 16:13
  • 8
    I shouldn't worry about impact factors and rigour of a work at PhD level — He's absolutely correct about impact factors, even after the PhD level. But he's absolutely wrong about rigor, even before the PhD level. – JeffE Mar 29 at 22:51
44

I think your situation is not unique. If you look around academia.SE (as user2768 suggested, search for "impostor syndrome"), you will find that many PhD students have the same feeling about their work or their career path. See How should I deal with discouragement as a graduate student? for example. I hope this gives you some comfort -- sometimes it helps to know that other people are in similar situations -- and you will find some advice in the answers which works out for you.

The advice of your advisor seems reasonable in the sense that often one looks for the perfect solution from scratch, which is a path that rarely brings the desired results. I found that research is done in an iterative way, where you steadily improve and refine the methods and thereby the results. Of course, academic rigor must not be neglected. The impact factor is in my opinion indeed overrated, but this may depend on your field.

Don't let that stop you from applying and attending job/PostDoc position interviews. If you do nothing, you may end up in a spiral downwards since naturally there will be no progress in your career. And even if you fail at an interview, at least you gain experience what is required to succeed.

  • 21
    If you read his first autobiography, you'll find even Richard Feynman suffered from a form of Imposter Syndrome, after his gig working on the Manhattan Project ended. We could all hope to one day be just as much of an imposter as Feynman. – T.E.D. Mar 29 at 16:39
  • 8
    The "imposter syndrome" is mentioned so frequently that I just felt the necessity to do a websearch to see what the opposite of the imposter syndrome is. I'm not saying that this is the case here, but I think that unconditional encouragement might not have the best long-term effects. I mean, there are people out there who screw things up... – Marco13 Mar 31 at 15:26
  • 2
    @Marco13 The opposite also comes up on this site quite a bit: the Dunning-Kruger effect. – Kimball Mar 31 at 16:20
  • 10
    @Kimball That's not what I meant. Imagine someone trying to write a proper PhD thesis. And imagine that he does not get himself together, does waste time, and is incompetent (all relative terms in view of the high demands, of course). And imagine he reflects, recognizes his flaws and shortcomings, and tells others about that. How would he have to phrase this, exactly, so that they do not assume the "imposter syndrome"? I mean, maybe I'm old-fashioned or whatnot, but there must be people out there who fail miserably at their PhD, and they might just call things as they are... – Marco13 Mar 31 at 20:59
  • @Marco13: Nobody sees themselves exactly as they are. Everybody either has at least a small amount of impostor syndrome, or a small amount of Dunning-Kruger effect. The fact that the OP managed to get his PhD at all means that he should not give up and work in a fast-food restaurant the rest of his life (which seems to be the scenario he is imagining). Even if he doesn't quite have the talent to become a tenured professor at a university, he undoubtedly has more than enough talent for an interesting, rewarding, and lucrative job doing applied mechanics or something similar in industry. – Peter Shor Apr 1 at 12:06
19

Focus on what you can do going forward rather than on mistakes of the past.

Let me tell you about my own situation, which is quite a bit worse than yours and which I am happy with.

I was a top math student in a large school (yeargroup ~1000). I found maths easy and was looking forwards to study it at university. Unfortunately I did very little work at university. Not nothing but little enough to fall behind and drop out of the course. After this I found work as a home carer which I enjoyed and worked hard at but which offered very poor wages and working conditions. I sat in this job for four years before I managed to put enough effort into finding a better job and moved into hospital admin.

After landing a temporary admin role it has been up and up for years now. The turnaround in fortune has been slow but tangible. I started to feel good about myself and my prospects around six months after starting to put some effort into my future. I excelled and found a better role. I saved money, own a home, started a degree, found a wife and have a child on the way. I will graduate in June, aged 30.

Job prospects look pretty good thanks to some AI research I've done.

How does this relate to you?

Well, you haven't screwed up. In the grand scheme of things you've done a lot of things right and you will soon have a PhD in mechanics to prove it!

Lets examine the idea that you "wasted" the last five years. Even if this is true (and the academics here are suggesting that it is not) then it kind of doesn't matter because:

  • you've identified some of the problems and how to do better
  • you have 35+ years in which to do better. So what if you didn't produce an earth shattering result within your PhD. If you start producing high quality work then people will notice.

Where can you go from here?

Set aside some time (a day?) to think about what you want to do in life and how you might get there. You could spend some of this time talking to friends and family. Draw up a list of options and decide which appeals to you the most. Vigorously pursue this option. Your actual career might go off on a complete tangent to the plan but having a plan is a good way to get things started.

Something you might want to consider is doing a non-academic job for a year or two. Hopefully some of the academics on the site will be able to comment on whether or not this will be good for your academic career but from a non-academic perspective it would make you much more well rounded and hopefully expand your horizons.

  • 2
    I like this answer because it demonstrates that life is a fluid thing, plans change, you work with what you have, and your inclinations and abilities will move you forward in certain not-quite-coincidental directions, sometimes unforeseen. – Peter - Reinstate Monica Mar 29 at 17:30
13

The main problem is not with your career, but with your psyche

I was in a position somewhat similar to yours: In a late year in my Ph.D., stuck on some dead-ends, exasperated and thinking I've essentially failed. Wasn't even sure I was going to finish.

I'm not going to tell you that things will pick up and it'll all be Ok, etc. Maybe it will, maybe it won't, or at least not as much as you would like. The point I want to make is that I remember people telling me: "Oh, but you're not doing so bad, you're smarter and more accomplished than 99% of people, and lots of grad students have trouble with their PhD's etc." - this is all true but it wasn't helping me.

It wasn't helping, because I had pinned my sense of self-worth in life on having a certain experience or certain achievements with the PhD. When this did not occur, I felt like a failure - like my life, my identity as a person, was sort of falling apart. There was no me without stellar academic success - and I wasn't really prepared to think about my life otherwise. So whenever I thought about my situation I was subconsciously terrified, mortified.

The disaster - with our without quotes - you are facing is not in your career. I mean, sure, your PhD could have gone better, but it's certainly not a disaster. You need to be able to:

  • Emotionally recognize and accept what you've done and what has happened to you
  • Be able to set goals for yourself given your situation, rather than semi-consciously obsessing over not being in the situation you would rather have been.
  • Have these goals be potentially attainable in terms of the world, and likely satisfying for you personally.
  • Have other aspects of your life on which you can "bank" emotionally, regardless of whether your career/academic pursuits fare better or worse.

Consider reading my answer regarding a situation worse than yours, with more concrete advice:

How to deal with anxiety and depression after being kicked out of PhD program?


Now for a few concrete words about where to go from here.

Well, what is that you want(ed) to do, as a researcher? You talk about it as though it's some sort of game where you need to improve your points in weak areas, overcome challenges for some sort of metaphysical score of accomplishment... why did you enter a PhD program? What did you want to discover, or get to the bottom of, as a researcher?

  • If the answer is "nothing in particular", then it might have been a mistake to enter the PhD program to begin with, and the outcome you ended up with is reasonable, though lackluster, given your motivation.
  • If the answer is "I wanted to explore XYZ" - then who cares about the PhD's quality? Are you still interested in XYZ? If so, think of how to utilize what you've learned and accomplished, and what you know about other people's work, for different avenues into XYZ, in academia or in industry. If not, then think about how to get inspired again about something else. (Yes, I know that is a vague point.)
  • 3
    Great answer. In reality, many people have their first taste of not being a “star” as a PhD student and don’t have the emotional tools for it. – Dawn Mar 30 at 13:12
7

See it the other way around: In the meantime you know at least that you do not know everything about the field. This is an interesting insight and more than many people know (also: "I know that I know nothing").

Your feeling is normal (see also above posts about "impostor syndrome"). A good example is the new group of fresh PhD students every year that think that they know everything and can conquer the world but the deeper they get into academia the more they realise how little they know. This is illustrated (in an ironic way) for example in the well known PhD comics here.

3

You mentioned two key words in your question, "..work experience..." Just block out the noise, finish up your degree, go out there and work; this will provide the experience and build your confidence and competence. Be honest with your prospective employer where you stand in terms of experience but express your willingness to learn. You'll likely start off lower in salary than your peers but take the offer and get your foot in the door. Moreover, never take the path of least resistance in terms of work challenges, it'll bite you later on when you finally get tasked with a huge project. I like that you do self study. Good luck with your career journey, congratulations on your prospective degree and may God bless you.

3

The nice thing about academia is, you most often have a fallback: You can go to industry. They love high trained, clever people. They don't care about papers, impact factors, rigorous PhD theses and so on.

I don't think you should leave academia. But relax, if everything goes wrong, you still have the chance to make a successful career outside of academia.

  • 1
    If you're in applied mechanics, then going into industry should be your aspiration, and staying in academia should be your fallback. (Those that can, do, those that can't, teach). OK, personal bias from one who did a PhD in Computing and then went into industry, but I think if you go into industry you will never suffer from the kind of self-doubt about whether there's any point in what you are doing, you will never be measured on how many citations you can achieve, and you will know you are having an impact without artificial metrics to prove it. You will also earn more. – Michael Kay Mar 31 at 18:18
2

Is there a way to redeem your career? Of course there is, but it depends on what you really want out of your career.

The most important questions to answer are, "What do I enjoy doing?" and "What am I good at". You seem to have questions about that latter (at least relative to other PhD candidates in the same field), but it is not clear to most responders here that your feelings are completely based in reality. Many people are unsure of themselves. It can be a very good thing if humility and a rational comprehension of your weaknesses drives you to learn more and work harder. It can be very harmful to your success if a lack of confidence keeps you from attempting hard or unsure things.

What do faculty at research universities actually do? Teach, guide students at various levels, write proposals, creatively think of problems to solve and how to solve them, exercise technical expertise, write and publish papers, travel and speak, serve on department committees, self-promote, and compete against one another. How many of those things do you enjoy doing, or are you good at, or preferably, both? If "not many" is the answer, then whether you are better than 99.9999% or just 99.9% of people in the world at Applied Mechanics is irrelevant: find something else to do. You are smart and quantitative and can compete quite effectively in many many valued roles in society.

What elements of your own work or work you've seen around you actually excite you; do you find inherently interesting just because of who you are and what they are? Find a career that overlaps as much as possible and then pick a post-doc or industrial job or peace corps stint or MBA or whatever that gets you closer to doing those things.

It is actually not all that rare for a smart person to go quite far in their education before they found out that they are not all that interested in their field (or in an academic approach to it). Starting out, the challenges of just going through the process can be interesting enough and obscure an underlying apathy.

If, after reflection, you really do want an academic career in a particlar field, then do whatever honorable things it takes to succeed there. If you are not all that happy with your thesis, then work hard to get a post-doc with the most famous person you can in an area most of interest to you. Who will help you get several really sexy publications?

If you really don't want an academic career, get out asap (after getting the degree...) Write code, design or build machines, solve problems, teach at a different level. Get an industrial job that both overlaps with your applied mechanics background and will expose you as much as possible to other roles in R&D, product development, business, management,and human society in general.

"Do what you love" beats "Follow down the path I'm on because I'll feel like a failure if I don't" by a thousand miles.

0

Cheer up, seek out a counselor working on your fears. "It is not fun, if it's not fun" We all have ups & down's.

I was properly educated in Industrial Technology, I eventually had a carrier of 27+ years in Information Technology as a Systems & Network Engineer Level 3. Both required advanced problem solving and attention to details!

I'm the guy that walks into a machine room. Finds the ORANGE light, and turn's it GREEN. The device doesn't matter. Green was my job! Or is was the guy that could machine, forge, identify, weld, bond, measure, compose, print. Any project using metal, wood, ink, emulsion, and complete a project manipulating those media with appropriate tools, to 1/1000 of an inch tolerance. Cutting a 2x6 with only a hand saw, perfectly plum & square (I can still do that).

Seek out happy folks, not in the basement of a Victorian building. I'm 2x your age, have the life equivalent of 5+ Ph.D.'s.

I am able to keep a conversation with a PD-EE (power distribution, electrical engineer) to a Major MD/Ph.D. researcher in Virology.

From Educators clueless about a specific Learning Disability to teaching a son "the best coping skills" an MD/Ph.D. specializing in Learning Disabilities has ever seen!

Another phrase "don't worry be happy" that is even a song, folks of my age were tortured with on the radio, in college. I know stuff, you do too!

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.