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I did my PhD in computational materials science. I used molecular dynamics simulations and finite element method to carry out my research investigations. I have published several publications and about to defend my thesis next month.

But, I did not take any classes on finite element analysis or molecular dynamics during my undergraduate or graduate school. Whatever theory I know about them is through self study and through work experience. I understand the concepts of the methods, but I never got a chance to have a formal course with exams and assignments on the subjects. So, my self study hasn't been very meticulous.

Now, I feel like a charlatan, and don't feel like I deserve a PhD degree. I am also feeling lost and like a loser. Saddest thing is that, I passed all my qualifiers, proposals and no one questioned my abilities.

I don't know what can I do to feel confident again. I am 31 years old. I always thought that by the end of PhD I will be a confident researcher.

  • 82
    Have you considered that you actually are quite knowledgeable, but might have a case of impostor syndrome? Please do read that question and the answers to it. – Anyon Aug 23 at 14:28
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    Do you expect to go on taking formal courses, with exams and assignments, for the rest of your life? Or will you go on developing your self-study skills so you can learn the latest research by reading papers and attending conferences? – Patricia Shanahan Aug 23 at 14:29
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    Motivated self-study is often more thorough than unmotivated coursework. As long as you mean that you read scholarly literature and spent time reflecting on the implications, and not that you skimmed the Wikipedia article. – Luke Sawczak Aug 23 at 14:51
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    I've taken so many formal courses and aced exams the content of which I have long forgotten. I would guess a PhD in the subject gave you an understanding far deeper than the one you would have got from a course. – user2723984 Aug 23 at 17:46
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    Earning a PhD is about demonstrating your ability to do research. You learned about the necessary methods through self study, sounds like research to me. – JenB Aug 24 at 14:40

13 Answers 13

73

First, learn something about Imposter Syndrome. This sounds like a classic case of it. You have been a success already. Your advisor, I assume, had no doubts about your ability. So try to just ignore the "feelings" and keep on doing what you do.

Success comes from hard work, not from feeling like you are capable of it. Your feelings might well change as you produce more in your field. But even if they don't, you can still be a success.

But I suggest, also, that you build up a circle of collaborators that you can interact with. You will learn from them, but you may also learn from them that you have all the necessary qualifications.

Moreover, your education needn't end when you finish your degree. Books and papers can help you fill in the formal bits you think you lack. Your advisor has, I hope, given you feedback. The same will be true of reviewers of papers you submit. If they don't notice and lack, then you probably aren't lacking in fact. At least not by a lot. Everyone can learn at every stage of life.

37

PhDs in the UK include few or no formal classes, they are entirely research based. Most topics studied at PhD are too advanced to be studied at undergraduate, and most people don't do masters degree before doing PhDs. Thus almost no UK PhDs have taken classes in the formal theoretical underpinning in the topic of their PhD.

For most things I have studied in my career, I have taken no formal classes in. My degree and my previous experience taught me how to teach myself, but also to be aware of the limits of my knowledge, and to know when to ask someone more expert in what I was doing. And yet here I am, a funded PI in a permanent position, with a perfectly respectable publication record.

In one part of my career though I did get a chance to do some retraining to move from being an experimentalist to being a computationalist - a 3 year retraining program. I had already been doing some computational work for a while, but felt like I was making it up as I went along, so thought this was an amazing chance to gain a formal footing in it.

The training turned out to be only a small amount of formal training and a larger amount of project based, on the job learning. Part of the reason for this is that formal training at that level does not exist, it cannot, things are too specialist, and change too fast. The best way to learn things, beyond a few basics is to study the literature, take part in discussions and try things out. It turns out everyone in the field is making things up as the go along to an extent - that's the point of research, to try new things. Some of the deep theoretical roots have come over time, through immersion, use and deep thought, but not through formal learning.

5

I am also feeling lost and like a loser.

You are an established expert in molecular dynamics simulations and finite element methodology now. With so many publications that is no longer under debate. Yes, you did not learn the fundamentals and there will always be the fear that there is a kink in your knowledge that might expose you as an "imposter". That seems a reasonable fear. However, you have now leaped miles ahead and published papers that have been proven to be novel and exciting and new. Are you saying that the editors and all the peer reviewers made a mistake when they published each of your papers??

Could you also be feeling anticipatory anxiety? The fear increases as you approach the PhD finishing line? PhDs are far more structured than post-docs or working as an independent researcher, so it is very understandable that you would be anxious as more responsibility is expected from you when you leave. Anxiety always increases as you approach a change in circumstances. There may also be fear, when you change teams or work for a new institution, that new colleagues might test and find you wanting. That is also very common.

One way to break the anxiety cycle is to organise and celebrate your achievements. Organise something energetic and fun. You deserve to reward yourself. Get a couple of great massages, etc. Finishing a PhD is a massive win in anyone's books.

PS: I do not think anyone ever feels confident. Feeling unconfident is fine. Most researchers go through their whole lives feeling unconfident. There will always be more to know and someone better than you...

4

The PhD degree is a qualification standard rather to do research in your field, publish, acquire funding etc. than being a qualified teacher. As a possible professor looking for tenure you have to have and show this ability.

Also you stated you still not defend your PhD! But your oral defense is normally not only a presentation and scrutinization of your PhD work by the examiners. Often fundamental questions more or less related to your PhD topic and theories of your field will normally be asked by the committee to test your general knowledge or if you are a very narrow-minded specialist. So, I have never seen someone not graduating with a PhD being unable to answer most of such questions, as most questions after the defense circle around the results. But for the best grade a thorough and broad background is necessary imho or you are lucky that only easy questions hit you.

If it is your feeling or assessment that you are not at all as knowledgable as your colleagues on the underlying theories of your field after several years of research, then I would think twice about pursuing an academic career, because there is not much time left to make up for the knowledge gap competing with them for tenure. Teaching quality and ability is a distinct and important criterion among several to judge post-docs for professorship.

The impostor syndrome has nowadays become a general mantra and excuse, so I don't see how it helps someone to judge critically his personal situation and abilities and succeed in his academic career, which will always be as unique as yours. This phenomenon might exist like Loch Ness by simply everyone repeating it, yet, it more detracts you from asking yourself what your actual abilities are, which brought you up to ask this question here, at least this is my understanding. If you lack theoretical background, try to gain more the next years if possible and if there is sufficient time. Relying on the impostor syndrome will be a sad consolation when you don't meet your personal academic goals finally.

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    +1 because I value the different viewpoint in this answer, but I disagree with the third paragraph. Maybe the OP really is weak in theory (i.e. as you suggest, imposter syndrome is not the whole story), but I wouldn't jump from there to "you shouldn't be in academia". Rather, I would ask questions/make suggestions like "how can you assess whether you really are weak in theory? how can you mitigate the problem? how much of a handicap would weakness in theory really be if you're strong in applications/can collaborate/know what you don't know?" – Ben Bolker Aug 23 at 18:02
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    @BenBolker "how can you assess whether you really are weak in theory?" this is a separate question. Even as a professor of experimental physics you need a thorough background and understanding of the theories, for research and teaching. Mitigitation of theoretical background is very difficult in STEM fields. In some fields in physics you need several years to understand mathematical methodology and theories before doing research, so time is surely a factor imho. A PhD doesn't guarentee any ot it, that's why I think the impostor syndrome is everything else than helpful to judge yourself. – user48953094 Aug 23 at 19:01
4

Several answers have properly pointed out that you have in fact honorably earned the PhD you are about to be awarded. Congratulations.

In your work you needed several tools (finite element analysis, molecular dynamics), Clearly you understood those tools well enough to use them correctly to do good science. You need not know all about how they work any more than you need to know how the engine in your car works in order to drive to work.

In your ongoing career you may in fact want to know more about those tools so that you can use them better or even improve them. Perhaps look for a postdoctoral appointment that will offer you that chance.

3

I did my PhD in computational materials science. I used molecular dynamics simulations and finite element method to carry out my research investigations

I will presume you also have used a library without a librarian degree. To be less flippant and a closer metaphor, not unlikely wrote some software without a CS or information engineering degree.

It is not your job to question the adequacy of your thesis, that's up to your advisor and especially the examiners at your viva.

Even more as the Defending your doctoral thesis: the PhD viva page says

Be ready to admit if you don't know the answer to a question

It's okay. Even if you had formal classes on a topic in the past you simply could've forgotten it by now.

  • “It is not your job to question the adequacy of your thesis” seems a bit too far-reaching a statement. I'd say it's always good to question the quality of one's own research. For sure it's always possible that minor mistakes slip through peer-review and if noticed by the author then they should most definitely take the appropriate action (errandum). – leftaroundabout Aug 25 at 22:30
  • Finding minor mistakes and questioning the complete adequacy of your thesis are on entirely different levels. – chx Aug 25 at 22:45
3

Most people don't reach any particular theoretical depth or insight until about Post-Doc or even Assistant Professor time (if ever).

There are some rare birds with sick intuition and insight already at PhD student level, but you should not compare yourself with those. Just work hard and do your best.

Also you seem to have fallen into the trap to believe that a PhD diploma represents stamp of approval for "final knowledge form" in some sense. This is not true at all. The best researchers keep learning and ramp up their speed even higher with increased experience.

The PhD is just to get you started. To have some kind of training and platform to stand on in your future endeavors in life.

3

I'll be brief and practical:

I don't know what can I do to feel confident again.

  1. Consider a combination of humility and confidence, rather than trying to attain full confidence. I've never been confident about my PhD field of research, and I did take the relevant courses...
  2. Swallow your pride and ask for permission to sit in on a Finite Element Analysis and/or a Molecular Dynamics course (not for credit). Tell them you what you told us: You have some knowledge gaps you need to fill.
  3. Alternatively to (2.): Get textbooks for those courses; read the parts covered by the course syllabus, slowly and carefully, and solve the exercises. Try to get copies of past exams and solve them with a time limit as though you were taking them.

I don't think doing (2.) or (3.) would have such a huge effect, but at least you'd need a different excuse for feeling deficient (which it seems you aren't).

2

I commend you for your honesty with yourself. I think that what you wrote in your post shows that you hold yourself to a high standard. I take that as a sign that you have healthy degree of self-esteem. That's all good.

Since you are being awarded a PhD without having taken any of the courses you say you are lacking, I must conclude that such courses were not central to your field. Such courses may be central to other fields and careers, but not to yours. If so, I think that you can get comfortable with having "only" a practitioner's knowledge of those areas. Yes, you won't have had the experience of having seen the material from the perspective of a formal course, but that is not necessarily a bad thing.

Just remember that neither Frank Lloyd Wright, Le Corbusier, Walter Gropius, nor Mies van der Rohe, all giants of 20th c. architecture, ever took a university exam in architecture. They managed OK.

If you still feel that you want that classroom perspective on the material, then take class! Do a post-doc at some university where you can sit in the kind of class you feel you need.

Or better yet, get yourself an academic position somewhere, and teach a course of the subject you want to learn. I am being only half-facetious. It is well known that professors often teach those subjects that they themselves want to learn.

1

I have had a situation similar you, with the support of my sister that she is very younger than me. I could manage it, approximately. It is not important that you are being qualified as much as you have had a good presentation. Now, the most important thing for you should be how to present your final thesis and your ideas. My suggestions to you:

  1. check your final presentations and thesis with a friend as an editor. It is not very important that the degree of he/she is what.
  2. Give a pattern from a good and an exciting presentation and try to match your final presentation with it.
  3. Consider major concerns about your presentation and focus on them. For example, consider how to show your oral defense as animations, images of your idea, diagrams from your data, etc. These techniques even improve your theoretical background.
  4. You are respectable as much as your reviewers. Hence, be polite first with yourself, and then with your audience. Practice, practice and practice to be similar a polite and expert man, especially for your oral presentation. For this you can record your voice, and even distribute it as a voluntary content publishing to increase your chance to have a good feeling about your challenge and feedback.
1

Logical analysis of your conclusion

Your conclusion is:

I don't have the theoretical background

But your supporting arguments fail to support that conclusion:

Whatever theory I know about them is through self study and through work experience. I understand the concepts of the methods, but I never got a chance to have a formal course with exams and assignments on the subjects. So, my self study hasn't been very meticulous.

Let's take those sentences in order...

Whatever theory I know about them is through self study and through work experience.

This is actually 2 statements against your conclusion: 1) you have studied the topics on your own, and 2) you have work experience in the topics. Both of those are supporting evidence of having theoretical background, not of lacking it.

I understand the concepts of the methods, but I never got a chance to have a formal course with exams and assignments on the subjects.

Again, 2 statements in 1 sentence.

1) I understand the concepts of the methods

I can only repeat what I said for the previous sentence. This is another statement supporting the presence of theoretical background, not the lack of it.

2) I never got a chance to have a formal course with exams and assignments on the subjects.

We are now 4 statements in before we find one that does not counter your conclusion. This neither counters it nor supports it. This is a neutral statement on its own (though combined with a later statement it will help your conclusion a little).

Having a formal course with exams and assignments is not the only way to have the theoretical background. In fact, exams and many assignments do not provide you with it at all, they tend to be merely a measuring tool to see if you have the knowledge, not a vector of providing it.

So, my self study hasn't been very meticulous.

If you had just said "My self study hasn't been very meticulous," then I may have been more concerned. However, you prefixed it with "So, […]" That makes a difference.

If this statement is a conclusion from the preceding statements (I.e., the prefixing "so"), then it is utter nonsense. No preceding statements lead to this conclusion.

If, on the other hand, the prefix was not meant in that way and this is a separate assertion you are making, then let's include that in the analysis: If you combine this with "I never got a […] formal course" with "[…]hasn't been very meticulous" then we finally have the first bit of logic to support the conclusion in your title.

Solution

If "[…]hasn't been very meticulous" is true to the point that your understanding is lacking - which is not given, but could be true - then all you need to do is study more meticulously.

Identify the classes that you are worried about not being knowledgeable enough about. Buy the textbooks for those classes. Study them meticulously. Now your problem is fixed.

...but you might be just fine how you are

My situation was not all the same, but there are some comparisons that should be useful to you.

My father studied electrical engineering, and I studied his college textbooks while I was young. In high school, I studied textbooks for my own chosen topic. In college I expected to learn many new things, but instead I was quite disappointed. I found that I did not encounter anything in formal courses for my field that improved my theoretical background until close to the end of my studies. And even then, there wasn't much that I had missed from my own private studies in high school, and what little I did miss could have been taken care of by buying the textbooks for those classes and doing more self study.

So I was at one time in a position similar to yours, of having the self-study book-taught knowledge and hoping for more from formal classes. Now, I am in the position that you might be considering: I have since taken the classes. I did get a little bit out of those classes, but it was certainly not worth the time that I sunk into the entire ordeal and I regret the time I lost.

Whether it would be worth it is something you need to figure out for yourself. If your statement "was not meticulous" is true enough, maybe it would be worth it for you. But if you suffered imposter syndrome as I did, you'll mostly be reinforcing the self confidence in realizing that you already knew it.

0

Look, it sounds like you are very highly qualified. In order to feel better about yourself I would suggest approaching the course instructors at your college and offering to be a TA for the courses you feel you might have needed. You will then be able to see firsthand how much and how effective your knowledge is.

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Something that I didn't see anyone else mention, and it is REALLY important for you to understand.

A PhD is not so much about mastering what is already known about some topic, as it is in venturing out into the unknown, and becoming QUITE LITERALLY the world's FIRST (and, necesssarily, foremost) authority on what was previously unexplored territory. You are doing something that NOBODY has done before. You are researching something that NOBODY has researched before, or (at best or worst, take your pick) the previous researchers failed to do what you successfully did - or are setting out to do.

You did that.

Master's Degrees are for learning a lot about what is already known. Doctorates are for doing something NEW. You did that.

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