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I am 31 soon to be 32, I don't know what I am doing with my life. I have a PhD in computational chemistry from a top 50 world ranking university. But, it did not turn out well and took too long to complete(6years), mostly my fault. I published few papers in applied journals, but my knowledge is just mediocre. My grades in the graduate courses were abysmal and many were irrelevant, so had to do a lot of self study. I believe I am just not smart enough for academia or research.

Everyone in my research group and my friend circle were always high achieving as students, they have in-depth knowledge about their subjects. They also struggle during their PhD and Postdoc, but they are smart and knowledgeable in their fields unlike me. I have been a mediocre student throughout. In undergrad my GPA was 3.4, 3.75 in master's and PhD degree. I even flunked three subjects in my undergrad. I had to repeat them. I shouldn't have gone beyond my undergrad degree.

I just got lucky with my master's degree and PhD completion. I would have been thrown out for not being upto the mark in any other university. I think my advisor and my committee members took pity on me.

I have no industrial experience or internship experience. I am not confident about my career path. I like doing research and working in my research field, but I am no good. I just don't have the knowledge and intelligence to do work of any significance. No, it's not imposter syndrome.

I am just making myself unemployable as time passes. I am suffering mentally and current situation is not helping. I am going to be stuck alone and poor in this world.

Currently I am a postdoc with my advisor as she probably took pity on me. I have a year contract to be expiring next year in April.

Any advice?

  • Wrote an answer a long time ago that I completely stand by. Summary - it doesn't matter if you are "unsuccessful" where you currently are. If you like it, you do it. For reference, I'm in a similar age bracket as yours and can relate with you. – displayName Aug 27 at 22:40
  • Imposter syndrome. You are doing fine. From TOP 50 schools? You can easily find job in lover tier unies – SSimon Aug 28 at 1:24
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Academia has convinced you of things that are not true.

Your post has a strong air of imposter syndrome about it, but let's assume that you are largely correct. You managed to qualify for a PhD with an undergrad record that was not truly excellent, but you still managed to qualify for a PhD. Most undergrad records are not sufficient to do that. GPA of 3.4 isn't "mediocre student" unless your school goes in for some severe grade inflation. You stumbled through your PhD in 6 years - longer than you would have liked - but you still managed to get through it. Many who go for PhDs drop out somewhere along the way. You would have gotten thrown out at any other university... but you got your degree from a top 50 school? No. No, that does not compute. You got your degree from a top 50 school.

From the facts on the ground, you do have good qualifications. Further, your core is a lot stronger than you think. You state the it taking too long was "mostly your fault". Probably you're describing running out of psychological resources of various sorts and therefore not being able to utterly power through at every point. Yeah... that's the kind of marathon a PhD is. The fact that you had to pick up a bunch of this stuff from self-study actually reflects well on you. It's additional difficulty that you had to plow through on your way up, and your willingness and ability to do so are also good traits.

Mostly? You sound seriously burned out. You spent all that you could of your psychological resources in order to make it across the finish line, and then you went looking and dug deeper and found more, and spent those too. You finally got your degree (go you!) and now the bill is coming due. This is normal. It sucks, but it's normal. Coronavirus is almost certainly making it suck worse, because Coronavirus makes basically everything suck worse for everybody. What you need is rest. Rest, take care of yourself, re-establish a degree of a social life, reconnect with the things that you enjoy, and generally take care of yourself. Nourish your soul, and allow yourself to heal. You have a solid position until April. There's time in there to recover, and you should take it. Once you've had some time to recover, I suspect that you'll find the situation is not nearly so terrible... and there are places in industry where "I have a PhD" is a serious qualification all by itself.

Actually, I suspect that that's the final part of your problem. You've been aiming at the top of your target range at every level up until now. You got into a PhD program at a top 50 school, after all. That's how you do that thing. Now you've hit a point where you look at the top of the target range for "graduated a top 50 school with a PhD" and you don't think you can hack it. You know? You're probably right about that... but that's also normal. Every time you hit that top bracket, the people around you get smarter and the challenges greater. There's no shame in being the middle of the best of the best rather than the best of the best of the best. Once you recover emotionally, start looking at positions a notch or two down from where you were looking before. I suspect that you'll be able to find places where you can do things you enjoy and contribute meaningfully without burning yourself out in the same way, and places that will be delighted to get you... especially with your demonstrated willingness and ability to self-study when necessary.

One little anecdote: I have an aunt who ran one of the shared biochem labs at her university for many years. It was a position that only required a Masters, but she had a PhD. Still, they were happy to have her there, and happy with the moderate amount of low-pressure experimentation and publishing that she did with spare time and resources. She, in turn, rather enjoyed being able to talk with the grad students without being terribly intimidating, but also pull out her doctorate when one of them was insufficiently respectful. There's lots of positions out there that you're plenty qualified for, or even overqualified for. If you're willing to put them in your view, I suspect that things will not look so dire.

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Sorry, almost certainly imposter syndrome. You have the misfortune of having studied with (other) good students and you are probably comparing yourself unfairly. Abysmal grades: irrelevant. Self study: yay. Pity: unlikely. Extra time in degree: entirely common. Your fault: maybe, but so what? Own your future.

Take a deep breath. Have a culturally appropriate beverage. Confidence will come with practice. Give the post-doc your best shot. Keep self studying. I think you'll be fine. Just relax.

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    +1 to eliminate the down vote for which I see no justification: Down voters, please do comment – user2768 Aug 27 at 14:46
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Be kind to yourself. Give yourself a break.

You are not amongst the best? Of course not, in academia you are only one amongst the brightest. There is always a bigger fish. This is no longer necessarily the case when you leave academia. Being amongst capable people are an opportunity for you: to learn.

Do you enjoy research? You say, yes. That's the most important thing. When I was a student, someone of same age, but much smarter and wiser than me once said to me that the important thing is not brilliance, not prizes, not being the first that matters, but enjoying what you do and doing a good and honest job (after all, you published journal papers). And, if I may add, persistence. I know people who made a career by honest, persistent, good-quality (i.e. craftsmanshiplike) research.

If top-rank academia is too cut-throat for you, perhaps there is for you some smaller college lectureship (if you like teaching) or a nice research job in industry (if you don't).

Take stock what you like to do, be honest not only about the things you are not good at, but also about what you are good at and use these to guide your reflection.

And treat yourself like you would treat someone else in the same situation. What advice would you give them from the outside?

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    +1 to eliminate the down vote for which I see no justification: Down voters, please do comment – user2768 Aug 27 at 14:46
  • +1 for "there is always a bigger fish." – Andreas Blass Aug 28 at 2:02
  • Man, if only academia was still attracting the brightest... Not true in my field. – Industrademic Aug 28 at 2:16
  • @Industrademic Fact is that in academia it's a good bet that one (e.g. OP) is competing with the brighter people in the field. If it's not the case in your area or in your career, that's a sad turn of events, but this would (or should) be expected to be the default. – Captain Emacs Aug 28 at 3:04
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Leave it behind for a few years. If its right for you you'll find your way back to it. Go backpack in a foreign country. Live with people completely different than you. You've lived in a bubble of academia for too long and have lost touch with other aspects of your self. Reconnect with those aspects and latent talents and interests will surely emerge.

I speak from experience. Same age as you, when things didn't feel right in my career I took several years to travel and find myself. Don't let the social pressure of your academic bubble prevent you from following your inner self.

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Sounds like a research career is not a great fit for you. As you are no doubt aware yourself, a strong track record of published research is crucial for success in academia. But it is just one of the things you need. You also need to have a lot of enthusiasm about your work, so that you can get other people (especially grant committees and universities where you apply for tenure track) excited about it.

There is a huge segment of the industry where your advanced technical training is in high demand. Many manufacturing companies, pharmaceuticals, biotech all have a need for people with a good knowledge of chemistry. Even if you consider yourself as "not a real chemist" given your computational focus (IMO not correct, since you still took the classes and learned the theory), computational skills are even more highly demanded by the industry.

So since it sounds like research is not working out, I would suggest you consider your job prospects in the industry. Your biggest hurdle will probably be lack of non-academic work experience - them's the breaks, every PhD has to get over that. On the other hand, your advisor sounds like an extremely compassionate, caring person. I don't think I've ever met anyone in my scientific career who would hire underqualified people out of pity, I wouldn't do it either. But since you got lucky there, you should ask her for advise with getting your first industry job. She may very well have industry connections that could help you out.

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Get out of academe. Start looking for industry jobs, immediately. You will almost certainly be happier. Imposter syndrome or not, you are miserable. With a degree from a top 50 school you will land a comfortable industry job, and not be poor. Many companies will allow you to do your own research, and the fact that you do not have a driving passion for your own line of research will in fact be a factor that makes you happy in carrying our the research agendas of your employer.

Seriously; make a resume out of your CV, get on some job search sites, hit up every one of your friends in industry on LinkedIn, and move to where you are happier.

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  • +1, I would have made the same post if you hadn't beaten me to it. Perhaps the worst aspect of academia is how much it distorts people's perceptions. There's this weird focus on being "the best" (something which is literally not achievable anyway), whereas in regular old industry and government jobs, the focus is on getting the work done. No one cares if you got good grades, or even a lot of times what degrees you have, but rather, can you deliver? – HFBrowning Aug 28 at 16:31
  • Plenty, and arguably more, opportunity to be the best in industry. The best engineers, mathematicians, social scientists, biologists, chemists, etc do not work for academe, as much as those in this culture hate to hear this. – Industrademic Sep 3 at 0:39

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