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I'm doing my bachelor's thesis at a foreign university in Northern Europe. I come from a equally strong university in Europe and have always been one of the better students at my own university. The group I'm working in right now is very well known for its work.

Since I started my project there two weeks ago I feel very stressed and progressively stupid though. I work with two master's students (doing their one year degree project) and one PhD student on a big project. They are all very nice and I get good supervision, but I just feel completely incompetent.

I tried to get the adjustments for my machine right for almost two days straight now, came extra early in and stayed extra long, but didn't manage to pull it off yet. After lunch time I asked one of the PhD students for help with one specific issue I was having. He wanted to help me right away, and while answering my question he got the entire thing up and running in 30 minutes, before he rushed to his next meeting.

I disassembled everything and tried reproducing the results from scratch with the new know-how, but still didn't get it to work on my own today. This is very embarrassing, now I will stand there tomorrow morning, once again empty handed.

I feel discouraged by the pace my three fellow students are progressing with their project to be honest. They are much more productive than me. I fear to make a bad impression in comparison to them.

Do you have some tips on how to catch up? Would it be acceptable to go to the lab on the weekends? Should I do that?

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    Better to take your mind off it and get some rest and/or exercise. Some things almost work themselves out with a relaxed mind and attitude. This could be one of those things. – henning -- reinstate Monica Sep 23 at 19:44
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    Give yourself time to learn. You cannot hope to run 100 meters under one second in one go. Also, everyone expects the new person to take some time to come up to speed. What's important is to show the correct attitude to get up to speed. – Prof. Santa Claus Sep 23 at 19:45
  • You say "Foreign University". Is language a problem? – Stig Hemmer Sep 24 at 10:20
  • @StigHemmer No not really. While my written English has some issues I have no problem talking in English. – GDPR Sep 24 at 11:37
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You started only two weeks ago. Relax. The others with whom you interact have played a role in this group for a much longer time. Nobody expects you to immediately replicate their experience.

You tell us how you asked a PhD student for help, and this student was very willing to help you. In fact, they helped you rightaway, and it led to the desired result. This is how a group is supposed to interact, so that is a nice thing. You then do not manage to replicate their solution independently. But you are a Bachelor student and they are a PhD. Don't worry! Ask the same person for help again! Tell them: "Many thanks for your help last time; it was incredibly inspiring. I tried to learn from it by replicating your steps, but I get stuck in place X or Y. Could you perhaps show me how it works?" This implies that you want to learn (by far the most important attribute of a Bachelor or even Master student in a research group), and that you understand parts of the solution the PhD student provided for you but not necessarily all of it. Again, this is an ideal way to fortify collaborations within the group: you show that the help was appreciated, didn't go unnoticed, and that you want to put in the effort to truly understand the solution.

Everybody in your group is there to learn. This holds for the Bachelor students, the Master students, and the PhD students. Do not expect yourself, as a Bachelor student, to instantly be on the PhD student level. Instead, show that you really want to become a part of the group, and that you really want to learn. Your instincts seem to be right to succeed in academia, but you should reframe them: not instantly understanding everything is not a problem, but a desire to learn is an enormous asset. Productivity is less important than a drive to improve yourself.

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  • Exactly. Consider how much you've learned in the first (two?) years of your bachelor, before you started on your thesis. Now think about how much more a PhD student with 3-7 more years experience could have learned. It's entirely normal that they know more than you. – ObscureOwl Sep 24 at 12:57
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    @ObsucreOwl and all the others: Thanks for the encouraging words, today I got it running on my own without help. – GDPR Sep 24 at 14:16
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I think the key words are in the first paragraph: "I'm doing my bachelor's thesis". The two Master's students and the PhD student have been in the business longer than you, so of course they are going to outperform you. It's no different from how you are going to outperform first-year undergraduates. The way forward is to keep at it, and you should get better naturally.

It's usually OK to go into the lab on weekends (it's possible you'll need approval however), but if you're putting in that many hours you might burn out. Bear in mind that it's one thing to be in the lab, another to actually be productive. Further, if you're alone in the lab, you won't have anyone to ask for help if you need it.

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