I just started a STEM PhD before last christmas and whilst things are going okay, I still feel like I'm not good enough and don't deserve the opportunity. I guess it's some form of imposter syndrome but it's driving me to become irrationally attached to my work because I lack confidence that it's good enough to impress my supervisor.

I consistently overwork myself and as a result my personal life is suffering- I even feel bad about taking weekends off. None of what I do feels like it's good enough and I constantly feel like a failure- I have a presentation in the next few weeks to present my project progress and I'm dreading it.

How do I ditch this mentality?


5 Answers 5


Many universities have a "counseling" office that can help with such things. But, I agree that it is probably imposter syndrome as you have moved to a situation in which your peers are more skilled than in the past. You probably stood out from the crowd in the past and now you don't, most likely.

But you have affirmation, just by being where you are, that you are worth it.

It is hard during a pandemic, but developing some social relationships with your peers can help. When I was a doctoral student, some of us played paddleball, rode bikes, played softball, etc. just to help keep our sanity.

But if the pressures are mostly internal, you can also set limits that seem artificial. For example, exercise for an hour before lunch every day. Get some aerobic exercise for a few hours every week end - on schedule.

You may find that these breaks aren't unproductive to your work, actually. Your brain will continue processing "stuff" even when you aren't staring at a computer screen. In fact, too-long hours can be counterproductive, producing blocks.

Give yourself a break, but also try to talk to a professional.


The short answer is: hard as it may seem, remember that we have all been there. You will be shocked to think back in a few years how little you knew at the very beginning. It's normal. You will catch on. Just keep in mind that your supervisor gave you the opportunity, so they think you are capable of succeeding.

As for overworking: it seems to me to have a root in perfectionism. I like the idea of countering perfectionism with perfectionism: once you realize that the situation is not sustainable, you know that it isn't ideal, and you need to change something to stay productive in the long run. It seems you have already figured that out. I recommend doing some reading on productivity (I really benefitted from reading How to be a happy academic by Clark and Sousa). Start by implementing small changes right now, e.g., take an hour every day for playing your favorite instrument, make a strict rule not to work on Sundays, tell people close to you about this so they assist you with it, etc.

For more theory on how to stay sane in life in general, you may want to reflect on the eight ways to well-being.

Finally, if you compare yourself to others, don't just look at the "rock stars" for which everything seems to work out easily. More common are situations like in this question, or in this question.

  • Agree with the perfectionism, it is a killer. But about hard work, I think if you ever want to work hard and long in your life the PhD and post-doc time might be the best moment for that.
    – lalala
    May 28, 2021 at 8:05
  • @lalala Of course. When you love what you do, you can put in a lot. But even then you shouldn't overdo it, otherwise you can still burn out pretty rapidly. Also, and this is also highlighted in the book I mentioned, you need time breaks to maintain your creativity.
    – cheersmate
    May 28, 2021 at 11:27

I agree with everything Buffy said: this is very common for graduate students and that therapy can help a lot.

I want to add something which is difficult to carefully state but which I think is also important. I have no doubt that you belong in your graduate program (the experts on who to accept to that graduate program chose you!), and no doubt that you can get a PhD. But there's an entirely separate question here which is whether you're happy and whether graduate school is a good situation for you to thrive. Being a PhD student is a job, and if you're unhappy in a job you might try finding ways to make yourself more happy in it, but you might also consider whether there are other jobs you'd like more. Academia is very challenging from a time-management point of view, and a lot of other jobs make it a lot easier to not feel guilty about not working on the weekend. Which is all to say, you deserve to be happy as well as successful, and you should also give yourself permission to ask whether you'd be happier in a job that had more structure. Therapy is also a good way to approach this kind of question of whether the reasons you're unhappy in your job are about your approach to the job or about the job itself.


What @Buffy said!

Try not to worry about trying to impress your supervisor. A supervisor should view a PhD student as a colleague in training and they want to help you to realise your potential. There will come a time when you will impress your supervisor, but it is likely to be later in the project when you know more about your particular topic than they do, because you have studied it in detail and they haven't. This is part of the progression, just like an apprentice cabinet maker or any other profession.

Overworking leads to doing less work of lower quality because you will be tired. Treat resting and enjoying your leisure activities as essential preparation for work*?

  • may contain trace amounts of hypocrisy ... or perhaps not trace at all. This is much easier said than done, but try to get into the habit early because it gets progressively harder to break as you get older and tireder.

What is your goal? What is your objective?

If you don't have a clear goal, you will end up measuring yourself against others. And that is a slippery slope.

So make clear achievable goals, and work towards them.

If you end up having to work the whole weekend, it means your goal was too ambitious. And you need to set yourself more time, or reduce the target. Learn from experience to estimate tasks.

It doesn't matter how smart or experienced you are; at the end of the day it boils down to performing a large volume of work. And there is no shortcut. There are no Mozarts in PhD land. Nobody gets to rattle off a symphony.

Just make sure that your effort is well aligned. Before starting out on a large task, talk with others more experienced than yourself, and sanity check you are aiming in the right direction before you put a huge amount of energy through it.

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .