I'm at the end of my 2nd PhD. I dropped out of my first one after three years of abuse -- real abuse -- at the hands of a project postdoc. He would shout at me over anything and was sometimes physically violent. My supervisors wouldn't help me and I eventually dropped out with PTSD (not just because of him, but because that experience was happening alongside a lot of other horrible experiences in my life).

The trouble is, objectively I don't think I did anything wrong. I was recruited into a geography PhD and the postdoc was a physicist. He kept trying to make my project much harder than it was. I don't know why he was so angry, but his complaints about me were continuous. I think his standard was impossible, but nothing I tried made any difference.

Academia was my dream so eventually I tried again. This time is totally different, I have tons of support, I've published two papers and have finished a third. But the truth is that every second of every day I still feel like a bad student. I feel like there's this angry critical voice pulling apart everything I do.

Right now, my PhD is 95% done. I could finish it in a couple of weeks. But I just feel so bad about myself that I can't even look at it. I have a tiny bit of work on my third paper that I just can't do. I can't stop believing all of these horrible things about myself: that I'm lazy and stupid, I can't write my own code, I'm not smart enough, I'm bad at maths, I can't be trusted, my work is full of mistakes, nothing I do will come to any good.

I've seen a therapist, I've told my supervisors how I feel... nothing really makes a difference. It's got to the point where they are starting to be a bit critical of slow progress too, and these fears are becoming self-fulfilling.

Just wondered if anyone had any advice on moving forward.

  • 2
    Have you searched this site and elsewhere for "impostor syndrome"? And have a look at our most upvoted question of all time: academia.stackexchange.com/questions/2219/…
    – astronat
    Jun 7 at 14:30
  • 4
    One day at a time.
    – Buffy
    Jun 7 at 15:05
  • If half of that is true, why are not in counselling? Jun 8 at 1:01
  • @RobbieGoodwin, because counselling hasn't been useful for me. Therapy available to students is typically short-term and very basic, focusing on "correcting negative thoughts." The trouble is that real problems -- like abuse -- no amount of positive thinking is going to change it. It's very difficult for students to get more appropriate therapy: I was on a waiting list for nine months and then the funding for my counselling got cancelled after just three weeks. In my department, most PhD students are struggling, so mental health services are simplistic and overstretched.
    – Kess
    Jun 8 at 14:01
  • @Kess Quite separately "He would shout at me over anything and was sometimes physically violent" is at first sight criminal and all good colleges should have both student groups and staff able and willing to take action. Jun 14 at 12:24

Actually, this sounds like classic burn-out. You've been at it intensively for a long time. A lot of us went through that, though not always so close to finishing. Add uncertainty about the future on top and it is bound to cause problems.

But, two things.

Take one day at a time and just get done what you need to get done. Try not to compromise more than necessary, but use something like a daily plan to make the progress you need so that the end is successful.

And, your education/learning/skill-development doesn't end when you get the degree. If you are a poor coder, you can change that. You can learn the math you need when you need it. You have a long time to go, yet, and the pressure is likely to ease a bit, at least for a while.

I found that getting some (aerobic) exercise several times a week was a good way to cope with the stress.

But, you don't sound like a bad student. Just a tired one.

Investigate Imposter Syndrome, though this feels more like burnout.

  • 3
    This is so useful. People have talked to me about impostor syndrome before but it never feels like it fits very well. Burnout though... somehow that has never occurred to me. It makes so much sense for me.
    – Kess
    Jun 7 at 16:19

It sounds like you know what you need to do to finish. Make a list of things to do and go through it to the best of your ability. Your papers and dissertation don't have to be perfect. You've published 2 papers so your work is clearly good enough.

If your negative self-talk interferes with that, then seek professional help, like a therapist, before your perceptions of being a "bad student" start to really interfere with your progress. If your therapist isn't helping, you can always look for another one.

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