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I am a graduate engineering student at a highly competitive university. I am writing my thesis and I feel like I am making great number of silly mistakes. The worst thing is that I do not realize my mistakes unless someone else points out even though I spend hours trying to make sure I make no mistakes... For instance, I modeled a problem in my thesis. I made a mistake that is very obvious and I didn't even notice that simple mistake until someone pointed out. I am about to submit my thesis and I have no clue how to tell my supervisors about the mistake...

I feel really embarrassed before my supervisors. They have been acting nice as they know I am a very hardworking student. Around 4-5 months ago, they even told me that they would recommend me to any university in the world. But I am afraid that they may feel less enthusiastic when writing reference letters for me (coupled with observing some personal decisions of mine, I am the exact opposite of a person who has their feet on the ground, I always have very big goals and dreams) because of my consistent errors and because I disappointed them. I feel extremely dumb and have started to feel like I have dyslexia or a similar situation.

How should I tell my supervisors about this latest error? How do I cope with this?

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    in short: Ignoring a mistake is (much) worse than pointing it out.
    – Ben
    Apr 19, 2023 at 9:13
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    Not enough for an answer, but a remark: Finding a mistake is different from being totally lost: You have an idea what's wrong. Since your supervisors approved of your approach it's unlikely that the problem invalidates your entire work, and unlikely that you are delusional. Now go find a fix. Apr 19, 2023 at 10:44
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    Apparently your supervisors (who are much more experienced than you) didn't catch the mistake either, so your mistake wasn't "obvious". Don't beat yourself up over it and move on.
    – Heinzi
    Apr 19, 2023 at 11:06
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    Does this mistake invalidate your thesis? There's a big difference between "I need to make a minor correction" and "I don't know if I can graduate this year."
    – Kimball
    Apr 19, 2023 at 11:57
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    What kinds of mistakes are you talking about? Spelling/grammar, or technical errors related to the topic of your thesis?
    – Barmar
    Apr 19, 2023 at 14:40

6 Answers 6

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I don't know what you mean by "excessively", but yes, people make mistakes. I've written quite a lot, books, papers, and such. They always have mistakes. Even here, with a real time correction engine, I make mistakes. That is human nature.

One problem is that when we write we are thinking at two levels. The content level, which can be quite complex in academia, and the expression level. Our brain isn't the greatest at keeping these coordinated at all times, though we generally do a pretty good job of it.

But there is a further problem and that is that it is very difficult to proof and correct your own work. It is a brain problem again. When you read what you have written, your brain goes back into the content mode and you know that stuff. And so you know what you intended to write and so what your eyes tend to see is what you think you wrote, not what you actually wrote.

It is good to get fresh eyes on our writings. Editors do that pretty well, if they know even a bit about the content. We write things that don't make sense and when we read our own writings, our thought process tries to make sense of it and misses the errors.

If you can get a colleague to read and comment on your work it will help. If that is impossible, and you have to proof your own work, I suggest doing so in very small increments. A paragraph at a time, with lots of breaks. If you let your mind get into the flow then it will start to, again, "see" what you meant to write, not what you did write.

Yes, it is normal. I suspect that everyone (or nearly) does this. If it were uncommon then publishers wouldn't need to employ copy editors to assure the quality. Reviewers also catch a lot of missed things.

Don't obsess over it. Get help or work slow.


Edited to add: Since the topline question has changed a bit I suggest you just be open with your advisor. They make mistakes too. Do whatever is possible to make corrections.

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    After multiple revisions by the author(s), possibly consultations with other collaborators and friends, multiple rounds of peer review, journal staff proofing, I doubt any published paper is truly "error free". Hopefully by that point it's not sufficient to affect conclusions or the general interpretation of the paper.
    – Bryan Krause
    Apr 19, 2023 at 4:57
  • The problem is that I am a very ambitious person, I wanted to go to top unis from here and I made so many sacrifices to be where I am. So both me and my advisors had really high expectations from me. I have been very obsessive about the thesis problem, thinking that I can solve it very efficiently. But put aside solving efficiently, I can't even accurately develop a simple model to solve it. My advisors really must think that I am incapable of doing even basic stuff and I am delusional or crazy to think that I'll be ever successful in academia at a competitive level...
    – user170216
    Apr 19, 2023 at 6:35
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    @Bryan Krause: "After multiple revisions by ..." -- A (mathematics) paper I refereed introduced a variable symbol in a proof in which the variable symbol already had a fixed meaning in the paper. For example (the actual situation was a bit more subtle and harder to notice than this), suppose a theorem involves something about n-dimensional space ('n' appears in the theorem statement), and in the proof a sequence indexed by n is introduced. The author's reply was that they couldn't believe they missed this, because the paper had been proofed very carefully many times by several people . . . Apr 19, 2023 at 8:30
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"How do I cope up with this?"

We don't know the extent of your "mistakes". You say in your comment it's basic mistakes and your supervisors must think you're crazy, but the only feedback we've heard you receive is that they're positive and recognize your hard work. Have they actually complained to you about the mistakes or is it just an internal worry?

It is classic for the best performing people to be the most critical of themselves, as that is often what pushes people further in the first place, but as long as you're on track and moving towards your goal, describing yourself as delusional or crazy from the supervisors perspective seems unnecessarily harsh.

Try to remember there are people in your position that instead of panicking about improving their quality of work, would not only refuse to admit their mistakes, but do their best to deceive their supervisors and later on editors or peer reviewers, actually deluding themselves, not taking a step back to fix the mistakes the way you seem to. These would be the crazy and deluded people, not someone in your position frantically working on improving their work. Being able to admit the mistakes quickly, take care of them and continously improve is about the best anyone can hope for, it's how we learn!

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    Nice to point out how actual delusion looks like, as opposed to the OP's anxiety. Apr 19, 2023 at 10:36
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    "You say in your comment it's basic mistakes and your supervisors must think you're crazy, but the only feedback we've heard you receive is that they're positive and recognize your hard work." This makes me suspect that OP has a case of impostor syndrome. If so, this other question might help.
    – MJ713
    Apr 19, 2023 at 16:29
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I would recommend: "I've made this mistake which I consider to be silly and I didn't spot it until it was pointed out despite what I considered through checking. Could you help me with any experience or tactics you've developed in your career to help with spotting this sort of mistake?"

Your supervisor is there to help you with exactly this kind of professional development - just ask. And almost every student has been through this experience.

As to dyslexia and other issues, it's is very common to be diagnosed late. If healthcare or counselling is easy to access where you are (perhaps through your university), it is certainly worth booking an appointment to discuss your fears. Take along some notes on how you think your brain is not behaving as it should to get the discussion started. It's also worth considering that you're currently going through a stressful time and that will be having an effect on your mental performance. They may be able to provide help in addressing that, as well as either ruling out or diagnosing and treating an underlying problem.

Hope it turns out well for you.

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  • Self-detect, self-ack are great attributes, along with self-initiated assistance/guidance. +1 ("I've made this mistake which I consider to be silly and I didn't spot it until it was pointed out despite what I considered through checking. Could you help me with any experience or tactics you've developed in your career to help with spotting this sort of mistake?") Apr 20, 2023 at 6:00
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There are three facts that are very important to keep in mind here.

  • Everyone makes mistakes. Lots of them. And, since mistakes are the way we learn and grow, the most impressive people are the ones who have made the most mistakes. Think of the person in your field you admire the most - I guarantee that they have made more mistakes than you ever have.
  • Almost every mistake seems silly in retrospect. What is a "silly mistake"? Well, it's one that I can easily avoid making. But if I've just seen an example of that mistake, it's always easy to avoid making it again. The only time that a mistake is really silly is if you genuinely weren't paying attention when you made it.
  • No one is good at spotting their own mistakes. This is why we have proofreaders, copyeditors, reviewers, and autocorrect!

But these things are points a lot of other great answers here have made. I want to focus more on something you mentioned at the end of your question. And please pay very close attention, because this is important!

There is nothing wrong with having dyslexia or any other learning disability. People with learning disabilities often require different tools in order to succeed, but they are not dumb or incapable, and once they have the tools they need, they can be amazing. In my inexpert opinion, I don't think anything you've told us so far indicates that you do have a learning disability (because, as I said, everyone makes mistakes that feel silly!) but if you're concerned about it, what you should do is get yourself tested. If you do have a learning disability, once it's identified you'll know where to look for the supports you need to succeed.

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As a scientist I think that you should focus on your work, and if there are errors, correct them and admit them (if they're out in the open before you could correct them). Science is about learning about the world, including learning about errors and misconceptions and correcting them. So finding errors is normal, and learning from them, and correcting them is the right thing in science.

You seem to carry a lot of psychological load around worrying so much about perfection, ambitions, what others think of you etc. Now this is of course to some extent natural, many people have such issues, and I cannot discount it, however you should tell yourself clearly that this stands in the way of your getting on with your work.

I recommend to take on a proper scientific work ethic when dealing with mistakes, rather than letting your worry about other people's perceptions and failure get the better of you. If you need to deal with the psychological issues, try to find counselling or treatment, but don't let them stand in the way of doing the right thing. It'll make you a better scientist. Many people in fact have much respect for somebody who admits a mistake. It's also a sign of competence.

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    In fact, pointing out your own mistakes before others notice them gains respect. In software there's a thing called "egoless programming". It's all about taking credit for finding and fixing mistakes and not taking or allocating any blame for making them. Apr 19, 2023 at 17:06
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Seems like from a third person point of view, what you describe is fairly normal. When I write just about anything - even some StackExchange answers - there are multiple revisions, and I sometimes goof with some panache. It just doesn't bother me all that much, although 2 decades ago it sure did much more than now!

I think you are holding yourself to an unrealistic standard. Any creative work will have mistakes and revisions, be it of academic or artistic character.

You may well be at a point where stress is in a positive feedback loop and is self-reinforcing. If you haven't had any real no-school-work breaks in a while, maybe take a day or two for yourself - go daydream, play music, stare at the sky, whatever, but don't think about academic work, and above all: don't blame yourself for "wasting time" taking a break. The best people can run out of steam when they work hard continuously for a long time.

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