I have always struggled with confidence issues and impostor syndrome. Which means that I have never believed that I'm an extraordinary researcher, getting by at best.

But I have done some things that I personally am proud of. For the first few years during my PhD, I hardly had any independence in research and I was just working on the ideas that my professor pitched. I mostly worked with many collaborators, getting a paper in 6 months in average over 3 years.

Then, over the last 1 to 1 1/2 years, I wanted to test my boundaries and do my own independent research, get my own ideas and work on them, despite some resistance from the professor. I am proud of this. I think it was brave of me to venture out into a topic that my professor isn't an expert of. But unfortunately, it didn't pay out well since I have only published one paper in the last 1 1/2 years and that's quite less for a senior PhD.

But nevertheless, my reasoning behind the below average paper outcome is due to the fact that I was working without collaborators, a professor who didn't have a lot of idea what I was doing, and a topic that was new to me and it took a long time to get a grip on it. Plus there were other non-research things, like paper revisions, response letters, presentations, thesis writing, postdoc applications, and so on... So I try not to blame myself fully for it.

But my professor does and he has openly said that my performance hasn't been satisfactory. Our relationship, which started of well enough I would say, has started to take a really downward spiral towards the very end (I have only a few weeks left in this group now, need to submit and defend my thesis now) and I think he hates me. This may have happened because I said I wouldn't do some tasks that he wanted me to do, because I was too stressed. I also accidentally missed a meeting or so with him due to my own carelessness (rarely happened in the entire duration, so bad timing) and it may have added up.

Now I only get outward criticism from the professor as to how bad a researcher I am, and passive aggressive behavior from them. This has all happened in the last couple of months towards the very end of my PhD and it is leaving a very bitter taste in my mouth as this was not how I pictured finishing my PhD.

After so many years, I thought I would be able to overcome my impostor syndrome and finally get some confidence about my capabilities as a researcher but I'm no way near it. The added disappointment from my professor only proves that perhaps I'm not meant for research at all. It's very hard to objectively understand if I'm doing my best or if I should have been doing better, as my professor says. I'm hoping the experts of this channel can weigh in so that I can think of this non emotionally.

P.S. I do not want to reveal my field for anonymity, but I have much less number of papers published compared to my peers in the group and in general, the paper output is higher than what I have. I also was the only one venturing out by myself in a new topic while others have done whatever professor said.

  • 3
    Is the criticism of your supervisor constructive, i.e., do they tell you what exactly the problems are they have with your work, and how you could improve? Did you try to get feedback that is as constructive as possible, i.e., did you ask for what exactly the problems are, how to improve, and what the expectation would be? May 27 at 11:46
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    Of course the general answer is no. It is possible that your professor underestimates you and assesses you wrongly. However we of course can't have any idea about the quality of your work and understanding, and whether any criticism by your professor may actually be justified. May 27 at 11:50
  • @ChristianHennig they did not give any constructive criticism, they only said I haven't been dedicated enough and the only thing that measures my performance is the research output which hasn't been demonstrated. So the feedback I got was 'Work harder' but I believe that I have worked really hard so it fell on deaf years. I didn't ask for specific constructive criticism either because honestly I was spell bound and didn't expect it, and it made me very resentful. Perhaps I should remedy that and ask for constructive criticism instead of taking their remarks personally.
    – Acad
    May 27 at 15:00
  • 3
    No-one here can tell you whether or not you are a "good researcher" or whether you "should have been doing better". In any case, those are irrelevant questions. The relevant questions are, what are the next career steps you want to take, are you or are you not on track to successfully take those steps, and what to do if you are not. Brooding on meaningless questions like "should I have been doing better" serves nothing, while building confidence in your ability to do meaningful research rather than giving too much weight to other people's assessment will help you grow as a researcher May 27 at 15:04

1 Answer 1


First of all, I'm someone with less experience than you, so if you find something you don't agree with in what I'm saying, you're probably more "more right" (I put the quotes because in this kind of topics nobody can give universal conclusions, of course).

That said, my experience is that in many research departments that publish a lot, they are so prolific because the researchers in that department become great experts in their field and there are very few people in the world doing the same thing as them. Thus, when they publish an article, sometimes their only job has been to get things out on the table and organize them. Clearly, the value of this will end up being negligible.

The above may not be your case, but the following, taking into account what you describe, maybe yes. There are many aspects of a person's personality that influence the way they do things. For example, there are those who paint a picture starting with a sketch and there are those who start with a corner and end when they have finished the canvas. Is one thing better than the other? Well, it doesn't have to be. In your case, it may be that you are much more careful with your work than your teacher (so you may be slower), you may try to be more independent and ask for less help when you run into a problem, perhaps your curve of learning is exponential and that of your teacher is quadratic or something similar (so that at first you learn slowly but in a certain time you will be able to overcome it)... These things cannot be measured and almost nobody takes them into account. However, they are factors that influence a lot.

Finally, all of the above may not work for you, because real life is not fair and you may be good but you don't adapt well to the rest, so your possibilities will be very limited. As a conclusion, I think that thinking about how good or bad you are in a certain thing is useless in the end: if you think that you are better than you are, you will not get your full potential; if you think you are worse, you will have a bad time; if you know how good you are... well, that's almost impossible to know. The only important thing is hard and honest work, that will take you (if you are not very unlucky) exactly where you deserve.

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