I am currently a research assistant at an american university. I have worked under my current supervisor since my first year of undergrad. I am now working under them in a postbac position. Thus, this is my 5th year working under them. During this time, I have worked on the same project. This is a theoretical physics project, and it is not all that involved.

Working on this project for so long was normal during my undergraduate studies, as I initially knew only high school physics, so I really could not do or understand much up until this past year. Now, I have, in my opinion, done the project to the best of my abilities. I have performed the task asked, but I have not been able to generate the final result proving that it works. I have expressed to my supervisor many times that I feel I am unable to generate this result. I have checked all my work theoretically by hand, and I have checked my code extensively. I do not know what the problem is, and I have been stuck on the same issue for years now. When asking my supervisor about this, I always get generic remarks like "try a dummy example", "debug the code", etc.

I understand fully that research is about debugging these sorts of issues. However, I do not feel I am learning anything in this position or that I will be able to do more than I have on my own. I tried to express these cocerns to him and he said "Why are you so easily discouraged? This situation is quite common in research, and most supervisors are worse than me. If you cannot solve this problem and you push through, this is how people end up in positions they cannot actually fulfill."

I can sense that he is saying "you should be able to do this, and if you cannot, then you will not be a successful physicist". I am suspect of this sentiment because I feel sticking with a research project for 5 years is not being so easily discouraged, but I am not sure if I am indeed being the problem by seeming like a snowflake child.

In any case, this feedback really worries me. I know that this level of independence is expected of graduate students, but I am not a graduate student. I just finished my bachelor's degree in May. I am left feeling disoriented about my capabilities and unsure of how to improve.

In summary, I have two issues. 1) I want to be a researcher desperately. I have already been accepted into 5 PhD programs for this upcoming fall, and I am scared that I do not have what it takes to do them given this experience. I fear that, instead of improving drastically in this position, I am going to waste it by not understanding how what I'm missing. 2) I do not want to waste my time or the money of my supervisor. I am here to learn and grow as a prospective researcher. I feel that I am being cheated out of that experience, and I feel the professor is being cheated out of a full time research assistant.

How can I navigate this situation, learn, and grow the skills I need to in order to perform better in a research setting? I do not want to quit, but I don't want to wander aimlessly everyday either. I want to gain as much as I can out of this experience.

  • 4
    Have you tried doing the specific things your supervisor recommends? (Like trying a "dummy example") If not, why not?
    – Bryan Krause
    Commented Feb 23 at 13:53
  • I have tried for years. That is particularly why I’m convinced that I’ve done all I can do on the project. I have worked out kinks via those methods and have some preliminary results to confirm I did each step right. I believe the overall method not working might be something beyond what I can understand at my level right now. @BryanKrause Commented Feb 24 at 0:12

1 Answer 1


Congrats on getting into grad school!

How can I navigate this situation, learn, and grow the skills I need to in order to perform better in a research setting?

In answer to the first part - have you had actual sit-down meetings with your supervisor, where you walk them through everything you've done, the code you've written, explained the issue etc.? If not, I strongly recommend doing so. This meeting should include actually writing out a plan of attack for solving the issues and coming up with a timetable to complete this before you leave for grad school (and I STRONGLY recommend you wrap up your involvement in this project before you head off to grad school; you will not have time to be working on this and keep up with grad work.) If your supervisor is unable to give you actionable guidance after this point, it might be time to throw in the towel on this project, and move on to focusing on grad school.

As to how to learn in this situation - think about changing your perspective on what, exactly, you're learning during this project. I will be blunt - I supervised/mentored 15+ undergrads on research projects during my tenure as a postdoc, and I did not ever really expect that they'd be generating useful, novel research on those projects (only two of them ever really did anything major enough that their work was used down the line). In undergrad you are still learning how to learn, and getting the foundation knowledge on how to do the most basic of research skills. Grad school is where you will actually learn how to be a researcher, and it is totally fine that you are unsure of yourself right now; if you went into grad school thinking you knew everything, that's actually a problem because again, you're there to LEARN during grad school.

What you can be learning right now is how to be SUCCESSFUL at doing research in the future. Really think about the work you've done in the past few years - not in the context of the research problem, but in the context of a working environment. Are there things that in retrospect you think you could have done differently? Are there things your supervisor could have done to help you out more? Identify these things, and when you are in grad school doing research, apply those lessons to be more successful then.

I also wouldn't worry about "cheating" them out of a research assistant. Being stuck "on the same issue for years now" isn't really something an undergrad or postbac should be dealing with. That's the kind of thing where the supervisor should have stepped in quite a while ago to figure out what the block is so that the project can move forward, and if they haven't done so at this point they really only have themselves to blame.

From what you've said, it sounds like you may be suffering from a little bit of imposter syndrome from this experience. To give you a little perspective here, it is normal to struggle and fail during the course of research. Five different grad schools have accepted you into their programs. That means five different admission committees have seen something in you that makes them think that you'll be a successful grad student in their programs. Trust their judgement in this area. Treat grad school as a learning experience and clean slate, and you'll be fine.

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