I am a PhD student in my second year. I have not published anything yet and I feel my results I got so far are not publishable. I have two years left. I am stressed and I am afraid that I might not be smart enough to be a PhD student. I think I lack the skill to ask a good question and answer that question as a part of my research. I cannot come up with a good idea or question so that by following those I can publish. Anyone with the same experience, what did you do to get yourself out of this situation?


Just to clarify more. I am in Europe. Here there isn't any coursework. I studied everything so far on my own. Everyday I go to my room in the lab. I have plenty of time, at least 8 hours per day and if necessary I can spend more time too. I don't have teaching obligations. Sometimes, I might have an idea, which ultimately turns to be useless, but even then I tell my self if it was possible to turn into a publications, others would have done that, so it must be a hard problem or idea. My main issue is that there is no other person with my background in the lab. People with different backgrounds are a PhD student here and everyone works on his/her PhD almost alone. I wish I could pair to another student and brainstorm and discuss different ideas. However, it is not possible here. I told my supervisor, he replied first you should prepare some initial results so that we can approach others group for collaboration. But even then I won't discuss with another person on a daily basis because of the distance between those groups which are in other countries.

  • Did your advisor say anything about this?
    – Nobody
    May 29, 2015 at 11:28
  • No, He didn't. I think he has given me plenty of time and freedom.
    – user33011
    May 29, 2015 at 11:36

2 Answers 2


Don't panic. What you're feeling is very common: so called "impostor syndrome" (where you feel that you're not good enough to be there) is very common in academia.

Talk to your supervisor about how you're feeling, and try to narrow down the focus of your research question. You have plenty of time still, but its important you take the time to understand exactly what your work is trying to answer, which will in turn help you understand where to focus your efforts (for gathering data, publishing papers, etc.).

Some supervisors are more diligent than others, so if you feel yours is too busy or not providing the help you need, don't suffer in silence but talk to someone else. Many institutions have some form of tutor system, or faculty position devoted to helping out students that are under pressure or struggling.


"I think he has given me plenty of time and freedom." - although micromanagement never helps in the long run, too much of a good thing could be a problem, too.

It sounds like you are on the right track, but simply need more time, patience, and practice.

I would recommend to get a research assistantship (RA) position, if that is common in your country/institution (in the U.S. many graduate students have RA or TA appointments). This will put you in a relatively structured work environment with a plan, reasonably clear expectations for work output, and a regular opportunity to receive guidance from your supervisor.

The RA job may or may not be with your advisor, and it doesn't have to be for all of the remaining 2 or 3 years you have left in the program. (If you advisor has no funding to support you at the moment, you can work for a year elsewhere, then who knows maybe s/he will get a grant and be able to hire you to assist with the research, or you can simply stay in your job. With this in mind, try to find a position on a relatively large, long-term, well-funded project.)

Beyond the structure and direction, RA projects often become the platform for developing a dissertation, as it is typically not hard to come up with good "offshoot" ideas that are a little different from the main thrust of the research grant but are complementary to it, filling some gap in the questions that are being asked and the knowledge being gained. Also, working on other people's research projects will give you valuable exposure into how others brainstorm to come up with feasible ideas and questions, design studies to address these questions, and implement them in a collaborative work setting.

As @Landric suggests, the "impostor syndrome" is very typical and is probably a normal part of professional development of someone who has to operate in a loosely structured intellectual environment thinking about new concepts and ways of doing things that have not been done before. If you were totally confident every day about every intellectual leap and analytic decision that you need to make, you probably would not be doing your PhD right!

I would be surprised if many PhD students had publishable, primary data results in their second year of study. There are good reasons for this: 1. Typically the first 2-3 years are the time to complete the required coursework and pass the general exams that qualify you for dissertation research. At least in the U.S., and in social sciences, this typically happens in the 3rd year of study, and ideally the exam can be at least partially aligned with the tentative research idea/proposal for dissertation work. 2. The first years of PhD study are typically the time to become familiar with the broader and narrower aspects of an academic discipline, to gain a foothold in the intellectual milieu of the subject of study. As such, this is not the time to make bold public intellectual proclamations and throw lofty claims to the field through publication in high-profile journals.

Although successful in some cases, the latter type of activity tends to be risky and can do more harm than good, with the half-baked ideas creating a premature, less-than-positive impression in the field of your future colleagues. Not necessarily a great idea. Don't forget the "student" part of being a PhD student. You are engaged in a process of your own, personal intellectual development first, and contribution to the field at large is not expected until a later stage of your study (the last 1-3 years).

So, my advise is to let go of your worries, clear your head, talk to your advisor about these concerns, and explore opportunities for RA positions on grants that seem of interest and potentially relevant to your future goals in terms of area of research and career focus. The summer is a great time to find such a position, as many research centers and labs hire new graduate research assistants during the summer to build capacity for the following year.

I am not saying you should not be trying to publish or submit to conferences - but I am saying that it's OK, and probably best, not to fly solo. As a student, your role in research efforts is by definition auxiliary rather than primary. Focus on learning to effectively collaborate with others and support the work of more established scholars, and use these experiences to learn, learn, learn as much as you can about how research is done in this academic discipline. Be a 2nd, or 3rd, or 6th co-author on papers - this is nothing to be embarrassed by, and in fact many established scholars often make do with co-authorship way down on the list. (Note: A mark of a truly excellent PI/advisor is to come up with opportunities for their RA's/advisees to be 1st authors at least on some of their research output, typically conference papers. You can usually tell if this happens by browsing the research group's website and seeing if and where student names pop up on the group's list of publications.)

If you see some of your peers spewing out publications right and left, don't despair, and hold off on comparing yourself to them and drawing early conclusions. Who knows, perhaps this pattern is a temporary flare-up, and their productivity might fizzle out toward the later stage of their studies. Burnout happens everywhere, and not everyone develops at the same pace. Keep your mind focused on your own work and responsibilities, and your time will come. There will be a right time for you to produce research you can be proud of. Sometimes, this does not happen until after one's dissertation is written. And that is normal, too. It is important to find a balance between quantity and quality, and to put greater emphasis on the latter. While easy wins are rewarding in the short run, they should be mere stepping stones on a path to more difficult, longer-duration projects with delayed payoff.

If you do get an RA job, use the Fall and Winter semesters to understand the research domain of the project and brainstorm possible complementary ideas that could become a dissertation proposal. Use these ideas to structure part of your general exam. If you end the 3rd year having passed the exam and having a (rough) draft dissertation research proposal, you will be well on your way to complete the studies in 2-3 more years (within 5 years).

I have to say it is not at all uncommon to take longer than 5 years to complete a PhD (I believe the average in the U.S. is closer to 6). What would you rather choose, to give up, drop out, and waste 2-3 years of graduate school, or spend a little more time, persevere, learn a lot and build more skills, and finish a degree?

To summarize, you asked the question at the right time, and you are not behind, your concerns and worries are not unique, and you are not going to fail. You are going to succeed. With that, good luck!