I am a PhD student in mathematics. I was always brilliant in my studies. Now, I have a problem consisting in doing wrong things without paying attention.

For example, I was asked to do some computations, and I did and checked but after sending an e-mail to my supervisor, I discovered that it missed other details.

Also, I submitted a paper to two journals and it was rejected, but one of them I selected without asking my supervisor and after hearing this he was so angry. I know, he is right but I tried to be responsible for my work and each time I tried to work better and give a good result.

I commit many errors in small details and that is why I lost confidence in myself. My supervisor is always blaming me, but he doesn't know that I did all my best. I don't know how to solve this problem and to make me confident in myself? Maybe my problem is essentially the way that I should learn to complete my thesis successfully.


3 Answers 3


I see three different issues in what you have described:

  1. You make some mistakes in computations. That happens to all of us, but whether you should be concerned about it depends on what type of mistakes you are making. You need to look at what mistakes you are making and how, and see whether they are "sloppy" mistakes (in which case you can develop a checklist for yourself to avoid making them) or whether they are just coming form the fact that research is hard.

  2. You submitted to a paper without consulting with your advisor (and maybe dual-submitted as well). This is a serious problem, especially if you did a simultaneous submission to two journals, which is almost always forbidden and unethical. If your advisor is a co-author, then you are definitely in the wrong to submit without approval: you are not taking responsibility for yourself, you are denying responsibility to your co-author. Even if you did not commit either ethical sin, most advisors want to help advise their students, and submitting without consulting is a good way to make mistakes that will reflect badly on both yourself and your advisor.

  3. Your advisor has been angry at you, and you are losing self-confidence. Maybe you need to lose some of the undergraduate-style self-confidence, and to develop a more mature self-confidence. What you describe as "being responsible" and "working your hardest" does not actually sound like responsibility to me: it sounds like you are not yet reflecting on how to manage your own behavior and its impact on others.

For all of this, I think self-reflection and learning from your mistakes is the solution. If you can understand how you have been making mistakes, then you can act to make them less likely in the future, and all three of these issues are likely to improve.

  • Thanks @jakebeal to your advices and I certainly appreciate and consider it! Jul 22, 2015 at 15:46

Making errors is an unavoidable part of the process, as any researcher will tell you. But it's important to have good quality control over your own work.

We can roughly divide errors into two categories: errors that result from a lack of attention, and errors that result from a lack of understanding. For the first kind, it's simply a matter of taking more care. If you think a document is airtight, wait an hour (or more if it's a long document), come back with fresh eyes, and proofread it again before sending. If you continue to find errors in your work after it's too late, continue adding iterations.

The second kind--which I suspect you're also making, because your paper wouldn't have been rejected twice if its only problem were nitty-gritty mistakes--is harder to deal with. It's fine to not understand things. If we understood everything already, it wouldn't be called research. But it's very important to know what you understand and what you don't understand. If you're not sure a step in your proof is justified, don't take it. (On the other hand, thinking ahead and asking what you can do with the step if it IS justified, is fine and sometimes necessary. But you do eventually have to come back and justify the step.) And it's fine to ask for help when you don't understand something. It's important to be able to ask your advisor stupid questions--that's what he's there for. And your advisor should read any paper you're submitting before you submit it, or at the very least, you should give him a detailed report on it. He's right to be frustrated that you went behind his back.

Finally, even if you do everything "right", mistakes will still happen. After Andrew Wiles' earth-shattering proof of Fermat's Last Theorem, a mistake was found, and it took Wiles over a year to fix it. There's no shame in making mistakes, as long as they're not too frequent or too obvious.


Look at the kinds of problems you're having, figure out what general category each belongs to, alter your procedures to prevent that kind of error happening again. Repeat as necessary until you have reliable results. Publish. (And consider including a "lessons learned" section so others can benefit from your failures as well as your successes.)


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