I am a graduate student in a physics department in US. My department's ranking is really low. In fact, you cannot even find the ranking in, say, usnews. This year is my 6th year and I am seeking a postdoc position in high energy phenomenology, and gravity related postdoc positions.

But I have a strong feeling that I will fail because of my background. Even if I got a postdoc position, I would still go to a low ranking institute. Having studied in this department for 6 years, I did not get very good training. There are many reasons, but one of them should be related to the department. I want to continue studying physics and do not quit completely. So I think I might transfer to a good university. But the problem is I already finish nearly 6 years graduate program now. It would be a waste of time to restart a new Ph.D program in a different university in some sense. But if not, I cannot see my future in academia.

I have no idea now. I really want to hear your advice and your experience. Thank you very much!

I stated that I did not get very good training. I think I need explain that a little bit more. There are many aspects. Firstly, I should blame myself. I should have transferred earlier. After I decided not to transfer, I should have worked harder. Perhaps, I am one of the best students in my department: probably, there are only two best students with whom no body else can compete no matter how hard they work. So I kind of lost motivation: I am not good at motivating myself. Although I did not motivate myself very much, I did like learning stuff. However, I liked learning mathematics by myself. Probably I spent too much time on math which is not very useful. (I like highly formal, abstract things, eg, topology) And there are many others...

On the other hand, I just want to say some thing about my department. Professors in my department are really nice. But they are not devoted to teaching very much. I am pretty sure that they understand their courses very well, but I could not get any deep insight after class. All I got was "plain text": I could even just read textbook instead of listening to their classes. There are only 3 professors in our group. Two are very old. One is too young.

Finally, about my own project. I am working on a project which is outside of my advisor's expertise. He does not have good projects, so he find a professor outside my department and asked him to offer a project. That professor is far away and, he did not work on related area either... Probably, I should not choose this project... Edit based on comment: Probably, I should not have chosen this project...

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    Did you actually produce decent publications, during these six years?
    – Alexandros
    Nov 10, 2015 at 13:09
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    Up to now, I have 3 papers. One has been published about 2 years ago. The other is now accepted for publication and should be seen on journal next month. The 3rd has been submitted to a journal for a couple of weeks. I hope can produce more in the next few months. But ... it does not seem enough... Nov 10, 2015 at 14:20
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    Some people finish their PhD with many papers to their name, some with one or two. I would be lying if I said that it doesn't make a difference, however your main duty has been to your PhD research up until now. Because of this, your first postdoc position depends on many factors. I think it would be wise to try your hardest to get a postdoc at an institution you deem "good", and have contingency plans. IMO, downplaying your current department won't be good for you - many successful researchers have come from unlikely places. You can also try abroad, where department standing may matter less.
    – Jake
    Nov 11, 2015 at 3:34
  • I did not get very good training -- Could you please list the specific types of deficiencies you suspect? Forget the ranking. Just focus on what you think a physics PhD should know, and know how to do, and compare that with what you have learned. Such a list would help us respond in a meaningful way. Nov 11, 2015 at 14:43
  • @aparente001 I added some explanations to the original post. Hopefully, this will be useful. Thank you! Nov 13, 2015 at 4:43

2 Answers 2


It is very common to be beset by self-doubt at this point -- just when you are poised to begin writing. (It's best if you can write as you go along, but sometimes the nature of the project does not permit that....)

(There are questions with good answers on this site about how to keep up your nerve during this final stage. Helpful reading!)

In your case, these self-doubts are complicated by some weaknesses in your department and some frustrations you've had along the way.

Let me draw an analogy from parenting. Most of the time, a parent will do best if he is really tuned into his baby or his small child, and his antennae are set to pick up subtle vibes from the child, so as to be as responsive as possible.

But there are situations in which this is actually counter-productive, and you have to detach yourself, and care for the child more or less on auto-pilot. For example, if your child is the non-responsive type, and you are getting frustrated. In this case, you have to back off emotionally, so as not to overwhelm the child. It's okay, it won't be forever. You just need to let the child's brain mature a bit more, and then try again, in small steps.

In your case, the thing you're going to have to train yourself to ignore, on a temporary basis, is the niggling voice in your head that makes the negative remarks and the probing, self-doubting questions.

You are very close, just keep plugging away! Crank out an imperfect dissertation and move on with life. You are not the only talented person to have attended a school that has some weaknesses. Think of the Third World! I once attended an agronomy class, "Farm Machinery", that was taught with posters the instructor had made on his kitchen table. An actual tractor was not brought in until the last day of class, and then we did not even practice changing the oil.

For your postdoc, forget about rank -- look for a position where you will have comfortable, fruitful collaborations.

  • Thanks! I've been busy with my research project... Probably you are right. It is really dangerous to transfer and start a new Ph.D. program. What if I go to an even worse department? Even if this won't happen, I will spend way more time, which is probably not worthwhile. Nov 15, 2015 at 23:41

It is important to finish what you started, especially if you are near completion. It reflects poorly on you if you show on your resume that you had to leave your program prematurely. If for some reason you feel the institution/department that you get your degree from is inferior, you can always get a second graduate degree when you complete your PhD. That would be much better than stopping now.

Your search for a post-doc will be guided by your publications and your ideas for future research. Your research statement will be critical to your success, so you might want to practice writing short research proposals (e.g. think of a few research ideas and write a 5-10 pager for each one, describing the research scope and objectives). In a field such as yours, it's important to think about more than just your direct research topic. Also, the more long-term collaborative colleagues you can develop relationships with, the more your career will benefit. You should strike up collaborations and get involved with writing funding applications (e.g. grants from government agencies). As a post-doc, your success will be measured by your ability to find future funding (assuming you wish to stay in academia). Subscribe to list serves that solicit for funding proposals so that you can see exactly what topics are getting funded. Communicate with your colleagues about proposals you'd like to work with them on. Expect only 10% of funding applications to be successful, even less as a first timer.

I don't see any benefit to restarting your program elsewhere.

  • Thanks for your comment! I am interested in getting a second graduate degree after my present one. But I heard that I cannot get physics Ph.D. twice. Is it true? Certainly, I would not try to get a second graduate degree immediately after finishing the present one. Nov 26, 2015 at 21:20

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