I'm a chemistry undergrad in the honors college at my school and the following happened:

  1. Last Spring, the college held a research conference and I did REALLY well with one judge (49/50) and poorly with another. The judge I did poorly with cited the wrong research project, or whoever tallied the scores assigned the wrong score sheet to me. Another professor was upset about how her student was judged too, and so when she heard about how I was judged, she grouped us together in one complaint, but our emails to the people in charge of the conference went largely unanswered regarding her student, and completely ignored regarding my situation.

  2. Weeks later, a student in my research group who had been receiving massive praise from the honors college for having presented at a conference, received an award for her research. I was actually the one that went to the conference, not her. It was known by the honors college that I went, but they must have assumed the other girl went too because she was in the same group. Perhaps I should have stepped in and said, "She didn't go, it was just me," when she first received praise, but I felt I was in an awkward place. I asked the girl early on in the school year to correct the honors advisor, but she (the girl) said it wasn't important. Our research advisor assured me there's no way of knowing that the trip to the conference was the only factor in the college's decision to give her the award and that she had not been consulted about it, which made the situation a bit less discouraging. That student did do research in another lab -- although I had heard complaints about her work in the other lab well before she and I were at odds.

A few weeks ago, I talked to the dean of the honors college about the situation, and I was pretty much told, "Sorry 'bout cha', that's life. Life is unfair." It made me feel like I was being really petty, and his tone made me feel chastised for bringing it up.

To me, this isn't an issue about praise, it's about fairness, responsibility, and supporting students. The "life is unfair" argument he used just really bugs me. In my view, something like having an excruciatingly painful, lifelong health condition is a "life isn't fair" situation. "Life isn't fair," for me, fails to be a legitimate argument for people refusing to be accountable for their actions or even just issuing an apology.

Despite support from professors, my research advisor, and the Dean of Students, I'm still really gutted about these things. I'm demotivated in my coursework and research (research was seriously my lifeblood.) I worked so incredibly hard and I used to get so much joy just out of working without the need for recognition.

How do I feel confident and motivated again in my education and research when I feel unsupported?

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    I think you have to remind yourself what you love about doing research, and take strength from that. Many of us are motivated by the love of what we do, not for who takes notice. Yes, you were treated unfairly and someone else received a reward for something you did. You can take some small comfort in knowing that you earned it, and she has to live with knowing she did not. In the long run, who do you think will come out further ahead in life and reputation?
    – Inde
    Dec 31, 2016 at 0:22
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    "Don't start chasing applause and acclaim. That way lies madness." Dec 31, 2016 at 2:24
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    Since nobody else has spelled this out: Your honors college is being grossly unprofessional. In particular, your advisor's dismissal of your concerns was grossly unprofessional. Whether or not you should or should not chase applause is irrelevant. You deserve credit for your work. And it's completely natural to feel demotivated when you don't get that credit. I'm sorry you've had to go through this.
    – JeffE
    Dec 31, 2016 at 11:28
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    At times like this, you should remember the story of Dan Shechtman. For his unorthodox discovery that was quasicrystals, he was ridiculed by his peers and his superiors, and was, for all intents and purposes, thrown out. Then, in 2011, he received a Nobel prize for said discovery. The injustices you face today will become your "They all called me crazy" stories in the future.
    – SlugFiller
    Jan 1, 2017 at 17:11
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    Thanks @aparente001 it reads much more clearly, I had to change one of your edits because of a factual thing, but thank you for helping me so much! Jan 2, 2017 at 17:37

4 Answers 4


In both of the experiences you describe, you were not treated fairly. I think it's really healthy to be disappointed at unfair treatment: for one thing, this kind of disappointment is a key component in learning to treat others fairly; for another, indifference to being treated poorly could be dangerous just as absence of pain on being burned could be dangerous.

It is however good to cultivate a sense of perspective on such matters. When unfair treatment has serious, lasting negative consequences, you should fight back. When it's a passing thing, sometimes it is better to take just one quick shot at rectifying the situation, and sometimes it is better just to let it go. Let me ask you this: What are the specific negative consequences of what happened to you? Are they durable? Will they affect your future?

  • With regard to the first case: I am a tenured full professor, and I have never had my academic research formally judged and graded at a conference. So I honestly don't know what you lost out on by being judged poorly. Maybe some words of praise, a line on your CV, and/or a small cash prize? These are not serious losses. The experience seems to have hurt your morale. I understand that, but I think you can easily shake it off with the right perspective. Two people evaluated your research. One person gave you an excellent evaluation, and one person gave you a poor evaluation. Already that's not so bad. But wait, it gets much better: the person who evaluated your work poorly had you confused with someone else. So actually no one really thought your work was poor. Isn't that great?

  • The second situation is similar in that in fact you are only receiving positive feedback. If going to a conference in Pittsburgh is praiseworthy and you went to the conference, then the praise actually applies to you. The person who gave the praise may not know that, but you know it, and that's much more important. By the way, when a student award is for something subjective like "good research" rather than being best with respect to an explicit metric, awards are very often given to graduating students rather than non-graduating students. If an award was given to a graduating student in your research group and you feel more accomplished already than that student, you have quite a good shot at getting the award yourself when you graduate.

There is a general theme here: successful academics are largely self-motivated. And for most academics, the greatest reward and job perk is the satisfaction they derive from their own understanding and achievements, both at any given time and the experience of being on a steady upward trajectory of mastery and accomplishments. (I am reminded of my college's alma mater: Let knowledge grow from more to more; and so be human life enriched.) Praise and rewards are not insignificant -- among other things, they are key checks on our own self-evaluation -- but they ought to be less significant than your internal sense of your own academic trajectory. If you actually love research -- and it sounds like you do -- then that is your reward right there. I'm not saying you should ignore the rest, but as above you can try to put it in perspective.

To address your questions:

Is this kind of thing common in academia?

The specific nature of the bumbling you describe is not necessarily so common (though bumbling of one kind or another is hardly rare). But being underappreciated largely by mistake or inattention is rather common, I'm afraid. Every academic I know can spin a wrenching yarn about excellent work which was treated rather shabbily by others.

More importantly, how do I feel confident and motivated again in research when I feel really unsupported?

That's a very personal question, but I have given some part of what I hope is a helpful answer. Namely, you have to do you. Being unsupported through what you can clearly and rationally perceive are the faults of others rather than your own should not discourage you from continuing in academia. It may mean that there is a better place for you, but good news -- repeated changes of location which bring new mentors, collaborators and subsidiaries are a key feature of academia. As I mentioned, in each of your stories above there is clear positive feedback on your work and no clear negative feedback -- so I see absolutely no reason for you to lose confidence in yourself and in your own work.

The point of being in an "honors college" is not accumulating honors, by the way. (To be frank, the terminology is really pretty silly, and even somewhat off-putting.) Rather it is about being given extra opportunities and being guided towards more rapid mastery: to say it slightly mathematically, it is about increasing the slope of your academic trajectory. Giving a student an award for going to a conference is also a bit silly, like giving a child an award for bringing home a good book from the library: yes, there was some praiseworthy behavior involved, but the important part is the opportunity, not the praise for receiving it, and whether the opportunity was used well and/or turns out to be significant is for the person who received the opportunity to judge, not the person who gave the praise. Would you rather have the praise and not the book or the book and not the praise? Clearly the book is preferable...if you actually want to read it. Similarly, I hope you will see that by going to the conference and not getting the praise, you were supported more (in this one instance, anyway) than your colleague who was lavishly praised for a conference that she didn't attend! Ask yourself whether you enjoyed the conference. If you did, there's your motivation.

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    It's also not fair that the system only gives me one upvote for this excellent answer! Dec 31, 2016 at 20:02
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    @gnometorule: It is indeed a colloquialism. See e.g. urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=do%20you. Dec 31, 2016 at 23:28
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    @luk32: I did not emphasize critique of the OP's institution, but the critique is in there. In particular, I led by saying that she was treated unfairly, which for me is quite a critical thing and not lightly said. I also wrote "It may mean that there is a better place for you, but good news -- repeated changes of location which bring new mentors, collaborators and subsidiaries are a key feature of academia." The point being: the OP is an undergraduate, so if she wants to stay in academia she'll be going somewhere else soon anyway.... Jan 1, 2017 at 22:49
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    ...The type of problems she's encountered would be a lot more serious for a graduate student. For an undergrad, it's definitely unpleasant, but on the other hand most undergrads get no research opportunities at all, so if she can manage to take the good and dismiss the bad, she will probably be in a good position to go on to a strong graduate program. It's kind of a pain for a late career undergraduate to transfer to a different program, so I didn't want to explicitly recommend that, but if she is sufficiently dissatisfied it's something to consider.... Jan 1, 2017 at 22:53
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    Constructive answer, very positive tone, gold star. Jan 2, 2017 at 17:40

The truth is that (i) the things you describe suck because you deserved praise but didn't get it, (ii) there's nothing you can do about it. In some sense, it's true: That's life. Stuff happens that is disappointing, frustrating, unfair, and there is nothing you can do about these things.

What matters is that you get back up and keep whacking at it. That's because while there are things that you can't affect, on average you will get praise for the things you do right. In other words, you may lose some, but you can also win some, but only if you keep doing good work and keep at it. At the end of the day, people recognize those who do consistently good work, and while you may not get every award you actually deserve (and sometimes even others may get it), you will get some of these awards, and they will look quite good on your resume.

So keep thinking about the next poster competition or conference, prepare, work for it, and do the best you can. If you do it often enough, statistically you will get what you deserve. It may simply not be every time.

  • Thank you @Wolfgang Bangerth, you're right, I'll have to just get back up to bat and try again. Jan 2, 2017 at 2:59
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    @mas -- and I have no doubt that you will succeed. It will not have been an accident that you did work that was deserving of the recognition. It was an accident that you didn't get the recognition, but you can be comfortable knowing that your work is good enough to deserve it. Jan 3, 2017 at 14:30

To cut it short: Dealing with unfairness is something which will stay with you in academia. There will be many instances when it happens to you - I could tell about situations over all my studies to the end of my postdoc, where something seemed 'unfair' to me - but in average it will be more or less fair.

There are a few thing by which you can live with it and reduce it to a minimum:

  • pacta sunt servanda: if somebody does not keep up his end of an agreement, remind him once, then try to stop collaborating at a time when it's good for you
  • go for groups where there are a lot of co-authors on the publications. In my observation these groups usually have a good collaboration internally (since people will not be jealous and fighting)
  • when looking for a PhD position: look for a supervisor where people consistently stay (master-phd/phd-postdoc).
  • save your fights for the relevant times. Complaining in order to be co-author on a Nature paper where you contributed is reasonable, fighting about anything below co-authorship for impact factor smaller than 5 is not.
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    "go for groups where there are a lot of co-authors on the publications" - Sometimes those are groups that are good at collaboration, and sometimes those are groups where people are pressured to add authors that don't really deserve authorship.
    – ff524
    Jan 1, 2017 at 2:18
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    Similarly, "look for a supervisor where people consistently stay" - can indicate a good environment where people want to stay, or an advisor who is not supportive of students who want to leave and won't help them do so even when it is in their best interest to leave. (In general, it's important to talk to current and former students in groups you're considering joining, and not rely too much on these or other "indicators"!)
    – ff524
    Jan 1, 2017 at 2:19
  • Dear @ff524 I agree with you, but the second one is so so so rare, that is exception, and on level of stat mistake
    – SSimon
    Jan 2, 2017 at 1:22
  • @ff524: I get what you mean, but in my experience, the if people consistently stay (like >50% master students continue to PHD in the group and >50% PHDs stay for another year), it's usually ok
    – Sascha
    Jan 2, 2017 at 16:59
  • @ff524: and with lot of coauthors i meant coauthors from the research group. I agree with you about the coauthors from outside.
    – Sascha
    Jan 2, 2017 at 17:00

More an anecdote than an answer, but possibly helpful.

Many years ago my wife's undergraduate honors thesis on the Fool in King Lear received two evaluations from two readers. One said "Magna Cum Laude." The other "non honors" with the (to him) scathing comment that "Miss. L. writes as if the characters in King Lear are real people." (That was long before Ms replaced Miss.)

The third tie-breaking reader agreed with the first.

In the years since my wife has used the second reader's quote to her advantage in talks and essays.

Don't worry too much about your experience.

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