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I am working on a mathematical topic that is basically my own concoction. I have days where even the simplest thing takes ages to do and I realize that's because, deep down, I am terrified that things might not work out. This is in different way: I am scared my topic might not be novel enough, appreciated etc. ; I am also scared that checking parts of proofs will reveal catastrophic mistakes.

I rationally realize that this is part of the game and I do my best to take mistakes I find as good news that my work is improving, but at times I am just paralyzed and unable to do things.

I am also bothered by the presence of colleagues in my office, afraid they might judge my work (and at the same time going to a hidden place in the library helps a little but is also very annoying and uncomfortable).

I am sure this must be, to a different degree, experienced by many PhD students.

What are some strategies to fight fear as you work?

Note that I realize there really is a deeper confidence issue and I am already seeking help for that. I'd be happy to hear considerations on the possibility of therapy or counseling and how it worked for you as well as day to day tips and strategies.

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    See @JeffE's response to this question -- what you're talking about (I think) is imposter syndrome. It's a well-known problem in academia, and you aren't alone. – tonysdg Jan 11 '17 at 15:22
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    Thanks, although I'm not sure that's the right thing. I am not scared to be found out as incompetent, I think I am afraid of failing. I can see the two things might be related and will look into that too. – Three Diag Jan 11 '17 at 15:26
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    I'll add this -- whatever you're feeling, if it's affecting your work/mental health, I urge you to consider contacting your university's counseling center (if you're in the U.S., there almost certainly is one that's free for students). They have licensed professionals who are trained to help you work through these fears and develop mechanisms for dealing with them on your own even after you graduate. – tonysdg Jan 11 '17 at 15:28
  • Thanks, this is a good suggestion, I am in contact with my center and it does help. – Three Diag Jan 11 '17 at 15:30
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    What does your supervisor think about the direction of your work and your performance so far? It's their job to support you and guide your work. – 101010111100 Jan 11 '17 at 15:50
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To some degree or another, the feelings you describe are common in graduate students (and other people). Here are some comments from around the Internet, for example:

FEAR !!

I self diagnosed this of myself just this week to explain my behaviour for the last 6 months . I called it boredom, annoying , painful etc but actully I am afraid to progress because someone might say”not good enough”. I am engaged in a systematic review and all I have to do now is read (albeit systematically) but simle right ?

I just applied for some funding and as I drew out my timeline for the project I thought “will I or can I actually do this”? The answer of course is I can but if my will is left up to me I am fearful I’ll self destruct !!!! There I go again fearing!!

(Marese kelly on Thesis Whisperer)

I just can't do it. I've spent the last month rewriting the first paragraph over and over. Yet, it is still not good enough. When I sit in front of my computer I usually feel paralyzed with fear. This might sound bizarre, but it is true. Yesterday I felt more courage than the average day. I worked on my thesis for hours. Yet, at the end of the day, I was still in the first paragraph. I didn't used to be like this. Believe it or not I was an outstanding student. Now I don't even dare to discuss science with my colleagues, I might say something stupid.

(jesuisperdu on reddit)

I have sweated in the fear of failure, and all I can say is that this fear continues even after you have passed the doctorate. In fact, that’s when the fear of failure can be worst! Because now you have to take your research and creative work out of the sheltered workshop of the academy and impress not just a couple of examiners, your supervisor and an academic panel, but people who will put down money (hopefully) into your ideas and research.

(On 100 days to the doctorate & beyond)

Many of the fears described by you and the people I quoted above, are about how you may be perceived by others. One thing that people with this kind of fear sometimes find helpful is to identify when they are feeling fear of being judged, then remind themselves about the realistic standards by which people in their position are judged. In your particular situation:

  • Nobody* expects you or others in your position to never say or write something that is mistaken or uninformed.
  • Nobody* expects you or others in your position to have a thesis topic that revolutionizes the field, to win a Nobel prize for your thesis.
  • Nobody* expects you or others in your position to constantly dazzle with your brilliance.
  • Nobody* expects you or others in your position to win every award you are put up for, to rack up hundreds of citations on your published work, to get the highest possible scores on student evaluations of your teaching... you see where I'm going with this.

You may also find some of the material in this Perspectives on Perfectionism series helpful. (Even if your fears are not exactly perfectionism, they are similar in many ways and similar strategies may help you.) In particular, the exercises in Challenging my Perfectionistic Thinking (such as the "Thought Diaries") and Adjusting Unhelpful Rules & Assumptions (especially worksheet on Page 8) may be useful.


* Nobody reasonably expects this. There may be some people with unreasonable expectations, but it's really not worth concerning yourself with what they think :)

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What you experience is essentially what all grad students feel, though few of them talk about it. I would bet that 3/4 of the full professors on this list felt like that at times when they were grad students, and may still do. I can certainly say that for the first few years of being a professor, I periodically had the thought that I'm just a normal human and that the world would end if my department ever found out -- all while doing, what I believe, good work.

So you're not alone in having these feelings, though you may feel them more severely than others if you find that it occasionally paralyzes your ability to move forward. (Though, even there, I would say that all of us had weeks where we got to work, opened a browser and studied the world wide web for most of the time until it was time to go home.)

The best way to get over it is by talking to others, both your peers and your advisers (including the department's graduate adviser) about these issues. You will find that everyone, even those you think must be sooo much better than you, has these issues. I think it will help you put yourself in perspective. They may also share their own strategies to deal with things.

My strategy if I get stuck on something is to do something else -- work out the part of your thesis for which you already have results, write them up, do the copy editing -- and come back to the open questions when you're in a better place again.

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In researcher life there is no word like "Research failure". My supervisor told me that if you try to do something with some methods and you become competent in doing so then you can say that:

This thing can be done in this way

but if you can't accomplish it despite using sound methods, then you can say that

This thing cannot be done in this way, most likely due to these reasons.

In both cases, there is good and bad research and but there is no research failure. In both cases you create knowledge and point out the possibilities and results which are worth considering and approving. You should support your findings in both cases, defend them, accept them and own them. This is an easy way to accept "failure" which is actually your part of your learning and success path.

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What are some strategies to fight fear as you work?

Answer: I'm an engineer. Engineers frequently experience concern about performing calculations correctly because death to innocent(s) could literally result from a bad design. Learning how to deal with your fear is in order, either by yourself or with the help of another. You must study your fear and truly find out what the cause is and then evaluate whether or not the fear is rational. What is probable? What is improbable? If you don't find a way to direct and attenuate your fear for constructive purposes, it will eat you alive and perpetual unhappiness will be the end result.

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I realize there really is a deeper confidence issue and I am already seeking help for that.

Glad to hear it!

At times I am just paralyzed and unable to do things. I am also bothered by the presence of colleagues in my office, afraid they might judge my work (and at the same time going to a hidden place in the library helps a little but is also very annoying and uncomfortable).

What you are describing sounds reminiscent of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). It might be worthwhile to do an evaluation, if you haven't done one yet. Filling out a symptom checklist to take along to the evaluation can be helpful. Here is one from Tourette Canada that my family has found helpful: http://www.gapacademy.ca/files/checklist_ocd.pdf

Not all mental health professionals are trained to evaluate for OCD. The International OCD Foundation can help you find someone with the right training. Try the "Find Help" section of their website; you can phone them if you get stuck.

As the Tourette Canada factsheet about OCD says:

Possible treatments include behavior therapy like cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and exposure and response prevention (ERP), and medication.

For a description of my experience coaching my son in ERP therapy, you may be interested to read this answer. It's just a small example intended to provide encouragement.

And now for something completely different:

It is sometimes surprising what type of activity can boost a particular person's self-confidence, in a general way. It's just a matter of trying things out to see what works for you. Here is some brainstorming of possibilities:

  • martial arts

  • theater

  • being a volunteer tutor

  • sports

  • dance

  • Eurogames

  • sharing your expertise about something in an online forum

  • political activism

  • volunteering for community building projects

The sky's the limit, really.

And finally, the academic side of your question:

Some projects are more cutting edge than others. You and your advisor may want to think about whether this particular project provides the right level of objective confidence that it will give you a PhD within some reasonable number of years. It is allowed to postpone a particular project if it feels a little too risky for the particular juncture you are at in your life.

I'll give you an analogy. If a medical student knows he is bipolar, and knows that being short on sleep tends to trigger a manic phase, he might decide to choose some other medical specialty than, say, emergency medicine, where he may be expected to work at a 24 hours on, 24 hours off rhythm.

Edit:

As requested in a comment, some quotes from the above references:

Obsessions are unwanted thoughts that happen over and over again causing a lot of stress or anxiety and ultimately resulting in attempts to either ignore the thoughts or to make them go away (fact sheet).

  • Is unable to get started.

  • Continues to “doubt” answer.

  • Reassurance Seeking.

(checklist)

I must stress that the checklist is not designed to be used for self-diagnosis. It's a tool that can be helpful in an evaluation process.

Having watched my son go through the evaluation process, and from reading about OCD, I learned that one of the things evaluators are looking at is the degree to which the person feels impaired. For example, a good writer edits and polishes his writing. But if one is getting stuck often, for long periods -- then the perfectionism might be an impairment, rather than just being an asset.

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    @Three Diag In addition to aparente001's wonderful answer, you may also want to get inspiration from people who rose from much worse situation than the one you are facing. For that, I'd recommend you David Brook's The Road to Character. – Troy Woo Jan 12 '17 at 10:42
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This is probably not an answer to your question, because I am no expert and just want to share some personal experience. Its a little bit long to fit in a comment, so I put it here.

First, let me just say your situation is far better than mine back in my phd years. I was constantly worried about possible failure in my research (and occasionally had panic attack) during my phd study, for multiple reasons: my supervisor did not supervise, but despised me instead (I guessed he expected me to quit soon); my only colleague was one of those entitled top students and despised the idea of working with me; my research direction is decades old and I was supposed to make progress with modern mathematics (I am a mechanical engineer); even my parents expected me to fail. And just because my supervisor despised me, almost all the students in the class I TAed despised me. So you see, all the more worse than your situation.

In China, we have a phrase 众叛亲离, which roughly means you are forsaken by everyone. And this was how I felt for all those years during my phd study. This inevitably had a huge impact on my confidence which was already pathetically low after I was devastated by an extremely low quality undergraduate education. And in China, we don't really have counseling center in universities back then. I guess I even went crazy for a while, stopped working and started hiking hundreds of miles in the mountains, just hoping to pull myself together. I thought about quitting, and I told this to a much kinder professor than my own supervisor. He told the (maybe one of) most important lie in my life: Come on, you are doing just fine.

What worked for me: After that, I slowly recovered and started working persistently. Its just one sentence of approval (most probably out of kindness), and it worked for me. Now as I look back, hiking also helped a lot: it's not only for having a momentary peace by staying away from the people that have negative influence on you, but also for cultivating persistence (hiking on your blisters is a blessing...just kidding). IMHO, doing phd, for people without talent (like me), is all about persistence. Besides, I may also benefit from lowering myself to a point that does not allow myself to have any excuse of not working hard and persistently. And alas...I also benefited from massaging my supervisor's self-ego, and consequently starting to receive supervision and approval (this might not relate to your case since you didn't say anything about your supervisor).

The story for me ended like this: I got my phd degree using almost six years, from a 2nd/3rd class Chinese university. I didn't get to publish on top journals in my field (in fact I submitted one but it was rejected). I published something on one of the top journals in my field 6 years after I got my phd degree. So I guess persistence does pay off.

  • Thank you for sharing this with me. It helps to put thing in perspective. – Three Diag Jan 18 '17 at 11:42
  • @ThreeDiag No problem 8-) – Troy Woo Jan 18 '17 at 12:50

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