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I am a PhD student in Europe, currently in my second year, and I have some attitude problems concerning my work. I really want to work on my problem, that's fine, but what bothers me is the following. I struggle with "impostor syndrome", so I always think that I know nothing. This leads me to the thought that it's not worth meeting with my advisor, because I am afraid of saying stupid things (which happens!), asking stupid questions (which has led, after all, to the solution of many important problems!), not knowing things which I should know (but if I don't ask, it will be even harder for me to learn these things), and am just afraid of wasting my advisor's time.

You see that I know that I know that my thoughts are completely irrational, but they just won't go out of my head.

Now my advisor (currently abroad for several weeks) sent me an e-mail that he thinks that I should be more modest and that we should meet more often. While I agree with the fact that we should meet more often, I disagree with the statement that I should be more modest. Not being modest means for me (in this context) thinking that I don't need my advisor because I can do everything on my own (correct me if I misunderstand his statement). But the opposite is the case.

Should I tell my advisor about my thoughts about not being good enough, as described above? If yes, should I respond to him via e-mail (note that he's abroad for some time), or should I prefer to talk to him in person about these issues?

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    Why do you think that he told you to be more modest? What could have - given your explanations here - have got him this idea? – Captain Emacs Jan 11 '17 at 22:47
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    I deleted several comments that were not constructive. I encourage readers to think about these points: (1) "Imposter syndrome" is a common phrase that the OP did not invent. Using this common phrase does not imply that the OP thinks it is the same as a disability or diagnosable disease. (2) Some of the language in the post ("e.g. suffer from") may rub some people the wrong way, but consider that English may not be the OP's first language and maybe the subtle connotations do not translate well. – ff524 Jan 12 '17 at 3:53
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    PhD in EU: I have met my advisor some times and told him "I am just working on that thing from the last meeting. Advancing but still not there, will probably take another 2 weeks" "No problem". Meeting doesnt mean you need to have new research every time. It's just a way of keeping track of the progress. – Ander Biguri Jan 12 '17 at 14:42
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    Do you think this might be a gendered comment? I don't know your prior record, or your advisor, or their treatment of graduate students in general. We should consider content, but one thing I would worry about is advisors expecting female graduate students to be more modest, based on how credit/ownership is often viewed along gendered lines. – NMJD Jan 13 '17 at 17:43
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    @NMJD - There are two meanings of modest. The meaning here is unrelated. Here it is the opposite of arrogant. – aparente001 Jan 13 '17 at 20:12

14 Answers 14

74

My advisor sent me an e-mail that he thinks that I should be more modest and that we should meet more often.

Your prompt answer:

Sounds good!

Nothing is gained by getting defensive.

(Do you know what meeting rhythm your advisor has in mind? What often works well is a standing, weekly meeting. If you have no progress to report, that's okay -- it can be helpful to establish a habit of meeting regularly, rain or shine.)

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    This is a very good answer. Agree to the meetings, and when they happens perhaps explain that you were worried you would ask silly questions. Hopefully he will explain that his role is to help you with any difficulties you might have, and that there is no such thing as a silly question. – Nick Gammon Jan 12 '17 at 6:40
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    This isn't about being defensive; it is about communicating openly and effectively. The concern is that if OP hides this part of their personally then it makes things wise for both parties. – user58748 Jan 13 '17 at 5:42
  • @DoritoStyle - "Wise"? I think there might be a typo. What was it you meant to say, please? // There will be plenty of time for explanations ahead. OP and professor are going to be meeting regularly once professor gets back to town. – aparente001 Jan 13 '17 at 8:30
  • @aparente001 - i think it's clear they meant "worse". Hiding what OP told us about his imposter syndrome will make future communication difficult. – Davor Jan 13 '17 at 13:27
  • @Davor - Thanks. Okay, now I can respond better. I didn't mean OP should hide the anxiety, just that there is no need to agonize over the perfect email. OP and advisor will have plenty of opportunities to communicate about this once their new meeting rhythm is up and running. – aparente001 Jan 13 '17 at 20:11
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Only guessing, but, very likely the fact that you are hesitant to meet, hesitant to ask questions, etc., gives the impression (quite contrary to your interior image) that you are over-confident. Somewhat ironical, yes. A responsible advisor will hope that students meet with them and ask questions... unless there are no problems and great enterprises are already completed?!? Since there are inevitably difficulties and great projects are rarely quickly and effortlessly completed, the state of not meeting, and not asking questions, is most reliably assessed as a failure mode, whatever the underlying reasons.

A misguided "immodesty" might mean many things, after all. "Modesty" might mean being willing to make a mistake, at least to be discussed with your advisor, etc. Inhibition about making slightly public errors usually leads to inactivity and dysfunction, rather than "perfection".

EDIT: to directly answer the question about whether you should "tell your advisor about your attitude problem", I think it is more to the point that you should respond exactly by explaining your misunderstanding about how the situation functions... and that you would like to have regular meetings from now on, and that you will be sure to ask questions about obstacles you find. To communicate this in person, in a minute or two, just popping in to your advisor's door, is good, but/and a longer (but not too self-indulgent, breast-beating rant...) email would be good, too, especially if it's not easy to find your advisor in person very soon. That is, prompt responses are good... infinitely better than non-responses.

7

I am just going to point out a few things that I have noticed.

Imposter Syndrome is just a term used to describe the feeling that you are a "fraud" and everyone will eventually find out.

I am not saying that there are no issues with having these feelings, due to the fact if you do not address these issues, they can lead to real disabilities, such as depression.

I personally would not bring up Imposter Syndrome insofar as saying it is something you suffer from. The reason for this is that you would be claiming you are suffering from the effects of an unrecognized emotional/psychological disorder. This would not be sending the message you actually intend to be sending. It could actually come across as you are trying to make excuses.

I would however, address the situation by meeting with your advisor, in person, and discussing your concerns, starting at the point in your opening after stating "i suffer from the imposter syndrome." Everything from then on an advisor would understand and could help you with.

Also, I would strongly suggest finding any mental health support you may have access to. Be it counseling, or a support group. Keeping these things bottled up is the wrong way to address the problem. This is from first hand experience.

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    Impostor syndrome is very common, and it comes in varying degrees. While I agree it can lead to depression, etc, I think in most cases it doesn't require mental health treatment, but is just a natural part of the learning process. From Wiki: It is not perceived to be a mental disorder. So I think this advice, while appropriate in some cases, is misleading in general. – Kimball Jan 12 '17 at 14:02
  • @Kimball What I meant by mental health support was not in terms of Imposter Syndrome (I had initially answered stating I.S. was not a recognized syndrome, but that was looked down upon, and upon looking at it, it did seem to attack the OP a bit) I meant there may be other underlying factors that are contributing to his attitudes. I myself have Asperger's Syndrome, and was diagnosed late (many incorrect diagnoses leading to this) so, I know what it's like to not know exactly what is wrong with your own mind....*that was confusing* – NZKshatriya Jan 12 '17 at 15:03
  • @NZKshatriya - Hey, congrats on figuring it out. You might enjoy listening to the following account of a late Asperger's diagnosis: thisamericanlife.org/radio-archives/episode/458/…. (If you haven't come across this yet.) I read his book and while it wasn't bad, the audio I linked to is more entertaining. A very well put together story. // Perhaps what you're getting at is that "Imposter Syndrome" isn't in the DSM-V. (At least, as far as I know.) – aparente001 Jan 13 '17 at 8:34
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    @aparente001 Well, technically, A.S. isn't in the DSM-5 either, they get rid of it, and all specific autism related things, and just call them "autism spectrum disorders" Not really a fan. And you are correct, I.S. has was not in the DSM-IV-tr, and is not in the current flawed version lol. – NZKshatriya Jan 13 '17 at 14:19
  • @NZKshatriya - good point about Asperger's getting the axe in the new edition. Fortunately, many people still understand the term. (I find it so ironic that people who have a disability that can make communication more difficult just lost the name of the disability, which makes communicationg ABOUT the disability easier.) – aparente001 Jan 13 '17 at 20:15
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Premise:

It isn't necessarily the case that you should talk to your academic advisor at all about these particular issues.

Some people have a kind of coach-athlete or personal mentor-mentee relationship with their thesis advisors and some people don't. What all people should have is a relationship where they receive academic training from their academic advisors.

Answer

In answer to your question as worded:

Should I tell my advisor about my thoughts about not being good         
enough, as described above? 

Going just from the question, it doesn't seem like your relationship with your advisor has these non-academic advising features. But regardless, your response should be professional. Something like:

When can we meet next? What's a good day of the week to meet regularly?

There's absolutely no need (and little justification) for arguing with your advisor about whether you need to be more modest. Similarly, given that his current view is that you do need to be more modest, it seems a little unreasonable to think he's the right person to talk to about your imposter syndrome feelings.

  • Consider that the advisor gave advice about modesty, I think "it doesn't seem like your relationship with your advisor has these non-academic advising features" is a very wrong impression. – user58748 Jan 13 '17 at 5:46
  • I saw that remark when I gave my answer, but I don't agree with the inference you're drawing. Note how the OP disagrees with the advisor about modesty, so it's quite likely they lack any sort of relationship where this sort of advice is welcome. Faux pas in managing academic advisor advisee relations don't always come from just one side. – virmaior Jan 13 '17 at 6:13
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The first thing to realise is that you and your adviser are on the same team, that you want the same outcomes, that you are pulling in the same direction.

The next thing is to realise that the world is divided into two groups of people, those who admit to suffering from impostor syndrome to some degree, and liars. Oh, and perhaps a tiny 3rd group consisting of Bill Gates, Donald Trump and half a dozen others.

Accept the appointment with your adviser. Confide in him that not only do you feel you are not up to the work, but also that you find meetings difficult, and you observe that that has obviously distorted implicit communication in the past, as the one thing you do not feel you need now is more modesty. If you find it difficult to enunciate what you perceive to be your issues, then you could do worse than send him a link to this very Q/A. You have put them quite eloquently to us. Talking to a third party often helps focus.

Bear in mind that the least accurate diagnoses one can make are self diagnoses. Do not insist that you have diagnosed correctly, but take your feelings as a starting point for a discussion with your adviser about the communication between yourselves, and your feelings of academic competence. It sounds like discussing the work itself is beyond you for the moment.

2

I have similar problems and it has indeed led into problems. I'm dealing with it as best as I can. It's hardest to cope with when dealing with people who are negative towards others, but in general I have it mostly under control.

I suggest trying these in your everyday life:

  • Be concise and to the point. You probably want to blabber (as do I) and you have to restrain yourself from doing so. Just answer the immediate question with a short but accurate answer. You may spend a moment to think about the most efficient answer. I've always been too nervous to blurt out something and nowadays I always take a small relaxed breath before answering anything at all.
  • telling something and laughing might make you feel like a fake even if it's really a funny thing. I've had the tendency to comfort myself after a joke by laughing but I've seen that simple smile will suffice. Or even being super serious and lifting an eyebrow after something meant for a joke. The laughing part has always been my problem and makes me instead very uncomfortable.
  • Accept appointments, because running away from them makes you feel worse. Let the other people do the talking. Answer the immediate question and if it's not enough, answer the following question etc.

I've traced my problems to the feeling that I'm being more lazy than the others. I often feel guilty about reading articles while working etc. but I've seen others do it as well which comforts me a bit. Then again I'm doing so many things that I usually sleep less than I should on weekdays. I usually want to do my own things until it's very late, but I've had to arrange some time for sleeping as well. Being well rested makes it easier to feel that I'm giving my best. Also when serving in the military I noticed that my 'shaky' tendency wasn't an issue at all when I was doing a great deal of physical exercises. Same still applies.

I don't know how to summarize this. It's probably not "just be yourself", because you probably get excited when dealing with people and start acting how you think they expect you to act instead of how you normally do things. I do that and that's a defensive thing. I feel I need to defend myself. I'm better with subordinates than those who I see as my superiors because of that. Maybe you should think about your interactions that "you should be in charge" rather than "you should explain yourself".

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You don't "have" impostor syndrome - it's a trait, not a disorder. It sounds like you suffer with anxiety, which can lead to experiencing impostor syndrome, but you also have misunderstood the term "modest".

To be modest, means to be humble, and not overstate your own capabilities. If your advisor (the person who is employed to give you advice) tells you to be more modest, it means you're probably showing arrogance. The fact that you've essentially disregarded this advice only confirms it the case.

And to be honest, if you were suffering from impostor syndrome you already be displaying modesty as it is essentially a case of being too modest to congratulate yourself on anything.

I understand the anxiety of social interaction, but the straightforward answer here is "Say yes and eat some humble pie".

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    I will repeat what I commented on the original post: I encourage readers to think about these points: (1) "Imposter syndrome" is a common phrase that the OP did not invent. Using this common phrase does not imply that the OP thinks it is the same as a disability or diagnosable disease. (2) Some of the language in the post ("e.g. suffer from") may rub some people the wrong way, but consider that English may not be the OP's first language and maybe the subtle connotations do not translate well. – ff524 Jan 12 '17 at 10:09
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    I'm fully aware of that, I've "suffered" with it myself. Using the phrase doesn't imply that but the rest of the post does. It's also obvious English is unlikely to be OPs first language which is why it's worth pointing out the semantics of the words he's used so that he can better understand what's been communicated to him. Of course, my being fairly blunt about this may rub some people the wrong way but that doesn't mean I'm incorrect. – TehJake Jan 12 '17 at 10:25
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    @TehJake You are coming across, as the me of about 5 years ago. Do not be the me of 5 years ago. I was not liked. – NZKshatriya Jan 12 '17 at 15:05
  • This is beside the point, non constructive and it didn't answer the question. – user58748 Jan 13 '17 at 5:47
2

It's likely that you've avoided meeting with him because of your worries, but that he's interpreted this to mean that you think you don't need his advice.

Ideally, you would meet with him in person to discuss this, but if he's going to be out of the country for several more weeks, getting this cleared up soon should take precedence. Could you arrange to speak with him on the phone or by video chat?

Anyway, in your meeting/phone call/email, you should (a) get on the same page as him about how frequently you should be meeting, and (b) ask him to clarify/elaborate what he meant about modesty. You're asking for feedback. Asking for feedback is normal!

I would recommend saying something like this: "Could you explain what you meant when you said I should be more modest? I worry a lot that I'm not good enough, so I'm not sure how to interpret this feedback." You should phrase/say this calmly, so he knows you're not just being defensive. (This is why it would be better to talk in person--so you can make sure he understands your tone, and in case it requires a bit of back-and-forth.)

It's fine to let your advisor know that you feel inadequate and you know it's irrational. Ask him if he has any advice for coping with it! He may well have experienced the same thing at your level, and if not, you're hardly the first student to have this problem. See if he can help you!

Side note: I do recommend being careful about making it sound like you have a mental illness, which some of your phrasing here kind of implies (but it might not in whatever language you use with your advisor). Depending on how stigmatized mental illness is in your country, what kind of disability and health accommodations kick in for mental illness, and a whole host of other factors, that might open a can of worms you don't want.

2

I recommend you ask you advisor to go into more detail. Go to a meeting, tell him you're not afraid of any criticism, and you will try to consider what he says. Ask him to come up with specific examples of the sort of thing he means.

Then, consider his words with care: this is advice about your professional behaviour, not an order. You are allowed to interpret his advice for yourself and hold it against all the things that your advisor doesn't know about you.

The main thing to remember is that he is commenting on your behaviour, not your person. He doesn't know where the behaviour comes from, that's for you to figure out. And he is of course fallible; he may be cherrypicking examples, you may have had a bad days the last few times you met him, just by coincidence. Who knows.

He does, however, have one thing you don't have: an outside perspective. That means he sees you as you can't see yourself. This is probably the last time you will have a person in your life that will tell you about parts of your behaviour that you might want to change, but that you can't see for yourself. A bit like someone who will tell you that you have bad breath. Almost everybody will avoid the conflict, but your supervisor has some obligation to make you aware of these things, since it affects your professional life.

Finally, bear in mind that your impostor syndrome was clearly a big deal before your supervisor sent you this email. You then immediately connected his words to that state of mind, because that's what you've been dealing with, and possibly obsessing about (I know I did). But consider the possibility that your supervisor was talking about an entirely different kind of modesty. Perhaps he was suggesting you moderate the way you voice your opinion. Perhaps you told a joke to a co-worker that went a little too far. Perhaps you've been dressing a little provocative. Perhaps you just hurt his feelings by not agreeing with him.

The point is, you were already worried about your impostor syndrome, so you've interpreted his words in that background. He may have meant something entirely different from what you thought. So, find a good moment, and ask him to elaborate.

1

You're puzzled by his request for you to be more 'modest'. You'd like to comply, but you don't know how, as you're not sure what he meant. This is seriously distracting you.

At the next meeting, ask him what he meant and discuss how to resolve it.

1

Clearly you should ask your advisor what he means by being "more modest" for three reasons: One, nobody here seems to really know what your advisor means. Two, because impostor syndrome and being not modest doesn't seem to fit together well; I would expect that someone with impostor syndrome would appear too modest to others. Three, because I can't see "modesty" as something that is a positive trait for a PhD student, so I would expect a comment like this only directed towards a PhD student who is an insufferable show-off.

All in all, there seems to be a great likelihood that there is some severe misunderstanding going on here.

0

We are all our worse nightmare and biggest critic and I can definitely relate to how you feel. Meeting with the teacher is definitely a good thing! I would not be afraid to do this even if your internal demons say so. It seems that the teacher may have picked up on some of your issues and wants to try to help.

The whole "Be more modest" isn't necessarily telling you to all of a sudden think you are Einstein, but rather they want you to be more sure of yourself. Everyone still needs help. Just because you are more self confident doesn't mean you don't need help. He just wants to see your thought process change from, "I am not smart enough" to "I can do this". He hopes that with frequently meeting with you, I assume his goal is to demonstrate to you that you actually have ability and help you to be okay in acknowledging this ability.

0

Find counseling (psychologist, or even psychiatrist). Perhaps your condition has deeper grounds in undiagnosed depression (that's why I would suggest a good psychiatrist which is also a good therapist - not all of them are. You definitely don't want to end up popping pills without someone talking to you at least once a month).

This condition is between you and your counselor (whoever he/she is) and there is no need to explain this to your advisor, because:

  1. It is not his job to help you with this
  2. He does not have training to address your issues
  3. He might interpret this in a wrong way (e.g. you are incapable of study, that is, interpreting your psychological problem as a personality problem)

If the therapy helps (whatever it is, psychotherapy or psychiatric consultations with or without medication), your advisor will just be happy that you dealt with your problems.

0

All the other eleven answers (at this time), as well as the OP, misunderstand what the professor meant by "be more modest". This has nothing to do with OP's personal qualities, and nothing to do with working alone vs. asking for the advisor's help. Most likely, if the professor knew about the OP's impostor syndrome, the professor would be mortified and apologetic by this choice of phrase.

In this context, the phrase means "be more modest in your immediate scholarly goals", i.e. "be less ambitious with what you're trying to accomplish as the next step". See the fourth definition.

For example, if someone tried to prove the mathematical theorem that every whatzit is blue, a more modest goal would be to prove that one whatzit is blue. That's a good first step, and might lead to another intermediate result (e.g. infinitely many whatzits are blue), which in turn might lead to the desired final theorem.

So, to answer the question, it is probably not necessary to mention impostor syndrome to the professor, since the whole thing appears to be a misunderstanding. However, depending on how serious the OP's reaction was, it might be worthwhile to have a discussion to avoid similar issues in the future.

protected by ff524 Jan 12 '17 at 10:10

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