How To Deal With Self-Doubts As A PhD?


The first year of my PhD was rough. I had financial issues, lived in an awful apartment, my partner lived 6 hours away, and to top it all off I felt like I didn’t belong in a PhD program. I felt like a fraud. I was trying my best, but it just never felt like enough. I’d talk with the rest of my cohort and feel like they were miles ahead of me and that they had access to a whole realm of opportunities that were closed to me.

During my PhD, I often felt like I was not good enough, however, this was not really true. I remember one particular instance early in my first year when this clicked. For the first few months of my PhD, I walked out of most of my seminars feeling like an idiot. I had done all the reading. I made copious notes. I picked up on all the major themes, theses, and ideas, but somehow I always missed some insight into the readings that other members of my cohort got. I couldn’t understand it, and it just re-enforced the idea that I didn’t belong there, that I was a fraud. I thought it partially had to do with my background. Unlike the rest of my cohort I had taken some time off of academics between my MA and PhD. I worked at a 9-5 office job for a couple of years to save up some money. I thought the few years off dulled my wits a bit, and I had lost my competitive edge. I also struggled financially. The rest of my cohort seemed to come from wealthy families or to have somehow secured large scholarships from funding bodies that were closed to international students like myself. They were living comfortably while I was trying to piece together part-time jobs around the intense amount of work the first year of a PhD requires. These experiences made me feel even more isolated, and re-enforced the notion that I shouldn’t be there. I wasn’t as smart enough and I couldn’t afford to be there.

(Want to know what a PhD seminar is like? Check out this post.)

Then one day I walked into one of my of fellow cohort’s offices and found that they were reading book reviews on that week’s reading. I was aware of book reviews and read them occasionally when I was curious about new books, but I had not been reading them in conjunction with the week’s readings. When I started searching through them I found that the profound ideas that the rest of my cohort had were very often not their own, but rather the opinions of more senior scholars who had reviewed the books we were reading. Suddenly they didn’t seem so far ahead of me anymore. This was by no means my last encounter with self-doubt during my PhD, but the first time I realized even though I felt miles behind everyone else, in reality I was doing just fine.

Check out this page about dealing with depression and anxiety when you are in graduate school.

However, self-doubt during a PhD and during a career in academia generally is very common. Usually, it is called impostor syndrome. Almost all PhD’s feel doubt about their choice to do a PhD, and whether they belong in their program or not. If that is how you are currently feeling, don’t worry, you’re not alone. There are ways to deal with impostor syndrome, it may never go away, but it is important to realize you are not alone, and the inadequacy you feel isn’t real.

A note on this post – I asked a recent PhD (from a very good university) to write this post on behalf of the project. I asked her to base it on the following video and to reflect her experiences during her own PhD journey. It is not meant to be prescriptive or used for diagnostic purposes, but to share real stories of fellow PhDs who are struggling just like the rest of us.

What is impostor syndrome?

Impostor syndrome is common among people who are high achievers. Impostor syndrome is when you feel that you don’t belong in your position, and that you are a fraud. People with impostor syndrome don’t credit themselves with their successes, but rather view any success as the result of luck or some type of deception. In the case of PhD students, they often feel that they are not smart enough, not motivated enough, or not innovative enough to be in their program. They feel that they got there by some mistake or trick. They fear that someone is going to find them out, and they will have to leave their program. Often PhD students don’t talk about this feeling with others because they don’t want to reveal that they got into the program by mistake. PhD students think that they alone of their peers feel this sense of inadequacy. Most likely, however, everyone else in your cohort feels the same way. There might be one or two who don’t, but in this case they are the oddity, not you. Likely your supervisor and most of the professors in your department felt like an impostor at some point during their PhD and later career. That’s the unfortunate part about impostor syndrome, it doesn’t go away when you complete your PhD.

What causes impostor syndrome?

Impostor syndrome is usually a reaction to certain circumstances – it is not a mental disorder. People often experience impostor syndrome during experiences when feel that they are not equipped or prepared for their new experience. Because they feel unprepared, they question how they got there. Self-doubt is of course normal, but impostor syndrome couples that self-doubt with the fear that someone will find you out as a fraud. Impostor syndrome also comes with feelings of anxiety and depression, and has been coupled in research to tendencies towards perfectionism. For some, it might be a side effect of depression and anxiety. People with depression and anxiety already experience feelings of inadequacy, and new situations like starting a PhD can exacerbate that. Impostor syndrome can also be exacerbated by comparing yourself to other PhDs.

Impostor syndrome can become a cycle. PhD students feel under-prepared for their current work, so they will over-prepare and focus on making their project perfect so that no one finds out they are a fraud. When they succeed in their project they chalk up the success to the feelings of anxiety and the pursuit of perfection, making them believe that these things are necessary to succeed. Then the cycle repeats.

Feeling Behind in a PhD (Impostor Syndrome vs. Barriers)

Impostor syndrome can kick into overdrive when you feel behind or overwhelmed in your PhD. It is important to distinguish between feeling behind because of impostor syndrome and actual barriers to your studies. PhD students face a lot of demands, particularly during the first couple years when they are doing coursework. You are likely facing a mountain of books and articles to get through every week on top of written assignments, Teaching Assistantships, Research Assistantships, outside jobs, and family obligations. The pressure of all of these demands and obligations can make feel like you are falling behind or simply overwhelmed, particularly if you have the perception that others are making it through these commitments with ease.

Doing a PhD is completely different from any academic experience you’ve had before. There is a lot more independence and freedom, which can be great, but also feel a little crushing and directionless at times. A PhD program might have a recommended amount of time depending on the university, but how and when people finish is completely up in the air. My own program had a proscribed 4 year time line. I only know of one person who finished on that timeline. A few others and myself took 4 years and 2 semesters. Most of the rest take between 5 and 6+ years. Despite finishing before the rest of my cohort the proscribed four year nearly impossible timeline frequently made me feel as though I was constantly falling behind. I compared myself to others and often found myself lacking in the first few years. I felt an increasing amount of pressure as the four year mark approached and I barely had a full thesis draft. These things always made me feel as though I was falling behind, but in reality I was not. I was comparing myself to others who were in different circumstances, and trying to adhere to an unrealistic timeline.

It is really important to remember that a PhD is done largely on your own terms, and dictated by your research. The proscribed timeline is an ideal that doesn’t take into consideration external projects such as TAships, RAships, fellowships, family obligations, jobs, or really anything that is not a direct research benchmark. Not hitting a proscribed benchmark at a certain time is completely okay. There will also be times when you feel like your research is going nowhere, but this is all part of the process. As long as you are moving forward you are going to be okay.

That being said, it is important to recognize if you have hit an actual barrier to your research such as health concerns, financial issues, or family obligations. In these types of cases it might be best to actually take a break. Look into your university’s leave of absence policies, or dropping down to part-time status. I know PhDs who have taken time off for a number of reasons such as a severe injury, having a baby, and family caretaking responsibilities. Life happens, and there are ways of dealing with the PhD around it. Taking time off or changing to part-time is not falling behind in your PhD, it’s attending to the other needs in your life. Not taking the time to address barriers will actually make you fall behind since you can’t devote the time needed to your research.

How to Deal with Impostor Syndrome

Unfortunately impostor syndrome doesn’t just go away, and many academics deal with it throughout their careers. There are some ways to alleviate the feelings. The first way is to recognize that you are often not seeing the full picture of someone else and their accomplishments. Being around people in academia is often like being on Facebook. You see the highlights of everyones lives. On Facebook you see when someone gets a new job or promotion, their engagements or baby announcements, and you generally get the feeling that someone’s life is going well. You see their on-stage personality. That’s a lot like being in academia. You hear about all the awards and publications someone has, but rarely do you see the behind the scenes. You don’t see the years of effort, self-doubt, revisions, and false starts that went into someone’s prize winning book. You are seeing the highlights, not the full reality. At some point that award winning academic doubted their work, and maybe still does. So be aware that you are seeing the best of someone’s work, not all of it.

Another way to lessen or avoid impostor syndrome is by limiting the amount of time you spend with negative people or people who contribute to the toxic environment that sometimes exists in academia. There are always those academics who love to talk about how much they do and how busy they are to make themselves look better. They love to talk about how much time they spend on their research, the courses they teach, the committees they’re on, the public outreach and all that. They always seem so busy, and make everything a competition. They try to promote this image that academia is all they do, they are the best at it, and if you want to be good you have to be like that. It is best to limit the amount of time you are exposed to these types of people.

In conjunction with this is finding people who make you feel better about yourself. This is a good for a few reasons. First of course, it does lessen the impostor syndrome. Having someone cheer you and your accomplishments on is a great feeling. The second is that doing a PhD can be a very solitary experience. You work on your own projects, spend hours by yourself in labs, libraries, and archives. It can be very isolating. Find encouraging people not just for the lessening of your impostor syndrome, but also for the social aspect. Being friends with other PhDs makes the experience much better. Outside friends and family are great, but they don’t often understand the specific trials of a PhD and it’s very helpful to have a group of people who do. You can commiserate, bounce ideas off each other, prop each other up, and generally provide support to one another during a unique and trying experience.

Another way to lessen impostor syndrome is to look back at your previous accomplishments. Despite what impostor syndrome is telling you, you got into your PhD program because you are the best. You made it through a Master’s degree with high marks. You made it through a bachelors with high marks. You’ve won awards. You’ve presented at conferences. You’ve accomplished so much. Look back at it and reflect on it, it will give you confidence to keep going.

Finally, keep moving forward. There are going to be times when you don’t feel like you are making progress, negative people get in your head, or it all just simply feels overwhelming. Remember that it is a normal part of this process. Take a break, go for a walk, talk to your friends but come back to it. Research and writing are arduous processes, but you will get through it. You have an end goal, you will get there, just keep moving along.

Is Doing A PhD Stressful?

The simple answer is yes. A PhD is so much more than just the research projects. PhD candidates have to meet certain deadlines, often deal with the demands of teaching, university and professional service, trying to get research published, and many live on a tight budget. All of these factors can lead to a very stressful experience. There are a lot of demands in a PhD that have little or nothing to do with your actual research. The process as a whole can be isolating, intimidating, and at times overwhelming. There is so much more to it than simply trying to answer your research question.

It is stressful, and there are a lot of outside factors that can make it more stressful, but know that you are not alone. It is a process, and everyone wants to quit their PhD at some point. It is not a straightforward process, and you will face a lot of obstacles, but you will come out the other side having accomplished your goal.

We continue to build an active archive of posts that are meant to help you do better at research, deal with real life, and become better people. If you want to read more from the r3ciprocity project, check out these other great posts:

  1. How to find research projects that matter to you.
  2. Building a platform to help academics and to improve research.
  3. How are PhD students evaluated (and why you need to know).

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