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    This Category: > PhD Advice / Support


    Overwhelemed and too stupid for PhD

    User: Smiths - 03 June 2020 15:13

    Thank you to anyone whos reading this post. I think it might help to get it all out as no one is my family seems to be understanding what I am going through.
    Essentially, I am in the last year of my PhD and my project is in shambles. Part of the problem is that the initial project (I was given a topic) was very badly formulated on some flimsy idea, and I spent a lot of time trying to validate something that does not exist. `Ypu say I have a lot of negative results. Well I should do but the time I spent making reagents for this part of the project resulted in obtaining very few results and they don’t even complete the story. The first 6 months of my PhD are a wasted time. The project is incredibly challenging and it involves quite a challenging technique that is almost beyond my comprehension.

    The second and the biggest part of the problem is me. I am stupid and inadequate and so out of the depth of the project, even though it is my last year. And it is not, the imposter syndrome. Some people are really not clever/resilient/competent/ streets smart enough to do a PhD and I am one of those people. For example, I am doing a lot of reading but a) I am having trouble remembering the papers and what questions they have answered b) I cannot critique the papers because I am not clever enough to actually question their methodology/ claims they make c) I really do not connect the dots in my area of research. An example of that was when I didn’t realise that a paper published on the isoform of my protein actually talked about the region of the protein I am investigating. I thought they were completely different bits because it just didn’t occur to me to check it. So I did not apply the finding in that paper to my research, until someone pointed out to me that the mechanism of interaction can be very similar and I should investigate it. It made me feel like a complete idiot that I am. I feel like I am wasting everyone’s time and money (I am fully funded student) and it is just not a place for me. I have no interest in publishing any articles, I just want to survive this last year and do something completely different with my life. The amount of work to in this last year is beyond belief and I am really getting overwhelmed with it all. Not to mentioned that I changed the angle of my project slightly just before the lockdown, and I am starting this batch of the project pretty much from scratch.

    If I ever get the PhD then I know that it will be a pity day for me rather than actually getting it on the merit. Does anyone else feel like this?

    User: moilee - 07 June 2020 08:15

    Hi Smiths,

    I completely empathise and I had these feelings during my candidature too. You sound exactly like me about a year ago.

    Firstly, let me allay your fears. Nobody gets a PhD based on pity. That's just not how higher degrees work. You have to put in the effort and it sounds as though you do.

    I felt as though my projects were not world-changing but I learnt to realise that not many PhDs are (even though we all want that). Lab work is tedious, tiring and does not always work. But as long as you are trying then that will help you finish! How long is your PhD for and can you apply for an extension?

    If your project and techniques are difficult, then it might take a little longer for you to get some good results; even a negative result is a result! It's all in how you write up your thesis. :)

    That internal dialogue that you are having with yourself about not being smart is unhelpful and I've been there. Has anyone in your group said this to you; your supervisor or peers? Probably not. You are putting far too much pressure on yourself and you sound kind of burnt out. Take time to heal. These are an extraordinary set of circumstances we are in. Please do not be so hard on yourself. I know this is easier said than done but believe me when I say that only you can get yourself out of think funk.

    Try to remember why you enrolled as a (fully funded!) PhD student. Things will get better. I promise. Maybe consider talking to a counsellor to get sift through your emotions. It helped me a great deal. If you ever want to talk feel free to DM me.

    Focus on finishing! You're going to be fine :) but you have to believe that you will


    User: pm133 - 10 June 2020 21:06

    Honestly Smiths, a PhD is hard enough on the spirit without trying to crush yourself in the way you are doing.
    You risk breaking yourself completely if you're not careful.
    Apart from anything else, getting a PhD is not necessarily about being smart.
    It sounds like you need a short holiday to recalibrate your thinking.

    User: nutria - 11 June 2020 10:12

    Dear Smiths,

    being after first year of my PhD I can relate so much! I was hired because of my background that no one around had any idea about. I am faced with the problems in a field that I never heard about (but people thought that I should know everything about it). I don't even have anyone to tell me that my ideas are wrong. I also wasted around 8 months for the approach that was probably insane. I don't have proper technology that other labs in the field have. I had a nervous breakdown a month ago. Now I try to get from one day to another. Somehow.

    I am sure you can do this! Your project is not you and it does not define your abilities. Seek for help around you if you can. I've seen somewhat successful PhDs that had little idea about what they were doing but they nagged everyone around them for help and they got through. Did people think they were stupid sometimes? Probably. But they managed to get what they needed.

    And hey, you did not give up after those 6 months that shows hell lot of resilience. You survived to this point and that is amazing.

    I would also recommend a vacation to reset and re-calibrate. There is also probably some kind of PhD mental health help or support group at your University. Might help to get it all out.

    User: Tudor_Queen - 11 June 2020 15:36

    Yes, and sometimes things go as planned and it isn't necessarily your fault or because you aren't clever enough. Like maybe the whole topic area just isn't the right fit for you. There are so many possible reasons why things don't always go well / as you imagined they would. Echoing what others have said a break might do you good. Not that you'll necessarily come back and think it all looks great after all, but maybe just that you'll feel more refreshed, more confident, kinder to yourself, and ready to just see it through.

    Your examiners won't pass you out of pity. They get to see (and they pass) a whole range of theses and it is true that some are better than others. I wasn't pleased with mine at all. But it helped me to remind myself that I am not my thesis and my thesis is not me... my thesis was the product of 3 years that didn't particularly go well on lots of levels (supervisor issues etc). But I salvaged something from it and passed in the end. Not sure if helps to share that or not. But anyway, good luck. You can do it!

    User: Smiths - 11 June 2020 17:50

    Dear All,

    Thank you for your comforting replies.

    I used to be so enthusiastic about the research, but now the only thing that keep me going is that there has been so much time invested in it, and I'd be a looser if I quit. I thought that after 3 years of doing the research I'd be somewhat an expert in my field. Maybe not the smartest cookie, but seriously I just don't connect the basic things that I should know of the top of my head. I cannot say that I am a driving force behind my research. I have other people suggesting things to me that would not occur to me at all. How am I supposed to pass the viva if I am so clueless? I think a lot of the points you have raised are valid to a 1st year/ 2nd year, but I am in my 3rd year! I am far too incompetent in my field to be a third year.

    I would gladly take a holiday for a week, but I have so many things left to do with my PhD (again I am starting from scratch, since I have changed the angle of my project) that I don't think it is viable for me, not even because of the current circumstances we live in, but because I'd be too stressed out thinking about the research that I am not doing but I should be doing. There were some nights when I would wake up early hours of morning and the dread of the new day would just be washing over me and I couldn't go back to sleep. It is better now, since I am working from home, but if I am honest I want this lockdown to last as long as possible so I can escape my work for as longest as possible. I know it is horrible to think like that because in the current situation some families are really struggling and I am here just whinging about my PhD that I chose for myself.

    User: Tudor_Queen - 11 June 2020 21:33

    It can be such a horrible and stressful time. A whinge and sharing about the hardships is needed sometimes! I still don't think you are stupid or incompetent - no matter what you say! But it's OK to realise that something isn't the right thing for you or you don't seem to be as good at it as others. I guess that's part of learning about ourselves. Hope you hang in there and manage to get it wrapped up in your planned time-frame.

    User: PhoenixFortune - 13 June 2020 12:04

    Your mindset seems pretty persistent, so I think seeking mental health support is very important at this stage. If you need to apply for an extension in order to complete your project satisfactorily, then look into doing that. If you've had to restart your project in your 3rd year, that definitely needs addressing - by your committee, and by the university.

    I think a big question for you is: what would make you feel less incompetent? And how could you go about achieving that?

    User: consistently - 15 June 2020 12:53

    First of all, well done for reaching out on here - you're *NEVER* alone.

    Fact is, if you weren't "Smart Enough" to do a PhD, you wouldn't have got three years into it. Your university wants to be able to say that its students produce the best research, so if you weren't up to the task they'd have cut you short either on application or at your upgrade/confirmation/whatever your place calls it. So the fact you're three years in is an indication that they believe you can do it.

    If they believe you can do it, then it's also in their best interests to help you as much as you need. So don't be afraid to reach out to your supervisors. And if you're unlucky enough to have supervisors that aren't attentive to your needs, then contact the doctoral college and see how else they can help. Reach out to other students. Other lecturers you get on with, even if they're not in your field.

    I'm going into my last year and I've realised my research has had nothing to do with my original research aims! Massive panic! But no problem is insurmountable and, with my supervisors, I have a plan. I have another friend who was in EXACTLY the same situation - it's more common than you think.

    Lastly, don't say you're just "whinging" while other people are "really struggling". There's a big difference between being worried about your PhD and saying your problems are more important than anyone else's. You're not in the latter camp, we know that. :)

    Sending love.

    User: Smiths - 17 June 2020 18:29

    Dear All,

    Thank you for your kind words of support. I cannot even express how much they mean to me. Maybe I am a bit too much in my head and worry unnecessarily. I just want this PhD to end so I can get on with my life. My supervisor is so excited about me maybe publishing a paper, but frankly speaking at this point I couldn't care less about any papers. I am not any real scientist in the pure definition, I just happen to be a person who managed to get into PhD programme and I just cannot wait to finish it. Has any of you felt that way? At this point I feel, that I would make a really good research assistant. I can make buffers, split cells and do all of that, but I am not someone who is a driving force behind the project or can come up with these brilliant ideas.

    Quote From PhoenixFortune: I think a big question for you is:
    what would make you feel less incompetent? And how could you go about achieving that?

    I honestly don't know. I have these great postdocs around me and they are all really smart. Next to them whatever I say sounds like 'potato'. I cannot even come up with really interesting questions. I suppose the answer would be to get better at my area of research, however despite how much I read and try, it just doesn't click in my head.

    I am drifting from day to day in the lab, and all of the passion I used to have for science long ago has evaporated over the years.

    You all are right I think, I should embrace that I am not that great at science and that's okay too, and just get on with what I have to do and finish it. At the end of the day the best thesis is a complete thesis.

    User: Smiths - 17 June 2020 18:32

    I also wanna say that I think Research Assistants are great, I think they keep the labs going, are a great sense of knowledge and many times they do drive the research : ). I feel that I sounded really snobbish, so to all Research Assistants here, I love you people, you are one of the most helpful, knowledgable and kind people out there and we'd be lost without you! You are the 'nurses' and 'paramedics' of the science world! : )

    User: Tudor_Queen - 18 June 2020 10:59

    Quote From Smiths:
    I am not any real scientist in the pure definition, I just happen to be a person who managed to get into PhD programme and I just cannot wait to finish it. Has any of you felt that way?

    Loads of people have felt this way! I would hazard a guess at 50%! Even higher if you're talking about did anyone feel that way for at least part of their PhD! 80%?!

    User: Smiths - 24 October 2022 12:05


    I know it has been a while since I have posted. When I created the first post I was in a lockdown mode, feeling very low and unmotivated. Thank you to all of you kind souls who have reached out with advice. I have passed my viva last month and I am over the moon. To cut the long story short - I came back to uni after months of being away. The last year was extremally challenging but I just ploughed ahead. It wasn't the best PhD and I was not the best but I was working hard enough to generate enough data to get a nice thesis in place. Writing was the hardest and every day was a struggle with my motivation. But I got through. It took me months to write but once that was in place I submitted and viva was actually quite nice.

    So to everyone who struggles with motivation and depression and anxiety. Sometimes you just need to stick it out. It sucks, it is not your passion but sheer hard work will get you there. You are more clever than what you think. In my last year of PhD I actually got a bit better and finally stood on my own two feet a bit more (but still made stupid mistakes). Just shake yourself off and try again tomorrow and it will come.

    Thank you all of you people. It takes a village to get a PhD!

    User: sloshout - 15 November 2022 07:37

    Feeling lost, out of control and uncertain about which tasks to work on at all, or which ones to tackle first, is very common among PhD students. You're not alone! Your examiners won't pass you out of pity. They get to see (and they pass) a whole range of theses and it is true that some are better than others. I wasn't pleased with mine at all. But it helped me to remind myself that I am not my thesis and my thesis is not me... my thesis was the product of 3 years that didn't particularly go well on lots of levels (supervisor issues etc, But I salvaged something from it and passed in the end. Not sure if helps to share that or not. But anyway, good luck my all good wished with you.

    User: Jamie_Wizard - 16 November 2022 16:27


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