Another form of imposter syndrome?


Hi all, thanks for stopping by.

I just started the 3rd year of my PhD and have found myself googling "how obsessed should I be with my PhD?" and not at all reassured by the swathes of "try not to overwork yourself!" advice because I feel I have the opposite problem: a pretty deep apathy for my project and situation in general. I make the mistake of comparing myself to my partner (who just graduated from an absolute home-run of a PhD) and my flatmate (who has a slave-driver of a supervisor and is a hopeless workaholic), but I am really unsure about when my behaviour/attitude crosses the line into problem territory.

I’ve passed 2 annual reviews and my committee feel I'm making adequate progress, even though I’m antsy about the amount of data I've gathered to date. I haven't published anything and am not close to it. I feel a huge amount of anxiety owning up to this publicly, but I don't spend 40 hours a week on my PhD and I have developed multiple time-consuming hobbies on the side in addition to maintaining a long-distance relationship. This feels very wrong, and I don't know of anyone else who is underworked in their PhD.

When I started I was totally prepared to invest myself wholly into this project, but the attitude in the group really threw me. My research topic is unique in the group and outside of the favourite topic area of my primary supervisor, and no-one around me knows or cares to learn about what I'm doing and can't help when I ask. Most of the directive advice I've been given is to do less, reign in my expectations, narrow my plans. My secondary supervisor is very knowledgeable but a bit of a doormat and fears "stepping on toes". During the first lockdown in the UK I asked my primary supervisor for more things to do and was essentially given busywork that probably won't make it into my thesis. I have no interim goals besides annual reviews (no lit reviews, no publications, no conferences). When I take plans into my own hands and ask questions like "who would be able to help me with this?" my primary has (on more than one occasion) actively not directed me to other people who would be useful. I get the feeling this is either a personality clash or they are actively trying to keep me from moving outside their sphere of influence. To top it all off they recently took a new job in Europe and have left my University, so they supervise me remotely while setting up their fancy new lab.

I feel totally under-utilised and stifled, and no-one is excited about my project including me. I'm afraid that if I tell my supervisor that that it will reflect badly on me. Am I a slacker unworthy of my funding? Is my primary a tyrant trying to make me fail? Am I just being impatient with a totally normal situation? Any advice appreciated!


Long time lurker, made an account to respond to this.

I think you're fine. I submitted in August and have my viva at the start of next month. Never during my PhD did I work a solid 40 hours a week (although many many weeks did I sit at my desk and waste time for 40 hours). 1st through 3rd year my workload was honestly quite relaxed, and I did other extracurricular things alongside - teaching qualification, big academic admin role to help with career stuff, plus a lot of cycling and bikepacking! During my 4th year it really intensified and I did the lion's share of my writing, but I don't think I was touching 40 hours of work at all. That's normal, I think. The majority of posts on here are horror stories and people going through serious problems, but I think for a lot of people (if not most) the PhD can be an enjoyable experience where you get to read a lot and work to a relatively relaxed schedule. Don't get me wrong - it's still been hugely psychologically stressful (for many of the reasons you described) - but I haven't worked my fingers to the bone.

I'm in social sciences rather than STEM so my experience re: supervision and project will have been very different to yours, but I think it's also very normal to not be excited about your project. As I finished my thesis, I really felt that I'd gone as far as I could with my research topic, and I'm now drafting up a big postdoc bid on something that's different but related - and which I'm actually really excited about. The PhD is an apprenticeship, essentially, to prove you can do research. I think anyone who's still absolutely mad about their PhD project after 4 years of work on it is either lying or has a screw loose. I've submitted a thesis which I'm pleased with and proud of, but it doesn't excite me like it did in 2017.



It's great that you have time-consuming hobbies on the side. That's very healthy. Nurture them while you can. You will find your workload ramps up towards the end, and then once you submit, it's all change and likely a stressful period ahead. The PhD can be a very valuable time to prepare for that by treating yourself well, developing healthy approaches to work, and nurturing those other interests to the extent that, when you finish and go into the hellscape of early-career research, you'll still feel compelled to make time for them even when things are really busy.
If everybody thinks you're doing well, and you're not being dramatically under-supervised, then I'd advise to keep on trucking. Get the PhD finished and after that you can hopefully focus on research that's more interesting to you. Enjoy the relative abdundance of downtime while you can.
I can't speak to the other stuff about your supervisor and witholding contacts etc., that's all very strange. Maybe they are concerned that you focus on your work, maybe they are scheming and being deliberately evasive. However, my main point is don't feel bad for not working more if you're making good progress. You probably have a better-adjusted approach to work than your colleagues and peers, and that will serve you well in the long run.


Hi, ekster,
I don't really have any advice to give you as such, however, I would like to highlight that your post was very beneficial for me to read. So Thanks!
I am in a very similar situation to you. Only I am in the 2nd year of 3 years funded research PhD. I have No published papers, nor am I near publication. I have no data collected yet and I probably won't be collecting data for another month at least realistically, which is only over a year behind schedule. And I have been denied a no-cost extension to my research even though I was delayed in part as a result of COVID.
Anyway, rant over ha. This is not a competition and I am not saying I am worse off than you are or anything like that I just mean I am in a similar situation and found myself doing exactly what you mentioned. I am feeling guilty for not being overworked and comparing myself to others, and losing motivation around my topic.
So to read your post was really refreshing and somewhat reassuring. It's nice to know I am not the only one doing a PhD and feeling this way.
I also read the advice from @directdrive which I found really helpful and wouldn't have read that only for your post! So Thanks again!