Feeling inadequate for research


Does anyone feel like they are too dumb to pursue a career in research? I constantly feel inadequate compared to other students, it seems that every other student is brighter, quicker, and grasps things more easily than I do. I know we are told not to compare ourselves with others, but a certain amount of benchmarking is sometimes necessary to know where you stand in relation to your peers and whether you are competitive in job markets. I think (and have always thought so really) that I am just slow to comprehend things fully, and slow to produce work. Even in my post-doc I’m finding that masters students are almost leaving me behind, in terms of keeping on top of the discussion in meetings, quick recall of information, etc.

I just wonder if there’s a real future for me when research jobs and TT are so competitive, and I think am probably quite mediocre in my capabilities. I see other people’s CVs and they are miles ahead in terms of output (e.g, more publications), awards, etc. I don’t think mediocrity will cut it, and I don’t know whether I should almost quit before I waste too much time in research.

Can anyone relate and have you had similar thoughts about your potential in the field?


Don’t worry sparkles, you will do fine. Remember Thomas Edison had only 3 months of schooling during his entire life, and Henry Ford had less than a sixth grade schooling. All you need is some positive thinking. Please go and fetch some positive thinking books online or at a library and you should be fine. Perhaps, you should spend some time reading “Think & Grow Rich” written by Napoleon Hill. Happy researching, cheers.


Hey Sparkles

I guess it depends where you want to go with your career. At my end here there are plenty of 'jobbing' researchers who are perfectly happy to plod along without necessarily aiming to climb the career ladder or to stick out from the crowd with their achievements. Of course I'm not suggesting that they are not in fact very able, but they are basically good, reliable researchers contributing to papers, first authoring the odd one as per their job requirements, but have decided for themselves not to join the rat race for the next bigger or better job. Using that approach, all of them have been part of the same research team for 10+ years now (albeit on successive short-term contracts but that's just how it is these days).

I guess what I'm saying is there is much competition for jobs in research, that much is true, but there is also a role for people who for whatever reason don't try to to keep up with the overachievers of this world but are simply solid, dependable team players making their own important contribution to the work of their research team or department. Whether you feel you're capable or not (which you are, let's face it, you don't get a PhD and a post-doc for being just so-so!) there is no reason to think that there's no place for you in research in the long run. Good luck! 8-)


I think you have to decide what you actually want. Do you want to stay in academic science or is it something you're doing because you feel you ought to? Are there alternatives that appeal? Assuming you're in the UK, getting a lectureship in sciences does mean that you do have to stand out these days but the series of fixed term postdoc contracts, which is the alternative is quite stressful in terms of never being able to plan much ahead. How safe is funding in your field - I ask this given how many research groups are collapsing as charities withdraw funding? Assuming you are comparing yourself with others realistically, do you want to stay in an environment where those comparisons are a normal part of working life - feeling mediocre can be quite damaging to your self-esteem. I think perhaps the questions are, can you see yourself becoming (and would you want to) a PI, is that realistic in your field, what does a non-PI career look like in terms of desirability and in all honesty is there something that appeals more? Is there a careers advisor for fixed term staff where you work? It might be good to get professional advice.


Hey Sparkles - I can totally relate to what you are saying!  It's difficult but just to point to you that you're doing a post-doc which means you're not mediocre as they are like gold dust and impossible to get so you must be doing something right!!!!  I've been trying to get one for ages but I've not got very far!  I got close once but the person who got it had already done one and had publications so they were the obvious choice! I don't know how I am supposed to compete as I'm trying to get my first one!!!!  I had a problematic PhD experience so that it took much longer than normal which I fear is my stumbling block!  However, as I've seen some people in jobs and heard about them and you think how on earth did they get that position and I think it's down to confidence!  If you've that it's fine but if you don't no matter how good your research is you won't be able to sell yourself! As a colleague pointed out to me an interview assesses how good you are selling yourself and not necessarily how good you'll be at the job! 

It's a difficult position to be in but do you enjoy research and do you want an academic career?  If the answer is yes I'd stick at it.  You've already got your foot in the door so you've just got to keep going! You've got to believe in yourself to be able to sell your ideas/yourself!  I've also been told by various people that by being positive more things will happen the way you want them to.  It's hard not to compare yourself to others as we all do esp in academia where it's very competitive due to the oversupply of PhD students so you need to do stuff to make yourself stand out.  As for publications - get writing as that's what I get told! It's how they assess how good you are so the more you do the higher your profile provided you publish in respectable journals but I'm sure you get told that too!

If you don't want an academic career it would be a good idea to get out after your post doc before industry sees you as too entrenched in academia. 

Good luck and I think you're probably being too hard on yourself.  You should think more positively about your abilities and potential as if you don't do it nobody will do it for you.  That's what people have also been saying to me especially a friend who looked over a recent application. I got an interview on the strength of a proposal I wrote which I was told was better than a fair number they received though my interview skills don't match unfortunately.  Lack of confidence is my worst enemy as I'm not one of these people who can talk confidently as I'm a shy person and don't think my abilities are anything special!  However, saying that I don't think they are that bad - I just need to believe in myself and be able to sell myself. 

I hope this helps you and it's just to let you know that there are other people who have similar thoughts but we need to be more positive about our abilities!

Good luck (up) :p


Many people feel this because writing a research paper is not so easy,you want to have writing skills and a good grip on vocabulary to expressed your feelings betterly on paper.Hope you understand it.


Hey Sparkles,

I think it's incredibly common to feel the way you do, there's a phenomena known as "imposter's syndrome" where incredibly bright people feel like they're really stupid and it's only a matter of time until they get found out. Don't be so hard on yourself! I agree with the other posters below, if you want to work in this field then stick with it. I constantly feel like I'm less capable than my peers, and if you read through a lot of the posts here you'll find it's something everyone goes through. You just need to push past it. Why not set yourself a goal, say get a paper published in the next year or something? Aim for a journal you like and see what happens. I think it's achieving goals like that which make us feel better about ourselves! And come back here and talk to us! We're all in it together (up)


It's an interesting post, because, I think, the underlying issue might be a matter of striking the right balance between confidence and humility. This is hard for most people. (I myself am still working on it.) We all know people (especially PhDs) who are so over-confident that they're arrogant, and we don't want to be one of those! On the other hand, we all know people who suffer from the "imposter syndrome" Lindalou mentioned. These are the friends who make so many self-depracating comments that other people start believing the negative hype too!

I don't know the solution to finding the right balance between confidence and humility. This is just my humble opinion. :p