Full of self-doubt, anyone too?


Thought for awhile if I shoud post something here, I am just now full of self-doubt and hope for some comments.

I am in a four-year phd program in social science and is currently in my second term of the first year. I am not sure if other Phd students really change their topic frequently, but I really cannot fix my research topic and develop it in a research question. I am from another department of undergraduate. Why should my concern is related to the discipline I am in? Sometimes I even get stuck with question of this level. I know I should read and read in order to get it on track. But I have to devote 90% of the time to my coursework about methodology, theories and alike, which leave me little time to concentrate on my thesis. I am just wondering if that is common.....or I have to ask whether I am capable to finish my phd.

My supervisor is a nice person. However, he is the deparment-head-to-be which makes him extremely busy. I was only able to meet him twice last term for a 20-minutes session each! I am not sure if that was my problem because I haven't written something solid and fix a narrowly specified topic so that he can comment. Should I expect more from him or I should always focus on my responsibility first?

Lastly, I am also wondering what is 'Phd standard'. I know it may be inappropriate to compare in this sense, but I am very curious if I can equvalent thesis to journal articles? Journal articles are original too! So, approx. 1 thesis = 3 to 4 papers around? Hope I am not too silly to think in this way. But when I look at the past thesis titles in my department, it can vary from very broad to narrow topics.
I think I am certainly getting behind and have a very slow progress. Just feeling that overloaded with readings and self-doubt for months. Is anyone here did have this kind of feeling too during your phd period?


Yes KL, everybody goes through self-doubt when doing a PhD. Are there other PhD students at your institution you can talk to? I'm sure they'd be able to offer you some reassurance and advice.

You said you are in a 4 year PhD program, and you're doing coursework, so it sounds as though the first year is a bit of an add-on to get you up to speed with research methodologies and such. If so, then you probably don't have to worry too much about not having a firm set of research questions yet. As always, be guided by your supervisor's advice as to when you should expect to have your research focus defined. It may be that he doesn't expect to see too much of you this first year if it is focused on methodological coursework, but you can always be proactive and ask for a meeting if you feel you need more contact. Or just ask him some questions in an email. I'm doing my PhD by distance so I rarely get to see my supervisors, but we email regularly.

Regarding PhD standard, the main criteria is that it should be an original contribution to knowledge. The best way to get an idea of what is an appropriate standard is to read other theses in your discipline. Having journal articles published from your research is a good sign that you are contributing to the knowledge base, and can write in an appropriately scholarly style, but I'm not sure that you can equate a PhD to 3 or 4 papers.

Good luck. (up)


Periods of self doubt have popped up all through my PhD, so you're not alone! Luckily they also disappear too!! If your supervisor is the department-head-to-be and really busy, maybe it's worth bringing up the subject of having an additional supervisor? If he's already got a heavy official workload which sounds likely to increase, getting an extra person on the team would be justified. It might be good for you to have someone else to oversee your work as people have different supervision styles and you might find it does your research and confidence good too. Is there anyone else in that dept whose academic interests fit with your project and who you work well with? Could you ask someone responsible for overseeing postgrad admin about this possibility?


first of all, you are not alone - and I expect most of us on here have periods of self doubt, it isn't unusual.

Have you actually got an area of study planned, or is this, as has been mentioned, a year for you to get to grips with the methodologies so that when you have refined your topic, you know what your approach will be?

Your supervisor may be expecting you to go to see him with something written down, but the best thing to do is to ask. I send my supervisor stuff in advance so he can comment on it.

Thesis titles do vary, but if you can find one or two that are in the area that you want to research, a look at the contents might be useful, and a search for journal articles in the area may also be of use, and it might also help you with the methodology work.

I find that progress is not linear, sometimes I get loads done, and other times, hardly anything, sometimes you just have to wait for a bit of inspiration, but it comes along eventually, just be patient.


KL - the doubt is with the territory,I'm afraid. It will push you to questioning not just your ability to do the PhD, but also your capabilities as a person. Main thing is to remember is that you are learning and that all the answers won't come at once and as another respondent said, progress ain't linear. As for the doubt, look about your office - is there anyone there that is uber-brainiac i.e. whats the difference between them and you? That said, why don't you ask these people (especially those near finishing) what it takes - each uni will have its own quirks and "rules of survivial" :p

You are still in your first year (and a good time to go in that first year). Give yourself until the end of that year to at least get the area honed down, not entirely, but to a point where the main topics are identified.

If I make a suggestion, which might already be suggested. Why not make the writing of a paper detailing the main literature findings in your area as a goal for the end of the first year? It will give you a quick insight to the workings of journals and paper writing. If not for a journal, for a conference. Make sure you tell your supervisor this - it will certainly grab his attention as he will want his name on the paper and will also show you are making progress. This will also serve as being one-two chapters of your finished thesis (ok, with revisions).

Two words KL - GET WRITING!!! It doesn't care - summarise the points of main papers into reports with your own thoughts. Chances are is that you have read some stuff that will give you an idea, but being human, you then said "I'll remember that when I need it". If you have EndNote, I would suggest getting a summary report of that and briefly look thro' the papers again. If needed, do a report on Methodology - it may not be directly related to your field of research but it will help to clarify it for you and will make up some bit of the actual finished thesis.

You will be fine - just clarify what is needed. Lastly, I would try to meet with your supervisor ASAP just to even sit down and spill out these reservations and what he expects from you. It is better now than two years down the line.


Thanks for all comments. I felt much better after sharing my experience and reading all of your comments. It's really comforting. After reading several threads on this forum, I now understand that I am not alone in the sense that many of the readers here also had similar feelings, and very surprised of the kindness of many of you here.

As for my fellow colleagues in my department, yes, I did sometimes ask for their opinions too. They are helpful. But since they are more on track and know what they are doing (at least in a way that I think of them), I sometimes felt a bit hesitating to share of my self-doubt. You know, negative feelings can spread out.

Yes, definitely I would like to try writing something more solid. I've to learn more on time-management in order to make a better balance on reading and writing, thesis and coursework. As I really want to finish my Phd, I really have to survive from all these stuff. (But anyway, do you send your reading notes, regardless relevant to your thesis, to your supervisor for comments? Or, you will only send writings exactly about your thesis, in the beginning stage?" I found a bit difficult to communicate with my supervisor, somekind of formality exist between me and my supervisor. How do you survive this? )

The last point concerning to have a second-supervisor. I once thought of that, and one of my phd friends suggested me not: To ask the professor that I intended to find as second supervisor, to be one of my internal examiner instead. I am still struggling here. I guess I would definitely need to consult him after his sabbatical, and ask for consent from my principal supervisor.

Thanks, really thanks for your comments. At least, sharing and hearing back from other phd really help a lot.



I dont think the self doubt ever goes away. I still feel like the no talent police are going to come bursting through the door and arrest me with impersonating an academic.