Highs and lows


Hi. To Awen...just a comment. Re your colleague who never seems to have any problems, it may be that she really has problems, but tries to brush them aside to keep herself positive. I sometimes feel like her. I need to keep myself optimistic and certain with what I am saying, because if I start doubting myself openly I will just break down. It is not that I don't have doubts (I have plenty, and broken down crying and who knows what else), but most people in my lab will probably think I have no problems and am certain of all that I am doing. But I certainly am not. It might just be her coping mechanism. So do not dishearten (up)


You might be surprised ( or maybe not) to know that a lot of academics still wrestle with the fraud thing--the fear of being exposed as knowing nothing, not being worthy. I think that this is what contributes to the sometimes somewhat toxic environment at universities and gives academia a reputation for cut throat egotistical researchers/academics.

I myself struggled ( and from time to time) still get into that awful knot of thinking...but I have also tried to make my peace with the fact I *DON'T* know everything, I might well mistakes from time to time. It doesn't mean I am incompetent or not worthy of whatever...it means I am a human being.

Unrealistic expectations create a lot of pressure to accomplish the impossible. And its an easy cycle to stumble into, harder to recognise it when you are in the middle of it and sometimes feels impossible to extract yourself from.

I recall vividly my first conference presentation...my part on the panel went fine, if not brilliant. But then in the women's bathroom during a break, a sort of senior academic/Grande Dame ( in her mind) of the subject verbally attacked me telling me how wrong I had gotten some point. She was very cruel in her approach. I felt literally sick the rest of the day. But when I went back to check the point, in fact, I had been right and she had been wrong.

*light bulb moment* Academics get it wrong too--but if their egos are really large, they don't even have the room to step back and realise error, they just compound it.

Fast forward a few years--I am now a relative veteran of the conference circuit, have some publications under my belt. Conference presentation by the same small circles of academics that include Mrs Loo. Panel annihilates some poor man in the audience who dares to ask a question about something he did not agree on. Olivia's hand in the air--asking, politely, how their point of view can be reconciled with the latest decision from the xxx courts ( a big decision anyone in the field *ought* to have been aware of) . Blank looks all round. No they had not heard of it. Olivia smiles politely and asks then how their point of view can be reconciled with the xxx document from Large International Organisation from a year ago ( again, important statement, anyone in the field *ought* to have been aware of..) More muttering, more blank looks. Olivia offers her best, "Oh, thank you anyway," statement politely, with a slight shake of the head as if to dismiss the academics.

Ahhh sorry losing the train of thought. Long ramble to say--keep your own faith and belief in yourself. Its impossible to know everything, never make a mistake, have every answer on the tip of your tongue. Only a fraud would make those claims. Its not fraudulent to say you don't know, are not sure, can check and clarify.

So the very things that you fear make you a fraud--guarantee that you are not!


Wow this post has really taken off!  I agree with what has been said so it's good to know that we all have these feelings/fears although some just manage to hide it better than others. Doing a PhD is such an emotional rollercoaster that I'm wondering if it ever stops (will we ever been normal again???!!!!)  It is very hard to take a step back when you are in the midst of it trying to get enough data to take a moment for yourself and detach yourself from your research as it just takes over and invades every part of your life! I used to dream about it too!!!!  I couldn't even escape it in what little sleep I managed to get! It really can wear you down and magnifies what would usually be minor problems into major ones!

It hasn't stopped now either that I've passed my viva which I'd have thought it would have eased off!  I keep thinking of things I could have said and probably should have said! This always happens to me as I over analyse things too much afterwards as I'm not so good with stuff on the spot!  My worry now is that my external examiner thinks I don't know very much as they are very good and thorough! Some of the stuff I got asked I didn't know about - and I had to admit it so I felt very stupid but I was told by supervisors not to bluff if you don't know something as that is worse!  The temptation is to avoid this person in the future for fear of being a fraud which is irrational but I can't help feeling that way which is a shame as they are a nice person and the viva was conducted in a good way! I was in the numb stage afterwards and couldn't quite focus on actually passing when one of my supervisors was asking me about it and he/she said you passed so you can't have been that bad!  I guess this shows that we are not as bad as we think we are. I suppose it's the doubts that make us push ourselves to work harder and excel to prove we are good enough but we can be over critical of ourselves (too/very high standards)! 

It's a shame about the egos which get in the way of research as some big names in the field can't stand to see someone disagree with their research or are not open to new ideas. However, that's to do with their insecurity as Olivia mentioned so they throw their weight about to attack someone for daring to question their research/authority on the topic!!!  If they were more secure in themselves they would see that the person who has a different perspective is not challenging them but merely trying to debate and moving the subject forward. A new idea is not necessary a bad one but it does challenge the status quo of the established ideas and I suppose some of the established ones see it as an attack on their work.  So much for the open and co-operative research environment!?

I think we just need a bit of confidence in ourselves to believe that we are good enough and we will do it. What kept me going during the PhD was the belief that I would get it all done despite whatever problems were thrown my way.  Though I did begin to wonder a bit especially at the end what was the point of it all and whether it would get all done but by that stage there was too much at stake and I knew it had to be done! I'm hoping the motivation stays as it's challenging to try and get a job in the current situation!  I know academia is where I want to be but whether it wants me is another question!!!

I agree eating well is a good solution (mince)(sprout)(turkey). A little of what you fancy helps and so does taking a break from it all as we have to look after ourselves to function properly and do our work!

Good luck - we can do it! (up)


Hmm, I wonder if this is why some academics seem so arrogant? Maybe some are genuinely very convinced about what they're saying but there are some who will just not consider an alternative viewpoint and will downright deny any limitations of their work etc etc...maybe it's just to cover up insecurities! My sup is very funny- she will NEVER admit that she is wrong! Even when it's in black and white- she messed up my supervision time last week and called into my office at 4pm to see why I wasn't at her office for supervision, when the appointment was actually for 5pm. She said that the appointment had never been set for 5pm, and I replied that it said 5pm on the online lab calendar and had done for several weeks (which is where she puts all our appointments with her). She denied that it was on the calendar for 5pm and turned down my offer of opening it up to show to her! She's a strange one! She also frequently denies things that she has said and actually accuses other members of the team of having remembered things incorrectly etc, even when there's written proof of what was said! But she has you beginning to think that you're in the wrong after a while! Professors, eh?!! KB


Academia is a strange place. ( I like it or I would not be here, but its very...interesting...) I think that there is a danger that academics start to "believe their own press", get a sort of "God complex" about themselves and their knowledge. It can be quite ego flattering when students look up to you, respect your knowledge, seek you out for insight, etc...so perhaps some people forget to have a reality check on that and their egos expand out of proportion to anything that makes sense! Others I think are sort of insecure, or perhaps have become bitter and jaded from years of petty politics within academic administration, and pass on the meanness and bitterness in their behaviour.

In my experience, genuinely top of their game academics don't act like this--they are humble, polite and almost self-effacing. Certainly they are not trumpeting their expertise in everyone's face. At the same conference where Mrs Loo was, another much more prominent academic was also there. He could not have been a more wonderful person. He helped settle the nerves of several of us who were presenting for the first time. He was offering coffee to people, he had a very gentle and kind demeanor--yet he was by far a more advanced and respected academic than Mrs Loo!

You get all sorts of people in any work place, academia is no exception. I am glad I had lots of "real world" experience in the work world before I wandered into academia...I think cutting your teeth on work experience on nothing but academia could be very disheartening. I think having had some work experience in other settings gives some realistic grounding that everyone is human, no one is a demi God ( even if they are in the own mind) and the world is round--you will see lots of the same faces over and over again in different settings, and people remember who was kind and remember who was unkind.


======= Date Modified 03 Apr 2011 10:53:39 =======
Hi Keenbean, yes,  most definitely. If I had to sum up my PhD experiences in two words, I would probably use 'emotional roller coaster'! Sadly, I've had mostly negative experiences over the last 4.5 years- ie almost all negative feedback, problems with supervision, relationship breakdown severely affecting my work, delays and problems with upgrading, and most recently, this awful viva cancellation. I also feel like a complete imposter and a rubbish PhD student as I've struggled with confidence and self esteem issues throughout. There have been a few positive experiences along the way- ie excellent feedback from my upgrade report and feelings of satisfaction and elation following from passing my upgrade. I've enjoyed working in this area and conducting a seemingly extensive explorative study into an under researched area. I've also enjoyed some of the academic challenges and working through academic type puzzles. I've also learnt a great deal both professionally and personally.

However, in general, I always seem to be in the depths of despair :-( and I'm seriously thinking about dropping out as I can't take much more of the emotional onslaught! I'm very sensitive to the smallest things and the smallest thing seems to bring up loads of emotions! I seem to be holding on at the moment (by my finger nails!).........

All in all, I look forward to the day when I'm free from this PhD (or MPhil if they decide to fail me!). If I had the choice, if I knew what I know now about PhDs, I would have stayed clear of it, but then again, if I pass, perhaps I'll feel differently.


Yes! The earliest days were the worst (and I expect the final days will be extra tough too). I am somewhere in the middle now and have worked hard over the past year to sort out my physical and mental state. I have taken up regular exercise, healthy eating, more socialising, organisation to my work, get more sleep, calm down and realise that tomorrow your PhD will still be there tomorrow (if you have saved it to a million places and printed a hard copy of course ;-)) and so on. Hard to maintain that but it has helped. I was a wreck for the first year. I really thought I was having a breakdown. I've never felt like that in my life before but then I had never done a PhD before and I had never stood in front of a big group of students in a lecture hall to teach them before. I think it was that gap between the isolation of research and then having to stand in front of a group of people and be bubbly and energetic that was playing havoc with me!
But I came to accept that being up and down is just the nature of the PhD. I have chatted to other postgrads who feel precisely the same. This is the way it is but it's the way you deal with it that matters. Be good to yourself. Health is so important both physical and mental and both are connected so everyone needs to remember to mind themselves. Put on some Bob Marley 'Three Little Birds' and chill! I've got Abba on at the moment!
Lacking confidence? Feeling like an imposter? Just pretend you are a confident person. Acting works because eventually the act can become the reality. Other people start to read you as confident. Etc Enough of my waffle ;-)

Pineapple - I have read your story and I wish you strength and support. Don't give up. You have come so far so take the time to recharge your batteries and psyche yourself up for that final hurdle please. You can do it. :-)


I can totally relate to Pineapple29. I greatly enjoyed my first and second years, when I was totally independent in shaping the PhD project and carrying out research. The emotional roller-coaster started when I started to write the thesis and thus my sup became "more" involved. The kind of supervision that I received has been appalling, but I am sure that he would jump on the chariot and claim to be part of it should I pass the viva. Equally, he would be the first to reject the whole project if I were failed. Needless to say, the whole situation, coupled with a completely unsupportive department, has put a serious indent in my self-confidence, and possibly also in my reputation as a researcher. I think that I managed to come this far (I am due to submit soon), only because of the positive feedback from external academics - that are specialists in my area, whereas my sup is not - family and friends.
I feel a bit numb at the moment. I think that my research worth a PhD, but obviously I am fully aware that a lot of things can go horribly wrong for a variety of reasons. It definitely is an experience that changed my outlook on many things forever.


I have to say, I really admire those of you who have stuck it out under such difficult circumstances. My PhD has been pretty smooth until now, and I'm going to pieces over just the first difficult period I've had, so good on you who have been through loads of those and are still at it. If my first and second years had been this hardgoing I'd be an absolute wreck by now. Luckily I'm having a weekend away from uni and my work, and I feel better for it already, although tomorrow I'm going to Ireland to visit my grandad and it may well be the last time I see him (he has very advanced Alzheimer's and a very short prognosis) so I guess that will a pretty hard day. Looking forward to seeing him but not, if you know what I mean. Hope everyone else has had a good weekend! KB


KB, if you're feeling that unsteady, perhaps you need a break? The emotional variation you mentioned just reminds me so much of when I started to get overwhelmed last year. It wasn't just the phd in my case (although pretty much all my phd friends seem to have become depressed during their write-up year) but I did really go downhill. I think we all get periods of sensitivity due to hormones and so on, but I know that that uncontrolled emotional rollercoaster for me means I'm under too much strain (it's like getting mouth ulcers when I don't sleep enough, my body sends me an unpleasant telegram to take a night off).
That said, I do feel that academia, and doing a phd especially, can just be damn hard on you as a person. I've just seen so many friends go through the mill emotionally and physically with this, sometimes the whole thing starts to look like some cruel psychological torture chamber! It's like a recipe for breaking a student down:

isolation + external pressure + limited finances + low status + lack of control = PhD student.


======= Date Modified 07 Apr 2011 10:19:50 =======
Just ready this thread has been a roller coaster, on one side it is a relief to see that I am not the only one who finds certain aspects difficult and on the other it is sad to see the difficulties to you are all having. I can really relate the PhD formula by Teek and think it is spot on. Does anyone also feel like they have forgotten all the important topics and information from there degrees before there PhD, I have this horrible feeling that it will be those things that will come back to haunt me, does anyone else feel or understand this?

Also I notice that unfortunetly the formula for PhD student also drags into my personal life and I have to work really hard to fight it and stop it from affecting my life our my PhD.

By the way, it has not already been mentioned and I an not sure what all your faiths are... but prayer also helps me get through it. Also having been in industry I also try to work like its a 9-5 job (sometimes difficult), which helps me to allocate time in the day with my family, exercise, etc.

Also, lets all try to think of it this way... lets say to ourselves.. "NO NO NO, I will not allow this PhD to ruin my life and my health (who do you think you are PhD? you don't own me!), you might make me stronger, but you will not make me weaker! Mr/Mrs PhD you need me a lot more than I need you!"... phew now I am tired.. I need food :-)... umm meat a two veg please (turkey)(sprout)(sprout)


Well I have taken people's advice and had a few days off over the weekend and on Monday to go visit my grandad in Ireland and am feeling a bit more positive now. I think there must be some sort of inverse relationship between time from receiving feedback and level of negative mood....unfortunately I am due another load of feedback on Tuesday so I am going to make the most of the time I have left before doom and gloom strike again! Best, KB