Will low self-esteem hold me back?


I am 11 months into my first year of a PhD and I am at an all-time low. First of all, to briefly explain by some miracle I managed to land a studentship in a field that I am interested in, with the research proposal already laid out for me. My main motivation for wanting to complete a PhD was to steer my career towards the environmental Industry as my undergraduate was in a different area. I have no intention of continuing my career in academia once I am finished. I would ideally love to work in a secure job in a regulative role within the environmental industry as this is what I am most passionate about. I am aware you don’t need a PhD for these types of roles but with my undergraduate degree and work experience from the retail industry only, I felt I really didn’t have any hope of qualifying for any roles.
Another reason for applying was I thought it would improve my self-confidence. As an individual I have always suffered very badly from low self-esteem and I feel it has held me back in progressing in my career to date. However, the feeling I am getting only 11 months in, is that you need confidence to complete the PhD in the first place. I thought that over time through completing presentations and building communications with fellow researchers would gradually build up my confidence. But I feel I was wrong. Any people I have met so far through the PhD are lovely, but they have such high confidence levels and are so sure of themselves already. It makes me feel like maybe I am not good enough. I think this is called ‘imposture syndrome’???
Has anyone else started off their PhD with rock bottom confidence, but became self-assured by the end of it?
Its becoming a huge problem for me and I don’t think Covid has helped. With not having the chance to present in front of people or to even just socialise with people in similar industries. I find myself procrastinating a lot and not actually getting much work done. I also feel a little lost in my work but from reading others comments on here I see that this is common enough for a first year so that’s normal, I guess.
Any advice for me or any nice happy ending stories of someone who came out of a PhD gleaming with confidence???


Most people feel exactly as you feel, although some are better at masking it than others. A PhD by it's very nature sets you up for impostor syndrome: you are working in an environment with experts in your field, and it's intimidating. For me (terrible self esteem issues) the PhD has been really good. I really found it tough up until the moment I sat my Viva. Now I look at the giant thesis I wrote and I tell myself I do know my stuff because there is a giant wad of paper over there that I wrote!
Sometimes doing a PhD you feel like your accomplishments are totally insignificant, especially with a pandemic going on. You've not discovered a cure for COVID, you're not designing a 'suitable for all' cancer treatment, you've not discovered a new Earth like planet we are all going to move to. You're work will, most likely, contribute to a very small, very specific part of your field, and that can be a bit underwhelming at times. Remember that every time you read a journal, you are making a unique perception of that journal, and that's an achievement, each time you write a paragraph, that's you putting in words your knowledge! Getting an internship is really competitive, so if you didn't have the brains and abilities you would not be where you are now.

One simple, yet ridiculous, self esteem trick is to look at yourself in the mirror every night and tell yourself 5 things you've either accomplished or are happy with. For example it could be 'I actually showered today' or 'I wrote a few pages of my thesis' or 'I made the effort to say hi to a stranger'. In the morning, look in the mirror and tell yourself 5 things you are looking forward to, so it might be 'My first coffee of the day!' or 'I'm planning my study today'. It seems really daft but it works, sometimes you have to mother yourself to move forwards


The general progression for me over my academic career has been gaining the confidence not by my own gains in knowledge, but the realization that pretty much everyone in academia is 'normal' (including myself).

I would not say they're faking it, as this implies there's a 'genuine' academic majority who are the kind of geniuses I daresay the general public or undergraduates think of. I learned progressively that:

1) Most multi-million dollar research grants are not genius science concepts, but obvious incremental work, that most people could come up with in 15 minutes with a Wikipedia-level knowledge of the field. But only an academic would suffer writing it as 100 pages in a particular style.

2) Most professors know about 5 vaguely current papers well, plus the one their PhD student mentioned in the last meeting, and mention them in every meeting to sound well-read.

3) Most academics have developed an air of authority not from mastery of a field, but from the necessity of telling students at the back to be quiet on a daily basis.

4) A good academic is probably not an expert in their field in the sense of knowing that much about it, they're a good academic because they've repeatedly screwed up basic things like how to do an ANOVA or write a literature review, and learned from it.


Thank you both for taking the time to write such meaningful responses to my post. The reassurance that my feelings are normal and I am not an outlier in the academic world is really comforting. I already feel better about myself from reading your responses and also from reading other posts on this forum. Thanks again :)