Dealing with feelings of inadequacy during your research career

Do you know how to drive a manual car?” He asked. “If you do, you will understand this illustration vividly. If you want to accelerate, you start with ‘half clutch’, then you slowly release your legs from the clutch and step fully on the accelerator”. As I listened to this informal welcome speech, my mind raced in different tangents. It was officially my first day as a PhD student, and I was in the office of the head of my department along with three other international students. This was well over three years ago. It was a very casual interaction, but the lesson resonated deeply, and it has helped me a great deal.

My research journey so far has been a roller coaster. I have definitely had my moments: the high ones and the very low ones. During the low moments, I keep reassuring myself that I am on ‘half clutch’ and things would get better – or I would get better at handling such situations. I find that at one point or the other during your research career, your PhD programme, even your life – there would be feelings of self-doubt. There would be those times when you question your deepest whys and your place in science. These feelings could be triggered by different things; for instance, external factors such as a rejection for a graduate school application, manuscript submission or grant application. It could even be your own mind playing games on you. Perhaps, you have struggled all week to read one research paper, and you start to wonder, “how could anyone have written such a complicated array of information?” You look around you, and everyone seems to be making tremendous progress with their research – everyone except you. You have been troubleshooting an assay for the past few weeks, and nothing seems to be working right. You might begin to ask yourself: “how did I get here in the first place?” or “how come I got selected for this position?”. You might say to yourself, “perhaps, they made an awful mistake selecting me, and very soon they would discover their mistake”.

In this post, I share some tips that I have found very useful in managing my feelings of inadequacy.

  • Accept that these feelings are perfectly normal.

When you read the biographies of the most exceptional researchers who have made indelible contributions in their fields of study and positively impacted millions of lives, you find out that they also have experienced these feelings. If you asked your mentors or peers, you would discover that they feel the same way. It is perfectly normal to have these feelings, but what is much more important is how we respond to these feelings. We could use these feelings as an excuse for failure or as a springboard for success. I think that an acceptance of these feelings is the first step to self-realisation. I have personally accepted that I would always experience moments of fear before taking any progressive step. I am constantly learning to take action despite my fears.

  • Coin your own definition of success. 

One of the most fundamental life lessons I have learnt is that each individual’s experience (whether research or life experience) is unique and individual. No two persons can have precisely the same experience. Our experiences are interplays of several factors, including our temperaments, attitude and belief systems, upbringing, and level of exposure, to mention but a few. In the same vein, our research experience would be defined by several factors. One of such factors is our research background in our field of study. For example, a PhD student who is furthering on his/her Master’s work would have a different experience from another who is a newbie in a field of study. Also, a Masters graduate from a Taught Masters programme would have a different experience from one who did a Research Masters programme. Other factors considering are the uniqueness of each project and the presence (or lack) of adequate support systems. Whatever the case, you must realise that it is never a wise idea to compare yourself with others. Your research experience would be uniquely different from the experience of anybody else. It is important to define success on your terms. In academia, defining success is quite challenging because of the deeply rooted “publish or perish” mantra that has been ingrained in the minds of researchers over the years. It is essential to realise that a successful research career is the product of consistent, persistent smart work – not necessarily hard work. Focus on gaining mastery of the little things, new skills and competence, doing good work devoid of the pressures of other people’s expectations.

  • Commit to consistently putting in your best work.

After you have coined your definition of success, you need to identify the things you need to do to get you to your destination: do you need to learn new skills, practice some more, attend classes, ask for help? It would be best if you determined to do these things consistently. Also, surround yourself with people who encourage, support and inspire growth in your life. Cut off every form of negativity. Shut off all the noise and focus on doing what you need to do. Make peace with your unique growth pace. Only commit to do your best at every point in time.

  • True success is a journey, not a destination.

Many people have the wrong notion of success. They feel that success is a destination that you arrive at after a period of hard work. The problem with this school of thought is that people tend to overwork themselves to “achieve success”. The result of this? Burn out! For success to be sustainable and reproducible, it has to be cumulative. The moment we understand that success is a journey, we would not wait to get to our “destination” before feeling a sense of accomplishment. We would derive joy from each baby step. We would understand that our mistakes do not define us. Instead, they make us, providing unique and invaluable learning experiences. We would determine to make consistent, progressive steps daily. You would understand that you are not a failure because you fail. You are only a failure when you fail to learn from your past mistakes. Keep making mistakes, keep developing yourself, keep learning and enjoy yourself while at it!

  • Practise gratitude.

Despite how challenging things may seem, there is always something to be thankful for. Develop the habit of looking out for the tiny things in your day to be grateful for. Derive a sense of joy from these little things, as they create avenues for the big things. If possible, keep a gratitude journal. Write down even the littlest thing that brought smiles to your face: successful experiments, gaining new insights into your results, finding relevant literature serendipitously, getting some unexpected assistance, receiving a compliment from your peer or your supervisor.

There would be times when these records would come in handy, those challenging days when you tend to feel overwhelmed. Reminding yourself of your past success would set the tone for future success.

  • Take breaks.

It is perfectly fine and helpful to take guilt-free breaks periodically. Set aside some time every once in a while to do nothing related to your research. Instead, do something different that excites you. You could binge-watch your favourite TV shows on Netflix, do some colouring, read an engrossing novel, take a road trip, do something else. This can boost your productivity, relieve some stress, and take your creativity to a whole new level.

  • Have a calming routine.

Even when you put in your very best and tick all the boxes, there would be those moments when everything seems to go down south. It helps a great deal to have a calming routine that enables you to manage those “off moments”. You might choose to take a walk, listen to some classical music, chat with family and friends, whatever works for you. I have personally found praying to be very therapeutic. I talk to God about my concerns and fears. I know he cares deeply about my wellbeing, and He has the power to change things that I cannot.

Remember, failure is an event – not a person. You are only a failure when you give up and quit trying. If you are going through a tough season, know that tough times do not last, but tough people do. Keep doing your best work; re-strategise if you need to. You might be on “half-clutch” now, but you would be cruising soon. Whatever happens, know that you certainly deserve to be wherever you are now. You are hardworking, determined, resilient, and you can/will accomplish more incredible things than you can imagine!

I am cheering you on from here!

A slightly modified version of this article was originally posted on the Hello Bio website.

Categories: My PhD Experience

Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

2 replies

  1. Wow what a timely post you really are brilliant as your friends said LOL. I too have struggled with self-doubt now that i am writing my thesis i look at others work and i feel inferior plus i am finishing soon and haven’t published a paper so that has been hard thank you for the tips


    • Lol… Thanks so much for your kind words; very well appreciated. I can totally relate to how you feel. Everyone’s timeline for achieving certain milestones is different. What is most important is that you are doing your very best and making each moment count. I am cheering you on from here, Simba. You’d scale through victoriously.


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