1. Limited time only! Sign up for a free 30min personal tutor trial with Chegg Tutors
    Dismiss Notice
Dismiss Notice
Join Physics Forums Today!
The friendliest, high quality science and math community on the planet! Everyone who loves science is here!

I feel like I don't deserve a job.

  1. Nov 11, 2009 #1


    User Avatar
    Homework Helper

    I got my Ph.D. not too long ago. I was looking for a job in industry during the Summer, but didn't find anything that interested me with a compatible set of "mimimum requirements". Lately, I've been looking for postdocs, but even there, when I read the job requirements, I don't think that I measure up. I feel like I cheated my way through my Ph.D.. I'm pretty sure that's not true, but the feeling becomes stronger every day. I feel like I have no idea how to do anything useful, and that I don't understand even the basics, so why should even a university hire me as a postdoc.

    How common is this feeling?
  2. jcsd
  3. Nov 11, 2009 #2


    User Avatar
    Gold Member

    Why do you think you cheated your way through your PHD??
  4. Nov 11, 2009 #3


    User Avatar
    Homework Helper

    Just what I said. I don't understand anything. The concepts still confuse me (especially QM). And I know that when I don't use something for a while then I don't use it very well, but things like E&M and Stat. Mech. downright intimidate me now. One thing that I'm worried about is that I might actually get a job offer, and then during the interview I will make a fool out of myself because the interviewer will ask me a simple/basic physics question that I will not know how to answer.
  5. Nov 11, 2009 #4


    User Avatar
    Staff Emeritus
    Science Advisor
    Gold Member

    I'm pretty sure an interviewer is going to assume that a PhD knows the basics and much more, and won't ask questions.

    I browsed through some of your posts, and I think you explained physics concepts pretty well. So I'm going to make a leap here and suggest that there is something else bothering you...something else that is making you lose confidence in yourself. Could it be that you didn't expect it to be so hard getting a job? (Just a guess, sorry if I'm way off :redface:.)
  6. Nov 11, 2009 #5
    It's called the impostor syndrome. It's very common among academics. What I tell myself is that I got the Ph.D. I might have lied, cheated, bamboozled everyone into thinking that I'm smarter than I am, but that still counts.

    One thing that you will have to be prepared for in a technical job interview is that you *will* be asked questions that you have no answer to. If you answer a question, you'll be given a harder one, until the interviewer finds one that you simply cannot answer. The reason for this is that in some jobs it doesn't matter how much you know, but how you react under pressure when you hit a question that you don't know.

    Something that worked for me is to become desensitized to failure. I've bombed so many job interviews and missed so many easy questions, that it doesn't scare me to bomb an interview. One thing that helps me is "negative thinking." There is a 90% chance that you won't get the job, so the only way that you can get something is to get the door slammed in your face time after time.
  7. Nov 11, 2009 #6
    Also one thing that helped me was to figure out *why* I was scared to death of failure. Since age four, I leaved in a world in which my entire life was based on getting good grades and not failing, and it was quite jarring at in my 20's when that stopped working.

    There is a scene from Robert Louis Stevenson's Kidnapped when a person was told to go up a tower to get some treasure. It turns out that at the top of the tower there is no treasure. The stair case just ends, and if you keep walking you just fall to your doom. Academia is like that.

    I should point out that this is what worries me about undergraduates focusing totally on career and thinking that humanities and anything not career related is useless. One thing that really helped me when I looked into the abyss was having studied a lot of philosophy and history. Critical theory was really useful because it talks about the subtle ways that power structures make you *feel* certain things, and knowing that I had been brainwashed was important to figuring out what to do with it.

    History was also important. OK who brainwashed me into think that getting a physics Ph.D. was the most important thing in the world? My parents. OK, who brainwashed them and why? Ultimately I got the names of the philosophers and poets that were responsible for my predicament and I figured out what to do with it.

    Liberal arts turned out to be important because eventually you are going to reach the end of the staircase and fall into the abyss. For some people at happens at the start of graduate school. For some it happens when they don't get tenure. Heck, I know of more than one person whose life seem to crumble after they won the Nobel prize.
  8. Nov 12, 2009 #7
    Just curious, Josephson. Name another.
  9. Nov 12, 2009 #8
    Is John Schrieffer out of prison now? (OK, that's a pretty big gap between prize and crumble, so maybe it doesn't count.)
  10. Nov 12, 2009 #9
    Um....Schrieffer went to prison because he fell asleep at the wheel and people were killed. Tragic yes. However, it's entirely unrelated to his career as a physicist or self-doubt in his work/potential.
  11. Nov 12, 2009 #10
    I wonder if there is anybody who doesn't get confused by QM and other topics and I think it's perfectly natural to forget concepts that you don't use for a while.What's important is that if you need any of those concepts in your work then you refamiliarise yourself with them.It won't necessarily be easy,it is likely be time consuming but you will have the advantage of having studied them before and you will come out of it with a greater understanding.
  12. Nov 12, 2009 #11
    I've always wondered if you ambushed a new PhD (or a prof for that matter) with a GRE subject test or comps how they would do.
  13. Nov 12, 2009 #12
    I personally have set my expectations to high and will probably be in your situation in the future. I naively thought that once I had a degree I would know allot about physics but the more I learn the more I realise that I have just scratched the surface. I know that I will always feel this way, I don't know if it is a lack of confidence or just a silly wish to know everything. When people talk to me about my studies I feel embrassed like they might find out that I am really quite thick. I constantly worry because I forget things I would like to remember even if I would never need to recall the information.
  14. Nov 12, 2009 #13
    One thing about a lot of highly accomplished people is that they seem to have no self-doubt in their work/potential. The consequence of that is that they are pompous, arrogant jerks that everyone they meet ends up loathing, and their life crumbles because of that.

    The interesting thing about meeting people that are highly accomplished, is that sometimes you think to yourself, "well, if this is who I will turn into after I get a Nobel, then I'd rather get the "not everyone hates me" award."
  15. Nov 12, 2009 #14
    One thing that works for me is to set my own expectations so high that it is totally impossible to reach them. If you are constantly setting goals for yourself that you are failing at, then failure doesn't feel so bad. One difficulty that Ph.D.'s often have is that they've never really failed at anything, and so the thought of failing is terrifying. Something that probably was a good thing for me in the long run, was that I got rejected by all of the grad schools that I wanted to get into.

    One other point is that people with Ph.D.'s tend to have do deal with a lot of mental issues. I have extremely strong moods, and from time to time, I just *feel* that I'm totally worthless, and part of the reason I do a lot of math is that it gets me into a "glass world" that is external to my feelings. 2+2=4 whether I feel lousy or not. It also works the other way in that I have these moments where I *feel* that I've just discovered the secret to the entire universe and the world should kneel before me. At that point I have to do some mental tricks to keep me from totally going off the deep end.

    Personally, I've gotten used to it, and I think it's cool. The more I know, the stupider I feel, so feeling stupid is a sign of progress. It doesn't bother me.

    This doesn't bother me that much, because there is this one moment in my life when I was in front of about a hundred people, and I said something stunningly stupid and you had a room full of about a hundred people that were literally laughing at me. (And when I say literally laughing, I mean ha-ha laughing, and they weren't laughing with me, they were laughing at me.)

    Mentally, I have found myself in that room a lot of times in my life, and I do remember what I was feeling. There was deep humilation, but there was also rage and anger, and the nice thing about being angry is that it gets you out of the bed in the morning and get you doing stuff.
  16. Nov 12, 2009 #15

    George Jones

    User Avatar
    Staff Emeritus
    Science Advisor
    Gold Member

    I once talked to a young faculty member in the second year of tenure-track appointment at a small Canadian university who felt that somehow a mistake was made in granting him a Ph.D., and he said that he knew others who felt the same way about themselves.

    He became Dean of Science.
  17. Nov 12, 2009 #16
    You deserve a decent job because you are a human being. One of the things that my parents taught be is that what really determines a person's worth is not how much they know, but whether they are honest and humane.

    The idea that "you don't deserve anything if you aren't smart" is something that the system drills into you, and at some point you have to rebel against it. Something to remember is that in the twentieth century there have been two governments run by Ph.D. that believed that "you don't deserve anything if you aren't smart" and it turns out that those two governments were the most monstrous governments that ever existed. One government run by Ph.D.'s was the Khmer Rouge. The government run by Ph.D.'s was the Nazi Germany SS occupation government in Eastern Europe.

    Both of them took "if you aren't smart, you don't deserve anything" to its logical conclusion.
  18. Nov 12, 2009 #17
    One problem with the "impostor syndrome" is that high levels of accomplishment usually makes things even worse. If you feel like a fake when they hand you the Ph.D., it's going to get even worse when they make you dean or president of a university. High levels of accomplishment do *not* fix the impostor syndrome since the more stuff you get, the deeper the hole you dig for yourself.

    Also it is far, far harder for a dean or president of a university to get help for their issues, than it is far an incoming freshman, and there have been some cases where people in very high academic positions have totally imploded because of that.
  19. Nov 12, 2009 #18


    User Avatar
    Staff Emeritus
    Science Advisor
    Gold Member

    This is all the purpose of doing a post-doc. It's to transition from being a student to being a boss. It gives you time to develop the rest of the skills you need that you don't get from doing your Ph.D. When you get your Ph.D., you essentially know ONE way to do everything, that being the way your mentor has done it and taught it to you, or maybe someone on your committee. But, you don't know about other alternatives. That's why you expand your knowledge by working with someone else as a post-doc. Beyond that, you can spend more time developing your niche, no more distraction of classes and committee meetings, you just spend your time learning the things that are relevant to your interest area and doing those experiments. In addition, you begin to learn to supervise other people, which often you can have no experience in doing at all after obtaining a Ph.D., and can be daunting about industry jobs where you'd suddenly be responsible not only for your own work, but supervising the work of others. As a post-doc, you should be getting experience supervising a grad student or two, or some undergrads.

    Nobody comes out of grad school knowing everything they need to know to be good at what they do. It's only the ones who don't realize this and think they don't need any more supervision who are dangerous and drive everyone nuts.
  20. Nov 12, 2009 #19
    I offer 'Dean-of-Science tutoring' for a nominal fee. If anyone is interested, just shoot me a PM. :biggrin:
  21. Nov 12, 2009 #20
    Life is about becoming and not about being. Once you end up as non-tenured faculty, there are a dozen other skills that you need to know. Once you end up as tenured faculty, there are a dozen other skills that you need to know. Every step you move up, you end up being incompetent for a while until you learn new stuff, upon which you move to a higher level of incompetence.

    And then you die :-) :-) :-)

    Nobody ever knows everything they need to know to be good at what they do. If you do then they push you to the next level where you end up incompetent again.

    At some point you run into the problem of who supervises the supervisors. At some point, you just want the freedom to screw up on your own.
Know someone interested in this topic? Share this thread via Reddit, Google+, Twitter, or Facebook