Imposter Syndrome?

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  • Thread starter PhotonSSBM
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  • #1
This semester has been my first at a legit research university with a legit physics program. I've been doing pretty well in my first physics class here (honors intro physics 2), but not amazing (B+, not really at the top of my class). My professor and I have gotten pretty tight though. Over the semester we've talked after class and during office hours for quite a bit about everything from why electrons go down energy orbitals to Fourier Transforms. He even has my life story at this point from all the questions he asks me about myself and I know a bit about his and his family. I told him a few weeks ago I started self studying special relativity and he gave me some suggestions on where to start. About a week later he asked me what I thought about the exam he just gave. I told him the class as a whole thought it was pretty hard (they did), but I thought it was fair given the homework and lectures we've had, and we talked about some of the problems and how I answered them.

Then he asked me what I was doing over the summer. I told him I really wanted to sit down with a couple textbooks and prepare for my modern physics class next semester and that I really don't want a repeat of another B+ on my transcript. He laughed and said, "Come by my office later and we can talk about setting up a time every week over the summer that you can ask me questions about what you're studying." I was honestly shocked. I know we've talked a lot about physics and that we're kind of friends at this point, but I'm probably not even in the top 10 students taking the class. I decided that he was probably just being nice because he likes talking to me and that it'd be a good opportunity. No big deal.

Then over the last few weeks we've been talking more than we have in the past. We worked out a schedule of what I should work on. But we started thinking more about me taking it a step beyond studying for my next class. I brought this up, but he agreed I have the mathematical background physics acumen to start reading up on General Relativity. Not straight into it of course. He told me if this is something I want to do this, I should sit down with a mathematical methods books that covers tensor analysis and gave me a list of topics in intermediate mechanics/E&M to learn, and once I work through those pick up Carroll's book and start going through that. Now, he asks me what my goals are.

I tell him I'm scared of going for physics. I'm 27 years old, I don't know that I have 8 more years of school left in me to get a PhD, but I also told him I don't want to give up on it right away, and that I at least want to publish a paper before I leave undergrad in theoretical physics because that's what made me want to go back to school in the first place 3 years ago-even if it means balancing an Electrical Engineering AND Physics workload. Without skipping a beat he said, "When you get more seasoned the way we've been talking, we should talk about what research topics you should be able to handle so you can work on a paper with me." It hit me at that point that he's grooming me to do research with him.

At first I was like 'Yes!' I made it! I'm no longer the statistic other professors and school leaders threw at me when I started at this school that older and community college students tend to fail at this program when they transfer in. I'm not the same person I was years ago. I'm going to accomplish my goals. But then I started dwelling. I don't know if he is doing this for the right reasons. He knows me personally now. Maybe he just wants to make me his pet project and he'll get tired of me after a few months. Maybe he feels sorry for how my life was before I started back at school (it was pretty messed up). Maybe I'm not all he thinks I am and he'll realize he was wasting his time with me.

I'm really trying to be self aware and realize that this is my depression and previous trauma getting to me (imposter syndrome), but I don't want to get hurt by another person I've put my trust in. It's happened a lot in the past. I've worked hard to get here and if I get betrayed or abandoned by this person who believes in me now I don't know how I'll handle it. I'm going to be talking to my therapist about this, and I know none of you are trained in psychology, but how do I handle these emotions or know that I'm not going to be cast aside and broken again? Is this normal behavior for a professor?

This may be a waste of my, and more importantly your time to ask here, but I wanted to anyways since this forum has been a big part of my life even though I don't post here much. I literally have a question like this every month but usually have the decency to search for a post like it already since I know Vanadium50 probably doesn't want to search through my user history just to tell me something I already know (I love you V50 <3). Nothing like this has been posted from what I can tell, and the soul searching I've been doing hasn't made me feel better. So what do you think?

Note: I am male, and he is male, and I'm kind of not pretty, so there probably isn't any sort of sexual or other devious reason he'd give me this kind of attention. Just thought I'd throw that out there to dispel any ideas that he has any REALLY bad intentions.

Answers and Replies

  • #2
It is impossible to accurately comment on your situation since I don't know either of you.

That said, I think you're reading way too much into this. Most professors want to see their students succeed in research if they see that the students have a passion for the subject. The student gets research experience and the professor can point to students that they've mentored. Everyone wins.

I know many professors exactly like this who have been extremely open to having me work on research projects if I'm interested in it. Relax; chances are (again saying this while not knowing either of you) your professor is passionate about his field and he doesn't mind taking the time to mentor students who want to learn. If you like working in a field, you often don't mind helping out people who also want to work in that field.

Also, here's another little tidbit: I don't believe professors generally expect undergraduate students to be able to perform top quality research. That's why they're mentoring you.
  • #3
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PhotonSSBM, you will probably not believe this, but it's very difficult to find somebody genuinely interested in physics. Yes, even among physics majors.

The truth is that most people care about their grades or performing well in school. There's nothing wrong with that, but few people are willing to go beyond that because they're truly and genuinely interested. Your professor senses in you that you are different and that you have a genuine interest for the material. He probably "tested" you more than once, but you willing to study GR even though that's not at all applicable to your courses is probably something that peeked his curiosity in you. It means you're willing to learn, whether or not that gives you a good grade or not. And I think that's a good thing.

Sure, you may think that you're not smart enough for this and it may feel weird that your prof chose you for this. But if somebody is genuinely interested, then it really doesn't matter how intelligent he is. There probably are people smarter than you, but if those people only care about getting A's and are not willing to go beyond, then I wouldn't want to do research with them either! I would much rather go with a person like you, you seem to be the ideal candidate for research, even though you most likely don't realize it. It's not about being smart or getting good grades, it's about the passion!

Add to that that you're 27 and basically turned your life around to do physics. That kind of people are usually much more motivated than "usual" people.
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  • #4
@axmls - I guess I just don't know how to approach someone being nice to me or believing in me. It's just not something I was used to growing up and only just in the last year have come to appreciate. You're probably right that I'm reading too much into it and I should calm down.

@micromass That means a lot coming from you. I honestly forget sometimes that there are only 10 physics majors in a graduating class at one time in my school, and very few of them get good grades. We talked today about my grade and I asked him why he wants to work with me knowing I won't have an A in the course by the end. He told me pretty much exactly what your post says, and added that the class was a huge step up in difficulty for me knowing my background and a B+ is nothing to be ashamed of, and said he's confident I'll do much better in my next few classes. The two of you put me at ease quite a bit, so thank you.

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