Meaning of A PhD

5 minute read

Doctor of Philosophy, or Parents Having Doubts?

Earlier today, I had the pleasure to be on a graduate student panel to discuss my experiences with Imposter Syndrome for an ASU Midday Mindfulness Session. It was profound to hear that our self-doubt and stress when feeling like imposters were echoed by so many (students, faculty and staff alike). It led me to reflect on how my PhD has felt like a dance with imposterism.

As an international PhD student, I had seriously doubted my worth as a person and my belonging as a scientist during my first few years of graduate school. I had also doubted the value of getting a PhD: what is the meaning of feeling ignorant, defeated and stressed all the time?

Back in fall 2017, I was planning a Christmas trip with a friend from college, who was also in a Biomedical Engineering PhD program. At the time, both of us were facing some difficult challenges in our PhDs. My friend, J, was busy preparing for her dessertation proposal, whereas I was just starting a new PhD program. We vented to each other about how dumb we felt, how slow we work, and how painful writing in English was. We doubted the value of getting a PhD: what is the meaning of feeling ignorant, defeated and stressed all the time?

That became the theme for our trip: “what the hell does a PhD stand for?” Our guesses? Parents Having Doubts and Potential Heavy Drinker (I already was).

To mock our own pains even further, I wrote our travel plan in the form of a reserach proposal. At the time I thought: “if I can’t write well, at least I can just write badly and make fun of the whole academic writing thing.” That might have been my way of dealing with my imposter syndrome in writing. Now 3 years later, after having written some formal proposals, I am amused by my attempts at writing a proposal with bad puns and unnecessarily sophisticated sentences. Nonetheless, it did a good job capturing my dance with imposter syndrome at the time.

It was so bad that I am proud of it, because I dealt with imposter syndrome. However embarrassing my moves were, I learned to dance with it. I want to post it here, as a reminder of how far I have come. If you are reading this, know that in the dance with imposter syndrome, you can make the move.

TITLE: What The Hell Does a PhD Stand For – A Travel Proposal


This trip serves as the celebration for J’s successfully defending her dissertation proposal, P’s surviving her first grilling semester, and most important of all, the seven-year friendship between the two GePaos. GePao-ship,defined by awkward greetings followed by overly resentful mutual insults and timely malfunctioning emotional supports, has been grounded on time-wasting TV series, such as The Big Bang Theory [1], Person of Interest [2], Young Sheldon [3] and common long-lasting affection for Jasper Chan [4].

More over, this trip also serves as an iconic movement to symbolize the PhD experiences of PJ. A 2017 article by Levecque et al. highlighted that “one in two PhD students experiences psychological distress” [5]. Empirically, PJs have proven this research to be inaccurate, because both of them experience distress in their constant failures in academic writing practices. Preliminary data suggest that readers put in significantly more efforts in understanding writings by PJ than PJ themselves put in their writing (p < .00…01). Despite such findings, they continue to write to propose this work because why not — everyone is smart enough to not care for it anyway.

The ultimate question that this project attemps to address is: Can PJ feel better about themselves in this trip, despite the constant stressor of being a PhD student?


J Ding P Wang
image-J image-P


Celebrating winter break through Christmas Travel (CT) remains a major recreational event for doctoral students, whose daunting job consists of research, publications and pleasing their bosses. CT has been proposed as an intervention for depression and procrastination, together with holiday deals (for example, DealMoon). During CT, alcohol and nicotine bind with taste buds, creating parallel elevations in appetites and expenses, the latter equalling months of stipdend. However, wanna-get-away trips induced by tremendous pressure and anxiety have not resolved the primary psychological challenge that many PhD candidates face – the imposter syndrome. For this reason, CT must be paired with self-efficacy-improvement treatments to re-introduce a confident mindset. The Boost My Ego (BME) program developed by the authors is regarded as a feasible and effective intervention for PhDs self-diagnosed with imposter syndrome. Therefore, two female PhD patients are recruited for this CT session, Parents have Doubts (patient J) and Potential heavy Drinker (patient P), to test out the BME program in Texas.

Aim 1: Maximize food intake.
Rejected Hypothesis 1a: Dim Sum in the morning, House of Pies at noon, and premium aged and trimmed steak at night will suffice for food intake.

Aim 2: Experience a Christmas-themed road trip, while paying tributes to The Big Bang Theory and Person of Interest.
Rejected Hypothesis 2: Since Texas is home to our favorites: Sheldon Cooper and Samantha Groves, PJ make the trip special by watching episodes from TBBT and POI without subtitles. Santa may gift us subtitles.

Aim 3: Recharge for the upcoming semester.
Rejected Hypothesis 3: After the trip ends, J will be thrilled to leave P, who is driving J crazy by turning the holiday travel plans into a research proposal.



This celebration trip to Texas is insignificant for two reasons. First, the break is crucial for PhD candidates to recall what life is, which they will inevitably fail to encode once school starts. Second, the BME program will lead to performance decrements for multiple cognitive domains by over-eating and over-drinking.


Protection of Human Subjects. Working hazards (laptops, emails, Dropbox) will be disabled to control for adverse events.

End of proposal :white_check_mark:

Any Findings? What does a PhD stand for?

What I think the meaning of a PhD is now? I think my friend Richard Gao captured it best in his blog by saying that “PhD is a Perpetual heap of Discomfort.” So true. My advisor also echoes this. She once said to me “you are growing as a scientist, as a teacher, and as a person. And growth comes with challenges.” If you are also feeling imposter syndrome during your PhD, think of imposterism as a unpleasant by-product of growth.

Supplementry Materials - The Symptoms of PhD imposters

Below are a list of figures that summarized our interpretations of a PhD at 2017, taken during the Texas trip. Looking at these now, all the struggles with imposter syndrome seem sweet.