I’m not sure why I’m posting this, I guess I just needed to rant and it’d be nice to get some reassurance if possible.
I recently had my mini viva for my first year progression review. I submitted my progress report 2 months ago. The viva was awful, to say the least. Everything I was asked I hadn’t prepared for, and nothing I had prepared for was asked. Twice I thought I might have known the answer to the questions, but out of fear of being wrong, I simply said I didn’t know. Turns out I was right in both of those instances. But the rest of the questions, I genuinely didn’t have a clue. We had to take a break halfway through since I burst into tears, which was insanely embarrassing.
I’ve been struggling with depression since January, and I wrote the report in February/March when I was at my lowest. I probably should have put more time into prepping for the viva but I guess the depression got the better of me.
I just feel so out of my depth, like I’m not able for a PhD. My examiners still passed me (with harsh comments) and are allowing me to progress to the next year, but I really don’t know if I want to. I’ve never done so poorly in an exam type situation, during undergrad I knew practically everything you could have asked me. Now I feel like I’m not good enough for a PhD.
Has anyone else had a similar experience? Did things turn out okay for you in the end? I feel so lost.
Firstly, well done for carrying on with your review after getting emotional. That's a brave thing to do. Secondly, are your supervisors/university support team aware of your depression? They are make reasonable adjustments for you, if so. That's not to say that they would allow you to pass no questions asked, but it may help you re: scheduling, deadlines etc.
As to whether you should continue - did you want to continue with the PhD prior to your review, or are these feelings that came about because of your review performance? It sounds like you might be having a wobble at the moment because of this dent in your confidence.
Thanks for your reply! My supervisory team don’t know about my depression. I was going to tell them but I just haven’t been brave enough since it’s such an uncomfortable conversation to have. I know I probably should, but I don’t know how I would even bring it up.
I have days where I want to quit and never look back but from what I’ve heard that’s pretty normal, I think? I enjoy my day to day lab work (usually), but when I think about the big picture I get so overwhelmed. And I think that’s what the problem with the viva is; they kept talking about when I would be writing publications, or writing my thesis, and I just can’t imagine how I’ll ever be good enough to do either of those things.
There's quite a few important things here:
1) A panel that really grills you is better than one that doesn't, as they're ultimately looking ahead to the viva, and if they've asked the really mean questions at the panels you'll not only be prepared for them, but likely find the viva relatively easy as it's unlikely (but possible) these super-mean questions will get asked. The fact they passed you is the important thing, they did the right thing by rigorously interrogating even if it was likely from the outset you'd pass, because this is ultimately more useful than 'looks good'.
2) In the transition from undergraduate/masters to PhD, you lose the regular pat on the back of a good exam or coursework result. This is preparing you for academic life, where you will pretty much receive nothing but critique. It is a hard transition, particularly for a straight-A student who is used to studying hard then being told they did a good job when they get the feedback or exam result. Unfortunately the world doesn't work much like this, and academia is no exception. You will as a researcher (or employee) often study and work hard and be told simply that x could be improved.
3) The depression and your well-being is obviously the most important thing here. Don't lose sight of that. My consistent advice is speak to a health professional; then speak with HR; then speak with the supervisors. It is important you do this, because you are unwell, and deserve support and time to recover. The #1 mistake students and academics with depression make is to not report it and try their best, because then you're seen administratively as someone who's fine and doing a bad job, which in turn makes things worse and can result in a spiral. This has implications for expected completion dates - it's better to have had 6 months off formally sick, than be struggling for extensions towards the end of the PhD because you were unwell but there's no record of it. If work helps with the depression there's nothing stopping you doing it while off sick. I'd generally suggest speaking to HR before the supervisors; because it's less personal, and they will (hopefully) be more trained to respond and advise than an academic, who will likely be extremely sympathetic but have had zero training in how to help.
I have experienced, or still struggling with depression. I can relate to what you have said and understand how hard it could be to talk to your supervisory team about your mental health problems. I was struggling with the same issues, poor performance triggers my depression and depression leads to poorer performance as a loop. I didn’t want my supervisors to ‘find out’ how ‘weak’ and ‘incapable’ I was. Eventually I couldn’t manage it, and started the conversation with my supervisors via email before talking about it f2f. It turned out that they’re supportive and told me that it’s quite normal. I just want to encourage you to talk to them and let you know the consequences might be more positive then you expect. Also I understand the feelings of not being good enough. It makes us feeling lost, frustrated and overwhelmed when we can’t imagine how we could walk to the end from where we stand. Personally I’m still learning on how I can cope with it. Just want you to know that you are not alone. You are not failed but feeling like a failure is part of the journey.
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