Desperate for advice!!!


I'm having a real problem with my PhD just now and I'm not sure what to do. I am doing a lab-based PhD at an excellent university. I'm 6 months in and I really feel so depressed and unhappy. My supervisor is basically really demanding, and keeps making me feel like I'm achieving nothing, puts me under pressure all the time, and says that I should be producing data already. He basically always puts the blame on everyone else, and several other people in the lab feel under a lot of pressure too.
He has also made comments which I feel are inappropriate (e.g. about my clothing, and whether I am dating my flatmate!). I don't know whether this is a normal way to joke with your student and I'm just being too sensitive here or whether I am right to find it inappropriate.

I don't know what to do, the idea of quitting seems abhorent to me, and I'm scared to confront him, so feel really stuck!!! Plus it would kill my parents if I backed out.

Any thoughts? Thanks :-)


Re the comments - If you find them inappropriate, then they are. I would be very forceful and the next time he makes a comment, you *must* say 'Could you please not say things like that again, it makes me uncomfortable? thanks' ... and let it go.. the NEXT time he does it, email him, CCing the head of the department.

Will it make your relationship worse? probably.. *however* bullies thrive on their victims keeping quiet and you never know, he might shut up and be professional, if not.. look around for another supervisor.

As for the work.. if you keep undertaking more and more.. he'll expect you to do more and more.. and you create a rod for your own back - manage his expectations.. ask him what he expects on a weekly basis and if you think that's unfair, tell him THEN.. don't tell him at the end of the week.. 'Oh, I haven't produced what you asked'...


I know it must be scary to confront him... and your heart will probably beat very fast and you'll feel sick... but keep calm and be positive, assertive and an adult - remember, when you start working, there might very well be a lot more people like this.. and if you don't stick up for yourself.. noone else will.

Think of this in a positive way - if you are able to make him stop his comments AND manage his expectations, then you've learnt valuable skills whether you choose to stay in academia or go into industry.

And as for your parents.. well, quite frankly it's not their life and not their business... they won't kill you.. they might be disapointed.. but unless they are parents from hell, they want what's best for you and a happy child, not a child who is miserable... so tackle the supervisor and don't think about the parents :)


I have come across this kind of supervisor several times through friends and it is a tough situation (always science topics). You are unlikely to reform them single-handedly, but you must stand your ground calmly but firmly because they will keep pushing you further and further. I bet there have already been complaints made - unfortunately, in my experience, there is little accountability for behaviour in academia.


This seems to be the harsh reality in a lot of science and engineering PhDs. A lot of money is generally involved and supervisors may stake their reputations on PhD projects. As a first year PhD student and the person charged with carrying out your supervisors bidding, you are bottom of the food chain and shit rolls down the ranks!!! so you are the one who takes the blame when it all goes tits up (

You are a novice in your feild which means if you do run into difficulties your supervisor should make some reasonable attempt to assist you in getting back on track rather than making offensive remarks.

You dont have to put up with this kind of s%&t so bring it to the attention of your department if it continues.

good luck


Definitely DO NOT write your supervisor an email complaining about his behaviour CCing in you department head. That is a horrendous idea.

Talk to him first. Make a list of the things he says/demands/comments on over the next fortnight. Arrange a meeting with him and bring up the fact that he is very/too demanding and bordering on inappropriate. When he asks in what way you can recite a few things on the list you created over the previous weeks (don't have the list in front of you thought).

A tell-tell email to other members of the department won't help. If after your meeting things don't improve see your second supervisor/advisor/uniersity support staff for advice.


Alarm bells are ringing for you and if you ignore them, it can only get worse. The PhD is always going to be there for the taking but to ruin your life and the integrity of your character for that title is seriously not worth it. My advice is to leave the PhD, and look around for another one. Your departure (and others) could trigger an investigation into the rogue supervisor. Too many students put the PhD before themselves and set the precedence for bullying behaviour. Get on your bike, mate.


sciFi, unfortunately you are experiencing exactly what I was going through in my last PhD; my boss was evil and did exactly the same thing "slow progress,", "not bright", " how can you not .." evn my character has been attacked "lack of insight", " should be more critical of my work".. actually, I have a piling list of email from him that is very insulting and derogatory.
and I chose to suffer from for 2 years, trying every desperate way to "kiss his ass". Look how I ended up: I was still forced to leave and became paranoid as all the professors might be like taht and I may insult everyone if I was not extreme-cautious..
so if you stay like this for some other period, you will end up like how I was back then. I am regretting every moment of my life that I should quit that hell like Phd earlier. every more minute staying there was a waste of my young life!
see my point?


I agree it could well be time to leave now ( if you cant resolve your differences ) if you leave now; you have plenty of time to apply to other courses( phds, masters or jobs)

I considered leaving after six months but waited till after my first year review which was kind of a mistake because now I have to wait till october till my masters starts, otherwise I could of signed up for a masters last october if i had left last april


I had the same problem with my old boss. She was a big bully who blamed everything on the most junior member of staff who would shut up and take it as she knew that person needed the experience. Yes, it was me!

Don't take it. First, make sure your supervisor is aware you are not happy. Mention words like depressed and disgruntled and that will put their back up.

Also, remember to have a paper chain in whatever you do. Work, study, anything!

Even if it seems like you will not need it anymore, keep it, as you may need proof someday.

Also, if your supervisor gives you a task, confirm it by email, so you know what is required, and when you do it, if they say you should have done x y and z as well, you have the evidence to prove otherwise.

Finally, keep a diary. If things, and I really hope they do not, go that far, you are nothing without the proof. Keeping a simple diary will be so important, I cannot stress. So for example you would say.




20 Apr 2008. Location: Library; Witnesses: John, Jane; Description: Supervisor came in at around 1pm and asked in front of colleagues whether I should be dating my flatmate. I found this to be offensive as well as embarrasing in front of my colleagues. etc...

You get the gist....good luck...and from the hard way I have learnt never to let the bully win, have some backbone!


I completely agree with jinio about the paper trail thing.... It can be quite important if you want to take things further.

If things come to a head, it is always going to be your word against your supervisor's.

But if you send an email to your supervisor expressing your concerns and requesting a meeting to address them, then you have a record on email saying you were not happy with the working relationship and you have made an effort to do something about it.


Thanks so much for all the advice, guys, it's just really nice to know that there are people out there who have been through the same type of experience and lived to tell the tale!

I am going to take your advice on keeping a written record of things that happen, just in case.

I'm gonna try and take it one day at a time and see how things go. If he continues to treat me this way I'll take it up with someone senior at the university. I'm seriously hoping it won't come to that, though.

A lot of other people in my lab are pretty unhappy with his treatment, so if it gets really bad, maybe we could all put in a complaint together, hopefully the uni would be forced to take it seriously if an entire lab of people all want to quit!


hmm, the thing is.. do you really want to waste your time and emotion doing the very non-pleasant self-defending? probably there are good opportunities out there where you can actually have a great time doing a PhD..
I did everything I could to "save" my PhD back then, but none of them was working; I wish I did quit earlier. now I am happy with doing the things I like.
I don't mean it is a bad idea to be persistent, but people don't change easily, even your supervisor is forced to become nicer, who knows whether he will hold the grudge and come back on you sometime later when you make some mistakes. It is a 3-4 year long "relationship", you can't be under such pressure for such long time. besides, you don't have to, just look for a better chance while keeping things "normal" at your present place.


Just ask yourself , ''can I work like this for another 3 years ? '' Once you complain , the relationship between you and the supervisor will goes from bad to worst.I would give it another month or two before taking any action. Also, since your collegues are not happy as well, you should speak to them and take action as a group , which in my opinion is a safer option .