Discussing Stress/Depression with Supervisor - Help!


Hi guys. I am a PhD student in my first year and I am struggling a lot with stress. I have been on anti-depressants since doing my MSc last year but I am still finding things very difficult. This has lead to me doing almost no work so far. A huge part of the problem is that I will miss one meeting early in the week due to unnecessary panic or a migraine and then I get so irrationally terrified of my supervisor being angry that I am miserable for the rest of the week. After missing a meeting on a Monday or Tuesday I will be so scared and ashamed that I hide in bed during working hours and I can’t even check my email or answer the phone until Saturday in case my supervisor tries to contact me.

The thing is, so far my supervisor has been wonderful. Logically I think all of my feelings are completely ridiculous because he has never ever been cross or even critical regarding anything I have done. I feel that since I am only six months in there is still time for me to succed at this project, but it is running out. I would really like to be able to explain my situation to my supervisor and I feel as though if I knew for sure he understood then I would not feel so wretchedly guilty when I fail to meet all of my responsibilities.

My project is totally computer based and at the moment when I don’t come in my supervisor trusts me and assumes I am working from home, when in reality I am usually hiding under the covers feeling bad about something I didn’t do three days ago. I think I would get a lot more work done if I came in every day, but in the morning my resolve crumbles and I can’t go in because I imagine I will be judged. If I was a little more accountable to somebody or even thought that somebody would notice if I wasn’t coming in, I think I would be progressing. I just don’t know how to raise these issues because my supervisor has treated me like a responsible person and I don’t know how to admit that I want him to assign me a babysitter.

I think a PhD should be self-motivated and I don’t think that it is my supervisor’s job to help me with these things, so I am too embarassed to ask, even though I think if I did then he would be supportive. My project is amazing though and if I don’t make a success of it because I am too afraid to try then I will never get over the disappointment. The way I feel is nothing to do with the actual work or the actual people, I just can't get past these imaginary disasters.

Does anybody have experience of raising these issues with a supervisor? How did you do it and how did they respond? I would like to “come clean” about my lack of progress and discuss it with him, but I don’t know where to start. Any advice welcome!


Can you make an appointment to see the counselling staff at uni.  I think you really need to talk to someone about these fears of judgement that you are experiencing. Your confidence must be very low currently so you need to address this before you can work effectively.  I know it can be very daunting walking into a meeting room and feel as though everyone is feeling fab while you want to hide in the corner. Obviously, fear of having a panic in the meeting and everyone watching/judging you as you make a hasty exit will only exacerbate the problem.  In reality, some of those present may be feeling anxious, nauseous and overwhelmed but they are handling in such a way that you just don't see it. If you were feeling unwell during the meeting and had to leave they would probably be worried/sypathetic for you rather than judgmental.  So as you have suggested your feelings and fears are an irrational over-reaction, but you probably need help to resolve this.

If you can speak with your counselling services they may be able to help mediate between you and your supervisor, or attend a meeting with your supervisor as moral support.  Your supervisor will not be angry or upset, rather they will likely want to help if they can. As for working at home, this may be a part of the solution to do some days at home (away from the phone and email) and some days in uni.  Set yourself work to do at home and focus on this rather than staying in bed. You would like to show your supervisor that you are working, so start getting things done in the relative peace and quiet.  Maybe go into uni in the afternoons and see how it goes, you can always go home again. If your colleagues don't see you then they will notice that you are not there, but unless they really know you and your confidence issues then they won't know to check on how you are.  So you need to start going in and working at your desk, even if you hide behind your ipod/mp3 to start with! They are many people who succeed despite having emotional/anxiety/confidence related issues, you just need to learn the techniques to deal with it.


Hey TattieSoup! I am (un)lucky enough to have some experience in this area- I have bipolar disorder, and although I have been fairly well for 5 or so years, before that I had to drop out of uni 3 times due to hospital admissions etc. Anyway, I was actually forced to tell my sup because my diagnosis appears on my CRB check, which was required before the project started because I work with vulnerable adults. Needless to say, I was petrified of telling this high up prof that I have bipolar and that it might affect my work, but she was brilliant about it. The main thing she said to me was to tell her if I'm experiencing any problems, so she knows to expect my work rate to drop and that I might need time off. As I said, I have mostly been okay but I have had a few ups and downs and kept her in the picture and she has always appreciated that. I think if you have a good relationship with your supervisor then have a chat to him about it- most likely he will be supportive and you will feel better that he's on side. If you feel it will help to have goals or mini-deadlines then set them up with him (a friend of mine has recently done this because she is struggling with similar issues to you). And of course the other thing to do is get yourself to your doctor and your student counselling service! I can't praise our student counselling service enough- I have been going there for 7 years and they are fantastic. Even if you think it isn't your cup of tea then go along for a chat and see what they can offer. When you start to feel better you will start to make progress- you're only 6 months in and you can definitely turn this into a successful PhD if you get the right help and keep on trying. Best wishes, KB



Sorry to hear you are feeling so bad. I can totally relate to what you are saying as I was exactly the same. What I realised later was that at the time I had no idea how depressed I actually was, I thought I was just being a coward and lazy, but really that wasn't the case.

I would suggest getting an appointment with your uni counselling service, e-mail your supervisor and let him know you haven't been feeling great and if possible get your doctor to sign you off for a week or two or however long you think you need (that's what my counsellor suggested to me) so you can relax a bit without building up guilt for all the work you're not doing. Once you tell your supervisor, you'll also have less pressure and guilt to perform as he'll know you're not able to work 100% at the moment.

I was lucky in that my supervisor was very understanding once I built up the courage to tell him. It was just so scary because the same as you, I avoided things instead of facing up to my responsibilities and panicked about it which made it all worse and it spiralled downwards from there.

I think any little step you are able to take towards releasing some of the pressure on you at the moment will help you if you are able to do that :-)