Drowning - stressed, anxious, under extreme stress, and have nowhere left to turn


Hi all,

I'm writing this today in hopes of finding someone who has maybe felt the same way during their degree and who can offer some help..

I'm in my 4th year of my PhD and I am losing my mind. 4 years ago, my supervisor pretty much forced me into a project that I didn't want. I tried to argue my way out of it, but all she said was "finish it, and then you can do whatever you like". I tried to do it for 3 years and kept failing (no one in our entire department has any experience in this century old technique). I had tried within these three years to get out of it, but that never worked. Seeing as to how I was always an excellent student, you can imagine what constant failure for 3 years and no support from my supervisor did to my confidence. She always blames me for things not working and thinks I am just a royal F***-up, which is not the case. Anyhow, recently I feel like I'm going in circles. She gives everyone in the lab amazing opportunities, and me, nothing. I have zero papers, and have been to only 2 local conferences (she won't let me go anywhere international since I have nothing interesting to present), and am extremely depressed. I've tried approaching her in the past to tell her how I'm feeling but she just laughs at me, tells me that I'm not made for science, and calls me a cry baby(I've only cried TWICE in front of her).

I am losing every droplet of sanity I've got. I am now at a point of no return where I cry at least once a day, and I literally have nowhere and nobody to turn to. I can't speak to my supervisor, my parents think that there's no such thing as depression and in fact believe that I'm to blame regarding why I'm not done yet and why I have no papers, I've lost all my friends because I close myself off and now have no social life (I used to be a social butterfly.. my phone NEVER stopped ringing :(), and although my boyfriend is the sweetest guy and is always listening to me and encouraging me, I'm tired of always complaining to him.

I truly don't know what to do. I've never been a depressed person, and I've never considered hurting myself. But, for the last few months, I keep hoping I get hit by a car, fall off the subway tracks, or simply not wake up from my sleep because I'm so overwhelmed and tired of it all.

I don't know what to do and feel like I'm just this robot who goes to lab 12 hours a day in the hopes of making this project from hell work, and I can't do it anymore....I hate feeling like I'm worthless and like the world wouldn't matter without me. I hate the fact that my parents are not supporting me and think I'm being a child. And I hate the fact that I have no confidence left in myself and feel like I'm bad at everything I do.

Please help me :'(


Slow down, don't be so hard on yourself - you are under real pressure and putting yourself under additional pressure which isn't helpful. I'd strongly urge you to contact the counselling department at your university and talk to someone about your situation and how you feel. This person should let you talk freely, letting you think more clearly which should give you some perspective. Please make that call or appointment today. What harm can it do?


I couldn't read this and not write a reply - not sure I will be much help but I really felt for you reading your post so thought I could at least try!!

The thing that really jumped out at me was when you said you wanted to hurt yourself - and all I could think was "hurting yourslef over a phd? really??" And I really don't mean to sound flippant, as I understand you are feeling desperate (I have suffered from anxiety/depression myself and know exactly how it feels), but I think you need to take a step back and think, is this really worth all the heartache and stress it is causing? Do I really want to feel like this just because my studies are going badly? NOTHING is worth making you this ill, and I think you desperately need some time away to get some perspective and have some time to think. Honestly, from what you have said, I would just give up on the phd and go and find something that doesn't make you miserable, but I realise that's easier said than done when you're right in the thick of it.

Go and see your GP too - they can help, whether it's anti-depressants, counselling, etc. You do not need to feel like this, and things WILL get better, I promise!!! Just because the project hasn't worked out, this does not make you a failure. What you need to do now is decide how to make the best of a bad situation and then move on. Could you write up what you have and submit for an mphil? Although I repeat - if it's making you want to hurt yourself I personally would get the hell out of there and forget all about it.

Hope this helps a little, and hopefully some of the other great people on here will be along soon to offer more advice. Most importantly - you are not on your own, there is a lot of support on here and out in the real world!!!!! :-)

Avatar for Batfink27

I agree with Delta. You're not the problem here, you're just in a stressful situation and that is putting a lot of pressure on you and making things feel far worse than they actually are. Be kind to yourself - something like counselling would really help, not as a judgment on you or your ability to deal with your situation, but just because it will give you the space you need to find a way forward. Space in other ways is important too - taking time away from your work, getting outside in the sunshine and fresh air, letting yourself breathe literally and figuratively. Once you can find a little bit of space, it will be possible to make strategies that will help you cope with the demands of your situation, but it will also make the other feelings much easier to deal with. You're very definitely not alone in feeling like this - this forum is full of people who have gone or are going through very similar things. Take heart from that!


Hello there,

In many ways I understand and have experienced/experiencing some of the emotions and troubles you are going through. I too am in my fourth year, and constantly feel like a failure for not having submitted as yet. I'm sick of people asking when I am going to be finished. I hate the fact that I can never relax without feeling guilty. The good news is, as many posts on this forum show, that we are not unusual for feeling these emotions. In fact, I think the hardest part of the PhD for me has been how emotionally draining it is. To get to PhD level I guess many of us are used to being successful, i.e. at undergrad and MA we are constantly reassured of our capabilities by our marks for assignments/exams. At PhD feedback is often few and far between, thus adding to our feelings of self-doubt. Also, I think naturally many of us doing PhD's are perfectionists, and up until this point it has been a largely beneficial trait to have. But at PhD being a perfectionist can delay our submission and add further to self-criticism and doubt - at undergrad and MA the fixed and constant deadlines we have to meet keep our perfectionism in check, at PhD it can literally take over.

At the start of 2012 I was very low - I had no confidence, felt like a fraud a failure. Although I still haven't submitted I decided to make the decision to find employment - spurred on by the fact that I was skint! I think this has been the best thing I could have done - it has allowed me to put the thesis/PhD into perspective, I am interacting with people outside of academia, and although I panic I am a much happier person. I realise this isn't a viable solution for everyone, particularly those doing lab based research, but what I am trying to say is that the PhD is NOT the be all and end all, it is not a measure of a person, and as I have found out in the real world it often means diddly squat.

Depression is something you should talk to your doctor about - I did and he was very supportive and basically said that I know why I am feeling like this i.e. the PhD and therefore don't beat myself up about feeling stressed/low - he didn't want to prescribe me anything but said it was my choice if i wanted tablets - I declined.

In terms of friends, I too have closed myself away as a way of avoiding questions etc, but good friends do understand and will be there when you are all done and dusted with it and ready to start living again.

I hope these words help in someway, if only to let you know you are not alone.

Avatar for Mackem_Beefy

======= Date Modified 23 Mar 2012 15:24:57 =======
Reading this I couldn't not reply either. The advice you've been offered is sound and rather than self harm or contemplate doing anything stupid get the hell out of there. It seems your supervisor has taken a downer on you since day one and if she felt she didn't want you, she should have told you there and then without putting you through this. It sounds like she made you do this near impossible project in the hope you would pull the plug quicker than this and from what you've said behaved shamefully with you.

I'll be blunt. Call it a day, call it quits. Then you and your boyfriend clear off on a long holiday and then take stock of what you're going to do next. Seek some counselling as suggested, but I'd actually pull the plug on this situation first. A PhD that you're most likely not going to get now is not worth your health, physically or mentally.

I had a hellish second post-doc (not at my PhD Uni.) and things only slowly sorted themselves out when I moved on (and still are a little). If you're going nowhere and thinking something would happen that would end your misery, quit for the sake of yourself (and your boyfriend).

Ian (Mackem_Beefy)


Drowningfast, I'm really sorry to hear what you're going through! Yet, I completely understand the emotions you're describing.

I just want to reiterate some of the suggestions here - You definitely need some time off. If it's at all possible to arrange a leave of absence, do so. Maybe your GP could help you get permission for a medical leave of absence due to stress.

I was also struck by the idea that you're thinking of hurting yourself, which is pretty serious. Is it possible for you to see a psychotherapist or psychiatric counselor on campus, or privately? Talking to a professional isn't the same as confiding in a boyfriend, because a therapist should be able to suggest skills for coping with stress, and for seeing your way clearly toward making a decision about how to proceed.

I think I understand your predicament a little, because among my friends and family I am "the listener", and as far as they're concerned, I never have problems of my own. So, like you, I'm a bit isolated in that sense. This may sound strange, but I went to a hypnotist for help dealing with stress and loss of confidence. It is helping a lot, and I would be happy to explain more if you think that's something that would be useful to you.

Avatar for Pjlu

I would echo many people's responses here:

1 See a counsellor- many of us have done this from time to time and as Delta said-you need to be able to talk about this and sort out your feelings and thoughts in an appropriate framework with an understanding professional. Right now, you are so upset, enmired and overwhelmed that you can't see beyond or around anything so it sounds as if you believe (perceptions) that you are trapped with nowhere to go. This is a very hard state to climb out of and-many of us go to a supportive person/mentor/professional to help us with the first steps.

2 Know that this is very common for many people doing this sort of thing-not everyone to be sure, but a really strong proportion. There is something about this intensive, self motivated extended form of research that seems to trigger self-doubt, depression, anxiety and fear in many of us. (Maybe someone should do a phd on it!).

3 Sorry that your parents are unsympathetic-my family and friends didn't understand just how bad it got for me in my final write up of Master's thesis and so I stopped talking about it to them-other that very occasional updates of the "Hoping to submit in a couple of weeks." or "no, supervisor wants me to rewrite this...". I stopped talking about the feelings and depression bit to them as well as their responses were basically " maybe stop doing it then..." and I knew they were tired of hearing about it. I understood that they still cared about me but really had no idea about the process so even though some responses weren't very positive, I did not take them too much to heart.

4 Set some boundaries around your work. You are going into the lab for 12 hours days and getting nowhere-reduce the time a bit and do some normal things that might help lift your spirits while you still continue with the Phd. Make sure you exercise, eat well and socialise a little with your boyfriend and friends (I am sure some of your friends would love to see you but maybe have stopped calling because they think you are busy). These sorts of things will give you more endurance to cope with the PhD when you do do it. And will make life itself better-as there are more things in life than a PhD or research project.

5 Stop comparing yourself to others. This is one of the most diabolical things for making oneself feel bad or miserable. This is your PhD, and your journey-it is unique to every doctoral student. What is important is that you come through it, not whether your supervisor seemed to like or favour another or approved their attendance at a conference and not yours. Competition in this sort of area is really unhelpful-it doesn't really contribute anything to this sort of research (in the way that competition in sports can be a helpful thing) and it seems to add to negative self perceptions as well.

6 Look at the positive things about yourself that have enabled you to get to this point. You are obviously a nice person who (when not bedevilled by an ogre of a phd and unsympathetic supervisor) who makes friends easily and has a great boyfriend. You are obviously intelligent and your track record is that you are a very capable student (or you would not have made it to this point). So scientific thinking doesn't come naturally to you-doesn't mean you can't do it or learn it-just means that your natural strengths perhaps lie in other areas. Good for you for taking on a scientific project and learning to extend yourself!

I'm not saying this meaning you should give up- I wouldn't give up if I were you at this stage because I think personally that you have invested a fair bit so far and it is more important that you get some support (Counselling of some sort) and help yourself (put some structure in around your activities and self-care practices) at the moment before you make any decisions like quitting.


Avatar for DrCorinne

Drowningfast, I very seldom visit the forum now, as I have to care for my elderly parents, but I am happy to be of some support if I can.

I understand how you feel - my supervisor was not much different from yours - and I cannot really tell what I had to go through with that person. It was tough indeed. It was a different challenge every time, and the whole situation had a huge impact on my self-confidence of course.

However, I never lost sight of my values and what I wanted to achieve. In the end a PhD does not spin exclusively around supervisors. They are important, very important, but the completion of your research depend on you and a lot of other people around you (e.g. colleagues, external and internal examiners, etc)

I agree with what has been said earlier. Step back and rest - then reassess the situation and what YOU can do about it.

1) Is there anyone in your field you can talk to?
2) Have you tried counselling?
3) If you didn't worth anything she wouldn't have let you start
4) Did you try to find the root of what doesn't work and why?
5) What kind of feedback did you have when you presented your papers?
6) Do you have an annual research interview, and how did it go? Anyone in the panel you can refer to?

Remember that people like your supervisor thrive when they see someone in a weak position, if you show that you have support elsewhere or that you succeed by yourself she will step back.

In order to succeed you must take care of yourself first. If you see that nothing of the above is good enough for you, you might consider quitting, but under no circumstances ever think about hurting yourself.

A big hug.


Do take note of everything others have said, get whatever help is available on campus, get away for a while, even a day or so should help to get yourself back in control. Don't be intimidated by your supervisor, ignore them if necessary, tell someone in charge (your director of studies, the head of post grad maybe?) It sounds a bit as though you feel a bit helpless to do anything, but those in charge should be able to help you sort things out and start you feeling more positive about things. You have come this far so try a bit of positive action, go and make waves in the appropriate places. I had to do this in the end and it isn't easy, but it was worth it. Those who have not done or are not doing a PhD do not necessarily understand what it involves (I overheard a student at school the other day talking about PhDs who said they thought it was just writing a big essay, so thats just a few extra pages then!)

The things is though, you have tried whatever it is you are doing for a long time and it doesn't work, this shouldn't be a problem when you write it up, this is your finding and is as valid as a runaway success. It may be things have changed, it may be that something is different, science is full of modifications isn't it? your results may lead on to a modification (perhaps it will get called after you who knows?:-). forget your rotten supervisor and their remarks and lack of help show them you can do it. Good luck.

Avatar for Mackem_Beefy

======= Date Modified 25 Mar 2012 22:14:10 =======
Reading the other replies from 'DrowningFast's' post, I understand the gist of see what she can rescue from this situation.  Two questions loom large from the responses:

1) Can the fact she's not been able to get the technique to work be a result in itself?

2) Can she rescue something from this, even if just an MPhil?

We all agree she should take time out in order to sort herself out and take stock of the situation.  We also agree she should see her doctor so she can receive counselling.

What concerns me deeply is she feels she wants to hurt herself or be hit by a car.  That indicates a very dangerous state of mind, hence my earlier opinion that she should call it a day.

My reading of this situation is there appears to be nothing she can retrieve from it.  As such, even after taking a break why go back to a messy situation where the relationship with the supervisor has completely broken down and she likely had no usable data?  Yes, she can try to change supervisor or talk to the Dean of Faculty, however, she is now in year four and financing herself in all likelihood at this stage.  A supervisor change may drag this out for a further year or more and there still be nothing to show for her efforts.

I know alot of us care passionately about the research we conduct and the goal of being awarded a PhD.  However, in doing so we become so focussed that we ignore what is really most important to us.  Our health, our family and our relationships.  When I finished now a few years ago, people had moved on with their lives and I had to repair some friendships simply because for a few years I simply wasn't there.  I also had the hellish 2nd post-doc where I sank to the depths of despair myself.  I wanted to walk away (and twice came to the point of doing so - my mum sat in the car with me and saw me break down and cry), however, financial reasons meant I had to see out the period or be left without income for at least six months (unemployment benefit rules).  It's now five years since that and I still haven't got my life fully back on track (though family illness has influenced matters).

(As an aside, in 'Drowningfast's' case, the chances are she currently has no income.  Leaving will make no financial difference to her, moreover, she may be able to claim unemployment benefit so the situation is easier in her case as she would cease being a student.)

I therefore ask 'Drowningfast' to look at the above two questions.  If you can answer yes to either question, then for now suspend studies and near the end of the suspension see how you feel.  If you feel you can't go back, then quit and call it a day.  If the answer is no, then why put yourself through anymore misery - quit now for your own sake.  Once out of that situation, you can begin to rebuild.

Ian (Mackem_Beefy)


You need to take a step back and chill out, and
after that just have a think out of the box of how you can solve it, there is no
point worrying about failure after all some of the greatest minds have failed
more than once and tried again. If your in the 4th year then don't worry about
friends and socialising complete the PhD its more important you can socialise
next year I myself have had this problem where no-one calls me anymore because I'm
always busy but its the future that counts and the friends you think you have
normally have a tendency to disappear real friends will stick around and
understand you are doing something important. You might not be getting enough
sunlight and that's why your depressed i currently have a friend who is having
this problem take regular breaks outside and i think she takes those magnesium
tablets too for women's health. Don't stay up late go to sleep ok! Nothings worth
killing yourself for so relax! chill out! and treat your research as a puzzle
game that needs to be cracked! :-)

Avatar for Mackem_Beefy


How's everything?

Ian (Mackem_Beefy)


Wow, I can't even begin to express how much I've appreciated all your feedback!!! Thank you so much.

I'm sorry it took me a while to respond but those 12 hour days are killing me.

I've taken a step back and looked into the situation from a bigger perspective, and that has helped me a lot. I know some of you have told me to quit, but that really isn't an option for me. I think that in the long run, I would regret putting these last 4 years into the garbage. For all the hassle to be worth it, I need that degree!

I'm happy to say that with my 12 hour days these past few months, I've finally managed to make my project work. I'm quite happy about that. I also gathered up enough courage to speak with my supervisor and inform her that I would like to leave within a year. Having an end in sight makes it all that much easier.

Again, I really can't than you all enough. You gave me that push to be open, and look at the situation differently. Thank you - you're all angels :)


Hi Drowningfast,

So pleased to hear you are feeling better about things!! I was one of the people who said you should quit - but if you think you can finish and are feeling more positive then I am really pleased for you!! Glad the forum was of some help, and don't forget to come back here if you start to feel low again (although obviously I hope that doesn't happen!)
Best of luck :-)