feel so inadequate...


I guess this is just a vent really. I'm in the 2nd year of my PhD and everything is feeling a bit crap right now. I still don't have a research question, my relationship with my supervisor is quite bad right now and I argue with him every time I see him, and I don't really get on that well with the other PhD students in my department any more. I'm angry so much of the time, I feel so frustrated. I often feel stupid and alone. I don't feel like I can turn to anyone (postdocs, technicians, other academics), because I've asked for help before and been dismissed with vague, generic advice and even hostility on more than one occasion. I'm very quiet at times and find it incredibly hard to talk to people. I live on my own and have lost contact with a lot of my close friends, I've tried to re-initialize contact in several cases but it's become clear that we've all moved on in very different directions. I find it very hard to start new hobbies or socialize more.

I've struggled with depression in the past. Right now I'm taking a lot of care with sleeping properly, eating relatively healthily, looking after my finances etc. I'm seeing a therapist for my social anxiety which is helpful. Unfortunately none of it is enough to stem the slow feeling of being eaten away by a sense of general worthlessness and being utterly, completely unwanted. I do have people who I talk to and go out with, who I'm close to, so I'm not completely isolated, but most of the time I feel pretty alone.

I feel so disappointed and disillusioned, my random bursts of anger or anxiety makes me feel like I'm a horrible person because I'm not coping well. I just feel like my supervisors think I'm not working hard enough or don't have the right personality for academia, my sup. is always praising another girl in my department for how well she copes with her PhD despite how hard it's all been for her.

I had so many ideas about what a PhD would be like, but the truth is that I just feel awful. My project seems so pointless and my work so inefficient. I've had good jobs in the past so it's not that I'm incapable of producing great work. But I feel really awful about both my work and myself as a person and I've got no-one to talk to who knows what I'm going through. I know this sounds so self-pitying and down. I should just get on with it but I just feel frozen. I've actually been trying really hard, but the sense of worthlessness and rejection just keeps getting stronger and stronger. I don't feel this way ALL the time, but it's definitely increasing.

Sorry for the depressing vent :(


Don't be sorry and I hope writing your thoughts and experiences down helped. What I can tell you is although you may think you are on your own many on here have felt as you feel now and that's a promise. Make use of all the support networks you can, here and the counselling service at your University, for example. Try not to compare your PhD experiences with others as PhD's differ greatly and you could be doing yourself a great injustice and most likely are. Remember, the odds are stacked in your favour as regards passing your PhD but the journey to it can be testing, to say the least.

Keep taking care of yourself and chin up!


Hi Clovercloud, just a quick reply to say that I understand how you feel and hope you will soon feel better. Doing a PhD can be quite demoralising and make you feel fairly isolated - I'm not sure why, but as a mature student I honestly think it's one of the hardest environments I've worked in. So you're certainly not alone in feeling this way. And also I think what you feel doing a PhD will be like and the reality is very different. Try to get some help, maybe from the university counselors and also keep in with this forum, which is very good. Don't judge yourself on your PhD, you are more than that....all the best x


I understand your feelings. I was also plagued with social anxiety for some years, and without warning it just sort of...went. I am still quite non-committal with people, and avoid disappointment by making sure I have very low expectations of others. However, you need to be practical too, and whilst empathy and support are useful (you will get that in abundance here), that's just a temporary feeling of relief.

1)Get a research question. It's your 2nd year; get on with it.
2)Sit down and talk to your supervisor. Say "I'd like to have a more personal discussion than usual, please, as I think it will benefit my working relationship with you and also my own feelings of adequacy", or something like that. If that talk goes well, the sup will be more aware of her behavioural style when she deals with you. If the talk isn't very successful, then you know to ask for another supervisor, or withdraw. Nobody should go through a PhD with a bad supervisor.
3)People will probably flame me for saying this, but if you find alcohol boosts your mood, a wee rum and coke to start the day can work wonders. If alcohol makes you depressive, then avoid it.
4)Keep reading interesting papers in your area. If you don't read, you will lose your interest in the subject area.
5) Try an re-initiate contact with dependable, understanding friends. If you don't have any, get new ones.


Thanks everyone.

Ginandjazz, uh -- two of those things are part of my problem. I tried to have that kind of personal discussion with my supervisor 6 months ago and it made him pretty uncomfortable. He was supportive until that point and I was left feeling 'weak'. He puts up very strong boundaries about talking about emotional / personal issues and gets irritated if I talk about anxieties or worry. I forgot to mention that I'm already seeing a counsellor outside of Uni. In my department there is a strong culture of low-level sneering at those who are struggling to cope. My supervisor is not a bad supervisor, it's just that we have a bad relationship. Everyone else gets on with him fine (I do believe the problem is me). For that reason, if I tried to get another supervisor (there really isn't anyone else) I may as well quit academia, because he is so well-respected that it would reflect much worse on me than on him.

I've been trying to get a research question for the past 6 months. Everything I come up with, I read another paper which shows it's already been done. The experimental methodologies I come up with seem dubious and time-consuming avenues with no basis in the literature. My sup tells me that I need to figure it out for myself, which is probably true, but I don't see how I can set a research question when I don't even know whether an experimental methodology with no existing literature to support it is going to be so heavily criticised as to effectively be worthless. I don't even know what MAKES a good research question, because every time I ask I'm told to figure it out for myself. Take a big risk or stick to small changes? How am I even supposed to know what's right?

Rum and coke won't work for me; I have a low alcohol tolerance.

Thanks to the other replies too. Sorry for the massive whinge, it's just upsetting me so much.


Hi CloverCloud,

I am sorry to hear that you are feeling this way. But don't worry most of us have gone through this phase at some point or the other. I know that it is hard not to worry but this shall pass too! The PhD itself is so challenging which turns most of the people upside down as it did to me. Do not worry about venting, we are all here to support each other in this lonely process. As others have said, the key to solve your depression/anxiety is to find your research questions. You will feel much better if you have something to work on.

It is very strange that your supervisor says that you will have to figure it out yourself. I don't know if you are studying in the UK, if so have you had your Annual Progress Monitoring? You can mention your concerns to the people to whom you take your APR with. Can you otherwise get an additional supervisor?

It is good that you are taking care of yourself as it is very essential and try to do some outdoor activities, get some fresh air now and then which is always good. I hope everything will get better for you. All the very best (up).

Avatar for Batfink27

Hi Clovercloud

Sorry you feel this way - the PhD process can be very tough, and even more so if the relationship with the supervisor isn't working well. I'm glad to hear you are trying to look after yourself, and the therapist sounds like a very useful thing too. I would just reiterate what others have said - everyone feels at least some of what you're going through at some point in their PhD. You're not alone in this!

I was wondering about the research question thing - do you have any opportunities to go to any seminars or conferences where people from your field will be presenting? I went to a series of seminars last year organised by a society for my discipline, quite small events really with maybe fifty people attending, and the presentations and discussions there really sharpened my awareness of where the current debates in my field are, and what questions are now forming in people's minds. I found this really useful for making my research more relevant to current debates, and they also enthused me about my subject and allowed me to meet people doing lots of really interesting work at other universities. If you could find some similar events to attend that might help to focus your thoughts and reading in a direction that will turn into a strong research question.

Good luck with it, and I hope someone else comes along and gives some more advice about dealing with how you're feeling and the supervisor relationship.

Avatar for Pjlu

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Hi Clovercloud,

just one point. Even if the supervisor does 'get on fine' with the others-alarm bells rang for me when you said that the relationship issues were just you -therefore you were the problem. You are a person not a problem and if there are issues in your relationship with the sup then you both share the problem. It really is that simple. No one is 100% responsible for a tricky relationship-it is always shared (unless it is a stalking or abuse sort of thing in which case it isn't even really a relationship).

There is a difference between an interaction between people (one reacts really crazily-and in that case maybe the person is responsible for that specific tricky interaction-btw when I say 'crazily', I just mean emotionally and randomly-we all do it every now and then) and an ongoing relationship. Besides which the balance of power lies with the supervisor so they need to man up to their responsibility there. I would not spend time beating yourself up over this particular issue or taking on all of the responsibility. Those thoughts won't help you and they are not an accurate reflection of reality. However, I would keep it to business as regards future interactions-it will be more productive for your work and your own self esteem. Don't worry about the sup praising up the other student either. Nice for her and maybe she deserves it but it sounds like sup is either misguidedly hoping that you will then follow the other girl's lead OR using it
as a form of 'look at her-isn't she great-means I am an okay sup and all this rubbish is down to you-not me' sort of manipulation.
Doesn't make sup a bad person, just isn't a very effective way of managing things or people.

My employer does it all the time with people and I have found the best way to deal with it is to still like and appreciate the person they are praising while completely being unfazed in anyway by employer's childish manipulations-works a treat. I wish I could help out more here but thought maybe a dose of healthy cynicism might help a little and other posters have given some positive and really supportive advice-which I don't need to repeat as they have said it pretty well...

One more thing though...academia can be a little bit of a toxic environment at times. My former partner, an academic (very talented) lost his job (undeservedly) through a cut throat university cost cutting exercise some years ago and many of the people he worked with weren't that nice-and quite often his own approach to things was pretty iffy-when I think about it. Understanding people and how they learned or how to work with them wasn't really part of the agenda back then. Sometimes, when I reflect on my own busy, large and harried workplace, I realise that for many of the staff at the College (secondary) I work at, understanding and managing human interactions effectively just isn't their forte. So I can't stress enough that taking responsibility completely for all that is occurring for you right now, is not being fair to yourself.:-)


Hi CloverCloud,

I agree with Piju. Don't blame yourself for your perceived failure to gel with your supervisor. I also wonder if your supervisor shares your perception? Perhaps they see things very differently? At the start of my PhD I just couldn't get on with one of my supervisors. Call it a personality clash, but I consistently felt that whatever I said in their presence was wrong. Consequently I became quite nervous around them and developed a severe case of foot-in-mouth syndrome (honestly, I dropped some real clangers and cringe looking back on some of our meetings). Fortunately, my relationship with my other supervisor has been fantastic and I really couldn't ask for more commitment and support. It's strange, you can't get on with everyone. This is true for all people and shouldn't be viewed as a failing on your part.

It sounds like you need a confidence boost, and nothing would work better than feeling you're making progress. With regard to the research question, I wonder what research have you've conducted so far and what, if any, conclusions you reached? It sounds a backward way of doing things, but my research question came out of results. In effect, I had certain answers before I knew what question I was asking. Moulding your reserach question around whatever results you observed or achieved sounds quite illogical, but who's to know you went about things this way? Once you get going you find that other questions and avenues of exploration become apparent. That may be no help at all, but it might pay to approach things this way. I assume you know broadly what subject you're researching. If so, it's really a case of narrowing your scope and closing off certain avenues of investigation. Try posting a few potential questions and perhaps a few forum members can help.


Just to add, sorry about misspelling your name Pjlu. Along with foot-in-mouth syndrome I've developed a knack for this of late; add your name to a list of recent casualties (fortunately I'm more diligent when approaching work).

And finally, a feeling of isolation commonly goes hand-in-hand with studying for a PhD. I can certainly empathise on that front and have lost touch with many friends and acquaintances since starting this process. It might feel that way, but you're definitely not alone in terms of how you feel.


Hi CloverCloud,

I just want to say that you are most assuredly not alone in this situation. The PhD is a bizarre process and the people you are dealing with in university (academic and non-academic staff) tend to exhibit (in my opinion!) personality and behavioural traits that are not what you would expect to encounter in the outside world.

Again, in my opinion, these issues on their part are transferred to the students in the form of inconsistent information, mood swings on the part of supevisors, keeping you off balance, withholding validation of your work and placing unnecessary pressure upon you for no real reason other than they can. Then if anybody queries such practices, the blame is transferred back on to them because the university does not want to acknowledge any problems at all.

In my opinion the whole PhD process (which I am in the middle of) is deeply flawed and based upon rather one-sided unwritten rules designed to keep the student isolated, dependant, passive and compliant with the vague promise of a academic career dangled in front of them.

The sheer number of problems people are talking about on this forum alone would indicate that there is something seriously and fundamentally wrong with the way PhD's are structured and universities behave. 

You are not alone CloverCloud and don't ever think that it is your fault that this has happened.

All I can say to help in your situation is that the PhD does not define your life. It is a part of your life (a bad experience by the sounds of it) but please don't let that take over and crush all the positives you have going for you. A normal reaction to the constant stress and pressure you are being placed under is to isolate yourself off from others but please don't do that. I know its difficult but you need to break this cycle of negativity.

You can and will overcome this so just try to stay strong CloverCloud.


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I'm about to begin my own PhD in the social sciences and I already feel nervous! It now seems to me doing a PhD is as much learning how to be resilient and hardy as it is an intellectual pursuit. It's like boot camp on steroids - you're broken down (always unpleasant) and remade into something better. Unfortunately, boot camp lasts months at the most. The PhD journey is much longer.

I don't have specific advice or personal experience to share, but I discovered by chance a book titled ""Finish Your Dissertation Once and for All! How to Overcome Psychological Barriers, Get Results, and Move on with Your Life." The title says it all - how to overcome psychological barriers ... and move on with your life :)

I highly recommend you have a look at it. It doesn't really talk about writing and research -- there are many books on that out there -- but instead focuses on how you might feel during the process, and what you can do to overcome those negative emotions, in particular feeling stupid, worthless and not as smart as your peers. That seems to be the biggest open secret out there - everyone secretly feels that way but no one wants to admit it. So they all put up a brave front. Or, PhD programmes tend to attract narcissists or those with poor social skills (high functioning autism? Asperger's syndrome?) because much of the work is done independently. There's a lot of bragging and unpleasantness stemming from egocentricism. Which just makes matters for everyone worse.

Reading the book's quite theraputic. It's well-written, easy to read and you'll find yourself nodding in agreement. And of course, useful plans, time-tables and strategies to cope are provided too, so it might also be useful in a practical sense.

Good luck!