Is my PhD ready to implode?



I started my PhD in Sept. at a UK university and at the start I was trained under a postdoc. After this postdoc left, I found myself unable to produce as good results as she was in some of my experiments. In the past 3 months I've been having some trouble with Gibson cloning a construct but the rest of my experiments were progressing smoothly. I submitted my transfer essay earlier this month and my professor remarked it was "quite thin". This week when met one on one he started asking weird questions about what I wanted to do after Oxford (this was barely 1 year in)--I didn't know the answer and soon the conversation steered towards how he felt I will not pass my transfer of status. He thought I needed to consider all options among which he suggested I just settle for a master's.

I really love the research I'm doing, even amidst its ups and downs. Before this conversation I felt he was patient and fine with my progress. I'm caught by shock because I work hard and other students who've had to start on a new project or stopped coming to lab have never received this conversation. I still have the heart for my PhD but this really felt like a vote of no confidence. I also keep hearing students from other labs passing their transfer vivas with even less experimental data than I have. What should I do next? For those of you who have encountered something similar, what did you do?


Its hard to judge as we dont know what data you have etc but I know my friend was told that she didnt have enough data for transfer and was fine.

I know its easier said than done but dont let that bother you too much and just get on with your work. Try your hardest, see what happens.
Or maybe you can set up a meeting with him and aks him why does he think you will not pass and what does he think you need to do to pass.

Good luck!


Basically I have four figures of data and my supervisor said that after my first year I should have everything needed for my first chapter by now. Perhaps you're right; working as hard as I can is my only way out of this mess.


Well I certainly didnt have that.


That must feel disheartening. To be honest, I don't really get this PhD game... Presumably you have the abilities to complete a PhD successfully or you wouldn't have been given funding and got your place at Oxford. And clearly you are willing to work hard, even in the face of discouragement. To me, if your work is not going to be good enough to meet the PhD standard then this says your supervision and support has failed.

But anyway - I would suggest meeting your supervisor and having an honest discussion about whether he thinks you will produce a thesis that will meet the PhD requirements. If he really thinks no, then you have a clear answer and can start planning your options. You might decide to settle for a Masters (MPhil) and then go do a PhD elsewhere - this certainly happens. Or you might decide to find alternative funding and a PhD elsewhere, get that all secured and then just leave and not bother with the Masters. Those are two options that come to mind anyway. Another option is that you might change supervisors to someone who sees things differently and is more willing to support you in the process. But you need to know your supervisor's opinion - and also, if possible, the opinion of a second person (who is in the know). Then you can think about making an informed choice about your next steps.

My main supervisor once said something that instilled doubt and fear in me. She went back on it later, but I still remember it. And I think she said it in anger because she was peed off that my study hadn't gone as planned and didn't have shiny, tingling significant results. So she wanted to vent and also possibly to use a negative motivation strategy on me. There's a chance he is saying it for that same reason. So I'd dig deeper and find out what he thinks and why specifically. And then make an informed choice on next steps.

Hope this helps. Don't be discouraged.


Thanks for your response. My supervisor avoided answering whether he thinks I can produce a thesis (two yrs down the line from now), but he did say that we need a plan and maybe adjustments are required--be it a change in project focus, adding a secondary supervisor or, just meeting once at the end of the month instead of twice a month. He reiterated that none of my data in my first year is publishable and asked for my opinion. I suggested that rather than giving me one protein to Gibson clone, he should give me more so that if other proteins work out I can make progress on those other experiments rather than sticking with one for 3+months. He didn't respond to my suggestion and said that I was trained by one of his best postdocs and he doesn't understand why I couldn't accomplish his objectives. The issue is that his postdoc had her own busy work and taught me PRINCIPLES of certain experiments, not troubleshooting. The latter part I had to learn on my own. He drove the conversation back to how in some careers having a PhD won't actually help. He then talked about how a postdoc from the neighboring lab went on to be a salesperson for GE and loved her job and said that if I went on the academia route I need to be prepared to live for a ten years without a large income.

I realized we were at an impasse and I told him I'll consider what he said but my opinion of staying committed to a PhD is unlikely to change.

What are your thoughts?


You should ignore your supervisors opinions now. This nonsense about 10 years without a large income is absolute horseshit. How on earth is he able to predict your future with such certainty? How can someone who has presumably never worked outside academia possibly know whether you'll be overqualified with a Phd? It's laughable nonsense.
Focus on your PhD, keep working hard and like virtually every other student out there you'll get your PhD certificate and be able to move on.
This guy sounds like a grade A arsehole who is deliberately trying to force you out because if you fail it will look bad on his record.
He also doesn't want to pull the plug, he wants you to do that. Stick to your guns. Let him pull the trigger. I bet he won't.


I think I agree with the gist of what pm133 is saying here.

Quote From pm133:

This guy sounds like a grade A arsehole who is deliberately trying to force you out because if you fail it will look bad on his record.
He also doesn't want to pull the plug, he wants you to do that. Stick to your guns. Let him pull the trigger. I bet he won't.

It may not be that he thinks you will fail and it will look bad on his record. It may just be that because you haven't got anything publishable already he is wanting to pull the plug (or rather have you pull it), so that he can invest all his time in the projects that are showing more fruit already. It sucks but could be the case.

What is your gut feeling about things - i.e., whether you can do enough to pass? That is the main thing. If you could get another supervisor on board who is more encouraging and expresses confidence in your work then that would assist you greatly in seeing this thing through.

Hope this helps.