Potential issues with supervisor - I would appreaciate any advice!


Hi there
I am a first year PhD student and I am feeling a bit frustrated and confused about my relationship with supervisor and post-doc of my group. Here it goes:
I have a feeling that things in the lab are not exactly fair and I have been used as a working horse. I am not sure what my so-called 'duties' are as a student and how I am supposed to behave - do I speak my mind (without being rude) to my lab members (PI and post-doc) or do I agree with what they say because I am at the bottom of the hierarchy as a student? Due to Covid we have these shifts, and I have 6 hours to work per day until 8 pm (plus saturday or sunday) and this even without a break is not nearly enough for what I have to do. I am currently living alone and in a big city so I don't feel super confident to commute after 8-9 pm or later. I have tried to explain that to PI but they still say that other people stay until 11 pm so I need to consider doing something about it. So at the moment I am basically working entirely on my own (PI does not come very often to the lab) - I have to write protocols about things I have never done before, I have to troubleshoot and find things on researchgate because when I ask my group they are either busy and send me to google or they tell me exactly what to do, I do it, it doesn't work and then ask me what I did wrong. When I find something I think it is good to try according to what I have read - they usually say do not do it, it is a waste of time, do as we tell you. On top of everything, PI and post-doc are busy re-writing an article at the moment, so post-doc does not come to work (it is been close to 3 weeks now). Whatever there is to do, I have to do it - no matter whether it is or not at all linked to my project. After all, 'we are a team and we have to support each other'.
Another a bit weird thing is that my PI was unhappy I am going home for Christmas because due to quarantining I will be away a bit too long (about a month), and the start of my phD until now i have had 5 days off total. So they tried to use the ' I wouldnt do it, if I were you, I used to work over Xmas holidays in my previous lab' but I did not back down and after all I am going home for the holidays. But now the problem is I have about 5-6 weeks left before my break, and PI wants me to do as much work as possible, so I am working weekends as well. It is just all a bit of a fog, I just keep asking myself is there something wrong with all this or am I just lazy and self-centred and I am imagining things?
When I meet with both of them in person, they behave like the world is a happy place, we eat cake, and pretend everything is beautiful. I have tried to speak to PI once but they didn't give me the chance to actually speak. Now I am worried that if I say how I feel they will hate me and start doing mean things on purpose. If someone could give me feedback, how this all sounds, because I feel I am going mad lately. Thanks a lot!


Can you get someone to mediate between you and the PI/supervisor? Then you can come up with a plan on how to move forwards?


Hi Em89, thanks for replying! What do you mean mediate... like someone else try to explain how i feel/ what is the situation/ ? I could speak to pastoral tutor but I worry that the PI can take it the wrong way - that I am complaining or something... I worry too much!

Avatar for rewt

Hi Calmin57,

Your supervisor sounds like a sadist. Most supervisors are normal and don't care about how much time you spend in the lab but rather what results you have. Unfortunately some supervisors were abused during their PhD and forced to work ungodly hours by their supervisor, so they feel that it is fair to inflict the same punishment. As working Christmas is not normal and nearly everyone I know takes 2-3 week holidays from the lab over Christmas, or weekends. You should not need to work so much in the lab especially when you don't have any support or help with new methods. Though, I don't have much experience dealing with a supervisor like yours but talking with someone in your lab/department will help. Just ask for guidance or help on how to deal with the experiments/labwork and how to work with your supervisor. Just talking with someone might relief a lot of stress and make obvious solutions appear. I wouldn't complain about everything or about your supervisor but most people will give advice about a specific issue or how what your supervisor likes. You could possibly talk with your second-supervisor or post-doc.

If you supervisor still has impossible expectations, you need to take the work schedule into your own hands and tell him what you can achieve. If he sets an impossible deadline you need to stay strong and tell him a more honest deadline, don't let him keep pressuring you. Otherwise you will push yourself too much and burnout, which is not good in the long run. To make this work you need to work smarter not harder. Ie. do every process in big batches to save time. Or instead of doing 60 samples you do the most important 20 first, look at the data and decide if it is worth doing all of them. Spend the time to master one method at a time and get comfortable doing, so that you aren't constantly doubting yourself. Academics are very result focused and if you can give them results (they don't have to be good) it makes them a lot happier with your work ethic. You might have issues at the start but if you can consistently deliver results on your own schedule your supervisor will probably forgive you.


Dear Rewt,

Thank you very much for your response! It is very nice and eye-opening to hear from other people what they and others do, because at the moment I do not communicate much with other students due to shift working and social distancing, and because I am relatively new here I have not managed yet to make any contacts or friendships. So I am entirely focused on what my group tells me is ok, right, correct and what not... I will try to talk to someone at the department confidentially :)

I am in the process of trying to communicate to my supervisor that sometimes I get tired and I cannot manage to accomplish my daily and weekly plans (as we have a weekly plan that we revise together every Monday...). But they seem to act a bit disappointed when I do less than expected or when I say I am tired and things will take longer time. Your advice about the work is good, I will try working more wisely! Many thanks again for your response!!