What To Do? Lost....


======= Date Modified 08 Feb 2012 18:52:15 =======
Hey everyone,

I am a science-based PhD research student and have found myself in a difficult situation over the past year.

At the end of 2010, my father became increasingly unwell, so much so that he was rushed into hospital in October 2010 then given days, or weeks at most to live. Obviously I had no choice but to take time off and see my father in what could be his last hours. In December 2010 he passed away. On top of this, my mother suffers from bipolar disorder, a mental health disorder and was in hospital throughout much of this time. I am an only child and my family are very widespread. Thankfully my mum was better some weeks after the funeral, but it was a great worry having to leave her. Thankfully her Community Mental Health Team were a good support at the time.

Throughout this my supervisor was far from sympathetic. Our relationship completely broke down after this and meetings became difficult. I was going through a major depression, anxiety disorder, insomnia and restlessness - all of which I had documented with my dept. which they never acted on. My supervisor failed to understand how his pressures in wanting me back for the sake of my project, were very difficult. Things became much better at home with my mum and once I was told by my Head of Dept. to work instead with my supervisor's post-doc for the meantime, things were much better. Still, that couldn't last forever and a couple of months down the line, things hadn't changed. Changes in Head of Department (twice!) didn't help resolve matters - now I have been assigned a new project with a different supervisor.

So, things are much better now I am working on a new project. The drawback is that I only have one year's funding from my old project and I don't have funding for the following two years. My new supervisor hinted to me that he *may* be able to secure a year's extra funding, but he has been rather coy about this. I’m not even sure how certain this is but there really is no way I can continue without at least this.

We’re now planning a paper which has been a real motivator following a very depressing year. I’m hoping that will help with applying for funding. Some days I really wonder if it is all worth it though. It is easy to get down about how some people our age are already settled and have children. I’ve realised how life can be too short, how much family is important and part of me just wants to work my way up the ranks of a company in a simpler job that can support my family. I wonder if I am going to end up effectively wasting this next year to find I can’t continue. I keep asking myself whether I am really cut out for an academic career and what I really want to do now. I’ve felt let down by so many people but am I just setting myself up to be let down again?


Hi there, I am really sorry to hear that you have gone through so much over the past few years. It is not easy when obstacles seem to multiply during an important time as completing a PhD. I can identify with some aspects, as I lost a lot of time due to illness during my PhD and struggled with whether to continue or just quit. My supervisor also got negative and unsympathetic with my situation. I also went through a depression and period of intense anxiety over whether I can actually do the work. However in reaching a decision whether to continue or not, I prayed for direction and I felt that since it was my dream to pursue this in the first place, I had to think about whether it's worth giving up and getting a simpler job somewhere knowing I might regret not continuing. I also weighed the pros and cons of giving up, I wrote them down on paper and saw that the cons outweighed the pros of giving up. Although in the beginning it was a feeling of relief to think that I could just leave it and pursue something else, but I already put so much of work into it. I decided to continue and despite the tension in the relationship with my supervisor now, I have to just press on and hope that I can finish it in the time I have.

If finances are a problem, why not consider getting a part-time job, however I know that it is not easy to do something else whilst doing a PhD. And also search out outside scholarships from other sources rather than your supervisor, perhaps you might get a breakthrough there.

The way I see it is that it is a committment of a few more years versus the rest of our lives. Although many people will let us down in life, we have to know where we are going and not let anyone get in the way and stop us from achieving what we want. You can overcome this situation and make a decision that will not only make you happy but will leave you with no regrets. Don't doubt yourself - you have come so far. I can see that you are a determined person because you didn't just leave pursuing a PhD altogether when things were bad with the first project, you chose a new one and the challenges that come with that aren't easy. I was also faced with that question of whether I am cut out for academia etc. but it is how you see yourself - according to what I can tell from what you said - you are cut out for that and more, give yourself a break - losing a parent is so hard and when the other parent is ill it is worse, combined with all the other issues -you have been through a lot and you have come out stronger, you can get through anything.
Yes life is short, family is important and so is your life and your career, revisit how you felt when you first began the PhD, perhaps that will make you think about why you wanted to accomplish it in the first place, what drives you and where you want to go. Although the issues of life have drained your passion, you can get it back.

I'm going to keep you in prayer. Everything of the best.


Thanks "K22" for your kind words of support and understanding. It really means a lot!

A big problem I am trying to get over is how bad my university treated me during my problems - especially with my old supervisor in light of what happened between us. Sadly I can't continue as you chose to. I'm mostly really upset at him as his arrogance and obnoxiousness I feel has cost me dearly. I was over half way through my PhD. I really felt in my element in my first year with various work-related trips abroad to Chile and America. Everything was going so well. We even got a Nature paper published(!). Then all these problems compounded.

My old supervisor is early into his career in comparison with my new one (a Professor and sub-Dean of our faculty). I realise my supervisor perhaps wasn't experienced enough to handle my situation. Still, my department knew but they never *really* helped to mediate things between us. It is too easy sometimes for me to go down this road and dislike the university for the additional pressure I feel they put me through. They were too self-important to admit any fault on their part.

Believe it or not, I’m really trying to put this behind me as I do have a much better supervisor and things are more promising. Still, funding is a big problem I have been left with. I’m from quite a poor background and simply can’t afford two full year’s funding. I have already accepted that I would have to go part-time in my final “year”, just to cover fees, provided my new supervisor comes through for me with a year’s extra support. I’m just not sure how likely that is and I feel my PhD is resting on that. As for working now, I feel I am already trying to get over a lot - as much as I could do with the extra money. I've been covering some teaching which pays well but next year I hope I can balance more teaching with my work for some extra income.

It has been so easy to be depressed. I keep saying to myself now, 'that paper has to be my focus' as it should put me in a good position in terms of my career – even if I do choose to start somewhere else afresh. It is a short-term goal which I can potentially complete, even if I have no way of completing my PhD. At least that is something positive to work towards. Still, I feel I may end up wasting another year. I keep trying to think with your mentality - "a few more years versus the rest of our lives", and that does just about get me through.

I just want to settle down like most people my age (24), have a stable job and have enough money to support my family. So many people I know are getting married, having children - after losing a parent, it really has made me consider the value of family.

Best wishes.


Hey Rl187. I'm so sorry to hear about everything you have had to go through recently. I can't imagine losing a parent. You have done so well just to get through this. All I can really do is encourage you to keep going. I have bipolar and it is a devastating illness. I dropped out of uni several times and have spent so much time in hospital, and so I have some idea about what you are going through trying to look after your mum and how hard it must be. I have had bipolar for 13 years, and know how awful depression is- you certainly shouldn't be hard on yourself for feeling like this. If it's really bad then you need to get some help- it will be hard to keep things going if you don't. Even if you don't want medication you could go see someone- the uni counsellor at my old uni was fantastic. Also, don't lose hope- for yourself or your mum. I started a post-doc right after finishing my PhD last year, and am now writing my first book with one of my supervisors -partly academic and partly based on my experiences as a person with a severe mental illness. After a lot of turmoil, things can turn around and life can get back on track. I would ask your new sup explicitly about the funding situation and explain your situation. Also ask about opportunities for finding the final year's funding- given your circumstances, they might be able to dig you up some money for an extension- two people in my team got a paid extension last year for their PhDs. And don't compare yourself to others too much- I do this a lot, but in the end it's pointless. Concentrate on looking after yourself. Best, KB


Thanks KB. Your comments are truly inspiring.

I am getting support from counselling and it has helped to some degree. In fact my doctor recommended I see a Cognitive Behavioural Therapist; I have been waiting for some months now and I am just starting on that to replace the counselling. I'm hoping that therapy will be more directed into helping my state of thinking about all these problems that have surmounted. I have considered medication - in fact I tried SSRIs for depression - Sertraline, but I stopped taking them as I decided I'd sooner deal with these problems naturally.

Things are still hard now, as much as they have improved. I'm trying so hard to get my motivation back after all these problems. Days pass by and I really wonder whether I'm cut out for this and whether I am even going to get a PhD now given the funding predicament. I've badly needed a positive focus and this paper should help with that.

I'm a bit nervous at the moment in asking my new supervisor about funding, in part, given how I made myself quite unpopular after going through a complaints procedure with my old supervisor. My old supervisor made several comments about me and I feel I still have much to prove to my department and my new supervisor. I'm battling with trying to prove them wrong in one sense and struggling with my confidence in another. I am still fairly early into this new project as well. Just as things are going fairly well, I'm worried I might spoil it. As much as my old supervisor did mention it to me at the start, I feel a little awkward mentioning it right now, but you are right I do need to ask him explicitly. I feel I just need to find a good time. He is very aware of my situation as he is also the Director of Graduate Studies and was involved in the complaint procedure against my old supervisor.

I just feel my life has been one great roller-coaster over this past year and a half. I know things are on a steady route up - I just need to cling on to the fact things are improving right now. I know I need to pick myself back of the ground and keep going, despite the horrible past events I have endured and how I feel my life has been shattered. I can't help but feel somewhat bitter with the university about all this but I know feeling that way won't help anything. I have to look at now and be thankful I am still continuing with a PhD (and something!) following a difficult situation and that someone (my new supervisor) has some sympathy and understanding to take me on. I'm just torn with my emotions and whether this university is right for me. I don't think I'd be doing myself any favours in applying somewhere else and risk what I have - it's a huge gamble - plus my new area of research is quite promising. I'm sure I still need a little more time to settle into this to gain some confidence. I'm trying to remember how (nervous) I felt at the start of my other project.

There's a long way to go but as 'K22' said, "it is a commitment of a few more years versus the rest of our lives" and that mentality is what I try to hold on to. It really sucks having to start over again, especially after everything else.

Thanks again. Best wishes.