Distressed PhD

posted
22-Jun-16, 11:28
by MissyL
Avatar for MissyL
posted about 4 years ago
Sorry for another long moan and post on this topic. This is a long standing problem and I'm at my wits end!
I am currently 16 months into my science PhD and have been having issues since my third month.
I've had problems with anxiety and depression and have also taken a 3 month medical leave of absence, since I returned roughly 2 months ago the exact same problems I had before are re-emerging.
My supervisor is just not supervising me, since been at my programme he hasn't once been in the lab with me to show me a technique, nor are there any post docs to teach me. I have taught myself everything, and this has left me with a lot of uncertainty about whether my techniques are even correct and has made me feel useless.
He rarely suggests experiments for me to do, and most of the time when he does it's something I've already done. So I've came up with around 95% of them myself, again battering myself esteem as how am I truly meant to know good experimental design at this stage!?
I'm due my upgrade in the next few months and I'm supposed to have nailed my research question and devised a timeline, however, my research question is sloppy and we're just scrabbling around, he also never talks to be about the big picture and what future experiments we could do- again adding to my uncertainty, and increasing my panic when everything really is just going wrong.
I feel like I will fail staying with him, but then I'm absolutely useless at complaining and don't know how I'd even handle a supervisor switch :/ .
I also currently the only person in the lab, however, the previous student also ended up with depression and low self esteem. I'm so overwhelmed about this situation I can barely work most days and my sickness absence is through the roof.
Please help
posted
22-Jun-16, 12:06
edited about 15 minutes later
by Dunham
Avatar for Dunham
posted about 4 years ago
Quote From MissyL:

My supervisor is just not supervising me.................... about whether my techniques are even correct and has made me feel useless.


I think that is actually very common. I don't know any PI who provides real lab support unless they are early-stage group leaders and have to do labwork because the group is very small. Even if my boss would go to the lab she would be probably no help because she has not been in a lab since ages. Having people around that are doing the same stuff is convenient, but also not always the case. The post docs in my lab are doing completely unrelated stuff. It sounds however as if you are managing it by yourself after all, so I would suggest to be a bit more confident ;) You taught yourself the stuff and that's what it is all about. Someone has to do a technique for the first time. You can't expect that someone takes your hand and shows you everything you need to know for your PhD. Sometimes one is lucky and that is actually the case but you probably can't expect it to be like that.

Quote From MissyL:


He rarely suggests experiments for me to do, and most of the time when he does it's something I've already done. So I've came up with around 95% of them myself, again battering myself esteem as how am I truly meant to know good experimental design at this stage!?


I don't really get why doing stuff yourself is battering your self esteem?? That's great! If every PhD student would exclusively follow the instructions of the PI there would be little challenge in a PhD. As long as you discuss the experimental design you made with him this sounds pretty much optimal to me. You are probably learning way more than the PhD students who just execute what their supervisors are telling them.

Quote From MissyL:

I'm due my upgrade in the next few months and I'm supposed to have nailed my research question and devised a timeline, however, my research question is sloppy and we're just scrabbling around, he also never talks to be about the big picture and what future experiments we could do- again adding to my uncertainty, and increasing my panic when everything really is just going wrong.


I guess you can only confront him and tell him that you want to discuss the big picture and where this project is going. Most PIs do that and you don't have to ask for it but you can probably not expect him to sense that you are not happy with the, in your opinion, sloppy research question. I don't think that he would be offended by that.

How is your data looking so far? If you make progress and create data you can use then I guess the main issue is rather your doubts in your own work (and the resulting ineffective work and sickness) :) Maybe the whole situation is not as bad as you think (at least I hope so)
posted
23-Jun-16, 00:08
by pm133
Avatar for pm133
posted about 4 years ago
I hate to say this but at your stage of the PHD you really shouldnt be needing anything other than cursory support.
The whole point of a PHD is to become an independent researcher. Perhaps supervisors should make this clearer to candidates because the vast volume of posts in here from students who fail to understand this basic point and end up suffering depression and anxiety suggests they dont.
I see my supervisor no more than once every 3 months or so and I work on my own ideas and really this should be the norm in my opinion. As for working in a lab on your own, with Youtube these days I would expect you to be able to find someone who has videoed useful info on how to do most stuff.
I appreciate you are struggling. A PHD is just about the hardest thing you will ever do and you should expect to feel overwhelmed.
I think you need to take some time to consider how you are approaching this.
posted
24-Jun-16, 07:21
by tru
Avatar for tru
posted about 4 years ago
Hi, MissyL.

Assuming you are doing the standard 3.5-4 year PhD, then you may want to consider the tough question - Do you want to go on solo for all of your PhD? Your supervisor is a hands-off supervisor whereas you prefer a more hands-on person. Clearly there is a mismatch of needs. The important things in a PhD are asking the right research questions and having the support to address them. If you feel that you have neither, then you really need to do something about it. I am not surprised you have anxiety and depression. Most people would in your shoes. However, taking medical leave will not solve the root of your problems - lack of supervision and project direction.

I suggest that you talk to the university postgraduate / RHD coordinator or counsellor. Tell them your problems and listen to their suggestion. They can maybe help you get a second co-supervisor, who behaves as your primary one. They can also have a hard talk with your supervisor. Talk to other students from other lab groups and learn how other people are supervised. Take note of who the good supervisors are. Importantly, think about whether you want to switch supervisor / project. A PhD is hard enough without complete lack of support from supervisor. Think, decide and act quickly so as not to prolong your pain. You have a chance to change things for the better.

Take care.
posted
26-Jun-16, 08:10
edited about 16 seconds later
Avatar for TreeofLife
posted about 4 years ago
It's quite normal to need support from your supervisor - a PhD is a training program after all. You should not be expected to be an independent researcher from day one. Also, initial experiments are often quite sloppy early on. Please talk to your supervisor and say you need more support and see whether they can offer you a mentor or someone else that can assist. Say that you want to discuss whether your experimental designs are ok. Also consider seeing a counselor to help with your anxiety.
posted
29-Jun-16, 18:59
edited about 2 seconds later
Avatar for PerceptuaLenna
posted about 4 years ago
Quote From MissyL:
Sorry for another long moan and post on this topic.

Please help


I have had similar supervisory problems - my 'training' was a gracious invitation to join the MSc students' two hours session in the lab (essentially a rather vague tour, not a teaching/training session at all). There are two PhDs (including myself) and no postdocs. I can only say that if I was the first PhD, I would have quit because I do not have the skills/knowledge that the other guy has - he's taught me half of what I know, the rest I've learnt by accident. And it sucks. It's now reached the point that I'm unofficially expected to teach MScs despite having no more training than they have.

When I was coming up to my upgrade I was almost certain I'd fail it because my work felt like guesswork. My supervisor's other PhD student's advice to me was "just make sure you have some good points because then at least you have some good points".

In the end, I passed the upgrade. Presumably for the same reason my supervisor never gets fired: Nobody else knows enough to know that it's BS.

I also have the issue of being unable to get my supervisors to discuss any ideas for future experiments - the response is always 'finish this one first' which wouldn't be so bad if I hadn't been failing to finish the analysis for several months now!! Equally, they wouldn't sit and discuss (or even comment on a written) timeline - EVEN when the upgrade REQUIRED a time plan....the only potential comfort I can give is that perhaps, like mine, your upgrade will accept anything that looks like a timeline even if it's nothing like realistic!

It's a small comfort if the upgrade goes well, because as you say, the uncertainty is perpetual!

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