feeling lost and need advice (final year PhD)

13-May-18, 22:50
Avatar for Feelingdrained
posted about 1 week ago
Hi everyone,

I am a fourth (and final) year bioeng PhD student in the UK and I am just looking from some honest advice and support as I am going through the worst time of my life.

Before I start explaining my specific problem, I think that it is best that I explain a bit more about my lab. When I joined, I was one of many PhD students in my lab working on drastically, completely unrelated projects with absolutely zero support. There were no postdocs and no group meetings and I would have "meetings" with my supervisor every 3 to 4 months. I use quotation marks because in those meetings, my supervisor would either fall asleep, not listen or not care.

Moreover, the lab culture was extremely unproductive and contributed to the general lack of motivation throughout the PhD. I was told by numerous students in my lab that I shouldn't bother working hard because nobody cared and eventually I would pass anyways. While all the students eventually finished and passed their vivas, the majority of them had major corrections and one got R&R which was ultimately overturned once my supervisor intervened.

I have been writing up for the past few months and it has been going horribly. I have lost all self-esteem and confidence, cry every day, have lost my productivity and genuinely can barely get out of bed anymore. This has completely destroyed my life and personal relationships.

The cause for my stress and depression is not knowing if I have enough work, I have discussed this many times with my supervisor but despite her telling me that I am fine, I find it hard to trust her. Her track record is not great and she has never read anyones thesis from my lab in the past few years. I have sought out advice from professors in my department but none of them are in my field and while their comments have been helpful, they remain superficial in nature.
13-May-18, 22:53
Avatar for Feelingdrained
posted about 1 week ago
As it stands, my thesis is broken down into 4 results chapters with one of them being published, and another one "novel". I use the word novel but these are minute improvements of previous work done by ex-phd students in my lab and the novelty is truly debatable. i.e, there was no reason this wouldn't work as it was already validated previously by other students.

The third one is a repeat of the first one by using the EXACT same methodology with minor changes (in my opinion it should really be merged with the first one) and the fourth one is completely new on my project but is very much exploratory and is definitely not thorough, nor does it work (very far from publishable work).

So to summarise my thesis is broken down as:

1. published (still similar to previous unpublished work)
2. very similar to previous work
3. same as 1, with no scientific motivation arguing the necessity of this chapter
4. new but incomplete/not working

Additionally, the whole scientific premise for my thesis rests on wrong results acquired previously and therefore this project should not exist. Basically, I find it hard to justify the purpose of my thesis or justify why the chapters are broken down as they are.

So you can see that I am quite stressed about this. I could submit a thesis in a months time if I could call it quits and accept that what I have is enough or alternatively, I could do a few more experiments to pad up the results chapters that I already have. But i really cant do this nor do I feel like working on this anymore when it is a dead project and when I feel every day that I no matter how much I work it is too late to overturn my likely failure in the viva.

Anyways, sorry for the rant, it helps to write things down. If anyone has some advice or could share some stories to help that would be great.
14-May-18, 12:26
by tru
Avatar for tru
posted about 1 week ago
Dear Feelingdrained,

It is an unfortunate situation that you are in, but all is not hopeless yet. My suggestion to you would be to steel yourself and complete the writing up of your PhD thesis. You are in your final year, and while you do not feel like you will make it, you still have a chance as long as you submit your thesis. "Just keep swimming," as Dory says.

I was once in a similar situation to you. Saw my supervisors at one point, once in 5 months and yeah, they were clearly not interested. Had to do everything myself, from planning my experiments to developing assays from scratch. Experiments didn't work, progress was slow and hypothesis was proven untrue... I was going to quit, was already ready to write a letter when I gave myself just one more chance.... and wrote that darned thesis and finished my PhD.

What you can do to go through this sh!tty situation are
1) Meditate + exercise + eat healthy (Take care of your body!)
2) Find an experienced mentor who is willing to read your thesis (I found a wonderful mentor who was completely not in my field and used her feedbacks to structure my thesis. It works)
3) Hold yourself accountable for your writing. Do weekly and daily plans, breaking down to the hour and stick to it. Give this plan to a trusted friend who can come by and check on you from time to time (Works so well for me. Had to be extra extra disciplined to do this)
4) Don't be so hard on yourself. You have tried your best. Submit the thesis knowing that you have done your best and hope for the best outcome (This was by far the hardest for me because I was free falling at one stage, so I know how you feel)
5) Counselling - If there is free counselling session in uni, it maybe good for you to talk to someone

Hang on. I do hope that you will find the strength to overcome this challenge and finish your PhD
14-May-18, 18:14
Avatar for Tudor_Queen
posted about 1 week ago
Hi, good advice from tru. I'm so sorry to hear of your situation. Honestly, from what you've said about your thesis, I don't see any reason why it shouldn't be a pass. The first bit of work which you say isn't that novel obviously was original enough to get published. That is what is meant here - not a nobel prize type thing - but rather, something that adds meaningfully to the existing stuff that is out there. And similarly, the last part of your thesis - yeh it didn't work (I guess you mean no sig results were yielded?) - that doesn't matter - the fact is, you tried to do it and this is what you found / have learnt from it.

I think that the awful situation you describe which is your research environment is largely colouring how you feel about your thesis and yourself. I understand this. But guess what - it isn't real. Your situation sucks. You were unfortunate. It won't be forever. Once you have your PhD, you can move on and forget about this. You might not have developed as much as you would have in another situation, with lab meetings etc going on and meaningful feedback - definitely. But you'll have the opportunity to develop in whatever you do next. So chin up! You're nearly there!

14-May-18, 18:24
edited about 46 seconds later
Avatar for Tudor_Queen
posted about 1 week ago
And, well done for seeing it through in such an adverse and cr*ppy climate. You can be proud of yourself. : )
15-May-18, 14:17
Avatar for Feelingdrained
posted about 1 week ago
Dear tru and Tudor_Queen,

Thank you both for your kind words it helps to know I'm not alone in this! I have signed up for counselling sessions and I am doing my best to hang in there.

I'll try to take it one day at a time and see how it goes moving forward :)

Cheers x
17-May-18, 12:31
edited about 29 seconds later
Avatar for Jamie_Wizard
posted about 5 days ago
From your posts, it appears you're very conscientious about your research. Given this, and that you've identified and are fully aware of what's expected to pass and obtain your PhD, I'm sure you'll get through the whole process in spite of the obstacles or negative working culture that you describe of your lab. I wish you all the best :-)
18-May-18, 15:05
edited about 19 seconds later
Avatar for Feelingdrained
posted about 4 days ago
Hi Jamie,

Thanks for your reply, I really hope that that is the case. It's hard to keep the end goal in mind. At the moment I keep looking at my data and finding mistakes on simple things that I should have done properly. I know that no one's research is perfect but I'm talking basic mistakes that just show how bad of a researcher I am. And while all of this is a direct result of having absolutely no one teach me the basics of lab work, it doesn't exactly help me feel good about myself. Hard to keep going on when it feels like I am just submitting to fail.
18-May-18, 17:41
Avatar for Tudor_Queen
posted about 4 days ago
Hi Feelingdrained,
It is so unfair ) - : I really feel where you are coming from with the no one to teach you comment. My supervisor was a clinician who had only published a few papers (a good and experienced clinician but not an experienced researcher). My other supervisor was basically mentoring her. That is fine. Expect for the fact that I was learning nothing. I was not well informed about the importance of supervision and made a bad decision in getting into such a situation in the first place. It sucks! You are probably not as "bad" a researcher as you think though. Some people in your situation would not even be aware of the fact that they weren't where they should be - so as to speak. That you are aware is kudos to you - in a good way. What kinds of things are they that you are noticing? Are they things that can't be fixed now? I guess the next best thing would be to tabulate everything that you think is an issue, and bullet point why it is an issue, and how it should be done going forward. Or maybe even in some cases you will be able to justify why at the time it seemed a good idea. That way, if certain things come up in the viva, you will be able to show that you are fully aware of them and have learnt. Not sure how this sounds to you.
21-May-18, 20:40
edited about 21 seconds later
Avatar for Jamie_Wizard
posted about 1 day ago
Hi again, I know it's hard but try to save your energy for the work you need to do. Although you have valid fears, you don't actually know what the outcome of the viva will be! So there is still a chance to focus your energy. Hope for the best, prepare for the worst, and expect something in-between! Wish you all the best!
21-May-18, 22:39
Avatar for Tudor_Queen
posted about 23 hours ago
Quote From Jamie_Wizard:
Hope for the best, prepare for the worst, and expect something in-between! Wish you all the best!

Great advice - I think I'll take that too!
22-May-18, 10:36
edited about 11 seconds later
Avatar for Jamie_Wizard
posted about 11 hours ago
Thanks Tudor. Hope things are going well for you :-)


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