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I am doing my PhD in a high prestige UK university. I am finishing my second year and I have funding for three years in total. I have already two papers finished (pending to be published) and working on two more.

I like research and I like being pushed to achieve the best I can. What I don't like however is introducing unnecessary stress into my daily life. With this I mean the following:

I think that it is totally acceptable and expected of me to work overtime when nearing a deadline. Usually the month before a deadline I work 12 hours per day, 6-7 days a week. This is totally fine and to some extent I enjoy it.

My supervisor is a brilliant researcher. Young and successful in his field with many publications in high prestige venues. However, he's also the classic stereotype of the super-workaholic academic who works 7 days a week, from early in the morning until late at night.

It's common for him to send messages or emails at 23.00 or during weekends asking for something. This could range from asking to complete a certain task or a simple "What is the status of X?".

I find this exhausting. To work hard during the week I need to have a "safe space" where I know that I can relax without worrying about work. Otherwise I feel demotivated to work hard. Due to this behavior I have anxiety issues. Recently, after a very stressful period mostly due to work, my hair started falling. This was identified by my GP as "Telogen effluvium". It can happen after very stressful periods. Thankfully it stopped but it's a clear sign that I've been stressing too much.

Ignoring my emails and messages is not an option for me. The reason is that I know that he genuinely cares about my PhD and many times his messages may be about the changes he has done on my paper. Ignoring this makes me feel ungrateful.

My most important problem is that, looking back, 70% of the stress introduced by supervisor could have been totally avoided if he could relax a bit. He's micromanaging me and wants to know everything. And many times we could have taken a month more on a project instead of rushing things.

Moreover, because he's always pressuring me to do as many things as possible as fast as possible, I feel that I cannot do any quality work. I prefer quality for quantity. He's the opposite.

I have tried to convey my feelings to him multiple times already. He does not seem to get it. Or he may back off for 2-3 weeks and then resumes his previous behavior. In a recent confrontation I mentioned the words "unnecessary stress" and he didn't take it very well.

Many colleagues have told me that I should be thankful because he's actively working on my PhD while other supervisors are totally absent. I find this unfair. None of the two should be OK.

Overall I feel burned-out and demotivated. This saddens me because I really like my PhD and research in general.

However, I don't think I can take this for one more year.

Question: How to deal with a workaholic supervisor who is introducing unnecessary stress into my daily life?

p.s. It's important to mention that my supervisor probably suffers from anxiety as well. This is somewhat known by his PhD students and he has implied it one or two times.

  • 58
    Have you tried not answering an email until the morning? Was he mad? If yes, he has unreasonable expectations and this should be addressed. If no, you need to work on your own mindset (i.e., you are stressing yourself first and foremost - your supervisor is at best the trigger) and let your supervisor work whenever he feels productive. – xLeitix Jun 28 '18 at 13:53
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    @xLeitix He isn't mad but if I repeat this behavior he gets passive aggressive. Other than that, I totally agree I must work on my own mindset. – Aventinus Jun 28 '18 at 14:10
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    I think the primary problem here is conflating leaving a reply until the next working hour, and ignoring that email. They're not the same thing. – JBentley Jun 28 '18 at 18:24
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    If the supervisor asks why you didn't respond to the 11 PM email, the answer should be "I was asleep". Likewise, most weekend emails can be answered by "I was out hiking (or whatever) where there's no service". – jamesqf Jun 29 '18 at 7:04
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    "I think that it is totally acceptable and expected of me to work overtime when nearing a deadline." I disagree. Routinely expecting overtime near a deadline (rather than occasionally when something has gone wrong) - whether in academia or anywhere else - indicates either too much work, or poor planning. In academia the first will almost certainly apply, and the second may too, but that doesn't mean that academics should be inflicting this on PhD students, for whom the workload does not have to be more than a full-time job. – Flyto Jun 29 '18 at 7:14

11 Answers 11

122

It is not unreasonable for a supervisor to write emails in the middle of the night. I do it myself, and frequently at that (sometimes because I am honestly just working late, sometimes because I am in a different time zone). However, it is unreasonable to expect immediate response when you do so (more accurately, it is unreasonable to expect immediate response for basically any email, as the medium is fundamentally asynchronous and nobody should expect you to have your email open all the time).

That said, a significant part of the problem also appears to be your own mindset. You can't realistically change when your supervisor sends you work, but you can definitely change when you read it, and when and how you react to it. Just not reading emails in the night is a big start. Many people do it, and you do not need to have a bad conscience when you do it as well. A second part of this is also to not interpret every email as implicitly highest-priority. Try to assess what a realistic timeline for any given work task is - if your supervisor does not specify you don't need to assume it needs to be done next thing in the morning.

One problem that you may face is that you have by now trained your supervisor that you read and react to every email at any point in time. Even if it's unreasonable, it is somewhat understandable that this is by now how your supervisor thinks you work. The most pragmatic way is to change things gradually over time, combined with a non-accusory one-on-one talk with your supervisor that you are unable to deal with your current work mode. Don't use the words "you are stressing me out" or anything else that puts the token and blame on him. Say that you are stressed out and need to change how you work. The goal is not to elicit a different behavior from him (although this may also come out of the meeting as a sideeffect), but to communicate to him how you plan to address your stress-related issues going forward.

  • 1
    +1 though it’s not uncommon in academia for managers to expect fairly immediate replies. Pushing back against this can itself be draining. – Konrad Rudolph Jun 28 '18 at 16:15
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    You had my +1 already at " it is unreasonable to expect immediate response for basically any email, as the medium is fundamentally asynchronous" and I'm sad I can't add a couple +1 for the other paragraphs. – YYY Jun 28 '18 at 18:27
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    Excellent answer. OP says "Ignoring my emails and messages is not an option for me," but needs to see and use the wide range of possibilities in between ignoring and replying immediately. – Gregor Jun 29 '18 at 14:25
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    The focus on email in most of the answers is a little odd to me. I agree that the email situation is a problem to be addressed, but I think there is a broader problem of a stressful, controlling supervisor. You say to not put blame on the supervisor in talks with him (good advice), but we should seriously acknowledge that the blame is majorly on the supervisor. This is a motivated, extremely hardworking student, who produces good output, and the supervisor is micromanaging them and always expecting more, and even acts passive-aggressively if the student does not respond to email immediately. – 6005 Jun 30 '18 at 0:14
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    Overall, I feel this answer is a bit optimistic. This approach may not work. It is possible that the supervisor is a bad apple. Such a stressful environment may have no other solution than either (i) finding a way to endure the stress or (ii) finding a new supervisor. – 6005 Jun 30 '18 at 0:16
34

As someone who has had to handle some significant health-related issues, let me begin by saying

Your health is more important than any project!

If your health is being impacted negatively by the stress you feel and by other concerns, then this is something that you have to deal with, and you need to make it clear to your supervisor that this is starting to become an issue. Phrase it as a health issue, not a stress issue, and you should see a change in behavior.

That said, one of the things that you can do is to make time for yourself to decompress. Even if your boss is a workaholic, that does not obligate you to be one as well. You should schedule time for yourself to do whatever it is that allows you to “unwind”: maybe it’s work out, or do something artistic, or maybe it’s just cooking dinner for yourself. But whatever it is that you do should be added into your schedule, just as if it were a group meeting or a class: it’s time that you don’t let others infringe upon.

Also, you need not answer an email as soon as the professor sends it—indeed, in many ways, there are studies showing that you’re more productive only dealing with email a few times a day rather than all day long because you’ll spend less time on “task switching,” which costs you the focus and attention you need to do well. A few hours’ or a day’s delay in answering an email is perfectly acceptable if it leads to a more thoughtful and fruitful discussion.

But the most important thing is to keep an open line of communication with your advisor. Clearly he’s interested in your work and in your success, and you should try to use that to your advantage. Keep working with him, but do it in a way that doesn’t assign blame to either of you. Make it a collaborative rather than adversarial conversation.

  • 1
    +1 for Your health is more important than any project! It's ok if sometimes project things don't get done as fast as they might because you're spending time looking after yourself by resting or doing something fun. Don't let that little guilty voice in your head force you to work all the time.... – yochannah Jun 30 '18 at 18:44
16

You will have to differentiate between the stress put on you by your supervisor and the stress you are accepting. E.g. even noticing that you received an e-mail around midnight is unnecessary. Just switch off your phone (seriously!) or stop message transmission during sleep times. If you feel better, you can offer an "emergency channel" for important tasks (e.g. allow for chat messages in urgent cases), so you can rest assured that the world will still be rotating after you woke up ;-).

It is part of a PhD process o learn about your own working style and preferences, and how to interact with other people who are not doing it the same way you prefer things to be done. I assume your mindset is close to the one of your supervisor, so you don't want to disappoint him, but you still have to draw your borderlines. And you can only draw your borderlines, you can not change your supervisor.

8

Exactly the same situation with you...

Sometimes I received 10 more emails one day with shouting...

But I survived because I tried to think like he was not trying to destroy me but help me. I hope you can cooperate with this, try to reduce the times reading emails late at night, or simply don't reply to it until next morning.

What can be done tomorrow should be done tomorrow.

Hope you the best.

7

This answer will be orthogonal to the question and might help or not.

In some ways you have an ideal situation with an advisor invested in you, your work, and your future. He also seems to trust you greatly. Be glad of that. Contrast that with the situation of many others asking questions here who have advisors too busy or disinterested to help them at all.

But stress can kill you.

While this will take time, I suggest that you find some activity that you can do for an hour or less each day that is know to be a stress reducer. Yoga comes to mind. My solution is Tai Chi, which is a mind-body melding exercise. It is very difficult to be stressed when doing Tai Chi.

However, you must, then find a way to compensate for the time spent. But this is not a good way to think about it. Your mind will work without you consciously "pushing" it. Many people wake up from a period of rest knowing the solution to a difficult problem that eluded them before they let it "gestate". An hour of calming exercise can have this effect also.

Far better this, IMO, than trying to change your supervisor, especially if he treats it as criticism and separates from you and your work. You could even get him to join you in Tai Chi. (Pipe dream, I know.)

7

This sounds like a pretty typical problem in many workplaces. Regardless of when your supervisor sends his emails, the stress is generated by you reading them in the middle of the night or over the weekend. If the supervisor explicitly follows up during office hours to state that he is unhappy with your lack of response then that's something that needs to be addressed with him since it's unreasonable. But to begin with I suggest you stop checking emails outside of office hours. Most email clients can be set to only update during business hours. Failing that just switch it off.

7

To add to the excellent existing answers, you may be able to induce a change in your supervisor's behaviour by being more proactive in your communication. One reason that supervisors may feel the need to micromanage is if they feel out of touch with what you are up to. So, if your supervisor regularly sends you messages asking "What is the status of X?", perhaps this is a sign that you need to be updating him more frequently. If you take the initiative and send the first email, it has several advantages.

  • You feel less nagged.
  • Your supervisor may start to feel more confident in your ability to manage yourself, as they can clearly see that you are making progress without the need for constant prodding.
  • If you are the one sending the email, you can do it at a time that suits you.
7

I don't think the existing answers have sufficiently dealt with HOW you should approach your supervisor about this.

I suggest framing the change in your work habits as a positive for something he cares about - which is (apparently, frustratingly) not your stress level. I would say that you are making a change either because you are trying to work more efficiently or because you are trying to do more high-quality work. Or choose another goal he cares about (more creatively, etc.)

You could frame this as: One of my goals is to work more [efficiently]. I have noticed that when I do work past X pm, it tends to have a lot more errors than work I am doing earlier in the day. Then I have to redo this later. So I am trying a new work pattern where I only do analyses before X.

The goal is to frame the change as being in service of something that the supervisor values so it is not seen as a change in your work ethic. Likely the supervisor views hours worked as an indicator of dedication etc. so you want to make it clear you value these things, too.

You might begin the conversation as a discussion of work strategies, how to be the most efficient, what work habits your supervisor has experimented with, etc. to get him into the mindset that each person needs to find their own best work style. You may also want to drop into the conversation that you admire his work style, and you are hoping you can mesh your two work styles well.

3

This is not much different from industry.

I have taken the habit to consciously disconnect and make sure I cannot connect.

The "cannot connect" part is important : I leave my laptop at the office and I use a separate app for work emails. When on vacation I even change the password so that it does not fire up by mistake.

This way my brain knows that even if this is the end of the world and président Macron is trying to mail me, he will have to wait until tomorrow or Monday.

2

Set a vacation message that says you will respond at certain times.

Before you do this, tell your advisor you need to normalize your sleep patterns, on the orders of your doctor, in order to work more effectively (you did see the doctor about this, yes?).

2

I disagree with your premise that the stress is introduced by the supervisor, let me explain:

There are two types of communication: synchronous and asychronous.

Syncronous communication relies on everyone participating at the same, for example a meeting or a telephone call. It is unreasonable to do these outside of normal working hours except in emergencies, that is urgent but very rare occasions.

Asynchronous communication, like email, does not rely on everyone participating at the same time, so people understand that you don't need to answer those immediately but only when you have time. It is not even productive to do so because getting back to a concentrated state takes a long time. I propose that you check and answer your email only once a day at a set time.

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