I'm a third-year PhD student. First year, due to my ill health and lack of command over the subject research progress was slow. My second year, I picked up well but still no clarity over the research problem.

After the second year, on a monthly basis my supervisor asked if I am interested or not, and said things like "You have improved but within three months if I don't see immense progress I'll give you a master's and get rid of you."

I'm interested and trying really hard to keep up to them. These questions demotivate me regularly even though I'm still confident. With this state of mind, working has become difficult.

If I get masters, it'll be of no use since I'm already a Post-graduate. How do I make this situation better?

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    Can you revise the title? It's a warning, not a blackmail. Blackmail is often unjustified and requiring something in return. For example, if your supervisor asks you to clean his/her house twice a week or you'll be expelled due to lack of progress, that's blackmail. Also, was your PhD proposal presented and approved? If you can briefly describe what kind of progresses you have made, it'd enhance the answers. Commented Oct 24, 2013 at 15:32
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    It may be a warning, but it also tells me that they don't have faith in me and want to get rid of me. Revising a title is as good as quitting and starting a new one.
    – DSAK
    Commented Oct 24, 2013 at 15:42
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    Thanks for the revision! By title I mean the title of this question, not your PhD title. Commented Oct 24, 2013 at 15:47
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    If you can, switch adviser. I did, and never looked back. If no other adviser is interested, maybe there is a problem; but your current adviser's statements sound like a delayed kick-out. I also warmly recommend seeing a shrink - you'll be surprised how many co-students you'll notice in the waiting room of the on-campus psych department. A good therapist can guide you in how to handle yourself to minimize the understandable anxiety you must feel. Commented Oct 25, 2013 at 16:29
  • possible duplicate of Problems in coping with my PhD Supervisors
    – 410 gone
    Commented Feb 21, 2014 at 21:26

1 Answer 1


Have never been at either side of the table in this kind of situations, but I can share some of my thoughts based on conflict resolution.

First, as I have stated in the comment, you need to let us know where you are at. Have you passed the qualifying exam? Have you submitted your PhD proposal? Was your proposal rejected? etc. All these can help the viewers here to give more concrete suggestions.

Think in your supervisor's shoes

First, you'll need to realize that mentor-mentee is a very delicate symbiotic relationship. The mentor guides the mentee by provide intellectual, physical and financial supports, while the mentee helps expand the research base of the mentor's, publish papers and solicit funding. Even you don't mind your progress being slow, you can significantly slow down your supervisor's career advancement, especially if he/she is struggling in a tenure track. So, the urge for you to get done is reasonable and you should understand that.

I am not entirely sure about your institution but in my institute, for a supervisor to keep a PhD student for two years (notice: not three, three is impossible) without producing any progress, a LOT of work has to be done (explaining to the promotion committee, to the dean, to the funding source, etc.) to keep the student safe. I suspect that your supervisor might have done a lot to protect you already, and finally gave in to the pressure and reality.

Ask for an evaluation guideline

If you really wish to stay and are confident that you can do that. First, ask for a set of criteria on what is meant by "immense progress within three months." Be it a draft of a proposal, a draft of a paper, a list of research aims, or whatever. Ask your supervisor for a list of deliveries and how they will be evaluated.

Then, go home and break them down into 2-week chunks of work. Turn the results into a monitoring chart. Every two weeks, you'll meet with your adviser and check off the items.

If anything slows you down, don't wait till the meeting, ask for help. If your supervisor is not giving you help, ask someone else or work it out yourself. Never attend the meeting without the promised delivery.

At the end of the third month, if both parties are happy, keep going and repeat the system. If for any reason it does not work, then bow out. At least you would get a Master in three years, and in that sense your resume wouldn't look too wrong. Getting a master after post-graduate is not rare, a lot of people get MBA or MPH after their doctoral studies. It's the nature of the Master degree and your work that matter.

Get professional help

You may also get some outside help (from someone who has no vested interest in your PhD). A career coach or an outside mentor would be a good choice. Frankly share with them your problem and let them give their diagnosis and suggestions. Be open and try them out.

In conclusion, get the requests in writing, and stick to it. Dive into the process for three months and see if both parties are happy. Leaving does not mean you lose. It may just mean this supervisor or this research topic is not a good fit. You may be amazed how much more you can actually get just by letting go.

  • Excellent advice. I take the road map method a lot when I have a daunting task ahead of me. Sure, I can't get it done in a week. But what can I get done in that time frame? I can write a few pages of my thesis, perhaps. Or start another experiment. Anything to keep the ball rolling. Commented Oct 24, 2013 at 16:52
  • I agree with most of your suggestions.I passed the qualifying exam. My proposal is 99% finalized and its accepted. I know that I need to work really fast and I'll give my 100% for that. One question I need to ask is :Is their warnings are too harsh at this level? given that I had received very minimal inputs, my research area is complex and Is it not the "big question" on my intelligence.
    – DSAK
    Commented Oct 24, 2013 at 18:35
  • @user7720 That's good. Once your proposal is approved, hold on to it as a contract. Make the work in the proposal as concrete as possible so that there is not misinterpretation from either side. As for harsh or not, I don't know the person so I can't tell. I can tell that very few mentor-mentee relationships went unscathed, because conflicts of interest are everywhere. However, judging by the fact that you're still in the team, I'd guess your supervisor had done a lot for you. So cut him/her a break, and focus on becoming a good collaborator. Commented Oct 24, 2013 at 18:46
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    My proposal is 99% finalized and its accepted — This is inconsistent with your advisor "wanting to get rid of you". [Are] their warnings are too harsh at this level? — No. If your advisor is not confident that you are making adequate progress toward your degree, they must tell you so, respectfully but directly.
    – JeffE
    Commented Oct 24, 2013 at 19:48
  • Dear Sir @Penguin_Knight. Now I have quitted PhD. But only bad feeling is I have wasted 4 years.
    – DSAK
    Commented Oct 31, 2014 at 14:09

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