I am a doctoral student in the engineering area in Europe, Belgium. I applied for the project in which I am in April and was accepted. I also had other offers from England. I liked the subject and refused the other offers, also because of the higher salary and the beautiful city where the university is located. I started in early September. I have always been a very dedicated student and a passionate and curious person, but now I go to work only because I have to and sometimes I feel very depressed and nervous, and these are the reasons why:

  1. The supervisor is a good person. He looks good, is very calm, but has shown a lack of knowledge in the field where I am. She is a strong researcher, but in the field in which she graduated (which is also the field of my degree)
  2. It is a small department with a very small laboratory. Everyone is on the paper of others and I don't think it's because they have made a great contribution to the work. I'm like a family and even if I enjoy the relaxed atmosphere, I don't feel "proud" of where I am;
  3. When I applied, they told me that I had to do some tests in a very interesting laboratory abroad. These tests are important for having very precise data (experimental data should be compared with numerical work) and they also told me that I had to integrate a technique into a production process. I discovered the first week that people using the machine are in a very early stage, they have to learn to use the machine and this was not emphasized during my interview. Furthermore, the test will probably not be performed abroad. This has negatively affected the way I perceive them. I feel that they have selled the position without being totally honest with me;
  4. I come from another field. I'm not really understanding most of the things they say and I doubt I am the right candidate for this position. I'm starting to think I just hired "because" I have a strong resume. To be more precise, I am a civil engineer and the field of my doctorate is more on material / mechanical engineering.
  5. I can't change my topic: my project is part of a bigger one. This is another important reason why I wanted to go to this university. I liked not being alone on an island, but I liked the spirit of collaboration and the link with the industries. But I can't really follow them when they talk, they speak another language for me.

What do you think of this situation? I have been alone for two months. My feelings are very bad and I don't know how to talk to my supervisor. I often think to quit and to find onother position, but I feel that is very hard in my position now. I know that i am unhappy and if I had another possibility, I would quit.


3 Answers 3


Consider forming a small study group with a few of the other students with whom you feel at least a bit of comfort. It may well be that others feel as you do, and a group in which to discuss issues, both technical and otherwise, can be good fro all of you. Three or four people is enough. If it is too big it will be less useful. It can also become a long term collaborative relationship.

Some students thrive under minimal supervision, being able to develop their own ideas. But others, most I think, require some guidance from their advisor or or other, senior, members of the lab or the faculty. Many require a lot of guidance, especially at the start. In the US, a doctoral degree normally starts with a lot of coursework, giving you the opportunity to meet faculty and build relationships. But, I think that anywhere, it is a lot to expect that a graduate student is already so well formed that no guidance or other specialized instruction is needed.

I don't think that you are in a hopeless situation, but you will need a plan for focusing your knowledge on the task at hand and acquiring skills and knowledge that you will need for success. Your lab-mates may be able to help you with this or at least give advice about the kinds of things that it would be helpful for you to know. Ideally your advisor should supply this, but not all are willing to do that, being more focused on the task at hand than on the students making it possible.

Again, I suggest that you treat this partly as a social question. "How do I get more connected to those in my lab for mutual benefit?" There is more to it than that, of course, since you come from a different field, but it might make it easier in the long run. A senior member of the lab, a student close to finishing, might be an especially valuable resource - especially if a co-advisor is not possible.

  • Yes, you are right. The point is that they also have less money. For exemple, they made me clean their lab last month. I dont know, maybe it is stupid, but I did not like at all this thing. It should be not a part of my duties, but i had to.
    – Lau
    Oct 26, 2019 at 13:15
  • I hope that either the "scut" work is shared among the lab people or that it is just dumped on the newcomer and will then end shortly after you "pay your dues." If it continues, I'd consider it a form of abuse.
    – Buffy
    Oct 26, 2019 at 15:08
  • Thank you for your answer Buffy. This is the point: I am required to decide also about my training. I receive some suggestion from her, for example now she said that I have to learn Python, but I feel that they are random suggstion, she does not know exactly what should I do. She asked a friend of her (a professor) which courses shoud I follow. I went to the first class of a master course in Material Science and I did not understand at all. As I said, it is a new language for me. I told her about a course given to a very well known university nearby, at the beginning she say yes, that i could
    – Lau
    Oct 26, 2019 at 16:57
  • he reason why she did not ask anymore about the course is that she has to ask for money for me for the train. I found this thing very bad. If you university does not provide that course and I need some informations what should I do?
    – Lau
    Oct 26, 2019 at 17:54
  • Regarding my collegues, there is just one techinique that I should use that it is also used by them and for this I will have enough help. For the rest, I don't think so, I am also the first one to do such kind of thing! I am infact in the department of Civil and Material Science (not Mechanical) and no one is addressing problems related to mine. I am alone, completely. There are some post doc involved in the bigger project who are working in the mechanical department nearby. But I can say that they do not feel resposable for me.
    – Lau
    Oct 26, 2019 at 17:54

I wish I could offer you more here, but the only way forward is for you to talk to your supervisor about all of this. That is what she is there for. Until you have spoken her about how you are feeling you don't know what your options truly are.

  • Dear, thank you for the answer. I am not sure how to say that I think she has a lack of knowledge and I would like to have a co-supervisor for example. This is rude. For the other aspect, I told here. She said that is normal that I do not understand what they say because my backgroud is different. My question is: will i be able to do good research even if I don't have a degree in mechanical engineering? Will 4 year be enogh to do this?
    – Lau
    Oct 26, 2019 at 13:13

I had a supervisor who didn't know my field. It was terrible. She didn't want to lose control of the topic and so kept me in areas within her reach, which were never enough for the field. I tried to get a second supervisor, but for the same reason, she didn't accepted it. It was a farce fine relationship, but I put up with it. I fully understand if someone else would wanted to quit. In the end, I stayed because (i) problems started to arise well into the second year, (ii) I realised it was my fault in the first place, and (iii) there were other benefits of the place.

Another friend had the same problem than me, but he managed to get a second supervisor, which ended up being the main one, allowing him to do a good thesis. I've known other people whose supervisor was helpless and absent, so was like having no supervision.

I don't offer a direct solution, but only as a reflection for you. Without fully understanding your case, I would say that, if you are just starting, and there is nothing else there for you, I would quit. You will have a bad time and might even jeopardise your whole academic career (e.g. by making you hate the topic). In the end, there is generally just one chance to do a PhD (in a given field) so it has to be good. My limited opinion.

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