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I have been studying for a PhD and unfortunately had been suffering from depression during the first year and on medication, so I didn't make much progress at all. My supervisor seemed understanding, telling me I was 'one of the strongest students' he'd taught, and not to worry as sometimes life gets in the way, and I should take a study break if necessary.

I therefore took an official study break for one year, and came off the medication. Just before I was considering returning, I sent an email to the supervisor just asking about what we should do next. His reply was to say how terrible my performance had been so far and that he strongly advises I should quit. I felt devastated to say the least. Is he right after all and should I really quit? I thought he was so supportive to begin with and actually suggested the break. Or is the blunt truth correct? Doing a PhD was my dream and now it is shattered.

Edit: I have been advised to add that I did not tell the supervisor in advance that I was going to be on break for a year, just that I was taking a break as he advised. I did not know in advance how long a break would last. Neither was I in communication during this time. When I was depressed, nothing else mattered.

Edit 2: Clarification that the break was officially sanctioned by the university. Please note technically I am still "on break" as the supervisor has not allowed me to return.

Update: The supervisor has ignored my last email so I guess I will be quitting or moving on. Thanks to everyone who answered and commented.

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – cag51 Jan 12 at 6:36
  • Is there any medical centre attached to your university, student support centre, i.e. a neutral 3rd party that might be wise in these matters, who might known about appeals or at least could recommend the best thing to do within the framework of your university? – Dave Jan 13 at 7:59
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    While your main question is surely looming large for you, I wanted to congratulate you for making the difficult decision to take that break and take care of your mental health. It takes strength to acknowledge and face difficult health decisions like that. I very much hope that your life and career start to go the way you want; but even if they don't, your commitment to self-care is even more important than a PhD. – Greg Martin Jan 13 at 18:44
  • Thank you for the edits, but can you please also clarify whether the word "terrible" is what your supervisor said, or your interpretation? "Unlikely to succeed" is not the same as "terrible" -- I am not saying the supervisor's judgment is correct, btw. – Yemon Choi Jan 13 at 18:58
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    "Unlikely to succeed" is too genteel and does not get across the bluntness of this person. I did not say terrible was a quote but is closer to the spirit of the communication. – user50229 Jan 13 at 19:20

11 Answers 11

75

If your advisor is suggesting that you quit, it is likely that you will have a hard time carrying on with the same advisor.

You maybe need to have a discussion with them about why your performance was bad, and why you needed a break. As it currently stands, it sounds like you had one year in the program without any progress, and then another year where you took a break and also made no progress, so it is two years since you were admitted to the program and you are essentially a new student. From your advisor's point of view, suggesting you quit is good advice as they feel it is unlikely that you will finish your degree. If you want to work with them, you need to convince them that this is not the case.

If you want to continue to pursue a PhD, and you are unable to reach a point in discussion where your advisor is empathetic to your situation and enthusiastic about working with you (not just grudgingly willing to work with you), you probably should either 1: change advisor at the same university, 2: leave your current program and apply to other programs.

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    This is a brutal interpretation of the question as posted. According to the question the supervisor suggested taking a break and of course no progress was made during the break. This does not justify the supervisor's behaviour, which superficially, seems inconsistent, and dispassionate, if not unprofessional and perhaps malign. I would agree that it strongly seems this supervisor is not the right person to carry on with. Having seen some bad supervisors and how important it is to have a good one I would, as you've suggested, not treat this lightly. – AJP Jan 11 at 8:56
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    @user50229 Regardless of why his attitude has changed, it has changed, and I would be wary of trying to develop a positive working relationship with him. (I say develop, not continue, because given your first-year issues and the subsequent break, you really don't seem to have a real working relationship yet.) The answer may seem blunt, but I think the advice is solid. – chepner Jan 11 at 14:28
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    @AJP If the supervisor's suggestion was intended to mean "take a week off to sort yourself out" and the OP was then absent for a year, it's hardly surprising if the supervisor's opinion has changed. – alephzero Jan 11 at 14:57
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    @alephzero That was not the case, a study break is a specific thing where you officially notify the department that you are interrupting your studies for at least one term/semester. Also you can't "sort yourself out" from depression in one week. – user50229 Jan 11 at 15:40
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    @AJP I'm not saying the supervisor's behavior is justified; that is irrelevant to the advice I am giving. It is super unfair, but it sounds like the supervisor's outlook on this student's prospects are no longer positive. Unfortunately no matter how unfair or unjustified this is, it is not something that is easy to remedy or ignore. I'm giving brutal advice that I hope is helpful. – Morgan Rodgers Jan 11 at 17:34
67

I would like to add my perspective as a supervisor having a PhD student suffering from a depression. She has been absent for about two years now and not yet returned. Neither me nor she herself have anticipated that it would take so long. The year might have been a surprise for your supervisor, too. I have been supportive over all this time and will keep that up if possible when she returns. She is four years in her PhD work so only needs a few small steps to complete. However, her progress might become state of the art someday also without her thesis, and then it might be difficult to give her the degree. This is something you should take into account, too: After a while with no progress, it will become more and more likely that your topic becomes obsolete.

The situation is not easy for me either. Of course I wonder how big the share of the PhD work and my supervision is for this situation. And I am competent in giving advice in the research, but not sure how to handle somebody with a depression. Your supervisor probably is in a similar situation, so also her/his actions need some understanding. I try my best, but it might not be the best.

As a supervisor, it is your duty to give the PhD students feedback on their progress, and part of that is to tell them whether they will probably make it or not. I have seen many PhD students not suffering from a depression having a hard time during their work. A PhD student usually needs all the power to succeed. In the example described above, I might have advised her to think about quitting too if she was only in the beginning of her thesis. This might be good advice, and you should consider it if your supervisor says so. Discuss it openly with all people involved.

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    +1 for "As a supervisor, it is your duty to give the PhD students feedback on their progress, and part of that is to tell them whether they will probably make it or not." Of course, a supervisor may easily be wrong about the potential of the research project, wrong either way, in a case like this, so there's no point in being devastated after consulting a suddenly skeptical supervisor - but finding a supervisor who truly believes in their student's eventual success is always the first step of resuming the project. – Jirka Hanika Jan 11 at 9:22
17

It is hard to know how to advise you in particular because there are many aspects of the situation that are not covered in your posting. However, here are some ideas that may be helpful.

  1. You should not do this by email. Email is not a good medium for important discussions such as this. You should request an in-person meeting with your advisor. Before you go to that meeting, you should have an agenda of what you wish to accomplish. For example, you may wish to bring old emails and ask your advisor how is it possible that you could have been told that you were one of the advisor’s “strongest students” and now there is a very different assessment of your first year’s work.

  2. You don’t make it clear if you are still depressed or not. You may be misreading your advisor’s emails. So again, I recommend printing out representative emails from before and from now and showing them to a neutral third party.

  3. It is possible that your supervisor is depressed as well, or is going through their own life issues. Therefore, you may wish to show the emails to a dean or the ombuds office at your school, if you have one.

Leaving a Ph.D. program now does not mean that you will be giving up on your dream of getting a Ph.D. You may find another program in a few years. You may switch fields. There are many people who have started in one Ph.D. program and completed another after a period of time. The critical issue is what you accomplish when you are not in the program: if you are academically active, if you are writing, if you are participating in research-like activities, then you should be able to land a position in another program.

Why do you want a Ph.D.? If you have a love of research, you may find that there is a corporate research lab that you can join for a few years. You may find another lab, either at the same school or another, that is happy to have you as a part-time, unpaid lab member.

There are many possibilities. It’s a big world. There are many people who have completed a Ph.D. while depressed. There are many advisors who have a toxic relationship with some of their advisees, and end up making their advisees depressed. There are some advisees who are toxic to their advisors. The Ph.D.-advisee relationship is a charged one. This may not be the best pairing for you or for your advisor. But it may be that either you or your advisor are not objectively evaluating the situation. That’s why it’s useful to write things down, print things out, and to involve other people.

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – eykanal Jan 14 at 16:19
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This is a big area to cover in "an answer" which will be more like 5 questions to begin of a conversation :) but you've done the right thing in asking for opinions.

Firstly I'd say I disagree with most of the answers.

If your advisor is suggesting that you quit, it is likely that you will have a hard time carrying on with the same advisor.

Maybe, but you haven't shown the situation is as clear cut as this. It sounds like you sent them one email and received one response.

Have any other communications gone back and forth? How long did the supervisor take to respond (was it in minutes i.e. rash, perhaps caught them at a bad time and ill thought out)? Was their email polite but firm? What was the agreement you left on; did they expect you to leave for a year?

What is your subject in? How long do you have funding for? Is it your supervisors funding or did you bring it to the table? If it's their funding and you didn't agree to a year off I can understand they might be very annoyed... but if so, why did they not contact you before now?

A little background from me: I was doing a PhD in biotech / chemeng. I quit it after 2 years as I felt it was a waste of time. I've known and helped several people through depressive episodes. Well done for navigating your way back out.

Then on to where I would have liked to start this answer: Why do you want to do a PhD. If it's personal challenge, personal glory / ego, commercial, fun, curiosity? Do you know and have accepted that PhD's can be very isolating (by their nature).

** Edit **

I talked "briefly" with a friend for 20 minutes about your question and the other "answers". We came up with 10 to 20 potential main and sub scenarios of how to interpret the information you've given here and potential advice to give. This would need a few one hour conversations to fully explore. With that in mind I would suggest you get a good counselor / friend who will listen and ask the "right" questions. There are some useful pointers and advice in the other questions. But I'm surprised by how they seem to lack a lot of nuance and jump to conclusions given such complex personal, and interpersonal dynamics plus the additional v important information you've surfaced later regarding other emails, department interaction, timeline, the financial situation, your motivations, your desires, your supervisor's group situation, including the "other previously depressed" student etc etc.

Best wishes.

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    I was wary of giving away too many details in case I am recognised, but it is mathematics and I fund it enirely myself. After the first email I sent a reply indicating I was quite shocked, which was followed by another lengthy reply from him, outlining how his current students in a similar situation to me are failing. Even though I insist I was previously ill, he won't let go that I will be the same in the future and so the PhD is not worth doing. This is after two more emails of my trying to convince him I would be better and would like to continue. – user50229 Jan 11 at 11:00
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    I am doing it for interest and as a challenge. I don't need it for an academic career; although I work in an environment where 95% of the hires are PhDs, I managed to get there without because I had a desirable undergraduate degree and took a very low starting salary. I should point out that above the "similar situation" is having a job simultaneously. – user50229 Jan 11 at 11:07
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    @user50229 One general rule which I would recommend to follow: Do not use email communication to settle conflicts. It leaves too much room for (over)interpreting things in a way they were not meant (on both sides). Talking in person or at least on the phone is much better. – Snijderfrey Jan 11 at 12:14
  • @Snijderfrey I would tend to agree, but the supervisor himself made it quite final via email. It sounds strongly like he will not be convinced by, or even agree to, a meeting. It is now a waste of his time. – user50229 Jan 11 at 19:55
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    I think this is sound advice from AJP but I would also encourage people to read some of the further details/clarifications in the comments to the main question – Yemon Choi Jan 12 at 0:19
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In my opinion your confusion is understandable, your supervisor owes you at least a clear explanation, if only for you to make an informed decision about what to do next. If for some reason your supervisor doesn't give you this explanation, I'd suggest you try to discuss this with somebody else who can give you a reasonably objective evaluation: maybe there is another researcher in your department that you would feel confident to talk to? Even if you have the discussion with your supervisor, it might be worth getting a second opinion.

In any case you should probably also have a meeting with the director of studies (or whoever is in charge of the PhD program) to discuss the situation and your options. Don't hesitate to contact them as soon as possible even if things are not clear for you yet: it's part of their role to advise you and the sooner they are in the loop the more helpful they can be.

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    Concur. Not to mention that there should be a HR department in the university and attending legal obligations as to preserving and restoring the health of employees. Just to say: it is not just about advising, it is also about duties and obligation: not just things that ought (not) to happen, but also things that must (not) happen. – XavierStuvw Jan 12 at 16:24
5

You should really reflect on it, and probably talk to your physician or other professional about it. If the PhD, although it is your dream, was causing your suffering you might be better off not returning to it.

Now, if you actually want to keep going, you might try to convince your advisor, if that does not work, it does not mean that you have to quit the program, you will still be able to look for a different advisor and mindfully explain the situation. Or yet, if there is no one in the same area of research you want, go for a different university.

3

Assuming what you said is entirely true. Some key points to think about are:

1) Did you suffer from depression prior to being admitted to the PhD program? If yes, you should consider this as your mis-judgement of the suitability of the PhD program to you at the beginning. Learn from it.

2) Were you paid by stipend during the break? If yes, I would say your supervisor or whoever is behind your funding are already very generous if they are not the ones who caused your depression.

3) Did your supervisor suggest you to take a year-long break? Or you decided to take the break however long it is on your own without much communication to your supervisor? <- you need to clarify on that.

4) It seems that you were shocked because the supervisor had a "sudden" and drastic change of attitude. However, that was a year apart. From your shock, it hints to me that you communicated very rarely with your supervisor during the break, you need to clarify on that. If you really did not take much effort to communicate with your supervisor (anything e.g. about updates of your recovery process, future plan for the research to be conducted), it is indeed a little irresponsible to think that you can jump in and out on your wish.

Finally, imagine how bad your supervisor impression about you would have to be for him/her to say such thing to you. If you think you don't deserve it, is it still worth to work for him/her? You may want to consider talk to someone in the university who has the power to independently investigate this situation .

Learn from it and good luck.

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    Nonsense I say - the supervisor / adviser knew of the reason for the break - else he most likely wouldn't have even suggested it. Now depression is a very complex matter - I know people who have suffered (and still do) for 5+x years - with different medications .... So it was obvious that OP wouldn't return right away from the break - And suddenly nag about the performance in hindsight ... is poor rationale. – eagle275 Jan 13 at 13:32
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    IMO, it is a common mistake to assume someone else would know XYZ. How do you know if the supervisor has dealt with depression/students with depression before? The take home message is always remember to communicate clearly without leaving room for possibilities for things to go uncertain – y chung Jan 13 at 17:19
2

My supervisor seemed understanding, telling me I was 'one of the strongest students' he'd taught, and not to worry as sometimes life gets in the way, and I should take a study break if necessary.

Taking a break seems a great idea, I think your supervisor said good things here.

I therefore took a year off, and came off the medication.

It is great to know that you got better and came off the medication! Congratulations!

I did not tell the supervisor in advance that I was going to be on break for a year, just that I was taking a break as he advised. I did not know in advance how long a break would last.

No one could know how long the break would last. Knowing that is simply impossible. So don't worry about it.

Neither was I in communication during this time. When I was depressed, nothing else mattered.

Agreed. Again, don't worry about it. The fact that other things matter now is another evidence that you are better :)

Just before I was considering returning, I sent an email to the supervisor just asking about what we should do next.

Good! However, just keep in mind that in written communication it is hard to express emotions, tone, and such. So this form of communication has a few drawbacks and can lead to misunderstandings. But overall, it is fine.

His reply was to say how terrible my performance had been so far [...]

He certainly could have chosen better words. But let's make an effort to put emotions aside for a moment. It is true that you made no meaningful progress in the last two years. But you, more than anyone, already knew that. And more importantly, it is utterly completely extremely okay that you made no meaningful progress. You were tremendously sick after all! Who can make any progress being extremely sick?

[...] and that he strongly advises I should quit.

Hmmm... I don't know what is the right thing to do (no one does), but I know that if your advisor no longer wants to advise you, then he should stop being your advisor, it's a win for both of you. But please note that leaving an advisor is just leaving an advisor. You can find a new advisor, why not? People change advisors. It won't be the first time someone changes advisors.

I felt devastated to say the least.

Good... Feeling devastated over devastating things is what should happen. If you didn't feel devastated I would be worried. It means you're human.

Is he right after all [...]

No one will ever know whether or not he is right. The good news is that it doesn't matter. What matters is simply what you will decide to do.

and should I really quit?

Hmmm... As I said earlier, I think it would probably be good for you to look for a different advisor, since your history with this advisor got messy. People change advisors. It's normal. No need to make a fuss about it, things just turned out in a way that seemed that you two won't work very well anymore.

I thought he was so supportive to begin with and actually suggested the break.

From what you said, apparently he was indeed! And it's great that you accepted the suggestion, and got better! You getting better is the most important thing in this story.

Now, one year has passed and your supervisor said something different... Well, advisors are humans too, right? One year ago he thought you should take a break, now he thinks something else! People change their minds. And this may be for one million different reasons. Thankfully the reason doesn't matter.

Or is the blunt truth correct?

I am not sure what you mean by "the blunt truth"... You seem to be implying something... And although this is written communication, I am going to guess you are saying this in a pessimistic tone. Perhaps implying that you're not worthy of a PhD? Perhaps implying that you're not good enough? Or something like that?

Stop it right there. These are astronomically absurd conclusions. Firstly, there is no "the" here. Using "the" makes it look like everything boils down to one little fact. Life is immensely more complex than that. Secondly, the words of your advisor may have been blunt, but there is no "truth" and especially no "blunt truth" anywhere here.

Whenever you see yourself taking drastic conclusions about something, take a step back!

Doing a PhD was my dream and now it is shattered.

???????

No it's not shattered.

You just took a sudden drastic conclusion again.

To me, it looks like doing a PhD is your dream. Where did that past tense come from? If it wasn't your dream, would you be here asking this question? The fact that you got devastated after reading that email is yet another evidence. We humans only get devastated about things that really matter to us.

An advisor saying (although with a bad choice of words) that you should no longer be advised by him, because you made little to no progress in two years (which is obvious because you are a human and you were super sick, as I said):

  • Simply becomes someone that should no longer be your advisor;
  • And is astronomically far from "shattering a dream".

You will be fine!!

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    Thanks for your encouraging answer @Pedro – user50229 Jan 13 at 17:57
  • @user50229 You're welcome. Thanks for reading it :) – Pedro A Jan 13 at 17:59
-1

Your supervisor has acted with hipocrisy, has no interpersonal skills and should resign himself right away to supervise you. This might be just a supervisor's strategy to avoid problems in their publication goals and an attempt of gaslighting you and the department managers. Take your work with you (if any), estimate whether you should ask for a supervisor change based on supervisor's email or wait for him to resign, and then file a complaint or communication to the department managers or dean in order to inform about your case.

-2

Most depressions during a PhD stem from an unreasonable supervisor that puts people in uncomfortable if not threatening situations of pressure. There is almost no checks and balances in academia and a PhD ultimately depends solely on the opinion of your supervisor. Considering the reply of your supervisor, you should rethink twice if you want to work with him/her again. If you even come to the conclusion that your depression is somehow related to your work, you should report it to your faculty, move on and maybe find a different supervisor.

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    Yes, this may be the sad but realistic conclusion. I don't think I can work with someone who has no faith in me, no matter what was said before. He seems to be contradictory at best. I just wish I found out his true feeling sooner. – user50229 Jan 11 at 13:01
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    @image, I think that some depression in a PhD may stem from this, but it may also stem from familial obligations, or financial issues, or strict biochemical ones. Saying "most" is likely to be not strictly true. – vy32 Jan 11 at 17:05
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    Can you provide data to support your first sentence? – Snijderfrey Jan 11 at 17:19
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    I think this doesn't account for differences between situational depression and clinical depression. – Scott Seidman Jan 12 at 22:12
-2

Thanks for the very interesting question. Here is my two cents. 1) I fully agree with Erwan that " your supervisor owes you at least a clear explanation, if only for you to make an informed decision about what to do next." 2) Getting a PhD is supposed to be tough and rightly so. Advising PhD students is hard work. One of a supervisor's tasks is to help you, but his resources (time, focus, commitment etc.) are limited, since he is human, as we all are. Beside helping you the advisor has also the heavy responsibility of setting and enforcing standards for your work. If he has lost confidence in your ability to carry through demanding work at the required level, you may try to convince him otherwise, but at the end of the day it is up to him to decide. 3) Since you have not even begun your work, it is difficult to see why you should insist on pressing on after an unauspicious non-start. If your commitment is serious, as it should be, I suggest you try a fresh start with someone else. 4) Nobody is "a priori" entitled to a PhD. A PhD is something you achieve by overcoming considerable challenges. Finding a good advisor and mantaining a productive relationship with him is one of them. In any case, after you start work, it usually gets much worse before it eventually gets better.

  • 2) I don't see why he had confidence in my ability before the break he suggested, but not afterwards. Nothing (rightly) happened during the break. 4) Nowhere did I say I am entitled to a PhD. – user50229 Jan 11 at 15:49
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    3) Why shouldn't I at least ask? I paid fees for the course and I did nothing wrong. Sorry I was ill. – user50229 Jan 11 at 15:56
  • Pal, the basic question is, what do you want to achieve? Blaming your advisor, even if he is indeed to blame, won't get you anywhere. You are entitled to an explanation, but that will not answer the basic question. If you want to get a PhD, go for it and be aware that is hard and messy. That's all. – Andrea Alciato Jan 11 at 16:20
  • @user50229 "Sorry I was ill". Never say that. You deserve better than that. You need to start treating yourself with a respect (and kindness). You didn't choose to get ill. – AJP Jan 11 at 16:30
  • @AndreaAlciato I don't recall blaming the advisor either, I asked the question is he right. You set up a lot of strawmen. – user50229 Jan 11 at 16:43

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