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I am in the fifth year of my PhD and seriously depressed. In my first year of graduate school I was not funded. In my desperation for funding I chose an opportunity that came my way even though I did not like the topic. The research I would say is pretty mundane, I was providing experimental support for an FEM group. I did t have any freedom until the end of my 4th year. Also my advisor was the co-PI and the project was not in his area of expertise and he had no clue about the work being done. Whenever I get lost and ask him for advice, he would commonly uses the phrase “Do what the industry sponsor wants, keep him happy ”. I literally felt like a contract employee and not a PhD researcher. As expected the work did not yield any papers. My lab mates working on other topics (areas of my advisors expertise) get to present at academic conferences and are writing journals. When I point out this fact I get chided for comparing myself with others and that my work is “unique”. At one point my advisor himself said that the project was ill conceived. You can understand my frustration.

Now I am depressed, lost, and hardly do anything. I wake up, go to the lab and pass time. I absolutely hate my “thesis”, I don’t have anything meaningful or useful for my future career. I don’t even know the purpose of my thesis topic. initially I was scared to leave, now I feel it is too late to leave.

please advise me on what to do? Thanks.

  • which are are you working in, FEM sounds like engineering? also, which country / how long is your program supposed to take? – FirefoxMetzger Jan 20 at 5:13
  • Perhaps this comment is ill-conceived, but I'm wondering if there's likely to be any consequences to the supervisor/advisor if none of the solutions presented here manifest, and whether this could be used as bargaining power in case things turn sour. If you've done work or been committed, then you shouldn't be leaving with nothing. Especially not if someone made a mistake in the project design or neglected rather than nurtured you. – Brayton Jan 20 at 9:04
  • Well the purpose of a PhD is not to make sense, or even to have a useful result (a result is nice to have, but secondary). PhD is a title that states that you have delivered the proof of being able to work systematically, find literature, read, and write it up, again systematically. Much like passing university is not about knowing or learning and mastering anything, but merely a proof of being able to deliver according to a strict time schedule, pass tests, perform exactly as required when required, and move on. (Also, PhD exists to have people work for free.) – Damon Jan 20 at 14:34
  • Offtopic, but it might help you a little. Keep in mind that being a PhD student was one of the hardest period in many researchers life. You are not alone with this situation, even if the others in the lab seemingly advance faster than you. You need to follow the suggestions in the answers, but firstly: do not be affraid, you are not alone. Unfortunately, this is way more common than it should be. – BalazsToth Jan 20 at 17:04
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    I find it hard to imagine aproject where the co-PI "had no clue about the work being done"; if you weren't already in your fifth year, I'd advise you to get out. But under the current circumstances, your best bet is probably to (1) get counseling to deal with your depression and (2) do whatever is needed to finish your Ph.D. as quickly as possible. Item (1) will probably be a necessary prerequisite for (2) and also for subsequently repairing the damage caused by your unfortunate Ph.D. experience. – Andreas Blass Jan 20 at 22:18
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Now I am depressed, lost, and hardly do anything. I wake up go to the lab and pass time. I absolutely hate my “thesis”

This is the problem; you are stuck in a vicious cycle. You need to meet with your advisor and come up with a solid plan - including a timeline - for what will happen in the next year or two.

Given that it has already been 5 years, I suspect this plan should involve you finishing your current work, writing a dissertation, and graduating. But, you and your supervisor could also choose a different direction (i.e., starting a new topic or choosing a new advisor).

I don’t have anything meaningful or useful for my future career. I don’t even know the purpose of my thesis topic.

At this point it's probably time to decide what your career goals are and make sure your plans are aligned with reaching those goals.

  • This could mean spending 1/3 to 1/2 of your time learning skills that will be useful for an industry career, and spending the rest of your time preparing for graduation. Given your level of burn-out, I suspect this is the wiser course, but I'm just guessing.
  • Or, it could mean switching topics / advisors / institutions so that you will be competitive for academic positions in topics that interest you more.
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    Upvoted. The most important thing is to reflect and take a decision in a limited time. The situation is not ideal, but people get stuck at different points in their career and a PhD is a more likely phase than others to get stuck in. A decision will be liberating. – Captain Emacs Jan 20 at 8:45
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I am not a psychologist, and even if I was I woudn't try to diagnose over the internet, but this:

Now I am depressed, lost, and hardly do anything. I wake up go to the lab and pass time. I absolutely hate my “thesis”

Sounds like you should seek professional help from a counselor. Even if you are not clinically depressed, a good counselor and help you work through your feelings and difficult decisions you have to make. They might help you decide to leave your PhD, so they might help you decide you should finish it having come this far, and help you develop strategies to get it done as quickly and painlessly as possible. I can't speak for your school, but we have a university counselling service here that can provide up to 8 sessions to any student or staff member for free. Have a look if your school has anything similar.

2

I'm going to take a slightly different approach, but bear in mind that the other answers are very right. A PHD program is challenging, and as with anything else in life taking care of your health (and mental health) should be a top priority.

That being said, my answer assumes you have evaluated that and are still intent on continuing. The challenge of a PHD program is supposed to come from working on ground breaking problems, not from your advisor's lack of support. Without further details, it's hard to say, but it does sound like he's prioritizing his career (finishing an industry sponsored project) over yours (publishing papers, working on interesting topics). And he's apparently far enough out of his areas of expertise that he can't effectively guide you. That is a recipe for frustration. Been there, done that, with an added helping of arrogance and failed commitments on the side. So, what can you do?

If there are resources offered by your graduate school that would be a good place to start. I'll list some things that helped me, although I may not recommend all of them for your situation.

  1. Treat it like a job. You seem to be giving yourself a hard time since the research isn't working out how you think it should. Just put in the hours and emotional commitment that you would for a job and trust that eventually your advisor will hold up his or her end of the deal and help you defend.
  2. Get a solid timeline. Already mentioned in the other answers, but I'm repeating it here since suggestion 1 doesn't really work if it turns out the research you're working on won't lead to a dissertation. At the very least you should have an approximate timeline, what problems and approaches will go into the dissertation, and what scope of work you are expected to do, and what will happen if the project continues to fail. And get it in writing.
  3. Work with your committee. As with suggestion 2, make sure your committee is clearly aware of what work you intend to do. Make sure they consider it notable enough for a dissertation. Then, give them regular (monthly) updates - what progress has been made, what issues you've encountered, what problems need to be solved, and follow up on the rare suggestions they may give.
  4. Take responsibility - unfortunately it sounds as though your professor may be incapable of supporting this area of research so you will need to take the initiative on ideas and experiments.

Those are just some suggestions. I would strongly encourage you to consider what exactly you want from the program, and whether you can complete it with the current level of support from your advisor (edit: and take a week or two off to vacation, spend time with family, or whatever makes you relax before making any choices). Depending on your goals, you may very well be better off switching advisors and research areas.

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