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The background

I am currently pursuing a PhD in the field of physics. From the number perspective (number of publications) everything is going fine since I have a couple. However, I find it extremely difficult to deal with the uncertainty about my own work. Specifically I am always afraid of having made mistakes in previous publications or in future ones. This fear can be very general, ranging from the theoretical model used up to the interpretation of my results or limitations of my model. This can be sometimes very paralyzing resulting in “rechecking” previous work or being afraid of starting a new project because of the fear of invalidating my own results. I guess these feelings are in some limited form natural to a PhD. However, last year I noticed that they were extreme and decided to take some action. So I got some counselling, decided to take some time of (on doctors’ advice of course), lost some weight and started doing fitness (to boost my self-esteem) and decided to follow an evening paramedic course. All these things seemed to help to some extend providing me some “purpose” besides from doing my PhD and showed that life is more then writing papers (with potential mistakes in them).

However, in my feeling my relation with my supervisor is very problematic. I feel that over the years of doing my master thesis and PhD our relation deteriorated drastically. He can be very rude in his e-mails focussing exclusively on the bad points of my work and the fact that he has to wait too long for his corrections to be done. A few times he has said that my work is just an extension of my master thesis. I find it very difficult to deal with the fact that he always has very negative critique on my work. The critique is always “I am not happy with the work” or “this is not good”. However, when I ask more specifically about what I can do to make it better he remains rather superficial saying that it’s my PhD, not his. A few examples to sketch his behaviour:

  • I took a 10 minute break with a colleague to get some water (around 15:00). We both got a rude e-mail from my supervisor saying: “it’s already 15:00 in the afternoon and you are not in your office. This is not acceptable.”
  • A few weeks ago he called me into his office saying the following about my evening course paramedic: “You need to read your PhD contract”. I asked why. “I do not think it is allowed to obtain a second degree while doing a PhD”. This is definitely not correct.
  • There are some other examples.

The problematic part for me is that all these situations are not really helpful for my fears regarding my research, and they only enhance it. I already played “open card” with him informing him about my problems to deal with my fear and uncertainty. However, this has not really helped improving our relationship. It should be noted that the image I sketch is of course a one sided image of my supervisor. After talking with some colleagues I became aware that he sends similar emails to my colleagues and his behaviour is universal. Some close colleagues tell me to not take it personal and move on. Honestly I tried this but for me it very difficult not to take it personal. To story of a suicide under his supervision (and the legend that my supervisor used to be even worse before that) is making the situation even more dramatic for me. I did not look into the evidence whether this really happened but the mere fact that the story circulates in our group haunts me.

My question(s)

If you have additional questions about the background feel free to ask. The COVID-19 crisis creates a very difficult period for everyone including me. As for many other people I can assume this period boosts fears and uncertainty’s. The same applies for me. However, the last few months I found myself in sort of a deadlock. I want something to change in my situation, I have a few options but none of them have my preference.

  • Sit-out my PhD. Although I still have some sporadic feelings of happiness while doing research they are quickly blurred by fears and uncertainty’s. I found it sometimes very difficult to motivate myself resulting and very unproductive periods of time resulting in me being frustrated in turn resulting in conflicts with my life-partner and family.
  • Quit my PhD. A PhD is something a really wanted to do when I started with my bachelor. When quitting my PhD I am afraid to be seen as a failure. What should I tell other people and how should I deal with this failure myself are questions I find difficult to answer. Since this was something I really wanted to do from the start of my education I find myself confronted with the question “what should I do after this failure”. I am sure I have some other talents but I find it difficult to find or appreciate them at this moment.
  • Taking the problem to a higher level. I could take this problem to some higher level at the university trying to find some solutions over there. Maybe they could try to arbitrate between my supervisor and me. I find this option difficult since it will involve other people into the whole situation.
  • Other suggestions.

I have come to a point where none of my solutions in my mind seem to be preferable. I would appreciate a neutral analysis of my situation from other people “in the field”. For me it is of course impossible to that.

So in short:

(a) What is your analysis of my situation.

(b) What are possible options to deal with this situation.

If my questions are not appropriate for the academia stackexchange please let me known how I should change them accordingly.

I really appreciate your consideration of my situation.

  • 1
    I too had some similar existential worries during my PhD (although I luckily have a supportive supervisor). I recently won some funding to spend a couple of months abroad working with a collaborator, and the change of scene and slightly different topic has really helped my perspective. Could you try something similar? My other suggestion would be to change supervisor, asap. – astronat Apr 14 at 10:27
  • How far are you into your PhD? Furthermore, the concern about making mistakes is normal and healthy for a scientist. However, accept that you may make mistakes and simply define for yourself what stages you want to go through to minimise the chances for errors. Then, discuss your work with trusted colleagues to poke for possible weaknesses. Once passed, accept that this is what you submit to the very best of your knowledge and send it off with godspeed. As for your supervisor, that's a different story. Do you have the option to switch? – Captain Emacs Apr 14 at 12:58

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