I could use some advice about my relationship with my doctoral advisors. Some context:

  1. I'm about 1 year and 8 months into my PhD.
  2. My program has relatively heavy course requirements. I have now finished most of my coursework, but much of my efforts until recently were focused on courses.
  3. My field is relatively new, and very interdisciplinary. There are a lot of foundational challenges especially regarding synthesizing methodology from different contributing fields that haven't really been solved yet. My advisor is an expert in one of the fields, but not in the others.
  4. Seven years ago, I was diagnosed with what is essentially schizophrenia and depression. It is still a struggle to manage symptoms, and that is not likely to change. My collegaues know about the issues in generalities, but I have not shared specifics due to bad previous experiences.

With respect to research, I have about 100 typed-out pages summarizing key related/foundational work, outlining my project methodology, system design and research questions. It's a lot of work, and I think it's very useful, but it's not results, and hence no publications. My advisors aren't happy with this.

Besides having no publications, they seem to think that I have focused too much on groundwork, and that my thesis's scope is too large. I know they are right about the scope -- in fact, we recently renegotiated the scope after my initial literature review revealed many unanswered questions that we would've had to address.

Since then, they really want me to (1) get some initial results, and (2) focus on one thing at a time. I am trying to do this, and expect to have initial results within a week. Still, in general, this is a problem for me:

  1. I'm not used to working on one thing at a time. In my experience, working on a project usually involves working on 2-3 sub projects with the intention of integrating them at the next step, so that issues on one sub-task won't invalidate work on other sub-tasks.
  2. I feel like we need a broader vision for where this is heading before we start potentially wasting time heading down one path.
  3. Focusing on one thing is hard for me due to my mental heath issues. I don't always have control over what subject matter I'm able to process. I've found the best way to be productive is to switch between multiple tasks. The problem is related to focus, not to my understanding of the subject matter.

I haven't been able to discuss any of this with my advisors (and the last one in particular would require a discussion of my mental health, which I don't want to do). But leaving it unaddressed is also not working -- whenever I mention anything other than working on this one narrow task that we have all agreed that I should work on, it's shut down immediately under the heading of "you need to focus on this one thing." In fact, this recently led to a condescending and rude email from my advisor, which was really upsetting.

Another issue is an upcoming symposium. The head of my research group recently mentioned an online symposium on a topic that I think will be useful. Further, there is a good opportunity for me to present my "new research directions." I could easily put something together and attend the webinar, but I would have to talk to my advisor first. I have an (I think reasonable) anxiety that if I try to broach this subject, it will immediately be shot down and it will make him even more frustrated.

How should I approach this? Any advice is appreciated.

  • Your post was pretty long and hard to follow, but I think I understand the main points to be: 1) Your advisor wants you to do task X above all else 2) You have not done X yet, for various reasons that include mental health issues. 3) Whenever you talk about anything other than X, he gets frustrated 4) You want to discuss going to a conference, but are afraid it will get him more frustrated. is that a fair characterization of the issue?
    – Daniel K
    Jul 15, 2020 at 0:16
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    "the best way for me to be productive is to be able to switch between multiple tasks at first sign of difficulty" - This strategy might actually be unproductive in research. In my opinion, it is an important skill to become comfortable with feelings of mental discomfort and to know how to break down seemingly overwhelming problems into manageable chunks. If you are struggling with this, perhaps you can try setting a time limit when you feel stuck? e.g. This is difficult and I don't know how to do it, but I will try for 15min/60min/an afternoon before giving up
    – Superbee
    Jul 15, 2020 at 0:45
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    In addition to medication to help manage your symptoms, do you have access to mental health support in the form of therapy? This might be a place to work on your issue of not being able to focus on a singular task. Pushing through research roadblocks is basically a prerequisite to a PhD, and you will need to address this to be successful, imho. Not placing blame on you (your advisor(s) should definitely not be belittling you) but just as a practical point, if you were able to show concrete progress on the topic they want you to focus on, the relationship as a whole will likely get smoother. Jul 15, 2020 at 1:12
  • @Daniel K I should add that task X was asked of me about a month ago, and though I have not finished it yet it's nearly done as I work on it fo most of the day every day. Otherwise that's a good characterization of the issue.
    – exeree
    Jul 15, 2020 at 6:34
  • @Superbee it's not as though every time I reach a roadblock or a challenging issue I stop and leave it for the day. The time limit thing is something I started doing a long time ago - I'm not talking about mental discomfort or a bit of stress. I'm talking about working on something and having my thought process slow down for no good reason, and if I try to push past it, it won't work. I used to be stubborn about it and that led to many evenings of extending my work hours until midnight and getting nearly nothing done after 5+ hours. I'll edit my post to explain this better.
    – exeree
    Jul 15, 2020 at 6:41

1 Answer 1


I think the core issue you are describing is relevant for many PhD students. Your mental health may excabate the effects, but does not seem central to the situation to me.

A PhD is a journey through uncharted territory, and that can feel uncomfortable. So in particular for industrious students, there always is a temptation to to not go where the dragons are yet, but to prepare just a little bit better - maybe read another paper for the literature review, revise the project proposal again, those things. But even within a single field, it will almost always be impossible to read all potentially relevant literature. At some point, a PhD student just has to take the leap.

For me in math/TCS, its just my own time which is on the line when doing research. Sure, maybe if I had read another paper I'd have seen that the theorem is already known, or found an incredibly useful ingredient to make the proof easier - but the time I spent trying to proof it still isn't wasted, as I learn from how I tried it. I'll concede that if you are eg doing experiments with animals or expensive chemicals, you do need to prepare well - but the point remains, at some point you need to do.

Polishing aside, you have 100 pages worth of research proposal + literature review. That is an enormous amount for what I am used to - 30 pages already seems pretty extensive to me. For a supervisor, getting a student to take this leap is something you can influence only in a limited way. So I can empathize with your supervisors frustration (although this doesnt excuse the mean remarks).

When it comes to the issue of preferring to have multiple active tasks, and to work on the best match to one's current mental state: I share that preference, and I think it is explainable very well without referring to any medical diagnosis. The moment to bring that up probably is once you have completed your designated task; and you should make clear that you understand that these tasks need to move you forward.

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    Incidentally, the large amount of typed review material could be made into a review paper, perhaps. So that would make it a good investment of time, and potentially a solid first publication.
    – Martino
    Jul 15, 2020 at 8:27
  • Thank you, this is really helpful. I think I have been thinking of this too much like work (as in, developing something that someone has already done well essentially doesnt count as work because it didn't produce something unique/better), when learning experience is valuable as well. Also it's good to know that switching between tasks is something others find helpful - I've been reluctant to discuss things from the angle of "this helps me be more productive" because it's too close to the subject of my mental health for me to willingly approach...
    – exeree
    Jul 15, 2020 at 11:47
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    @Bzazz While I agree that turning extensive literature surveys into review papers can make sense eventually, I really don't think that this is the what the OP should be looking for as their first publication.
    – Arno
    Jul 15, 2020 at 12:42
  • @exeree Its good to hear the this is helpful. It could make sense to wait for another day to see whether you get an even more helpful response from others. But if this does not happen, you can mark this answer as "accepted" by clicking the little checkmark. [You can change the accepted question later on, if needed.]
    – Arno
    Jul 15, 2020 at 12:44

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