I had a very difficult personal problem. My head was not in the right place, and outside of getting through my administrative duties, my brain just couldn't function the right way to run wet lab experiments and come up with good research ideas. As a result, I did not work as much as I should have, and when I did I was all over the place. I concealed my emotional pain pretty well, and put up a good face while in the office/lab, so no one suspected personal problems, but my work definitely suffered. My parent's illness looks to be getting better now and after some counseling I feel like my life is back on track.

However, I feel like it is possible that my advisor's opinion of me has greatly declined due to my lack of productivity in the past. Would telling your advisor about personal problems, after they are over, with the intent of the advisor understanding a lack of productivity be appropriate? Would doing so just sound like excuses and make things worse? I assume it would have probably been better if I had mentioned it back when I was going through the problems, but is it a good idea to mention it now, or just cut my losses, work hard and hope he forgets about those unproductive years.

So my question is. When is it appropriate to bring up personal problems with an advisor? In this case and in general?

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    +1 to Edgar Salazar and to your question. Tell your advisor as soon as possible. What you have with your advisor is a relationship. While this is surely not like a romantic relationship nor the relationship you would have with a friend, several good practices for healthy relationships apply with your advisor as well. One of them is to always tell about any issue that is affecting your work-related (PhD-related) performance and behavior. My advisor reaction when I tell him something is always "Thank you for telling me, I feel better now that I know what is going on".
    – user7112
    Commented Jan 19, 2014 at 10:35
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    If your advisor's going to have a declining opinion of your productivity, then it's probably better that they know your current personal situation is extremely stressful rather than letting them assume that you suddenly became lazy.
    – Irwin
    Commented Jan 20, 2014 at 21:07
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    MHH, let us know how you handled the situation :D Commented Jan 27, 2014 at 15:40
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    Basically did as you suggested, the conversation appeared awkward on both ends but I think overall it was a net positive. He said "that you for letting me know" and agreed I should have told him sooner. Commented Jan 27, 2014 at 22:25
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    @EdgarSalazar Here's a follow up from 6 years later. I'm now in a tenure track position at a pretty darn good university. I would have never guessed I'd end up doing as well as I am today. I feel incredibly lucky, but it just goes to show, it is never too late, and we all go through bad spells. Thanks for all of the support. Commented Nov 29, 2020 at 1:08

3 Answers 3


As soon as possible. Problems are made to be transcended, not pushed over time. You already said your adviser is a cool guy, right? Go ahead and talk with him, say the truth.

It's a long said term, even cliche sometimes, but the first step to change is recognizing that you have a problem. You already recognized you have it, so now it's time to fix it. Don't be afraid of what he'll think about you, what really matters is that it's true. If he can't understand your situation, then he doesn't really know how to be a adviser.

Also, you're a student, you're there to learn. Better learn now where you can be mistaken with no serious consequences, then out there, where your problem can really damage you financially and/or much more emotionally, since people don't know how to handle with other people's problems, or know and just don't care.


Well look at it from the point of view of an academic, most of understand that students have problems in their lives outside the lab which can affect their performance in the lab.

The student has a choice.

  1. Fix their problem themselves, if they can do this then fine all is sorted.
  2. Seek help from someone / somewhere such as student health services and then fix their problem there nice and quick, maybe even their supervisor might not notice.
  3. Ask their supervisor for help (or tell them about the problem). Their supervisor may be able to help them, they might not be able to help directly but will point you in the right direction or they might be no help.
  4. Fail to fix problem and then your work will take a nose dive, you may appear to the supervisor as a lazy toad if you disappear from the workplace and do not tell them that you are ill or have a problem.

Now consider the following,

  1. My student has not appeared in the department for two weeks, none of the rest of the group have any idea of where they are. What do I start thinking (hint "lazy toad").

  2. Student has not appeared in the lab for three days, on day three I get a email explaining that they are very ill. They are laid up in hospital and will not be back for over a week. What do I start thinking (hint "Oh dear, my student is ill")

  3. Student comes to me and tells me my child is sick or my dad has just died. Unless I am a totally evil toad, I will give the student some time off and try to help as much as I can.

My advice is to try to establish and maintain a honest and open relationship with your PhD supervisor. They are not the evil toad enemy ! There are somethings you might not feel happy talking about with your supervisor, somethings might not be suitable topics of discussion with your supervisor.

Rather than telling your supervisor that you have embrassing problems like relationship problems (like your partner has just run off with your best friend). You can tell them "I have a serious problem in my life, I will need two weeks to deal with it". While it is not going to be music to the supervisors ears it is better than just vanishing off the face of the earth for two weeks.


Try to communicate with your Phd supervisor and explain the situation. It might be that they might have useful advice and be also able ot help you adjust to the situation and become productive again- some supervisors are really great in also taking care of PhDs issues and nurturing them to fruition, so try to speak to them as soon as possible. This will also help establish a more direct relationship when you might need more emotional support if the issues continue.

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