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I'm a second year computer science PhD student. I switched research areas during my third semester and did an independent study with Professor X. He basically gave me a bunch of papers and textbooks to read so I could get up to speed on the field and told me to ask questions as they come up. Things did not turn out too well because (1) everything moved online (COVID) and (2) I had a breakdown, ultimately resulting in me barely communicated with Professor X. I'm in a small reading group he leads, so he knows I still exist, but we have not actually exchanged speech in months.

To briefly explain the breakdown: I grew up with alcoholic and abusive parents and had everything under control for years, but my emotions just exploded out of nowhere. I've been seeing a therapist, and I am faring much better now.

I did read the papers and most of the textbooks, but it took much longer than it should have because of my breakdown. I also came up with a few research questions I'm interested in pursuing, but I don't know how to proceed after ghosting Professor X for months. I want to hear what he thinks of them, and if he thinks they're good, ask if he has any advice. However, I imagine he does not have a favorable opinion of me right now. I'm not sure if a professor would want to work with a student after something like that, and quite frankly, I feel horrible. I emailed him to see if we could meet, saying that I fell off track last semester and want to make better progress. I haven't received a response yet, and I do not know if this was the right way to proceed.

What can I do to help this situation? How should I explain my lack of communication without providing personal details? Will I have to find a different professor to work with? If anyone can offer any advice/insight, I would greatly appreciate it.

Note: Professor X is not technically my advisor at this stage, but I use that term in the title for brevity.

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    "I'm not sure if a professor would want to work with a student after something like that" - just to be clear, "something like that" from your advisor's perspective refers to your lack of communication over several months? Or is it that by "emotional explosion" you are referring to something outwardly, rather than inwardly, directed - perhaps towards this advisor or among others in the lab? – Bryan Krause Feb 23 at 0:29
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    I'm referring to the lack of communication. It was quit unprofessional of me. When I say "emotional explosion," I mean regularly crying in my apartment by myself :) – renaissance-man Feb 23 at 0:52
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    If they were repeatedly trying to contact you and you brushed it off and ignored them, that's one thing and you would owe an apology. Quite different to just be uncommunicative. In addition to Buffy's answer I'd suggest just worrying a lot less about it and moving on with the future in mind. – Bryan Krause Feb 23 at 0:55
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    If this is really Professor X, then I'm pretty sure that he already knows how you feel. – RBarryYoung Feb 23 at 17:55
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    Professor X is not technically my advisor at this stage, but I use that term in the title for brevity. It's more confusing than anything. If you haven't spoken with a collaborator in months, that can be normal. If you haven't spoken with your advisor in months, that's a big problem. Have you ignored Professor X's attempts to make contact, or have you simply not had any contact with them? A collaborator won't necessarily "check up" on you like an advisor will. – J... Feb 24 at 19:01
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It should be enough to explain your absence with "I've been ill for several months, but am better now". You don't really need to go in to details. If asked, just reply that it is very "personal".

The professor may need some assurance that you will be effective going forward, but really has no need to know details.

And, of course, you should say you've been somewhat (at least) productive in the interim.

And keep contact with the professional counselor through any necessary transition.

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    Just to add on, you should do this right away. I know it can be tempting to avoid difficult things; your advisor may very well require some soothing. But delay makes it worse, not better. – Jeff Feb 23 at 4:08
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    Do this unless your therapist says do something else; then follow therapist's advice. – Anonymous Physicist Feb 23 at 5:26
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    It's also worth saying: this is definitely a smaller deal from the professor's perspective than it is from yours. The professor has almost certainly (a) not spent much time thinking about it (b) seen/heard of similar situations before. It's scary for you, but be aware that some of that is just your own perception of an objectively more minor situation. – dbmag9 Feb 23 at 23:32
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    The only correct answer from your supervisor should be sympathy, understanding, and support to rejoin your work. If they need "soothing" or reassurance of your ongoing productivity even while ill, that would be quite pathological. When a field or industry as a whole regards this as normal we call that whole working environment pathological – benxyzzy Feb 24 at 15:05
  • I agree with this course of action because (a) it provides an understandable explanation about the cause of previous absence, and (b) it focuses on the future and accomplishing work together, which is what is important. – J. Roibal - BlockchainEng Feb 24 at 18:51
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I'd also go through some channels at your university that offer support to students going through difficult times in their lives. Having referred yourself to them will lend you some support in case things get hairy, because it will (partially) legitimise your lack of communication. That said, I disagree with Buffy, in that you shouldn't hide the issue so much from this professor. We're all human at the end of the day, and it would be a welcome approach to just be a little more candid with what you've gone through. This doesn't mean you have to reveal every detail, far from it in fact, but don't just say that you had "personal issues". That sounds like a copout and may make you look like someone who's just finding easy excuses for their lack of progress. Finally, I'm sure that them seeing you being able to overcome your issues and be ready to get to work again will display you in a positive light, as it will highlight your determination and desire to continue your work. I've seen people quit PhD's over far less.

You're a trooper, stay strong, chin up. There's always a light at the end of the tunnel. As someone who has suffered from depression for numerous reasons (partially down to parental issues as well), I can only empathise but at the same time remind you that no matter how hopeless the situation may feel, it's never the end of the world. :)

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A very similar thing happen to me in my 3rd year (of 5), but I was able to go on to complete my PhD with my advisor nonetheless.

If reconnecting directly is too uncomfortable, try reaching out to your program coordinator, trusted fellow PhD candiate, or friendly professor to help start the conversation back up again. PhDs are hard, and pandemics are also hard! It sounds like your heart and your efforts are in the right place, and better than that, you are taking steps to fix this! There's no reason you can't reconnect!

My story: My advisor went on sabbatical for a year to another continent, and I had my research problems to figure out. I became quite dejected with my studies, and stopped communicating with my advisor for maybe 9 or 10 months. I continued with my own studies, but struggled to make progress and gain traction with any particular topic. In the end, another professor (to whom I am very grateful) reached out to me to see where I was at, and help me reconnect with my advisor. It was an awkward first conversation, and I was put on probation by the program coordinator (a well-deserved kick in the butt for me!) but soon things were back on track.

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A few months isn't that long on typical academic timescales. In my experience, a few months of silence between collaborators on non-urgent matters can happen, and are not a big deal at all. I am currently waiting to hear from some people I've sent stuff to months ago, and there are even more people I really ought to get back to[1].

When reestablishing contact, a simple "Sorry for the delay in getting back to you" or "My apologies for the long silence, I had stuff going on" is enough. If you are confident that you'll be back to quick response times from now on, you can add something like "Things should be better now, and I'm keen to get back into our project."

There are two caveats where some[2] remorse would be in order:

One, if your silence led to missed opportunities mattering to the collaborator. If you had planned to submit results to a conference as a joint paper and missed the deadline, or a grant application couldn't go ahead. Pointing out that you just couldn't would be appropriate.

Two, if you ignored "welfare check" style emails. In this case, thank the person for their concern and apologize for having caused them worry.

[1] If you are of them, and are reading this: My apologies for procrastinating here.

[2] But not too much. Based on how the question reads, half of OPs current remorse is definitely enough.

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First of all you are paying for your tuition, so ask about and use whatever support channels are open to you. Speaking from experience of abuse, my biggest challenge was the need for acceptance and a lack of self esteem.

  1. You will need soft skills to succeed as a programmer, so treat thesis a learning opportunity.
  2. In 2 to 3 years having gained your degree, this motor bump in the road will seem like that, not like the mountain it feels like now.

I am looking back form a perspective of almost 40 years, I have been programming for 20 of that.

If you give yourself the freedom to heal things will get better, focus your goals and how you want a better life for your children. I was able to give my son many of the things I did not have. He came out of univ. with a Masters in Physics and a Masters in intelligent Systems engineering.

You can do it, just be gentle on yourself and don't worry too much, within reason, what others think.

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    "First of all you are paying for your tuition" - it's pretty unusual for a PhD student to pay their tuition. "You will need soft skills to succeed as a programmer" - there is no evidence that OP wants to succeed "as a programmer" or that soft skills are what they are in need of. It really looks like you've written an answer here for a completely different question. – Bryan Krause Feb 24 at 17:59
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    Welcome to Stack Exchange Academia! Please don't be too discouraged by the down votes and criticism of your supportive message.Unlike other online communities, answers are supposed to be very focused, responding specifically to the question that was asked (how to approach one's advisor). – Ellen Spertus Feb 25 at 2:03

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