My question maybe trivial but I really want the opinion of others if the problem is with me or with my supervisor/ the lab.

Half a year ago I started PhD in a small university town in Europe. I am a foreigner that does not know the local language but during the recruitment process they assured me that it shouldn't be a problem (yeah right no lab workers know English and even in the office where I am sitting everybody just ignores me and speak in the local language if they are not addressing me personally). Another problem is that I came from a similar yet different scientific background and I have no experience working with the topic that I got.

I understand that I should work independent on my topic and not rely on others yet this is kinda ridiculous in my opinion that everybody just assumes that I should develop my protocols, starts working and ordering the lab equipment without any supervisors straight away. Of course I try to adapt and I am starting to do research yet as my only help are articles and google. As my daily supervisor just insists that I should be independent from the start. What is even more funny I am working for almost half a year but I haven't even met my "official, main supervisor" and I don't even know what is my project timescheldue. I am constantly just left out of the information loop and get angry or confused stares if I try to ask these questions.

Is it normal? I am not expecting guiding by the hand on every step of the PhD but at least at the start when they know that I have 0 expertise in the topic, would be helpful. Basically, I am almost on the verge of nervous breakdown and feeling like a moron that is wasting time.

  • Who selected your topic? You? Or was it given to you? How much freedom do you have?
    – Buffy
    Mar 28, 2021 at 15:47
  • 1
    I'm seriously wondering what is the attraction of this place. Why do you want to stay? Wouldn't everything be better if you were elsewhere? It isn't you and it isn't the supervision. It is the entire environment. How effectively could Atlas tap-dance?
    – Buffy
    Mar 28, 2021 at 16:49
  • Are you paying your own way through the PhD or do you receive stipend from the supervisors' host organisation? Mar 28, 2021 at 17:00
  • @Buffy First thank you for your answer. The topic is part of gov. funded project. So the topic was selected by somebody else and I fully know what it entails after taking the offer. To put it into context, I applied for a different project but the lab director said that they have somebody in mind for this job and they would be happy to hire me for a different position. Reassuring me that I will learn everything on spot. Why do I want to stay? Well to put in bluntly the salary, especially during corona times is good and the project IS interesting.Just I need some help(or I am too stupid)
    – Gordian
    Mar 28, 2021 at 17:19
  • What effort have you made to find out your rights and to speak to people and tell them what you need? Mar 28, 2021 at 21:47

1 Answer 1


This is mostly advice beyond the scope of the question, but to try to answer the question itself, the entire situation seems horrific and unsustainable.

I don't think it is literally "normal", but I do think the situation is far too common. It isn't really you and it isn't really the PI, but the entire set up from top to bottom. Only a few (and there are a few) doctoral students could thrive in such a situation.

However, along with the bad, there seems to be something good about the current situation or you would have fled by now. A salary is good and avoiding pandemic chaos is good, but I'm not seeing an obvious path, here, to a doctorate.

But, you are early in your studies (half a year). I'd suggest that you spend some effort looking for a better situation, preferably in the English speaking world unless you are fluent in some other language. Even if you were to learn the local language fairly fluently in the next few months, the time to completion in Europe is normally expected to be quite short.

Look at all the options. It would be hard to find a worse one, I think.

  • To be honest it is. I need to mentally brace myself every Monday to even come to work. My daily supervisor's behaviour is also not helping. She tries to be too casual but almost every week she gives 'not serious, joke like' nasty comments about what I wear or even stupid stuff like picture on my desk. Not to make excuses, but I know that I am capable of independent and good work as without any prior knowledge I developed a lab administrative system. Just I need to understand at least what I am doing and how to press further.
    – Gordian
    Mar 28, 2021 at 18:30
  • I really need to think about what I want to do in this messy situation. To be honest I am already considering your solution. Just this situation is an emotional rollercoaster. Thank you!
    – Gordian
    Mar 28, 2021 at 18:31

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