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Background: I am finishing up my PhD. I'm lucky to be at a good school and my PhD was funded by a competitive scholarship. I have published work from my master's in humanities as a solo author, and as a co-author, I have published a conference paper in CS. But I feel a tremendous amount of stress to have work published in my own field.

The problem I am trying to be resilient for is that my supervisor, who is very warm and friendly, has basically contributed nothing to my PhD. I ask for feedback and they say "looks good!", no matter what I've done. I plead for help from whomever else in my department has five minutes to spare, and I have gotten so much more care and feedback from these people (who are less senior, already overworked, and in objectively less in a position to help me than my supervisor is), although my supervisor is an author on my work.

I understand this hands-off approach can be a sign of confidence, but my very first submitted manuscript was recently rejected by a journal. My supervisor, who doesn't appear to know exactly what is in the manuscript, wrote me to say "don't worry, if we produce major revisions, we might still be able to publish!"

I got a lot of the constructive feedback I desperately needed from the reviewers, but I don't actually agree with the primary reason why it was rejected, which is more to do with theory/experimental philosophy. So I feel a combination of shame (it was a non-blinded review) that I made rookie errors that my supervisor didn't help me to catch, but also I bristle that my supervisor is so quick to accept the overall outcome, without having contributed or helped or potentially even knowing what the manuscript is trying to achieve. One of the kindly non-supervisors in my department who read it and gave me feedback said they disagreed with the reviewers (as regards the theoretical reasons for rejection) and that I shouldn't change, but should work in the helpful criticism and then submit elsewhere.

So, here is where I am at. I have suffered a large blow to my confidence, I have multiple PhD chapters that I am trying to develop into manuscripts all by myself, and I feel like I am clueless and overwhelmed by the amount of work that is. I am also worried this will make finding a post-doc very difficult. Since getting my first manuscript published has been hundreds of hours of lonely labour so far, I am starting to wonder if it is silly of me to think I can also produce all these other papers on my own.

My ultimate question is, how can I stay resilient and get myself out of this situation, and find my momentum again? It feels like I started my PhD with so much optimism and and I really love research. I know I could work in industry or government, but I want to continue in this field. I just don't know if I am failing to read the writing on the wall, or whether I need to change tactics, instead of just slogging along, by myself, writing naive manuscripts that will be rejected and continue to pile up.

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    The first one is always the hardest. The more experience you get writing and submitting papers, the better you will be able to anticipate and pre-empt potential reviewer questions and comments.
    – astronat
    Apr 27 at 10:04
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    Tangentially curious : 'I know I could work in industry or government' - why? Do you feel the supervision is generally better there or people are less busy? I'm slightly apprehensive that your mindset may dictate how you respond to the situation in question. Apr 27 at 10:10
  • @AppliedAcademic What I mean is that I have options (my skills are broadly applicable), and yes, many ex-academics from my field claim that they prefer the support, salary, and working hours found in industry. I try to steer clear of academic Twitter for this reason, as I find the mood there to be "grass is always greener". I worked outside of academia for years before returning to grad school, and I prefer it in here!
    – stck8888
    Apr 27 at 11:35
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@Lighthouse keeper made a very good point about finding a co-advisor. I strongly agree with the comment of @astronat, since the research doesn't always happen (doesn't often happen, never happens, shouldn't happen) in the closed system student-advisor. Finding a less senior but more responsive colleague to work with is a perfectly normal way to go, even at the end of the PhD.

Of course you can start with a frank discussion with your supervisor that you need more supervision/feedback/structure in your relationship. I've seen that work - PhD advisors often develop a mental image of a person that needs to be corrected: "this person will benefit from a liberty of doing whatever they like" is sometimes a great assessment, but sometimes it is a complete misreading on the advisor's part. Do note however that in such a discussion the advisor may become defensive, and even if he agrees there's no guarantee that they'll actually change their behavior. Humans are complex and so are supervisors.

In short - it's good to raise the issue with the supervisor as soon as it starts to bother you, but also not to rely solely on them changing their approach, and reaching out to other people (from fellow students to the faculty of other universities that work on the subject) to discuss your research.

But this is fairly general advice. To be a bit more specific (although you don't write, if the feedback you need is about language/experiment design/methodology/useful resources/books... so the following might not really apply) about your situation right now, I would suggest presenting your work at seminars/conferences (the pandemic at least made that easy - you don't need to travel to speak at a seminar anywhere in the world). You might get a fairly decent feedback, if you mention that you are preparing the presented work for publication (at the very least you may be able to find out who else would be interested in your research = where to submit it). Ask your colleagues and supervisor if they can set you up with their acquaintances in this way.

Lastly - but this is the main point of my answer - don't overthink it. I was alarmed by you writing about shame, because the reviews were non-blinded. I cannot stress enough that this is no reason for any sort of embarrassment: depending on the field it is already a win for a PhD to a) get to the review stage, b) get some constructive remarks out of the reviewers (instead of "me no like, reject"). I certainly would like to see how minuscule a percent of users here can boast that their first paper was solo and accepted outright. At this stage, for the most part, the publication proces is unfathomable and one rejection (several rejections) don't say anything about the quality of your work, needles to say - even less about your quality as a researcher. The advice "make revisions, submit elsewhere" is spot on.

Moreover, it is highly likely that the quality of your work will increase over time, and the corollary is that it won't probably be great at the beginning of your career, and therefore that should not be a reason to doubt yourself. That the people fail to acknowledge that we all learn how to conduct research/write papers/write readable papers in acceptable style and language as we go, and are not expected to start with inhuman levels of competence - is the single most common (and heartbreaking) reason people drop out too early from research. While it would be splendid to have an advisor that teaches how to be a scientist, it is so very often not the case and it's perfectly OK to write your first papers with a "how to write research articles 101" book in hand (in maths we have Jerzy Trzeciak's booklet published by EMS, and I am very fond of it).

So the second piece of advice would be to consult your colleagues if your field (or any adjacent) has such a book, they often have a copy:)

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  • Thanks for this, it makes me feel less alone and that I didn't trash my one opportunity! I think part of the shame and discouragement I feel came from the sense that this was an unusually poor outcome, but from what you describe, it's maybe a little more common than I thought. And I am sure any other graduate students out there reading this will also benefit from your answer.
    – stck8888
    Apr 27 at 14:55
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I am in a very similar situation and I can feel how you feel. I finished my PhD last March and although I have published one small paper already, I have been struggling to finish the main paper of my thesis. On top of that, I am doing a post-doc and I feel like both my paper writing and my post-doc work are way below par because I cannot focus in any of them 100%. I am struggling to do both and all I get is pressure to finish the manuscript without anyone really contributing.The funny thing in my case is that my current post-doc supervisor, was the second supervisor of my PhD. He shares senior authorship with my PhD supervisor in the manuscript I am preparing, (I am actually doing reviews, got major reviews last April that practically required to almost redo the manuscript from scratch including most major analyses). But none of them are willing to help. My PhD supervisor has not even read it. My current post-doc supervisor saw the reviews and told me it is too hard for me, got better things to do, you are on your own. And at the same time they complain why I am not finishing! They do not even know, but I have made a huge amount of work and effort to be able to address the reviews and get the manuscript ready. As mentioned by others in this post, I found someone that is really interested in my work, and I will be moving to their lab next year. Hopefully my future research is not so lonely.

All the best for your future and do not give up. I am familiar with feelings of shame and incompetence (for not being able to finish my manuscript), but we should not give up! Go day by day and you will be able to finish it eventually, and I promise it will feel great :)

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