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TL;DR

I have made little progress in the time I started working as a PhD student (few months) and I need a lot of help from my supervisor (the professor). I get the feeling that I - or my lack of progress - is starting to annoy them. I sometimes have to correct mistakes in their emails, which makes me feel bad because I am only a PhD student and this makes me hesitate and question what the right approach for this is.


I'm a PhD student in a natural science in Germany. I started about one year ago and so far, I have not been able to produce any meaningful publishable results. I have only worked on reproducing already published results. The idea was that my own project would be build upon these published papers which were written by my supervisor (the professor) and their collaborators. My project is funded by an external funding organization.

Until about two months ago, I really enjoyed working on this project, even though I did not make any significant progress. However, back then it seemed as if there were only a few steps left until I can start working on my own results. That has changed and now I am quite disoriented. Of course failure is always an important part in science. However, normally I have at least some idea of where the problem is, for example in the code I use for numerical calculations. This is not the case this time. I have made thorough checks of every part and I don't find the problem. My supervisor is quite sure that the approach I am following should work and I also don't see why it shouldn't. My next idea would be for example to politely ask her to implement a simplified version of the code so that we can see if I have a bug somewhere.

Overall, they have been very kind and helpful so far. I feel like my performance was very bad over last months since I graduated. This is also partially due to mental health problems and the ongoing pandemic. I was seeking professional help for these problems but I only "made it" onto the waiting list of a psychotherapist and it seems I will have to wait. As an example, due to the pandemic, the transition between being an undergraduate and actually working as a PhD student and research assistant was so unspectacular that I don't really feel like I "made it", i.e. graduated.

I get the feeling that my supervisor starting to get annoyed with me. During a group meeting a few weeks ago, they sounded exasperated when I started talking about my (way to small) progress. They did not make any comments about my lack of progress in front of the others or told me about it explicitly, but I still got the feeling. I could not make out whether it was because of me and my failure or because of the problem itself since they were also trying very hard to help me and ultimately this problem was solved.

I am starting to get the feeling of "stepping on their toes" because of all the help I require to get it working. A few days ago I received a mail where they wrote something that was clearly wrong from a mathematical standpoint (in my opinion at least) and I thought about how to best respond to that so as not to upset or even anger them in the slightest way or to come off as supercilious. I am only working there for a few month and the topic is also new to me. Therefore, I am always afraid when "correcting" something as they as a professor should certainly know better than me who just started working on this topic a few months ago. From their response it was quite unclear whether they understood the problem.

There are three problems with this...

  1. If I am correct when I correct them (or rather "make careful suggestions") I will definitely feel sorry for them because they thought that this would be a good method of solving the problem. In a way, the overall methodology is anchored in the project which was set up by them. Furthermore, I will now have to find a workaround for the problem at hand which is not that bad because I like working on the project but it would still be a small setback
  2. If they were correct then I come of as somewhat arrogant if I am note careful enough especially since I am already way behind on progress.
  3. If they don't understand what I mean or still think they are right even if they are not, I will have to "keep digging". This is the worst outcome because of the points mentioned above. My remarks that "what they write is wrong" would only come of as annoying.

As previously mentioned, a smaller part of this, such as discussions is part of "the normal academic process" and science in general. My personal problem is that I am feeling like "the new guy who is unable to get results and always needs help".

In summary, I guess my question would be, how to handle these problems properly. How much "necessary help" is normal and what would be too much?

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    Very long. Can you write a summary? – Captain Emacs May 27 at 18:58
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    Sounds like you're making a lot of assumptions that should be tested by clear communication with your supervisor. – henning May 27 at 18:59
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    I got the impression from reading this that you started your PhD with a lot of respect for your supervisor, perhaps believing that due to their senior position they would not make mistakes in research. In fact, senior people can be wrong just as often as the less experienced, and there's nothing wrong or troubling about that, as long as the mistake and solution are clearly communicated. Overall, I agree with henning: all of this uncertainty can be resolved if you and supervisor work on your communication problems. – astronat May 27 at 20:47
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    Also, it's impossible to be way behind on progress only a few months into a PhD. Wait until your seventh year. – henning May 27 at 20:58
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    Love it when a PhD student finds a flaw in my thinking and can communicate it clearly and effectively/come up with a better solution. This is a form of pulling your weight. The faculty member probably put 5 min into thinking about the problem so it is no surprise that you (who have been thinking more and harder about it) have a better take. – Dawn May 27 at 21:23

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