So, to provide a bit about my background, I did an undergrad degree in mathematics from 2010-2014, and started a PhD immediately afterwards and dropped out after 9 months due to it not being a good fit. I then spent a year training to become a maths teacher in Further Education (so high school level) and did this as my full-time job for a couple of years afterwards. Even though there were parts of the job I quite enjoyed, I didn't find it ultimately so rewarding that I was willing to make a permanent career out of it, and I felt that the challenges were coming from all the wrong places (e.g. the maths wasn't difficult but behaviour management and keeping on top of all these performance measures definitely were). I then applied to a much better PhD programme in 2018, at one of the world's top universities, and was offered a fully-funded place, much to my delight. This was much more in line with my original mathematical interests and so far my experience at this university has been mostly positive.
I am now nearing the end of my third year of my PhD (and have another year left - I joined a doctoral training centre so I am effectively in my second year of my research project) and I seem to have hit a bit of a "mid-PhD crisis". I am 29 years old, and all the others in my close circle of friends from home have either bought a house, gotten married or are soon to have/are having kids (or more than one of these). Whilst I am not absolutely sure myself that I want these things, I feel like I am in a sense "lagging behind" many people my age in terms of life experience more generally, and especially since COVID restrictions are being lifted in the UK I have been a bit desperate to go to social events, look for partners, or other things which provide instant gratification.
Over the last month or so this has been affecting my productivity quite a lot. My current lack of productivity is being compounded by several things:
- Lack of self-esteem about my academic abilities and feeling like I haven't achieved very much (even though in the grand scheme of things I have excelled academically compared to most people)
- Feeling perpetually "rusty" or like there are things that I should know but still slip up on (e.g. forgetting things that first/second-year maths students know very well)
- Feeling incompetent (I keep making silly mistakes, and people have previously called me out on getting something wrong that they wouldn't have expected me to)
- Feeling very self-conscious by comparing myself to others in my cohort, who have published at least one paper or are in the process of doing so (whereas it feels like I am a long way towards publishing anything and I am facing casual questions from others about whether my work thus far can be turned into a paper)
- Feeling like I am "disabled" or "weak" compared to most other grad students due to a complex health situation (e.g. ASD, anxiety, depression, sleep apnea and suspected ADD) and that my supervisor perhaps doesn't push me very as hard as a result - and may end up letting me graduate out of pity even if my thesis work isn't particularly good or publishable
- Conflicting feelings about whether I want an "exciting" life (e.g. moving and working in different parts of the world, doing postdocs, working in different fields) or a "stable" life (e.g. buying a house close to my hometown, and settling down and staying there and in the same job so I can become proficient at it and turn it into a lifelong career)
- Conflicting feelings about my suitability for research (e.g. due to aversion to reading papers unless absolutely necessary, needing quite a bit of support and encouragement from my supervisor in working through difficult problems, and finding uncertainty and open-endedness unsettling)
- Feeling that I still struggle with quite a few things that I also struggled with about a decade ago (like ringfencing different aspects of life, managing my time, sticking to a routine and documenting my progress)
- Uncertainty about what sort of career I want afterwards (e.g. in academia, industry, data analytics, quantitative finance, or even a menial job that doesn't even require an undergraduate degree) and what sorts of life these would afford
- Uncertainty about what I find most appealing in life (is it intellectual challenge, lots of money for hobbies etc?)
I have been doing a really good job of looking after my mental health during lockdown through diet and exercise (losing 50 pounds) and I have been having almost weekly sessions with a psychotherapist to help me to navigate all my life challenges. My mental health has taken a dip recently because of all the above overwhelming feelings, and even when I was in a brilliant mental state because of my lifestyle, it doesn't seem to have spilled into my productivity or aversion to challenging tasks.
I could really do with some advice. Is it a good idea to explain these concerns to my supervisor and find a way forwards to help me to cross the finish line? I have a mentor who I can speak to in my department who isn't connected to my research project, and I have counselling sessions at the university as well, but I feel like I need some more help navigating all these challenges.