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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.

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    You've made this so personal and individualized that it is impossible to give advice. Seek it from a professional or from people you know well and who know you well. The values are yours alone. – Buffy Jun 14 at 13:13
  • The point of SE is to answer questions whose answers are useful to people other than the person posing the question. We don't give purely personal advice. – Alexander Woo Jun 14 at 15:31
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    The harsh truth is that there is only going to be so much help available to you. A PhD has to be your own work and while your supervisor is there to provide guidance, there must come a point where you "fly the nest" and are able to work and motivate yourself independently. You are doing all the right things by talking to a mental health professional -- perhaps you just need to give it more time. Problems that you've faced for 10+ years are not going to be resolved overnight. In short: keep on keeping on. – astronat Jun 14 at 15:40
  • Sorry to hear your are struggling. You are not alone; graduate school is an inherently challenging time, and the uncertainty of what happens after grad school only makes it harder. It sounds like you are only a year away, so my advice would be to push through, finish your PhD, and also keep thinking about your post-graduation plans; you will feel more settled when you have a permanent position or a path to one. But the only real "question" I see in your post is about whether you can discuss this with your supervisor: for that, see here. – cag51 Jun 14 at 19:58
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    I just wanted to leave a comment of encouragement - I was in a very similar situation. Started one PhD program in math and left due to a bad fit. Taught high school math for two years, loved the teaching but could not deal with the classroom management (teenagers, am I right?) Started a PhD in math fully funded at a different university. Felt like an imposter and felt not good enough. Managed to make friends with some others to vent with, and realized that they, too, felt like imposters... – mathkb8 Jun 15 at 0:59
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First of all, I wish nothing but for you to get back in shape as soon as possible.

I will try to give an answer that is more general, so as to be useful to other people dealing with anxiety or other mental health issues.

(1) You are experiencing FOMO as well as impostor syndrome. Many people across the world are facing the same challenges as you, especially during this pandemic. You probably fear that it's only you who is lost in life, while others seem to be doing fine. In fact, if you talked closely to many of those people who seem to be doing fine, you would find that they are struggling with many other difficult issues. So avoid unfairly comparing yourself to others as much as possible. Focus on your daily self-improvement instead and measure how you are progressing on a daily basis (in writing!).

(2) as someone who has worked in different countries, there is nothing "exciting" about doing postdocs in different countries, unless they are countries in which you are a native speaker (like Anglophone countries). Try doing tax returns in a language that you are not that proficient in! You will find that most of your job opportunities are in such countries: China, Central/North Europe, etc. Unless you feel excited about your research and about taking challenges, I would recommend caution against living an academic "nomad" life. It can be very taxing, stressing, and an isolating experience.

(3) The top-most priority for you right now, is for you to commit 100% to a time-management framework, and devise/write down a step-by-step plan to get you back on track to have a paper published, and complete your PhD successfully. You should write down such a plan within one week, and book enough office time with your supervisor to hash out the details. Regardless of whether or not you will continue in academia, getting some papers published is a necessary condition for completing a PhD in most univs.

(4) I understand that you are feeling down partly due to not having enough opportunities for socialization, but you have to be able to do most of the heavy work in lifting your self up without depending on being validated by others. Sure, we all love to have our work and our presence be validated by others, but you will probably not last very long in academia unless you start to recognize your self-worth (in a humble, non-arrogant way that allows you to be a team player when necessary) as well as the inherent value of others.

(5) Academia is similar to the worlds of entrepreneurship, music industry or architecture: you will be facing failures constantly, and you will regularly have to deal with extremely harsh people (students, for instance!). It is easy for people to claim that one should feel like they "belong" in a certain workplace, or that other people should accommodate to your mental health situation. To be clear, that is impossible: there is no place on Earth where people will accept you without conditions. It is up to you to put as much effort as possible towards "earning" that sense of "belonging" and built it together with others, for example by exhibiting tons of patience when experiencing failures or other people's criticisms/meltdowns.

(6) Whenever you are experiencing some anxiety, the best immediate solution is childish humor. Train yourself to laugh for no reason in moments of apparent crisis! Remember anything from your childhood that made you laugh: Monty Python's Life of Brian, Blackadder, silly cat videos (such as the "mugumogu" channel on Youtube), your favorite memes, etc. Of course, many other advices will apply, like getting enough sunshine, trying to talk with other people on a regular basis, etc. Whatever works for you, keep doing it.

(7) Finally, yes, talk to your supervisor, and any other counseling staff that is at your disposal to help you deal with this situation. But in the end, it all depends on your effort and commitment: other people can point out which "door" you should push (i.e., which methods, approaches might be best for you to pass the PhD), but the door is very heavy and you need to strengthen yourself (mentally and physically!) every day, in order to push that door and get your PhD done, not to mention dealing with the job market!. You can strengthen yourself by seeking everyday to deal with adversity with humor and positivity, by openly admitting that you have self-worth, by expressing to others that they too have value, by taking on the necessary responsibility and duties relevant to your research place, by being of service to others, by showing that you are dependable and can be trusted, and that you are committed to your self-improvement in times of adversity.

Do your best, and take care.

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