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Is it normal to be put down in your first year of a PhD?

I won't lie, there's been a massive learning curve for me this year to get used to how things are done at this level. Even simple things like writing papers, reports and presentations demands a standard I'm not very used to.

Maybe I'm just being self-conscious and potentially reading the situations wrong but I always leave supervisor meetings feeling exhausted and somewhat put down if that makes sense? Like yesterday, my supervisor seemed very cold and distant, only offering criticisms of my work. Maybe it's just me?

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  • Are the comments from your supervisor focused on the work, or personal put-downs?
    – Buffy
    Dec 14, 2021 at 19:45
  • Both, they criticise my work and me as a researcher Dec 14, 2021 at 19:45
  • Or are the "personal" ones just criticism of things you should have done but didn't? High expectations, not fulfilled?
    – Buffy
    Dec 14, 2021 at 19:47
  • @AzorAhai-him- Yes, imposter syndrome is very possibly part of it. But I don't know enough yet to close on that basis. There may be an objective element. Clarity would be helpful.
    – Buffy
    Dec 14, 2021 at 20:13
  • If you are feeling depressed and it is affecting your work, then talk to a professional. Many universities have a counseling office for things like this.
    – Buffy
    Dec 14, 2021 at 22:41

3 Answers 3

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The first year of a PhD program is very different to the years of your undergraduate program. During an undergraduate degree, you are working through a fixed set of coursework and most of your exposure to the knowledge of your professors is merely that they know the content of this coursework very well. Since you are able to learn the material in each course in a semester (hopefully), this means that you make regular observable progress in bridging the gap between yourself and your professors. Moreover, in this environment you are not really exposed to the full gap in your knowledge compared to your professors.

Contrarily, once you begin a PhD program, you are exposed to an entirely new and difficult set of research skills that will take years to obtain basic competency and decades to master. The yawning chasm between your own knowledge and the knowledge of your professors now becomes much more obvious. Note that the gap is not actually larger than it was before --- it is smaller but it now seems larger. This can cause some first-year PhD students to become depressed or feel inadequate or stupid (e.g., this related question). In regard to what you are feeling, there are a number of things you should bear in mind:

  • Virtually every PhD student starts out being incompetent at research: Most PhD candidates enter the program having one or two undergraduate degrees and maybe a small amount of practice in research. There are a few rare one who start the program from a position where they are already a professional researchers, but this is not the norm. In the standard case, the student coming into the program is not competent enough to do research, and the goal of the program is to teach them enough that they can go on to do unsupervised research work. The entire reason we have PhD programs that last 4-5 years is that it takes this long to teach competency in research (and that is for a student cohort consisting mostly of the top undergraduates who aced their degrees). Not every student completes the program successfully and becomes a competent researcher, but virtually every student starts as an incompetent researcher.

  • This feeling is common for early PhD students: It is extremely common for first-year PhD students to feel overwhelmed by the task ahead of them, and to observe that they are incompetent in comparison to their professors. Indeed, first-year of a PhD is probably the most common time where students go through this kind of crisis. What you are experiencing is a natural reaction to being assigned a difficult multi-year task for which you are presently incompetent, coupled with regular exposure to people who are experts at that task.

  • You are there because the university thinks you can handle this: You would not have been accepted into the PhD program unless you have the underlying skills and track-record to make you a good prospect. Getting through a PhD program is difficult, and there is a substantial drop-out rate, but the students who are selected into the program are the ones that have a good enough track-record in their undergraduate work to give confidence that they have the ability to complete the program. The university professors and selection panels have a lot more experience in this than you, so if they think you are good enough to enter the program, that suggests that you are good enough to enter the program.

  • Good education necessarily involves scrutiny and criticism of your work: Since you are in your first year, it is not surprising that most of the feedback on your work is criticism. At this stage it is common for the student to be doing a lot of things wrong, and you are correct to observe that there is now a standard of work that you are not used to. As a secondary matter, feedback from supervisors is often biased towards the bad parts, because they feel the need to go through criticisms in detail, whereas there is little need to talk about the parts of your work that are good. This means that it is common in PhD supervision to deal with a regular stream of criticisms of your work, and a standard that may seem unattainable when you first start.

    Incidentally, there is a wonderful quote by the psychiatrist Thomas Szasz, that "Every act of conscious learning requires the willingness to suffer an injury to one's self-esteem. That is why young children, before they are aware of their own self-importance, learn so easily; and why older persons, especially if vain or important, cannot learn at all." I try to bear this in mind whenever I am the recipient of a criticism of my work.

  • Take breaks when you need them: Because scrutiny and criticism of your work is such a fundamental aspect of a PhD program, it is important to take breaks and recharge when you are feeling run down. If you talk to the other PhD students in your department, and have open and honest discussions of the criticisms you are encountering, you will probably see that you are all in the same boat. If necessary, you can also ask your supervisor to brief you on what aspects of your work are good, so you can keep track of aspects of your work where you are doing well.

  • It is best not to infer put-downs merely from "coldness": Academics have busy jobs and many stresses and concerns outside of their supervision activities. They frequently have to worry about the progress of papers they are writing, grant funding, administrative responsibilities, teaching work, and various other issues. Like other human beings, academics may be cold or distant in meetings for a range of reasons that have nothing to do with you. Consequently, it is best not to infer put-downs unless they are obvious. (You read questions on this site you will see that some students have had to deal with explicit put-downs from academics; try not to infer put-downs unless they are obvious.)

  • Ultimately, self-confidence comes from competency: In the long-term, feeling self-confidence in your abilities is going to hinge on whether or not you can actually attain competence in a set of skills you can feel proud of and use these to do something of value. Presumably you already have an undergraduate degree (maybe more than one) so you can feel some self-confidence in having attained the skills in those programs. Try to work through the challenges in your present program and be realistic about expectations of progress. Competency will come in time, and self-confidence will follow.

I hope this advice provides you with some perspective on common experiences and expectations for an early PhD student.

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Dimitri, this is a very big question that has probably generated a large number of research studies on questions like dissatisfaction and bullying in academia. The way that you're feeling is sadly very common among graduate students in relation to supervisors and dissertation committees. And new scholars at their first job, in relation to mature scholars. And mature scholars in relation to the administration.

You have to have a tough skin in academia. For a variety of reasons, academics are not a uniformly happy lot. They live in a power hierarchy governed by politics where the people at bottom are not always treated well. I have seen people's careers threatened by others who preferred to sabotage rather than support them.

I'm sure this occurs across all kinds of work, but conditions for academics have gotten worse under neoliberal economic policies that led to cuts in university funding, delegating much of the teaching load to underpaid adjuncts, and a lack of open tenure-track positions. People who feel undervalued pass their resentment off onto the people under them.

What can you do about it? Be tough. Don't let criticism get you down. Translate it into strategies for improvement. Stay positive. Do your best possible work. Ask for clarification and suggestions when you're criticized. Show a sincere desire to improve and ask for feedback to see how you're doing.

Know the difference between supportive criticism, unwarranted grouchiness, and abuse. You do have a right to be supported by your supervisor. The fit between you and your supervisor is important. Personally I wouldn't tolerate a cold, critical supervisor. I would find someone with the qualities that make graduate students feel confident and motivated.

You could always just say to the supervisor, "I sense that you don't really enjoy working with me. Is that something we could discuss, to make sure this is going to work well for both of us?"

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  • 2
    The last paragraph is academic suicide some places and with some people.
    – Buffy
    Dec 14, 2021 at 20:07
  • It can also be academic suicide to put up with a sabotaging supervisor. But you make a good point so let me rephrase my comment to Dimitri: You could ask your supervisor, "I was wondering how you feel things are going as my supervisor." There's no need to confront the supervisor. If things are really terrible, you can quietly approach another professor you know and like and ask if they would like to work with you, or ask that person for advice.
    – Eggy
    Dec 14, 2021 at 20:14
  • Too much of this is just the Rambo Solution. Be tough. Do your best work. Everyone is aligned against you.
    – Buffy
    Dec 14, 2021 at 21:04
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    Rambo solution, interesting choice of words. I've seen a great many mature adults in academia break down emotionally when they were under attack from coworkers, department chairs, and administrators. They describe it as a diabolical war with pathological people. They do have to become very tough and savvy on the job. Any hand holding has to come from outside the institution. I wouldn't say that "everyone is aligned against you," but you do have to carefully choose strategic alliances. What Dimitri needs to do is survive, get his PhD, and leave his university with strong recommendations.
    – Eggy
    Dec 14, 2021 at 21:14
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    The problem in the OP's words: "I always leave supervisor meetings feeling exhausted and somewhat put down. . . . My supervisor seemed very cold and distant, only offering criticisms of my work. Maybe it's just me?" My simple answer: No, it's not just you. Many graduate students feel this way and it's not their imagination.
    – Eggy
    Dec 14, 2021 at 21:25
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Some studies suggest competence and confidence correlate opposite to expectation; the most competent people lack confidence because of their over awareness of what they don't know and the skills they don't have. Might you have imposter syndrome? Many academics do. Combining that with the increased expectations of graduate level work is really tough.

Feeling down through to depression and anxiety are very common in graduate school. It is hard, often isolating, frequently we don't have access to the social supports of our past, and it involves a lot of criticism of work and the academic identity you are deeply invested in. I suggest you take advantage of any support offerings your university has as early as possible so you can develop the complementary psychological skills that will help you thrive, in academia or if you move into an alternative career. It is not just a matter of 'toughen up'. Additionally, a third party who can spend more time with you, can help you work out whether there is a real issue going on with your advisor as a seperate issue. Maybe a co-advisor who you get on well with could provide the balance you need.

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