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I am in the third year of a STEM PhD at a top university. My supervisors have all been very happy with my progress since my project started in Oct 2019, and thanks in part to antidepressants and other lifestyle changes, I have shown a lot of positivity and enthusiasm and have done a good job of convincing others that I am doing A-OK. I tend to get very excitable about things that are worth pursuing although my supervisor has flagged up that I still need to tie up loose ends that haven't yet been finished (even though he hasn't explicitly told me what they are).

However, in late November last year (2021) I went through a psychotic episode which landed me in hospital and required me to take some time away from my studies. As a result, I now feel very rusty on quite a few things (including both the content of my work as well as getting into a good working day) and that I need more guidance both with the content and what to be doing at any given moment. The department at my university have been very supportive and want me to succeed, however, I feel like my supervisor at this point could have done a better job of teaching me how to do specific things in research, rather than just leaving me to it. He is very helpful and knowledgeable when it comes to solving problems, but I feel he hasn't done the best job of enabling me to learn how to do things like teach myself content from lecture notes, read research papers, structure my workflow etc. In other words, I wish he "taught me how to teach myself" rather than just sending me a couple of things and leaving me to it, especially because I took several years away from graduate studies after my undergraduate degree. I have been holding my tongue since the start of the project when communicating things he does that are not helpful to me, because I don't want to be seen as someone who is difficult to supervise or who cannot progress without constant guidance.

Given how rusty I am because of my nervous breakdown which has left me unable to do any work for a couple of months, I feel like I need some quite invasive intervention to help me to cross an important milestone in April, but I am struggling to think of a way to communicate this to my supervisor without eliciting any concerns. A recurring issue throughout my project is a general feeling of not having achieved very much, in particular having achieved much less than another candidate at a similar level would have done in a similar position to myself. I feel like everybody else in my cohort has achieved so much more than me, and that they are seemingly not having any problems meeting their deadlines and that they are able to progress independently of their supervisors. It seems like whenever I look at a hint that my supervisor gives, I still keep getting stuck and thinking "okay, what do I do now" and secretly wishing that I was told exactly what to do at every stage so that I didn't need to worry about getting the answer wrong.

I have always had imposter syndrome throughout my studies but recently it has gotten to the point where everything feels like a haze, my mood has dropped and whenever I look at anything related to my PhD I end up having very low emotional stamina and I end up Googling things like "PhD low motivation" or "how to know if you're cut out for academia" or "alternatives to academia after PhD". Conversations with my father seem to be rather circular - in that nothing he says seems to satisfy me, and at my core there is this belief that by doing a PhD I am being educated beyond my own capabilities and that perhaps this episode is a sign that I have pushed myself too far.

What are some tactful ways of communicating with my supervisor that I would like him to take a more hands-on approach to ensure that I make good progress, rather than him leaving the ball in my court all the time?

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    I will avoid an answer, because it may be too abrasive, but I feel you are suffering from the need of external confirmation. For example, who cares about your father ideas? he is a very important person, and he is there, but you are a (young) adult, he lived in a very different world. Secondary, short and direct: a PhD is a learning to independence. If you do shit, it is your responsibility, no one cares, if you do great, it is your responsibility, no one cares. Then, stop comparing with your cohort. No PhD is equal to the others (well, apart from lab's rats, they are all equally slaves).
    – EarlGrey
    Jan 20 at 14:58
  • I'm surprised your supervisor hasn't broached the topic themselves already (e.g. "Glad to see you back at work. Is there anything I can do to help you settle back in?" etc). Have you discussed the situation with them at all?
    – astronat
    Jan 20 at 15:15
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    Can you shorten your post significantly? Large walls of text tend not to attract answers. Jan 20 at 16:00
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    It would help to understand better why you want to do a PhD and what you're expecting to get out of it. Saying something like "secretly wishing that I was told exactly what to do at every stage so that I didn't need to worry" sounds an awful lot like "secretly wishing I was doing something other than a PhD program" and if that's the case go get a different job that would make you happier! Jan 20 at 23:01

4 Answers 4

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What are some tactful ways of communicating with my supervisor that I would like him to take a more hands-on approach to ensure that I make good progress, rather than him leaving the ball in my court all the time?

Simply say so to your advisor in a tactful and polite manner: "I think I need at this point a hand-on approach because of the approaching deadline...".

The point is that your supervisor may not be someone who provides a hands-on approach to PhD students, which is also a legitimate way of supervision. If this is the case, you'll need to work harder and find a way to be more independent in your research.

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I have a lot of empathy for your situation. I also started my STEM Ph.D. in Oct 2019 and also had a breakdown in 2021. One viewpoint that I'm noticing lacking in the other responses is the perspective of "managing up".

"Managing up" is a term borrowed from the business world. In essence, how can you (as the employee) get what you need from your PI (the manager) to make your job easier and your life a little more peaceful? This concept is really helpful in academia since PI's aren't necessarily trained in being good managers. I really think this business perspective is helpful. There are also resources developed for graduate students specifically on the topic of managing up. Just a warning that some of the other articles on managing up from a business perspective that I've come across while writing this response are super toxic.. if you come across one of those please discard and pay it no heed. There's good stuff out there like (hopefully) what I've linked.

Before you set up a meeting with your PI, I would recommend doing the following:

  1. Write down (on a google doc or form your PI can eventually access and keep) what you'd like to talk about (i.e. "I need more help getting back up to speed"), including solutions that you can think of "Can I work with the postdoc in XYZ lab to see how this procedure is done before starting it myself? Can you help me write a timetable for this project?".
  2. Put yourself in your PI's shoes-- look at the questions you've written and imagine how you'd answer those questions if someone asked them to you. Are your requests specific? Could they be broken down into steps that are more realistic for your manager to implement? Modify/edit as needed.
  3. Understand that this is going to be an ongoing conversation. Expect to talk to your PI every 3 months or so to see how you're aligning with your timeline even after your deadline in April.

Managing up requires knowing what exactly what it is you need and asking for it. If you're not sure what it is that you need, start with listing the things that you know and the things that you don't know, and brainstorm how to get there. If all of this sounds too exhausting... I hear you. But your therapist may be able to help you with these steps. The TherapistAid webpage has worksheets that have tips for communication skills, and tips on goalsetting/building habits. All of these things were really important for me during/after my episode.

It sounds like you're taking care of yourself, reaching out to support, and doing the right things. I'm inspired by your story and wish you the best of luck.

Again, best of luck and let us know how it goes.

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... I am struggling to think of a way to communicate this to my supervisor without eliciting any concerns. ... What are some tactful ways of communicating with my supervisor that I would like him to take a more hands-on approach to ensure that I make good progress, rather than him leaving the ball in my court all the time?

You have a number of fairly substantial problems, but this one strikes me as the primary issue that is probably creating/aggravating every other problem. The house is on fire here, so you need to stop worrying about tact. You need to stop being concerned about how you will look to your supervisor and just be open and candid about your present difficulties and needs. Do not concern yourself with whether your supervisor or panel will or won't have concerns and do not agonise over the mode and nuance of your communication --- just tell them what is happening, tell them about the skill deficiencies you have identified, and ask them to provide you with some help or guidance on these issues. If that raises concerns with them (and it may well do this) then that is fine --- you don't fix a problem by hiding it or agonising over non-essentials.

Once you adopt an attitude of open and candid communication (and reducing concern for tact and external perception) you will be in a position to start to fix your other problems. I see three main problems here: (1) you appear to be behind cohort expectations in your ability to self-learn; (2) you have lost some ground and forgotten some things due to time off; and (3) you are dealing with some psychological issues that are forcing time-off and negatively affecting your life and academic performance. Your supervisor already knows about the latter two problems, but apparently not the first problem.

In regard to the first of these problems, I would expect that a student would be fairly adept at self-learning either at the completion of their undergraduate degree, or within the first year or two of a PhD program. To still be having serious difficulty with self-learning in the third year of a PhD program is unfortunate, but it does happen sometimes. In my judgment, you are substantially behind cohort expectations on this skill. This is not an insurmountable deficiency by any means, and I think you could catch up in a year or so if you were to disclose the problem to your supervisor, develop some strategies for improving your self-learning, and focus some attention and time on it. The last problem is outside my domain of expertise, and the second problem is solvable if the other two issues are addressed. Don't be too worried about losing a year or two, but don't treat it trivially either; a year or two of additional catch-up is not huge in the scheme of a career.

Under these circumstances, it does not surprise me at all that you are feeling like an imposter and feeling awful about your degree. What you are feeling is probably rooted in genuine skill deficiencies that you appear to be concealing and hoping will go away on their own. If you open up to your supervisor about your skill deficiencies and make a plan to solve these, you may find yourself starting to make forward progress. If you can do this, you should start to feel better about your degree and it may assist both your substantive progress and your self-perception.

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  • Thanks for this answer - it wasn't necessarily what I wanted to hear but it was certainly what I needed to hear. Something else to consider is that I was recently diagnosed with ADHD, which has gone untreated my whole life and could be a significant contributing factor in why I haven't been able to self-learn and focus well. I sort of hoped that my concentration and self-learning issues would go away if I (a) worked really hard on my project, and (b) if I took care of my mental health. This doesn't seem to be the case. Apr 1 at 7:02
  • Rather than trying to deal with the problem yourself, I recommend you talk to your supervisor. People on this site can offer advice at a distance, but your supervisor is more familiar with you and so is in a better position to help. Good luck.
    – Ben
    Apr 1 at 9:07
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What are some tactful ways of communicating with my supervisor that I would like him to take a more hands-on approach to ensure that I make good progress, rather than him leaving the ball in my court all the time?

Schedule a meeting, and explain this to him directly, in the same way as you are explaining it here. My experience with student/advisor conflicts has been that trying to be overly polite or indirect is not nearly as effective as communicating clearly what you feel isn't going well at the moment, and what could be changed. Of course the basic rules of human interactions still apply - don't be rude, don't assign blame, don't apologize, and stick to the facts of the current situation rather than establishing who did what wrong at what point in time. You are facing a crisis, you feel you cannot do what your supervisor expects you to do at this point in time, and you need more direct guidance to complete in time.

Of course this does not guarantee that your supervisor will agree with you. No matter how clearly you communicate, there is certainly a chance that your supervisor feels they are helping you as much as they can or are willing to. But even in that case it is better to know for sure than to keep wondering if your supervisor is unwilling to help or simply not "getting" you.

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