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I'm one year into my PhD, but doing mainly side-projects so far, that brought me a couple of publications in high impact journals. Happy so far.

I have my annual review in a couple of days and my supervisor put my presentation down in front of the whole lab, it was quite harsh, being really critical of me. It was kind of humiliating and demolished my confidence right before I gave my annual presentation. The PPT was previously approved by my other supervisor but I think he wasn't upfront with me on how crap it was.

I'm aware my background reading is not as advanced as I would like but my supervisor is really pushy with some side-projects he wants me to do (I can code quite well which is rare in my field) although I'm struggling to keep up with my actual project.

We have weekly lab meeting, and everytime he mocks that some of the side projects are on the waiting list but all I'm trying to do is catching up with my own project.

I don't know how to communicate with him, I do care about my PhD a lot but unfortunately it becomes increasingly more difficult to dig myself out. My mental state is getting worse as well.

I hope I was able to paint the whole picture here. I felt really unmotivated to work for the past two weeks. Not sure what I'm doing and this kind of scares me. I never thought I'll be a weak PhD, I always got good feedback on my presentations and ability to sell my project however I'm regressing at the moment. Do you have any advice? :)

P.S Doing my PhD in the UK, have two more years left.

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    After the side projects brought you publications in high-impact journals, could you re-define your main project to be about them? Mar 30, 2022 at 6:41
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    How is your supervisor's manner the rest of the time? Some can be really rather cutting in feedback on presentations and the like, while believing they're acting in your best interests, and I wonder if that could be the case here (especially as you've got published work already)
    – Chris H
    Mar 30, 2022 at 9:16
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    Generally it is better to get strong feedback within your group rather than at a conference presentation. Learn from it and correct going forward. Presentations and public speaking are hard and take work to improve.
    – Jon Custer
    Mar 30, 2022 at 15:48
  • Thank you all, my supervisor explicitly said to take off the published data from my annual progress presentation and talk more about my topic. The thing is I didn't spend that much time on my topic so far.
    – Sammy
    Mar 31, 2022 at 12:55
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    But more than this there is friction between him and my other supervisor. One of them is telling me that's good that I already have so many collaborations and the other one's telling me the lab is taking advantage of me, making me do small computational jobs instead of learning to conduct my own research. It is difficult being in the middle. They are both connected in university so I can't really start ranting around. They also disagree on the questions of my research, if I take one's advise, the other one would call what I'm doing non-sense. My plan B is to become a Python developer.
    – Sammy
    Mar 31, 2022 at 13:06

3 Answers 3

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It is all too common to be buried under side projects. And it is an important part of being an independent researcher - or, indeed, a functioning adult - to learn to say no. Time management is incredibly hard. Some advisors like to make a point about that, and I have a feeling you have exactly this type of advisor.

"But when do I do my own research if I have four side projects to take care of and you say they all are urgent?!"

"Not my problem."

Learn to set your own priorities and push back on assignments as needed.

There is not much you could do right now except for learning your lesson. Getting harsh critique for your presentation may be a good thing to have. It is supposed to build up resilience and starting to look after yourself first and foremost. These people did not like what you have accomplished, so what? What is in it for you? What do you need them to do for you to have a successful career? How do you go about that?

If you do not put your own research interest first, no one would. Framing it as "taking advantage of you" is another way of saying the same, but it is not about shifting blame, really. This is about you and your research.

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  • Thank you! I'll take that on board. If I change attitude now, I only lost one year. Hopefully two years will be enough for me to save it.
    – Sammy
    Apr 1, 2022 at 11:45
  • @Sammy Don't stress it, those things take time. Some of those realizations commonly only start to come by the end of the PhD, if not later. Independence carries a huge burden of responsibility, many, if not most, people vastly prefer the "I'll do as I'm told and my life will be good" approach. For PhDs, especially more ambitious ones, it is not the case. And it involves a lot of soul searching. Good luck!
    – Lodinn
    Apr 1, 2022 at 19:16
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Build confidence

First of all, build confidence in yourself. After all, you have been working so hard and you have publications also. Unmotivating things happen in life, but life must go on. Don't be dishearted. You can gain only if you get up with more confidence.

Give improved presentation

Once I gave a presentation and professor disliked it. I noted the points he disliked and what he expected. So I requested him that I wanted to improve my presentation. He gave me one week. I studied and made a new presentation improving the points he disliked and adding more he was expecting. He was happy.

Side project as main project

You have some publications in a side project and your supervisor is pushing you to do that. Can you ask your professor to make it as the main project?

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  • Thank you, that is good advise, I don't shy away from critical feedback usually, yes, giving public talks is not easy and it takes practice and experience. In this case, though, I got messy, angry feedback right before having the actual presentation and they left it like that which made me go "what was that?". I was trying to take notes as he was speaking but he started attacking me towards the end of it. That's gonna be two long years ahead.
    – Sammy
    Mar 31, 2022 at 13:22
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I'm aware my background reading is not as advanced as I would like but my supervisor is really pushy with some side-projects he wants me to do (I can code quite well which is rare in my field) although I'm struggling to keep up with my actual project.

Be aware that your supervisor is exploiting you for your coding skills, and probably you're happy to help since you feel more in your comfort zone doing it, possibly giving yourself an excuse to procrastinate on your main work.

Doing various things in the first year is not unreasonable, but you should be clear with yourself and with your supervisor about where your priorities stand. It's possible that the supervisor will try to keep exploiting you this way. In this case, depending on the relationship, try to make them give you a clear plan, so that they see themselves the problem. If they're unable or if this turn to clear abuse, you may have to go to the ombudsman (or any person with this kind of role).

Btw it's possible to hire programmers, maybe the supervisor should budget that in his projects instead of counting on you. Of course it's not the same cost...

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