Last year I took my phd in applied math. Now I am 5 months into my first postdoc (different subject from phd but still modeling and some numerics) which is 18 months in total. Both phd and postdoc are in the same country, abroad.

A little bit of history: The first time (during the post doc interview) I was presented the project (which is in mathematical modeling) I was very excited and thought: let's do this. I was told that I would work in a group and have people to help me (including a phd student). So I accepted. The phd student proved to not help me at all. Not because he doesn't want but because he cannot.

In the first 2 months I did some brainstorming, read other people's work, found some possible approach and gave a presentation to the rest of the group about it (still nothing concrete i.e. no numerical results / simulations). When I actually started working on it (like writing equations and code) I started with a very simple case. The thing is, after almost 4 months I am still stuck to the simple case. And I am completely discouraged because I already have my phd! I don't understand what does not work (is it the equations? the code? me?).

The last two weeks I am so stressed, that I can't sleep, I cry for no reason and I have decided to go in the next days to a therapist. Next week I will talk to one of my 2 bosses and tell him that the final model I agreed to give them is something which is absolutely impossible for me to do because even if i find the right equations for the model, I need to code it (which seems too complex because the model is far too complex) and do that of course before the end of my contract. I used complicated codes during my phd but I did not develop them so as to have the experience.

I want to open up because I am tired, demotivated and stressed and I don' t want to do research like that. I am planning to talk to them in order to find a solution that works, otherwise I don't have problem to leave. I will tell them that if they are ok with it the most I can try is to continue working on the very simple problem I am doing now. I think that after such a talk I WILL have to leave (which does not make me very sad because I hate working under such conditions). I am also afraid one of my bosses (the group leader) because I have heard stories about him and a phd student that was in the project before I come. He says that the student was fired because he had a very bad character and also was working on other research projects and not the project he was assigned to (but that's his side of the story).

I have already taken my decision to talk to my bosses openly because I want to act professionally and be transparent. I don't know if they have deadlines or other related stuff to my project, so I don't want to cause them any other problem.

I feel I am totally worthless and stupid because as a postdoc this should have come easier on me. In fact I am thinking that if they throw me out after next week's meeting I will not ever come back to academia.

Do you have any other suggestion? Am I seeing it the right way?

EDIT: If I rephrase my question will you open it? I think it can be usefull also for other people.

UPDATE: In a couple months my contract expires and I have already a first draft of my paper! I guess it was very important that I had a PI that understood that I was freaking out and calming me down was the best strategy in order to help me with the research.

  • 5
    Talking to a therapist is the right move. Getting stuck on a research problem for a few months is not an unusual event and does not need to result in any extreme feelings or major actions. Apr 4, 2022 at 17:03
  • @AnonymousPhysicist I have the impression that my boss thinks that I should not have stucked for such a long time with that problem. In fact by talking to him I want also to "calibrate" his expectations about what is feasible for me to do and what not.
    – Riri
    Apr 4, 2022 at 17:21
  • Talk to the therapist. Apr 4, 2022 at 17:25
  • I have talked to my boss and is actually satisfied with me and I should be calm. Thank you for all of your answers they really were helpful!
    – Riri
    Apr 8, 2022 at 6:42

2 Answers 2


Well, welcome to the real research world beyond PhD studies. What you are experiencing is normal, believe me, I was there too. Getting help from your "boss" is completely normal. I did it all the time when I was post-doc. In fact we met every week. That's the whole point of being a post-doc - to keep learning. So, don't get discouraged. Maybe your simple problem is not that simple? Is it a software issue, or a problem with the idea itself? If it is the software, you need to design a case (maybe not realistic at all) but for which you do know the answer and try to analyze why your code cannot reproduce it. And seek the therapist's help as well to exclude other possibilities that you may have some clinical depression.


Talking to a therapist is very, very good.

Can you take a vacation? That is not a cure for depression, but it may give you some time to take the pressure off and see things with a new light.

I think being open with your advisors is a good idea. But, if possible, try to frame things in a positive light. Instead of using dramatic and negative words like "impossible" and "cannot be done" and "too complex", try to reframe your issue on what you have done and where you are stuck. Be as specific as possible. For example, "I have tried to solve toy problem X, but am running into issues Y and Z. Can you suggest an alternative path forward?"

Focus on your immediate task, and don't get overwhelmed by the long-term goals. If the full set of tasks cannot be completed by the end of your contract, then they will find other people to pick up where you left off.

Progress is very non-linear in research -- you may well find that after making it through this roadblock, the next steps are much easier. So, don't assume your current situation is permanent, and resign yourself to failure.

Research is hard. It is a marathon, not a sprint. Be sure to treat yourself well.

  • Thank you for your suggestion. I will try to have this discussion as calmly as possible. The funding for the project (and also the funding for my position) is external and ends at the end of my contract. This is something that puts additional pressure on me.
    – Riri
    Apr 5, 2022 at 8:29
  • 3
    @Riri I know this is easier said than done, but try not to put pressure on yourself. You are not responsible for the success of the group's goals; you are responsible for your own career. If you do good work, that's all anyone can ask. Good work does not necessarily mean quickly solving problems -- it can mean trying something out and working at it for a long time and realizing the original problem is harder than people originally thought. Anyway, good luck, and take care of yourself.
    – Andrew
    Apr 5, 2022 at 12:50

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