11

I was very passionate about my PhD. The institute, research topic and funding is good. One year has passed and I covered PhD coursework credits with good grades. However, during the last 5 months, I gradually lost all motivation for my PhD.

For the previous month, I did absolutely nothing. We have a weekly meeting. Last week I told my advisor that I was sick and couldn't work. This week, the meeting is approaching and I can't even write 5-6 lines of my research topic abstract (or I don't want to write, maybe due to procrastination). Last week, I gave my advisor some hints that I lost motivation and can't work. He just said it's normal and encouraged me with some concrete goals for this week that I never met.

This situation gives me a strange stress and I face behavioral and mental problems. How to get out of it? I sometimes think to quit the PhD and do a job. But still deep inside me, I want to do PhD and want to do in the same topic and same institute. I feel I'll regret if I quit. Please guide me. I did much online research but nothing helped me. I've been a quite good researcher and published three works in my master degree. But now I feel low energy, exhausted and demotivated.

(this paragraph includes details for diagnostics, skip if you want) In April, I visited my home country for my marriage. I promised my advisor that I would work remotely and will take vacation for only 1-2 weeks during the marriage. But I could not work at home and didn't do any work for 1.5 months. Then I went back to university but missed my wife. I tried to bring her to the country where I study but could not due to visa problems. So, I was always distracted and extremely less productive. After spending a couple of months at university, I lost my mother in my home country and I left university again and came back home. My advisor gave me all the mental support and never pushed me. After spending a couple of weeks at home, I felt like I should resume research. So I emailed my advisor that I want to continue remotely. However, a month has been passed and I did nothing productive.

At the end of this month, I plan to go back to my university and I hope I shall be on track there. However, I am not sure and feel guilty for my advisor.

9
  • and I have proposal defense approaching after a couple of months Aug 16 at 12:42
  • Is your project part of a larger project of the advisor or a personal one? The latter is typical in math, for example.
    – Buffy
    Aug 16 at 12:54
  • 4
    Sounds like you have been taking a break already, you just don't want to admit it to your advisor. Lots to unpack here, unlikely that we can give specific advice.
    – Jon Custer
    Aug 16 at 14:02
  • @Buffy the project is a part of a larger project of the advisor Aug 16 at 15:45
  • 2
    Based solely on your exposition, it reads as tough you are suffering from depression. Please remember, depression doesn't mean "sadness" Rather, depression is a well-recognised condition which on one hand could handicap everything you try to do and on the other hand, can be be readily corrected. Aug 17 at 21:16

5 Answers 5

23

I face behavioral amd mental problems. How to get out of it?

Depending on where you are, free or inexpensive counseling, psychiatry, and mental health services might be available to you. For example, in the US, it is common for universities to provide these to their students.

If possible, I recommend that you seek them out. It sounds like your advisor is a kind and supportive person, but PhD advisors are not trained in mental health counseling, and you might benefit from speaking with someone who is.

Very best wishes to you.

11

I will bring a couple of strong points.

First (of four): what you face is not that uncommon among PhDs and Postdocs, not even when they pursue their goals in an environment close culturally and socially to them. The problem is that the academia is not ready to accept it, on the contrary, since who is now a professor survived that, the average attitude among managers and porject managers and research managers is "if it does not kill you it makes you stronger". I have a bit of hope that your supervisor is not one of them, but surely he/she has some of that pressure from the top.

You are facing immense hurdles, although you did not realize it, because in the first year you worked intensively (quality, see your marks) and extensively (quantity, since you worked in pandemic times, managing to complete a big chunck or even all of your courseworks), but you repressed your social life (remote calls are not a substitute, they are a mere surrogate).

You do not say that, but I have been in research long enough to see a pattern (no judgement fom my side, but if you come from a non-christian non-european or non-US country you face immense differences and even bigger misunderstanding).

Second: it is time to be frank with your advisor and with yourself. You do not want to live any day away from your family, but you do not want to miss on the PhD opportunities so you are being split. If you are not doing lab experiments, it is time to exchange some of the money you receive for freedom. Take a non-paid leave, try to see if you can pursue your PhD staying in your country with your wife and working fully remotely. If you are doing lab experiments: the same, but on top of that you have to move to a different thesis, either analytical or numerical or bibliographical work.

Third: the fact that you could not reunite with your spouse in the country where you are pursuing your PhD is both a sign of luck (in case of positive outcome from my second point), it may allow you to stay with your family in a country where your family feels at home instead of being the wife at home in a foreign-hostile country) and a "test" you would have had to take sooner or later... (prospects of) career or family?

Trust completely your supervisor, either they will prove to be a reasonable person or a total idiot. Then make up your mind, if you value more your PhD or your wife and then cut the branch you care less. Please be absolutely egoistic, consider only your wellbeing and ignore social pressure and cultural pressure from your culture or from the country where you pursue your Phd while doing this choice... a person may vote in favor of the fmaily, another in favor of your career, the median western anglosaxon culture would consider career to be dominant, but in the end

Fourth you have your life, it is one, not a median-plusminus-3sigma life, so it is up to you.

5
  • very insightful. Yes, I come from non-christian, non-european and non-US background. Also, did my masters in China, which was also a foreigner country to me. And now Phd is in Europe. Strange thing is, I could not travel back to my home country from 2018-2022 (thanks to covid). Now I feel stranger everywhere, even at my home country. Aug 16 at 15:56
  • You reached a very special (un)lucky point in life: it is not where you live that defines you, but you define where you live. Someone (I would even say most of the people) never reach that point. Good to them, life is easier, but once you get there, you cannot go back. Good luck and all the best!
    – EarlGrey
    Aug 16 at 16:00
  • I have thought about suspending the studies for some time. And when I lost my mother, my advisor told me that I have that option. But big chunk of my home finance (especily after marriage) runs from my scholarship. And if I suspend studies for an year, I shall have to reapply for the visa which is a big headache. Anyway, just see if you could guide me a bit firther. It seems that you've been through such circumstances. In my family and society circle, I am the only PhD, so I find it hard to get the relevant guidance. Everbody becomes motivational speaker (just like when I was in Master study). Aug 16 at 16:02
  • Since you have a scholarship, it is "your" money and we can safely assume that the advisor did not have to put their money for you, so you are free workforce for the advisor and for their project. Just state to your advisor that from now on you will work fully remotely because you cannot be detached from your family and your wife cannot join you in the country. Proposal defense, article, reports ... there is no difference, if you need support from them to get through them, you will find the way to get the support also remotely.
    – EarlGrey
    Aug 17 at 16:17
  • I have a question: is the scholarship monthly pay as high as your fellow PhD students being employed in the same project?
    – EarlGrey
    Aug 17 at 16:17
4

Covid travel restrictions, the passing of your mother, getting married, and being unable to be with your wife must have all added up to a huge amount of stress, on top of the stress of pursuing a PhD and being a stranger in a strange land... A single one of these events is stressful, but you are faced with 5 or even more.

My advice is that you must seek out professional help, perhaps via your university's mental health services. Seeking help for "Mental Health" carries a stigma, and you may think that you're strong enough to deal with things yourself, or that you're not the kind of person who needs to resort to this. That perspective is a dangerous trap. For your sake please do seek out this help today. We can all cope with stress well enough up to a certain point, but once someone is close to their breaking point the risk of self-harm becomes very real very suddenly.

A professional will help by providing proven techniques and teaching coping skills that help manage stress, burnout, thoughts of self-harm, etc. A burnout is a medical condition, just like having a broken leg that requires a cast, and nobody would expect you to run a marathon with a cast. A professional diagnosis will also make dealing with your advisor much simpler, as the mental health professional may even notify the university that you're unable to continue for a valid and diagnosed medical reason. This would make putting the PhD on hold much simpler.

Also, in an unrelated matter, as a parent of 3 kids I'd advise against having kids until after the above is sorted out or at least improved, and you have a stable professional situation.

I suppose we're not supposed to diagnose people online, but in my opinion only helping your with how to communicate with your advisor would be a disservice.

3

My reading is not that you are demotivated, which happens to many people. Sometimes (my case) it is/was burn out from a too intense experience. But I think that the issue is that your life has been thrown into chaos for reasons mostly outside your control and not because of your own actions. You need space in which to sort things out. The chaos is affecting you emotionally as well as reducing your effectiveness.

I suggest two things to try to get to a better place. First is to talk to a counsellor about your entire life situation and how you can better deal with it. Many larger universities will provide this as a service. Some religious institutions do this also.

Second, you need to ask your advisor for a sit-down, not just to ask for a break, but to work out between you a good path forward to your degree and career. Everything should be "on the table" in such a discussion.

Two additional things can interfere with this plan, though. The first is your funding and how it can be maintained. The second occurs if your work is essential to a larger project that must continue. Both/either of those can cause a larger disruption, even a pause in your plans so that you can return home but maintain a slot for your return. Is a year off feasible? Is a distance relationship with the lab feasible? Is a half-time position feasible? Is quitting and starting over later, perhaps somewhere else, feasible?

Think about your life as a whole and see if the advisor can support necessary decisions. And see what options they might be able to suggest. It is more than asking for a vacation.

2

It seems like you're in a difficult situation. But I also believe everyone, at some point in their career, whichever it is, get demotivated and feel like they need a break. I don't have a PhD, but I'm finishing my master's degree right now.

I've faced the same problem you did during this master's degree and also at work. What I can say is that there's nothing worst for your sentiment of guilt than taking an "unofficial" break.

Right now, you feel like you need a pause, but at the same time you aren't asking for it. So every time you're not working, you're feeling guilty. This guilt makes you feel bad so you don't work, which makes you feel worst. If that's how you're feeling right now, what you need to do is ask for vacations. Real ones, that are official, where you'll be able to free your mind for a bit.

From what you've written, your advisor sounds like a reasonable person. Explain to them how you're feeling and state that you think you need time off, just to reset. Feeling guilty of being unproductive will probably only make you more unproductive.

2
  • Yes, me and my advisor both agreed for a 2-week full vacation till the end of the August. Let's see what happens. Aug 18 at 16:42
  • @ghost_programmer Well now, take time to relax away from everything that causes stress! :)
    – IEatBagels
    Aug 19 at 13:30

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .