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I would like to ask how to deal with pressure and high expectations from supervisors.

I am beginning my 3rd year of a PhD programme and I am very close to having a mental breakdown. I have two supervisors who are extremely tough on me. They expect very good results every week. I am working so much, but I don't have a lot of satisfying results. A lot of things are just not working and supervisors blame me for this, even though I have nothing to do with it. They have a vision of how my research should go and what the results should be, and for everything that is not going in the expected direction, they blame me.

They tell me that I am not-effective and that they are not satisfied with my work. They have never worked in a lab (they are doctors) and have no idea how it works in practice. I don't have anyone to help—any technician to do small things—so of course all of this is on my shoulders.

How can I explain to my supervisors in a good way that it's not my fault if they don't have the effects which they are expecting?

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    maybe you can clarify your field of study. It seems strange to have supervisors with no experience in a lab if your project is lab-based. Oct 23, 2022 at 14:35
  • So a piece of this is related to professional boundaries and communications. I would suggest taking a look at the suggestions on workplace stack exchange regarding setting reasonable time frames for project completion …
    – Dawn
    Mar 22, 2023 at 15:24

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If what you write is true, your work relationship is abusive, and it's not worth continuing with them. People get burnout and depression in graduate school because of the pressure often, especially in highly competitive places. One reason is that they place too high expectations on themselves.

Another reason is that they are simply not ready for graduate school. Typically, people who are not ready do poorly in classes and have to leave because of low GPAs.

Sometimes, and I assume this is your case, advisors place high expectations on their students and bury them in work. Those expectations are justified in their minds by some benchmarks, which could be themselves, or other excellent students they had before. But if your supervisors have never worked in the lab, their benchmarks could be well based on what Batman would do if he was their graduate student.

Keeping these in mind, it is a good idea to start thinking of what could be the worse case scenario if you leave them for other supervisor. You already have research experience, and you won't be starting from the scratch with everything. My advise is to start searching for someone better, even at a different graduate school, as soon as possible.

You also have to deal with the mental health issues. Bad relationships, if they last long enough, may cause you serious mental problems which could leave you unable to work for years. You need time out of the lab, vacation, and you should spend your free time outdoors with people who care about you even if you don't bring them research results. You should also talk to a mental health professional to help you eliminate as much as you can of the stress in your life, before it's too late and you are forced to get on medication. Psychiatric drugs are the least fun I know.

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    "Those expectations are justified in their minds by some benchmarks, which could be themselves, or other excellent students they had before." What also happens is that some expect to have a certain result because it's good for them professionally (e.g., they want to show that the drug they developed works well), and they will not accept that this result is not forthcoming, the reason sometimes being that it's simply not true. Sometimes such an "expected result" may be true and easy to have, so they may have "good" experiences with past students, who may not really have been better. Mar 22, 2023 at 13:28
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    It seems like a leap to jump to this being "abusive". All we have here is the student's own judgment that expectations are too high, plus some adverse performance feedback. All of this comes from the perspective of the student, with no objective information on specifics.
    – Ben
    Mar 22, 2023 at 22:51
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Seek support for improving your lab work (maybe an additional supervisor)

One of the difficulties you are going to encounter here is that supervisors generally have a better idea than students as to the appropriate pace and expected quality of research work, and the university will generally defer to the expertise of their academics in judging these things. However, in the present case you note that your supervisors do not have lab experience and much of the work you do is lab work. This may mean that your supervisors are not in a good position to judge the amount of time it should take to progress through lab tasks, and there is scope here to talk to them about this and see if you can come to an agreement on expected research pace. It would also be worth seeking an additional supervisor who specialises in lab work, both to assist you in this aspect of your work, and to provide perspective on expected progress in this aspect of your work.

My recommendation would be to get some input from an academic at your university with a lot of lab experience, both to get an idea of reasonable timeframes for your work, and to get advice on improving your own lab work. Once you have done this, sit down with your supervisors and have a general discussion about the expected pace of progress and the support you would need to improve progress in the lab. One piece of useful support might be an additional supervisor with lab experience. (If you have received an opinion on timeframes from another academic with lots of lab experience then you could add this to the discussion as an outside perspective.) Your agreed timeframes for your research should take account of the time it will take you to deal with lab problems that will naturally arise from time-to-time. If it is taking you too long to do things then seek support for improving this. Don't get into the weeds on whether these problems were your fault or not --- ultimately, whether or not problems in the lab are your fault, it is probably your responsibility to deal with them and overcome them to progress your research.

As to the feedback you are receiving from your supervisors, take it seriously (even if it seems like they have expectations that are too high) and talk with them to identify specific problems and get advice on how to develop further and improve the quality of your work. As a student, you are not in a very good position to judge whether their expectations are too high, but you can certainly raise this issue for discussion. If your supervisors say that you are not effective in your work, and that they are not satisfied with the quality or progress of your work, drill down further to see what are the biggest problems they are identifying (if they haven't already told you), and then spend time working on improving the most pressing issues. Since you received entry to the PhD program, trust that you are capable of learning and improving with practice. In the immortal words of Kipling, "trust yourself when all men doubt you, but make allowance for their doubting too".

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