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I'm a master student employed at a company as a co-op intern. For the first half to two-thirds of the program I had really poor mental health and had extreme difficulty to focus on anything. I only recovered a little during the last third of the program (still worse than my usual state). I could only scrabble together a so-called research project in the final months just so I had something to show during meetings, which I'm already very unhappy with. Now, months later, I just realised that in my panicked state I forgot to do even some basic research on existing literature. This is both mortifying and makes me feel like I have wasted so much time.

The master program is ending soon and the plan is to stay at the company after graduation. Despite being unhappy with the work I've done, I don't think my graduation is directly at risk. My supervisors at the company and the university all expressed interest in continuing working on the project and maybe pursue some kind of publication.

My questions:

  1. How to talk about the situation with them without appearing incompetent or using mental health as an excuse etc? I feel it's important to clean up the situation with my supervisors for the sake of planling future works.
  2. How open should I be with my supervisors at the university vs. the company?
  3. Since working on this project has been such a painful and futile experience, I find myself repulsed by the prospect of continuing working on it. But I don't have a good reason to abandon it. Is there any suggestion on how to make this less unpleasant?

Although I'm not necessarily pursuing anything in academia in the foreseeable future, I'd very much like to keep a good relationship with my academic supervisor.

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    I wonder whether on the side of the supervisor or the company there is actually any perception that something went wrong. Did they raise any issues with you, did you get any critical feedback? From reading your text it may well be (of course I can't know for sure) that you're overly critical with yourself but in fact compared to others even in the state in which you are you're doing an OK job? "Clean up the situation" - not sure how much there is to clean up. Nov 21, 2022 at 10:14
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    If you had a broken leg, you would get medical help. If you have mental issues, get assistance. There is no shame in it. Maybe that assistance only requires you to have some quality time with somebody you trust who you can confide in. A glass of wine or coffee or herbal tea and a hand to hold can do wonders. I hope things work out for you.
    – Boba Fit
    Nov 21, 2022 at 14:11
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    You are a masters student, it's really unusual to have independently conducted research that ticks all the boxes at that level. You probably see other people around you publishing, but know that they likely were very supported in that work. The reason they never seemed to slip up is likely heavy handed supervision. Don't compare yourself to those who effectively worked as another pair of hands for their supervisor, that's not the same thing at all. Both activities are valuable, and can teach different things.
    – Clumsy cat
    Nov 22, 2022 at 12:53

2 Answers 2

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I think you need to look at this project with fresh eyes. Pretend that someone else had done the work and you had to decide what to do next.

  1. Does the research question still seem viable/interesting? Answering this may require doing the literature review that you should have done some time ago.

  2. Do you trust any of your previous results?

    a. If not, what would it take to make you trust them? Can you fix them up within a week or two?

    b. If so, are the results promising?

  3. Did you build tools that might be useful for future work? If they are not in a good state, what would it take to improve them?

  4. Can you boil down your "story" to one sentence? "Up to now, I did ___; next I will focus on __"? Even if the previous work seems insignificant to you, it is still helpful (for you and for others) to factorize the project like this.

After you have objectively inventoried the situation, you will be in a better position to decide how to proceed (or whether you want to proceed).

As for talking to your supervisors, I would try to strike the right balance:

  • They will likely welcome technical discussion of the above points, including your recommendations and your level of interest in continued work.
  • If you like, you can acknowledge that you are not happy with your past performance and believe you will be able to do better in future. This is likely to be a welcome admission regardless of whether or not they have noticed a problem.
  • Give a candid assessment of what the project would need. You can avoid framing this as "I did a bad job and here's what it would take to fix it." Rather, frame it neutrally: "Currently, we have X but to do this properly, I would need to build Y."
  • If you would like to share your mental health concerns, you can, but be concise. Even if your boss or professor is understanding, you should avoid using them as a therapist. Rather, think about what they need to know in order to objectively accommodate and evaluate you.
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How to talk about the situation with them without appearing incompetent or using mental health as an excuse?

You could consider getting a psychiatrist to write a formal letter about your condition/state. It has the legitimacy of a medical excuse, and the formality of the business world. It’s also concise. I would be surprised if they did not respond with understanding. The people you work with may have had the same experiences, unbeknownst to you.

Second, find someone in the organization you find understanding to talk with. Set an appointment for a private meeting, or find a moment to speak aside with them. I know someone who had an anxiety disorder related to phone calls. She explained it to her boss and they were more than willing to adapt her job to fit her needs.

I feel it's important to clean up the situation with my supervisors for the sake of planling future works.

Consult with psychologists to establish a treatment plan. Include in your medical report that you are cooperating with doctors to address the problem.

How open should I be with my supervisors at the university vs. the company?

The type of organization isn’t important, it is the personality of who you work with and the work culture. Understanding professors/bosses will be understanding. Unempathetic ones will not be.

Since working on this project has been such a painful and futile experience, I find myself repulsed by the prospect of continuing working on it. But I don't have a good reason to abandon it.

If you find another job or preoccupation, that would be as good a reason as any to move to something different.

Is there any suggestion on how to make this less unpleasant?

Psychological treatment. Psychiatrists and psychotherapists can offer you different management strategies.

(From personal experience, going on 3 medications has helped me almost indescribably.)

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    Therapy is good advice but often less than practical. Where I am, you need to wait more than year for an appointment with a psychotherapist.
    – user9482
    Nov 22, 2022 at 8:02

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