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I am a PhD student in an American university, on year 4 of a 5-6 year program. Recently (three months ago), my advisor told me to leave the program since he doesn't think this subject is for me (he said this statement exactly). He doesn't think I have it in me to get a PhD because I haven't made enough progress yet. This completely broke me from inside. They gave me some time to come up with an alternate career option along with a deadline to reach up to a certain point in our research.

I see where my advisor is coming from. I am still learning how research works. My work involves a lot of code, and this is not my strong point; it took a while to come up to speed. Communication is difficult since my advisor is mostly online. On the other hand, I did very well in my classes and quals, and I do well in conferences and such. I had asked my advisor for feedback many times, and they told me everything was fine until now.

I actually managed to meet the deadline, and things have improved externally. We never did discuss alternate career ideas. The advisor now acts like everything is fine. But for me its like pulling a bullet through me and then acting as if I everything is great! I can take criticism but this broke me so much that I constantly feel like crying. I can't talk to anyone. I am scared that if I talk to professors, they will think I am just stupid and really lack what it takes to do PhD.

How do I cope with this emotionally? I do still want a PhD. Finding a new supervisor at this late point would be very difficult due to funding and visa issues.

Clarifications from comments:

  • My advisor is not a bad person. In fact, he is considered one of the nicest people ever. So I fear if I open up to someone, either I will get ridiculed or will burn bridges for future.
  • Their attitude changed abruptly when one of my seniors was taking very long to complete a thesis (~2 yrs), that is when I think it hit them that it is taking too long. That is when his behavior changed towards me too.
  • I am an Indian female, the advisor is American male
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    Agree that more context on field would be helpful. Esp.: "I can do the work but am not extremely great at coding." What role does coding have in this field? Are you in a CS or informatic type field? Or is it some other science that uses code as a tool? May 23, 2023 at 14:55
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    Does your program award a Master's degree as part of progress toward PhD, or is there a mechanism to apply for such? May 24, 2023 at 20:05
  • Comments have been moved to chat; please do not continue the discussion here. Before posting a comment below this one, please review the purposes of comments. Comments that do not request clarification or suggest improvements usually belong as an answer, on Academia Meta, or in Academia Chat. Comments continuing discussion or offering anecdotes or answers may be removed.
    – cag51
    May 26, 2023 at 21:33

9 Answers 9

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I recommend that any graduate students facing discouragement and fraught advisor relationships make an appointment with the student counseling center. I would especially recommend this route for you because you state in a comment that “Now I am workwise doing fine but internally I am very broken.”

The counselors there are very familiar with the issues students face when dealing with advisors. The counselors can help to coach you through this, in particular helping you to work on not getting stuck in a negative thought pattern and keeping good relations through productive conversations.

More than half of the students in my high-pressure graduate program used these programs and we all found it very useful. They were free/covered by our student health insurance fully.

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    Thank you for taking the time to read my really long post. I have tried the counseling services provided by the university. Every time I tried then, it really was more of them letting me talk and then saying see you next week. It eventually turned into a rant program but I never got any help from them. I appreciate them listening to me but after a point, I started feeling like this may come across as a joke to them. I tried 2 separate counselors and upon talking to other students, I found out that our uni-provided counseling services are not very helpful overall. private option-out of budget May 22, 2023 at 22:28
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    The counselor would never approach a professor @Trunk. Our counselors were very effective at providing emotional and moral support for the impact of badly behaved advisors. Sorry if this was not your experience.
    – Dawn
    May 23, 2023 at 2:24
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    Ultimately, the advice is to take care of your mental health - perhaps finding a book that is geared toward identifying and changing negative through patterns would be another avenue toward the same goal.
    – Dawn
    May 23, 2023 at 2:30
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    Counsellors aren't going to help. You have to go to an academic in the system who is in charge of the welfare of PhD students and explain the situation.
    – Tom
    May 24, 2023 at 7:29
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    There are really two aspects to this, and the way @StudentOfLife wrote about being "broken completely" indicates that the mental health aspect is important. So I'm with Dawn on this one, but still of course also steps to address the situation with the supervisor and in the department make sense. Both things are important, focusing on one of them shouldn't stop her from dealing with the other. May 25, 2023 at 10:41
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I recommend talking with other professors in your program. It may seem like you're stuck with your current advisor and that's your only possible funding source, and you have no other option, but that's not true. Plenty of student-advisor relationships sour over time (you're not going to remain friends with everyone you meet), and students can change advisors. Graduate programs would rather move money around than lose graduate students. I've seen it happen in my own program.

I would review the research areas of the other professors in your program, set up meetings with them to talk about your research, find common ground, and see which professor feels right. When applying to graduate school you just pick a professor to work under and hope it's a right choice. Sometimes it isn't, but that's not the only professor in your program doing interesting research!

Rephrase your situation and realize the opportunity you have. Now you get to have deep research conversations with all of the other professors in your program and really get to know the other professors and see who you really click with. When applying for grad school you only really get a 30 min interview with the two professors they think match your interests. Now you can talk with them all!

In addition to meeting with the other professors in your department, I'd chat with the dean of your department. They want you there, doing research, and if there's a better fit with another advisor that will help you do research better, they can help find the funding for it.

Grad programs can take 7+ years for students to graduate, especially if the person you're forced to have advise you stops doing it (as in the case here, obviously they're not a very good advisor to tell you you're bad at what you're doing and to just quit).

Remember, you really do have other options, you aren't stuck with this terrible advisor. Who cares if it took you X years to graduate instead of Y years. When you get your degree no one asks you how long were you in grad school for, they just say, "Hello, Doctor."

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    I wouldn't jump so hastily to "they're not a very good advisor to tell you you're bad at what you're doing and to just quit" and "terrible advisor".
    – Passer By
    May 24, 2023 at 10:01
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    @PasserBy No, I think this is entirely the correct amount of haste. In fact the very moment they said a student four years into high investment program like immigrating to get a PhD should quit, they crossed the line into "terrible advisor" and would have an extremely hard time crossing it back. May 24, 2023 at 12:15
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    There are all sorts of legitimate things you can say or do if you think your student is struggling, but "quit" is almost never on the table. I suppose if they, I don't know, suffered horrific brain damage in an account or illness and lost their capacity to think at their old level, maybe. Short of that, though? Not their damn place. May 24, 2023 at 12:18
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    @linkhyrule5 How would you know what specifically was and wasn't said to OP? Do you hold that PhDs be given to anyone after they have spent a certain amount of time? Purely in the hypothetical, if there is a standard to be cleared, and if OP's advisor genuinely think OP is unlikely to clear it, would you rather OP be led along for three more years or find out now?
    – Passer By
    May 24, 2023 at 12:21
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    @PasserBy The fact that the OP was evidently surprised by the advisor saying that and had to ask him to explain why indicates he is, in fact, a terrible advisor. Regardless of whether the advisor is correct or not (and it's by no means clear that he is), he should've given the OP feedback on what to improve on a long time ago. Telling someone the subject isn't for them and they should just quit should be the last step after multiple discussions of how they'd like the OP to improve, and at that point the OP should already have a good idea of why they're saying that. May 24, 2023 at 17:18
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I'd like to respond to a few of the things here.

First, your advisor's claim that you haven't made enough progress yet isn't particularly specific of feedback. It would be helpful to get more details from him about what he was expecting you to have achieved by now that you haven't. Right now, it seems like you're going off of what you assume that your advisor thinks your problems are, which may be quite different than what he actually thinks the problems are.

In my opinion, the fact that you don't already know that is a failure on your advisor's part. If he felt you weren't making adequate progress, he should've given you feedback on what he thought you needed to work on much sooner. It seems quite strange to go straight to "this subject isn't for you, quit the program" without ever having given feedback on what to work on. That kind of a discussion should never come as a surprise.

  • "I didn't understand how to do research" - isn't that why people do PhD programs in the first place?
  • "I can do the work but am not extremely great at coding. I am working on getting better." If this is a serious impediment to you completing your work in a timely manner, there are courses available on Coursera, Udemy, and other platforms. Don't be afraid to use resources other than the ones that your professors "officially" require/recommend. Personally, I used supplemental textbooks in most of my math coursework after I got to calculus (which was the first math class I genuinely found difficult), and I was able to complete a math degree with good grades as a direct result.
  • "I am scared that if I talk to professors, they will think I am just stupid and really lack what it takes to do PhD." Are you sure that they'll react that way? What evidence do you have for or against that? It's really hard to predict whether they will or won't. I'm guessing that there'll be other professors who are more willing to work with you than your current advisor appears to be. If you don't ask, however, it'll have the same effect as if they really do think that. Also, even if they do think that, you won't be in a worse situation than you're in with your current advisor.
  • "I got stuck at a point due to a misunderstanding in a concept for a long time. It took away around 6-8 months for me to know the problem." From your other statements, it seems like you may be extremely concerned about appearing stupid/ignorant/etc. This mentality could be hurting you here, as talking through the problem with other people can help you get "unstuck." I've often found that even attempting to describe the problem in detail to someone else helps me get unstuck.

    One trivial example: a few years ago, I was writing a Stack Overflow question on a problem I was stuck on. When I was adding steps to reproduce, I noticed that the error message suggested an article to read - and I hadn't read it. I decided that I'd better read it (or people would ask why I hadn't). It turned out that it described my problem exactly and its recommended solution worked right away. If I hadn't gone to describe the problem in detail to other people, I likely would've continued to gloss over the link for much longer than I did.
  • "Advisor have only been available through online meetings and emails. Communicating sometimes was challenging." If the way you and your advisor are doing things isn't working for you, don't be afraid to ask for what you need. If asking for what you need is difficult for you, I'd encourage you to read a book on assertiveness (or speak to a counselor to help you become more assertive).
  • "I have been taught to keep professors in very high regard." It's good to respect experience and expertise, but be sure that you're not discounting your own experience, needs, and opinions in the process. The mere fact that someone's an expert in the area doesn't automatically mean that they're right. For example, the mere fact that your advisor thinks that the subject isn't for you doesn't automatically mean that it isn't - they could be wrong. You're not obligated to uncritically accept everything your professors tell you; in fact, not doing so is an important part of being independent (which is one of the areas you mention struggling in). Again, being able to express disagreement may not come naturally at first; this is another area where assertiveness training could help you.

Hopefully, there are at least a few things in here that will help you. The biggest points I would like to emphasize: first, you have nothing to lose (and potentially a lot to gain) by talking to other professors. Secondly, it sounds like assertiveness training could be very beneficial to you in this context. This will help you gain more independence and advocate for your needs and opinions more effectively. Third: don't be afraid to take advantage of outside help or resources if you need them.

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    -Thank you taking the time to respond. You points are extremely helpful to help me look at this with a different perspective. As for the coding, i can code everything, i will have 5 lines instead of 2, but they work. As I mentioned in some comments, the advisor was not very willing to discuss the issues they thought i had but more focused on giving me other career i should try. I was never communicated that i was not doing well. That is why it came as a shock to me. These problems are identified by me, not him. your response is very helpful for me to work on. TY May 25, 2023 at 4:40
  • @StudentOfLife Yeah, sorry you're going through this - it seems like your advisor isn't doing his job. If he felt that you weren't making enough progress, he should have given you feedback on ways to improve a long time ago, not ambush you with "this subject's not for you, quit the program" completely out of the blue. After all, the job of an advisor is to, well, advise, and it sounds like he hasn't been doing that. May 25, 2023 at 5:06
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What does your advisor mean when they say you haven't made enough progress yet? Did you ask them? In my field, I would expect my students to have written a couple papers by this point, but I am extremely hands-on for the first paper or two (learning to write papers is very hard for most students). I have to sit with them and outline the paper and then later sit with them in several sessions where we basically rewrite nearly every sentence. I get the idea that your advisor is somewhat hands-off. Have you made progress on any manuscripts? Is your advisor helping you with this? Do they expect you to begin having your own project ideas? Do you have any ideas of how to extend your project or take the methods that you've learned to another problem?

You shouldn't take a single person's opinion of your potential for a career in research or academia as the word of god. Should you take what they say seriously? Yes, but you should also consider it as one data point.

It sounds to me like your advisor is very hands-off, which may not be a good fit for you. Maybe your advisor is waiting for you to take the initiative and if you take the initiative and if you ask them they will give you the support you need? Maybe your advisor is a nice person but not a good advisor and unwilling or unable to give you the support you need. However, year 4 is rather late to be changing advisors unless you there is someone in your department with very similar research where you could make use of what you have learned so far.

If you want to continue in academic research, producing some papers during your PhD is essential. It will be hard to find a postdoc without some evidence of productivity. If you haven't published yet, you have two years, which is plenty of time. But you need to to start now. You will need help. Perhaps if you are assertive about asking for help in organizing the paper from your advisor they will help. If they are a negligent advisor, you will have to be assertive in finding help from other resources (other faculty, postdocs, other graduate students).

The reasons you give for "delays" in your project all make sense. Research is hard and most students don't understand how to do research at first. It takes years to learn. I'm not sure what you field is, but unless you are a computer scientist, it is probably okay to be not very good at coding. Have you taken any classes on data structures and algorithms? Many scientists are not very good at coding, yet use it often in their work. Even as a PI, it takes me 6–8 months to start really making progress when I start a new project. Most students are not independent when they start. When I was a graduate student, I just did what my advisor told me to do for the first 2 years. It wasn't until my 4th year that I started suggesting my own ideas for projects. However, I think at the 4th year you should be ready to start coming up with your own ideas and be able to plan and organize a paper yourself (although still with comments from your advisor).

What is your plan for the future? Do you want to continue in research? Do you want to continue in academia but are okay with a mostly teaching focused appointment? There are many academic jobs with primary teaching appointments, where you might do a little research or collaborate with other researchers. Does this interest you? Are their jobs in industry in your field?

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    "If you want to continue in academic research, producing some papers during your PhD is essential" this is certainly not always true. I didn't publish in my PhD and got a good post doc, tenure track etc. It's hugely dependence on the field, country etc.
    – user438383
    May 23, 2023 at 14:16
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    @user438383 what field is this? In which country? May 24, 2023 at 7:32
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    @watermolecule Thank you for your time and response. Here are some of the details- i have 3 papers right now. I am in stem field so coding is not the degree but important. I can code but i will write 5 lines instead of one. I adked many times what made him think i was bad but he seemed very unwilling to say. When i asked is it the subject he said no, when i aked is it the project progress, he said yes. He wouldn’t explain very much other than u r very good at communicating the subject you should try an outreach degree. He wasnt willing to explain details but more focused on pushing me to leave May 24, 2023 at 13:53
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    Sounds like this person is trying to get rid of you for reasons unrelated to your work – perhaps funding, lowering his staff count, doesn't like working with you personally. Could be anything. I would not accept his comments as direction on how to proceed, but I would try to get a new adviser. He probably doesn't have the ability to fire you explicitly, so is trying to demoralize you into quitting
    – RC_23
    May 24, 2023 at 18:25
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    @StudentOfLife You have a paper in Nature? Like, the journal Nature itself? Or some other journal that Nature publishes or with the Nature brand? Nothing wrong with publishing in the latter, but if you actually have a paper in the singular journal called "Nature" it would be extraordinarily bizarre for anyone to criticize your progress; that's an achievement that many full professors do not obtain in their career. In any case, your progress sounds very good, especially if these are first-author papers. If they are not first-author papers, your progress may still be good.
    – Bryan Krause
    May 25, 2023 at 15:40
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So, your supervisor set for you a deadline to reach up to a certain point lest you would have to leave the programme. After working with that deadline, you finally reached the point you had been supposed to. Now things have progressed and you feel that you doing fine.

First, I wish to congratulate you on your victory. Probably, for the first time in your life you came across a really difficult situation in which you had to count mainly on yourself because your communication with your supervisor was, as you said, challenging. You did great. Things are now on track.

Now, please ask yourself if you really have any reason to be "completely broken from inside". Is this how a winner should feel? -- No way.

This was a difficult battle -- which you have won. And you have acquired good trophies: strength and experience, not to mention a progress towards you future degree. So, please, do not be shy of your victory: feel proud.

Whether you choose to stay with your present supervisor is to be your decision. My only recommendation would be to base your choice on expedience, not on emotions. (Expedience, though, comprises many parameters, including your psychological comfort, and your trust in your advisor -- or lack of trust.)

Good luck with you research and your PhD thesis! You have proven to yourself that you can do it.

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    @Micheal_1812, it sure as hell doesn't feel like a victory but your response definitely gives me a positive perspective. Thank you for giving me something positive to think about and pushing me to stop sabotaging myself over this. I got so badly affected that I just lost the strength to stand up and own any small things I achieved. Your response made me step back and realize that maybe if I can do this, I can do the rest too! I guess I needed that! Thank you so much for taking the time and responding! I really really appreciate your time and advice! May god bless you! <3 May 25, 2023 at 4:47
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    @StudentOfLife I like your wording: stop sabotaging yourself. Once I was watching the Olympics and saw a runner who won a Marathon -- and who almost fell on the ground after finishing first. He could barely stand on the pedestal when receiving the medal. So keep on with your Marathon. Looks like you are up for a gold. May 25, 2023 at 12:32
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My Answer comes from the graduate student point of view. I am currently in a somewhat comparable situation and can only tell what helped me.

First of all my situation is "a bit" easier, as I studied in my home country, so I don't have a lot of the things you are struggling with. But after a long time of competing with irreproducable results and thus lacking paper acceptance, I came to the point where I haven't had enough work done, another reject reached me, contract was expiring and additional funding was declined. That also left me in a pretty dark place.

The thing is, we are all humans, your professors to. So it is quite possible, that there was just a resolvable or temporal problem he did not identify as such. You describe that your work is still going good since your ultimatum, so you would have enough to show that "you are not as bad as he thought". So what I did is talk to my professor about these problems, it was a very unpleasant meeting for both parties, but just because of the topic, not because of ill behaviour. I would say, this helped me a lot, even if just in understanding the problems better, and we were able to work out a way which, although still very stressful, can leave me with a PhD in the end.

From your description I take that you can still professionally respect your supervisor and that he appeared to be a good person in general (apart from the changes you mentioned). Your case also seems to have a bit more flexibility, as the funding seems to exist and you basically only have to come to terms with your professor. After all, what helped me making this decision, is also "what if this meeting does not end well?", well so what, you will be in exactly the same position as you are now. But the prospects of such a meeting are just to good. First of all you can help him understand your situation (regarding you work, lack of which and progress of which). It could also help you in seeing things differently, maybe there are problems in your work, you are not seeing yourself, since your view is blocked by other things, maybe your assessment of your progress is faulty, that is difficult to pinpoint from a single view, especially if you are struggling with emotional problems (It was for me).

Of course this depends highly on the general relationship to your supervisor before this and I can only hope that this helps you and is applicable to your case. Keep in mind that your assesment of his "feelings" towards you, are very likely skewed due to your emotional state, and is not necessarily as bad as you think. What would be important either way, is that you don't start this meeting with any demand, but as a discussion to help you understand what you did wrong, even compared to other students which can continue (or did so in the past).

Good Luck

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I am not a professor but I just got out of a situation just like this. I had to go to a psychological counselor to deal with my burnout, which did not resolve my issue. I was miserable, I wasn't nice to myself, my friends, or my family. After a lot of contemplation, I took some steps that turned my life around. I can't say with absolute certainty that how I handled my situation will suit your case perfectly but I can lend my experience so you can make a more educated decision.

First things first, you have done an excellent job explaining your situation and acknowledging your own shortcomings in an honest and forthcoming manner - I really appreciate it.

Let me deconstruct your situation a bit and in doing so, I will try to get your hopes and confidence up. Think of it this way:

  1. Your supervisor asked you to "voluntarily" leave the program. He didn't enforce it, he merely suggested it.
  2. When you asked for a reason, he gave you his opinion and in his opinion, you haven't made enough progress yet - which is nothing but his opinion.

Now, I am putting myself in your shoes. I understand that you feel like there is too much at stake here and getting your degree solely depends on your supervisor's whim. You probably have been dreaming of your Ph.D. from a very early stage of your life and the person holding your destiny thinks that you don't have it in you. Here is why I think you are overthinking it.

Most immigrant students (like myself) who come to North America for thesis-based Master's and/or Ph.D. programs depend solely on the funds provided by the professors. Most of the time (around 95%), the professors' funding is the only source of income for immigrant students, who are not allowed to work off-campus in the USA. As a result, the students gradually become submissive and subservient to their professors. And thus, the mere opinions of the supervising professor can make or break the graduate students' spirit. Things are even more complicated for Asian or South Asian students, where people regard teachers at the same level as (or higher than) their parents. I remember one of my fellow graduate students saying, "I don't believe I will amount to anything without my supervisor's blessing", which is, I won't deny, a great gesture to have about the teachers but such deification can be quite detrimental for the students (especially adult graduate students) in many ways. When such students find their teacher standing between them and their dreams, they either lose confidence in themselves or start to vilify the teacher.

If you belong to the first cluster (I believe you do), please consider the option of focusing less on your professor's authority. Deal with this situation as you'd deal with your peers. Yes, your supervisor is ahead of you by a couple of years (let that be 50) in academia but that doesn't mean they have the right to intimidate you out of your program. A supervisor who oversees a graduate student’s work should share the same level of responsibility and accountability for the quality and outcome of the student’s degree as the student themselves. "I don't think you have it in you" or "You don't have much progress" are vague and do not carry much value as far as the feedbacks go.

From what I understand, your supervisor had some expectations in mind that he thinks you did not fulfill. You can take the following steps to mitigate the situation:

  • Confront your supervisor about his remarks and let him know that quitting is not an option for you.

  • Don't be afraid to share that you struggled because he was not as on-hand at the beginning of your journey as you'd expected and you didn't get a chance to start fresh (You had to assimilate yourself with other's work, which can be quite daunting).

  • Share your discomfort about feeling inferior when he is around. You mentioned you can put together a well-rounded presentation in front of others when your professor is not around and you mess up when he is around you. According to my psych counselor, a healthy adult and independent person's behavior should never be affected this much (I was in the same boat for a while) by the mere presence of another person. "Do not become too susceptible to others' opinions, no matter how superior you deem them to be." - that's what she said.

  • Do NOT underestimate yourself. Remember, you have fought your way into the program. The supervisor/university recruited you because they thought you have it in you to finish the program expectations.

  • Discuss what is expected of you in the next 2 years of your study and set an expectation that you both can agree upon. Negotiate with your supervisor and find a realistic goal that works for both of you.

If you can come to terms with your supervisor and agree upon certain goals that you need to achieve to get your degree, work towards it - slowly and steadily. Keep your professor in the loop - send three progress reports on a daily basis, 5 days a week (at 12 PM, 5 PM, and 9 PM), no matter how trivial the progress is. I am sure your supervisor will appreciate the effort and resilience.

On the other hand, if you can't agree upon some acceptable terms, if you and your supervisor have different opinions or goals that you cannot reconcile, or if the chasm of your supervisor's expectation is too deep for you to fill, it's better to approach your department with these concerns. I am pretty sure you have to report your annual progress to some sort of supervisory committee, which comprises multiple professors from your department. Go to them, be honest, explain your situation, and do not sell yourself short. They have the authority and they can intervene on your behalf. Sometimes they tend to make decisions or judgments based on what the majority of the committee members think (due to group-thinking bias), rather than depending on their own independent analysis or evidence. This can lead them to show favoritism toward the people who belong to their group (i.e. your supervisor). If that happens, you can resort to your dean's office for help.

Remember, "You haven't come this far, to only get this far"

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  • thank you for taking the time and giving such positive insights. I agree i do hold profs to such a high regard that it may be toxic. Thank you for your critical observations on my post! I recently read a paper on why having such disproportionate respect for the authority can hurt for phd students. Its very relatable and definitely something I am focusing to work on! Really appreciate your inputs and time! Very helpful! Thank you so much for your response and belief in me. I’m struggling but I’ll get through! For sure! May 26, 2023 at 13:31
  • No worries! Keep your head high and move forward! You will endure and succeed in your life. May 26, 2023 at 19:20
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TLDR: Focus on graduating as soon as possible, only use your advisor for things directly related to that goal. Do not use them for emotional support.


The current top answers focus on seeking counseling* and exploring other professors** in the department. Those are reasonable options, but I think miss the mark a bit.

Your advisor has stated he "doesn't think the subject is for you," and that you haven't made enough progress, but has offered no evidence to support that. You provide evidence that your progress is sufficient (possibly even more than sufficient), and other than normal temporary setbacks you don't identify any major obstacles to completing your thesis.

First, other than severe lack of progress, it's not your advisor's decision whether to continue your program. As long as you're progressing, that decision is yours alone, and you should only leave the program if that is what you want. It doesn't sound from your comments like that is what you want, so I'll assume for this answer that your goal is to complete your degree.

As others have pointed out, your progression sounds on-track for this point in your degree. Advancing to candidacy and having an approved research plan are major accomplishments that you should be proud of, and are direct evidence of your progress. You describe in other comments that you've authored 3 papers, with one in Nature. If any of these are first-author papers they are also major accomplishments.***

Unfortunately, your advisor's discouraging words, and the difficulty communicating with him, signal to me that he is not, and is not going to be, your enthusiastic supporter. This is understandably very discouraging and an emotional blow.

It is understandable to hold professors in high regard as a graduate student. Keep in mind, though, that being a professor is only evidence that they are a subject matter expert. Simply knowing someone is a professor does not tell you if they are a good manager, communicator, or advisor. It also doesn't mean they're any good at knowing who "has it in them" to accomplish a goal.

You have evidence that your advisor's assertions about your progress are not true. In fact, you don't need your advisor to affirm that you are making progress, you can check that for yourself. You have a research plan that was (presumably) approved by your advisor and committee. This is your progress guide. If you are advancing on your research plan, you are advancing.

With this in mind, my recommendation is to acknowledge that your advisor is not going to have the expanded role most people wish for in the advisor/student relationship. They aren't going to be your cheerleader. They aren't going to give you encouragement. They probably won't give you good career advice.

This is discouraging, but it's not the end of the world (or of your degree). You have a year or two left on progressing your research plan and writing your dissertation. Use your advisor only for the things that are needed to accomplish that. They can (and probably should) advise on experimental setup and analyses. They should be responsive to editing manuscripts and chapters. They should do the paperwork that needs to be done to keep the lab and your position going.

Another answer suggests trying to sit down and making an emotional connection with your advisor. I disagree. I don't think you should spend your energy trying to convince them of anything other than that you are doing dissertation quality work. (This is obviously very personal advice. Only you know your relationship with him, and maybe trying to convince him to be supportive and that you're brilliant is worth it. But at the end of the day all you need is for him to sign off on your thesis, you don't need him to be chummy while doing it.)

You will also need to make sure that he is holding up his responsibilities as an advisor. This means some minimal amount of communication. It means responding to experimental questions and edits in a timely manner. It means acknowledging progress on your research plan. It means providing reasonable lab resources to do your work.

His focus on progress might manifest as a suggestion that the research you've already outlined is not enough for a degree. This is when you pull out your research plan, that everyone signed off on, and ask what has changed to demand more work. Your committee can help with this, too. (My uni had a requirement that committees include a member from a different department to represent the student's interests. If yours has something similar, they can also guard against piling on work.)

Focus on finishing your thesis. Don't take on any extra lab or department duties you don't have to.

Finally, find your allies who will be supportive. Get encouragement and affirmation from your friends, fellow students, and family.


*Counseling is an excellent suggestion, and an appropriate place to work on your emotional needs and get a detached perspective. I see your other comments that you haven't found it very helpful. Consider discussing with your counselor what might help this, and use whatever counseling benefits you have to their maximum.

**Several other answers suggest switching advisors. This might ultimately be needed, but I don't think that's a given, yet. As far along as you are, it might be very difficult to find a new advisor, and you'd spend a lot of time figuring out all the logistical issues in switching, such as funding, space, etc. You might also run into objections from your current advisor (I don't know what their incentives are, maybe a student switching looks worse than one dropping out). You'd have to weigh whether it's worth your time to go through that, compared to putting that effort into your thesis. However, if your advisor begins actively blocking your progress, or essentially abandons you so that you can't progress, by all means, find someone else.

**If all three are first-author papers, you're progress is excellent. If that's the case you should seriously consider how to transform those into the bulk of your thesis. This also may be evidence of actual obstruction from your advisor, because it would be highly inappropriate to suggest that a 4th year student with three papers leave a program.

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    "it's not your advisor's decision whether to continue your program" - Actually, sometimes it is, or approximately is. Varies by program/field/country, but some ways can include 1) advisor provides funding; if an advisor cuts off funding, student has either a ridiculous tuition bill that no one should ever pay, or they need a new advisor with funding, and 2) although decisions on graduation may be up to a committee, the advisor's word is likely to influence everyone else on the committee and only in extreme circumstances will they override the advisor.
    – Bryan Krause
    May 25, 2023 at 21:05
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    Now, it's certainly possible this is one of those wild, rare cases - some of the descriptions by OP suggest it could be. But it's likely not going to be sufficient for OP to keep their head forward and keep operating at the status quo. Something is going to need to shift/change for them to succeed, either getting their advisor on board for them to graduate, or replacing their advisor's role as a person who has influence on whether they graduate.
    – Bryan Krause
    May 25, 2023 at 21:08
  • It's true that different institutions would have different policies about retaining grad students, but the advisor would likely (though perhaps not technically) need to show some cause for dropping a student. It doesn't sound to me like they're actively trying to kick OP out, they just feel she "doesn't have it in her." My point is that that's not just a feeling, they have an approved plan to compare it against. The reason departments require those plans is to make sure the student's on track, yes, but also to discourage shifting goalposts from the advisor. May 25, 2023 at 22:08
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As you have already tried the Student Councillors and that hasn't worked, and you have other good answers I thought I'd add my alternative viewpoint.

When I read your post it made me want to reply because I think you have obviously tried very hard over many years, and the feeling you currently have isn't representative of either your progress (which sounds great), or the intense feeling you have (which sounds like it is being in the middle of an explosion).

What I mean is that although you feel in the eye of the storm, you must remember this is not something that will define your whole life. That will sound ridiculous to you now, but if you can step back and look at the bigger picture it might help to give you some perspective.

I did once start an MSc that I gave up half way through (Uni life was NOT for me!).

So, I'd like to be honest and compassionate with you?

  • I think doing a PhD is not a "job" for everyone. It may be that is the case for you and maybe your advisor has just waited too long for you to "shine" and then it got so late and he is struggling to let you know in a compassionate way (as others have said he's probably just human).

  • Having said that, I wasn't born good at communicating but knowing it was my destiny to try improve I work at it every day. It's "hard" for me to do, but it is also part of me. What I'm trying to say is that maybe your level is not good enough currently for where you are in the PhD, but if it is your destiny to get one, then maybe you do need to work 2 times as hard to get there, and maybe that means having hard conversations with your advisor (not aggressive, just vulnerable where you are honest about how you feel - more on that later).

  • It does sound from your description that he is (as someone else put it very politely) hands-off. This means he has no time to actually teach you and expects you to just do it. It sounds like this is not what you need. There are a number of options here but getting an expert second opinion would be useful. If you're struggling to find someone at your university you could "hire" a new advisor to help you focus (they could coach and mentor you through the problem). Use something like Upwork/PeoplePerHour (or something similar where you can find an expert in the field you are in - I have nothing to do with them but use them regularly to get hold of really specific expertise), you can post a job for someone with the expertise you need and ask them to be a coach and mentor and see what they say. This could be a great way to get another independent viewpoint that helps you decide if your destiny is to carry on or not. Or make changes to your current one.

  • If you are able to have a sit down conversation with your advisor and get an emotional connection with him, letting him know you respect him and that you really need his help and how it is affecting your mentally, this may enable him to tap into some compassion. Also, if you try and do this and he brushes you off it will demonstrate he doesn't really care about your feelings (this might be because he is just interested in results and not emotions).

  • You must also realise there is a possibility he is under a lot of stress from the university, his wife, his mortgage etc. This is a possibility, but if you have funding this doesn't sound right.

  • Also there is a possibility he is a bad advisor and he just cares about himself. This means you need to take what he says with some disbelief. Obviously it's hard to know if this is true or not, you need to use your intuition. A lot of people that are "Professors" love to be "famous", this can skew their viewpoint and mean they make the wrong decisions. I would not assume this is the case but it's something to think on.

SO WHAT NEXT? I advise you to do a number of things:

Think deeply if the PhD is right for YOU. Or, do you not care a lot about the PhD but want to stay in the US? If this is your ultimate goal you NEED to find a way to complete the PhD. This could be biting your lip and doing whatever your advisor needs, or finding a new university, or course or advisor (I am saying those realising it is not easy, but if you really want to complete the PhD you need to start working out what the best way forward is).

I would get a second opinion on your abilities and progress. Try and find an "Honest but compassionate PhD advisor" that is an expert in your field and get them to appraise what you've done. This could help you decide if you carry on or try something else. You need someone that will be honest and say if they think your work is at a high enough standard, and if it ever will be.

Slightly left field one here. Take 2 min cold showers daily. A lot of times we are fearful of the truth and we are worried about so many things happening in life it makes us immobile to get on with what we need to do. When you have a cold shower it resets your nervous system, and you can be a bit more rational and less emotional. This may help you see a way through the current pain, especially if you do it daily.

Finally: I believe all the things in life are MEANT to happen to us for a reason. Even if you flunk the PhD (I'm so glad I gave mine up looking back) you might go home back to your country and end up bumping into your future partner and you live happily ever after with them. And that would be much better than slogging on a PhD and not finding "the one" etc.

In reality this is a small part of your life even though it feels like everything now. You need to look a little bit ahead to the future and just try and work out the best way forward for you.

You've come so far. Don't stop, and keep going in the direction you know in your heart is right, just remember it might be slightly different (or even a LOT different) and I'm sure based on what you've said and how hard you try you'll get there eventually.

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