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Backstory - I was accepted for a PhD at an excellent university in a new and exciting field I've been working towards for a long time. Due to a number of issues, I had to delay my start date for 6 months. One of those issues was the death of a parent I've been struggling to get over since it happened.

I started the PhD about 7 months ago, and since then, I feel like I'm not doing anything of use in the group.. Everyone else seems to know exactly what to do, they seemingly aren't burdened by any issues of confidence in asking for help, or generally needing direction. My supervisor says he's not worried about my progress, but I still feel like I'm not living up to the expectations that he (or my group peers) might have. I'm new to the area our group works in, but it's been 7 months already and all I can think of is "I should be more productive by now". I feel like I'm already running out of time. The third year I've been working with is defending his thesis, and I feel bad that because of my slowness, he won't get to see a big milestone of his project since he'll likely leave before we reach it. I have some results, and I know I've made progress since my start, but I'm not sure if it's 'enough' progress. Adding to all of this the emotional pressure of taking care of my remaining parent and extra work that's come my way since that event, I feel like I'm really being pushed to my limits.

My question is: is feeling this way normal? What can I do to improve my work ethic/mindset so that I can become a better researcher? Any advice or perspective would be helpful!

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    If you were productive in a new area and in a new group, I am quite sure that whatever you would produce was "learning material" (i.e. useless, but necessary, crap). "The third year [...], he won't get to see a big milestone of his project since he'll likely leave before we reach it." When someone achieves something, they always think that progressing the work along the same lines will be easy. So you are trying to live up with impossible expectations (plus, 3rd year PhD will receive due citations when your work is ready, they smartly need it better in the future rather than right now)
    – EarlGrey
    Oct 12, 2023 at 14:40
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    Added to the other answer that were posted, I believe reading this question and associated answers may help you: How to effectively deal with Imposter Syndrome and feelings of inadequacy: "I've somehow convinced everyone that I'm actually good at this" . It seems like you are deprecating your own work and achievements and you may benefit for re-assessing them
    – JackRed
    Oct 13, 2023 at 13:11
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    This is my own personal experience but during the 3rd year of PhD I finally started to understand what is going on with my thesis and how much I don't know to be able to solve the problem. This is normal.
    – Node.JS
    Oct 14, 2023 at 2:03

7 Answers 7

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Sure, it's normal, but also not normal: you're dealing with the death of a parent, too, and it's okay to be not-normal for a bit.

My biggest piece of advice would be that you will not make 7 months of progress tomorrow. Or next week. Or next month. You can in the best case scenario make a day of progress tomorrow, a week of progress by next week, a month of progress by next month. If you're worrying about making up for lost time instead of making progress, you won't meet those best case scenarios, either.

It also won't help you move forward to worry about things like your peer not seeing a certain milestone hit. They won't fall off the face of the planet when they graduate, and email can reach people in most places. If it's a shared project where they're a coauthor, you'll be likely interacting more around writing up the results anyways.

It sounds like your supervisor is being supportive, I'd take them at their word about your progress and just focus on the next steps. Make the task smaller by focusing on what do you need to do today to move forward. I wouldn't plan out past a week at a time for now, and see how that goes. It's also okay to not reach your goal every day. If it's helpful for you to plan out at even a finer time scale ("for the next hour I am going to ________") you can try that, too. If you don't know what exactly you should be doing, ask your supervisor for help: that's their job.

Eventually you may get into a rhythm where you are more independent, like some of your colleagues who are ahead of you. It would be strange and not promising for your future if the people in your group who had been there longer than you weren't learning and weren't ahead of where you are as a new member, wouldn't it?

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  • (+1) Congratulations on passing 100k rep! :-)
    – mhdadk
    Oct 15, 2023 at 17:46
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Firstly, I am very sorry for your loss, you being able to continue a difficult, dedicated task such as a PhD after such experiences is a testiment to your character.

I had a poor start to my PhD, which was primarily work-ethic related, then later I had serious medical complications. What I learned after this time is the importance of being kind to your self. If you are overwhelmed, or hurting, usually (in my experience) pushing yourself, or trying to 'fix' your lower output, isn't an effective way of doing this.

You need time to heal. This is fine, and any reasonable person would accomodate you. I would recommend you try work at a pace that feels comfortable, eventually you will begin to heal, and after sometime (perhaps before you even notice yourself) you will be working at a higher level again.

So my only real advice is to allow yourself some kindness.

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PhD research is on a full spectrum from "I am in a large group and something eventually will sweat out and my PhD is more or less connected to that so I will be fine", through "I need to work hard to get 174 results because they are needed for my stats and I will prove or not my idea, but I see more or less where this is going", up to "I am sitting and waiting for the eureka moment so that my gut feeling turns into science".

I am not even going into what "science" means.

I started in the middle group, had a gut feeling, and ended up in the third one. It was really stressful because I am not brilliant and it took some forceps exercise to get the eureka out.

What this means for you is that you may just be starting, you need to understand where you are, how a PhD works and similar stuff. It takes an awful amount of time to understand all this and depends a lot on the group you are in.

Do not worry, lots of people feel that they are moving too slowly until the moment they realize that they are not.

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From my own experience in STEM, it is quite normal to spend the first months in a PhD with lollygagging. Often some materials or devices are still missing to start with the intended experiments, or you still need to catch up with a new field. It was like that for me too, and I still ended up with a great dissertation after 3 years, and for my colleagues it is the same. You already have made some progress, your productivity will kick off in the next months. We usually start going to conferences only in our second year because it takes time to produce worthwile results at the beginning.

Also, your advisor says that he is not concerned, and his opinion is the most important one for your progress, so relax.

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There are lots of great insights here already, but I wanted to offer a more concrete suggestion. Creating an individual development plan (IDP) might help you reframe your thinking and become more aware of your progress. "Science Careers" has a great tool for PhDs to do this, but there are others. Much of what you should be doing as you become a more experienced researcher is building soft skills. These skills are extremely valuable, but often don't feel like "progress". For instance, when I made my IDP, I identified professional involvement and networking as areas for growth. I took a few small actions at the time, and subsequently forgot about it. However, when the IDP tool sent me an automated reminder a few months later, I realized that I had actually made a ton of progress! What felt to me like hanging out with my friends actually led to a bunch of new professional connections and even a new focus session at a big annual conference. Without the little automated reminder, I could easily have felt like I "waisted" a lot of time during those months. Hope this helps!

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the death of a parent I've been struggling to get over since it happened.

This issue is too complex to be settled on a QA site. You should seek help at your school's mental health/counseling center, you can also try independently seeing a therapist.

I started the PhD about 7 months ago, and since then, I feel like I'm not doing anything of use in the group.. Everyone else seems to know exactly what to do

Because they've been there longer than you, and already learned. Hang out with other new students if you want more relatable peers.

they seemingly aren't burdened by any issues of confidence in asking for help, or generally needing direction.

In academia, one of the understated skills is to look like you know what you're doing even when you don't. The majority of successful academics have this skill. It's not hard to learn, and the obvious thing for you is to work on it.

However, if you don't want to go the "hard way" of being candid about your misgivings throughout your career, and you don't like the idea of learning to always put up a front, I would advice reconsidering your career choice. (Note: Reconsider means just that - not "give up now just on that reason alone", but simply give it some more thought to see if it's really what you want.)

I'm not living up to the expectations that he (or my group peers) might have.

You are judging yourself against a bar of what you imagine your advisor and peers might expect. That's not a good idea. Among others: You cannot control their expectations, you are not systematic with this "imagining" and meeting the expectations you imagine may be a waste of your time or even harmful to you.

Instead, you should sit down and come up with some logical goals for yourself. What are you trying to accomplish? Graduate? Become a top scientist? Make your parents proud? Think rationally about what things might be necessary or helpful to reach these goals: Maybe it's keeping your GPA high, or asking at least one question in every talk, or publishing a paper within 2 years, or getting a grant.... Then focus on those objectives, ignore everything else (except to re-evaluate your objectives rationally).

It's hard to chart your own path through life, but that's what being an adult is. The bad news is that it's particularly hard in academia because it's among the most unstructured and freeform professions. But you don't have to do it alone. Some useful resources are: Books about being a PhD student, discussions with your advisor or other mentors you trust, family and friends.

It's particularly good to set objective goals with your advisor. That way, so long as you meet these goals, you know that you're at least not a total failure, and your advisor should certainly be happy. And if you struggle to meet them, you can expect help from the advisor, since he put you up to it. Don't rely on your advisor alone - not all advisors are good in laying out every critical step to success for a PhD student. Of course, you do have to respect your advisor's Way and marry it with your own goals to some extent, since as it would not be very productive to always be pulling in a different direction from your advisor.

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TLDR. You're going through post bereavement which is very similar to clinical depression. There are specific treatments that can help.

the death of a parent I've been struggling to get over since it happened

I've been there. What helped was bereavement counseling. It's not instant, but it does work if you are open to it.

At the time I had the issue my GP said I could try anti-depressants or counseling. He explained the pros and cons. I went for counseling, but each person is different. I'd suggest discussing both options (and others) with a GP.

As you mentioned there were other issues that delayed you, maybe there's more issues to deal with in counseling as well. Give it some thought.

My question is: is feeling this way normal?

For someone grieving it's absolutely normal. It can be worse. I developed full blown insomnia, people can become suicidal. A woman I knew told me she delayed having a second child for over ten years due to grieving. Take it seriously as a medical condition if it's affecting you.

What can I do to improve my work ethic/mindset so that I can become a better researcher?

There's nothing wrong with your work ethic or mindset. You would not be asking here if there was. You would not feel guilt if you didn't have a good work ethic.

You want to work, your grieving is the issue that's messing you up (IMO).

Any advice or perspective would be helpful!

Shift your view of the problem to that of a medical (psychological) issue that, alas, almost everyone has to deal with at some point.

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