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I'm a PhD student at the end of my 3rd year and I've been working with my supervisor since my BS.c degree. I was diagnosed with clinical anxiety when I turned 18, so when I started my PhD it was important for me to tell my supervisor that I am very anxious and I can get stressed quite eastly.

I am treated by a professional regarding my anxiety, only not as frequently as I probably should at this point. I'll be working on that.

Whenever I have a anxiety/panic crises due to PhD work my supervisor is the first to say that I am doing fine, I got results, my PhD is going fine, I still have time to do what is left, etc. However, when in a more formal meeting it seems like it is the complete opposite. My supervisor tells me that I should have finished that task by now, that I should have already started the next task and bunch of other stuff that in the end makes me feel like I have nothing and I'm not doing enough and fast enough.

I already put a lot of pressure on myself, most of the time is the standards that I set for myself that are the cause of my stress, but I also don't want to disappoint my supervisor who taught me so much and invested a lot of time in me. Even though I know my supervisor cares about my well-being as a student, it feels like they have no idea of how much I actually work, how much effort I put into my work to the point where right now I get home and just sleep.

Depending on the situation I am behind on work or I am doing fine. In the end I just feel even more overwhelmed and stressed and it really messes up my mind.

Any help?

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    The two comments you give in the second paragraph aren't necessarily contradictory. You have time to finish. You are slow (relative to expectations) on some tasks. That might be true of most of us.
    – Buffy
    Nov 24, 2023 at 20:20
  • The standards that I set for myself that are the cause of my stress — maybe weigh that against perfect is the enemy of good. Nov 26, 2023 at 18:41
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    I'm going to against the (subtle?) current here and inquire why you aren't asking your advisor this directly. The phrasing is a bit delicate, sure, but if you're indeed behind, it's only going to get more uncomfortable. And if you're not behind, they need to stop implying the opposite. It's their job to make sure you're getting useful and constructive feedback, and you're ultimately the one responsible for your PhD.
    – user541686
    Nov 27, 2023 at 2:37

4 Answers 4

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(Warning: subjective answer)

One possible interpretation of your supervisor's "contradictory comments" is that they are trying to juggle multiple roles. As a supportive mentor, they reassure you in a crisis. As a scientific supervisor, they are trying to keep your project on time and on track.

Some of your descriptions (having anxiety/panic crises, feeling overwhelmed and stressed, etc...) sound like you could benefit from more mental health support. If you haven't already, talking to your university's counselling service or another mental health professional might be helpful.

Aside from that, here's some more tangible short-term advice:

  • (edit: just saw Buffy's post, follow their two steps first)

  • Is it possible for you to have a different (non-work) support for your anxiety/panic crises? Disentangling your coping strategies for your anxiety from things that trigger your anxiety could help de-escalate these situations. For example, can you call/text a friend or family member instead?

  • If you feel overwhelmed by your current workload, can you ask your supervisor for more explicit timelines on your immediate tasks? In the long run, I agree with Bryan Krause. For now, given that it's November, can you agree on a list of tasks (with smaller sub-deadlines) until next winter/term/semester break?

P.S: If there's a canonical winter break of some sort ahead, I'd really recommend taking a bit of time off. It might seem counter-intuitive, but taking some time to care for your mental health/reduce stress will help give you the stamina to take on the rest of your PhD.

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    Now that you mentioned, I do believe that my supervisor is trying so be a supportive but also keep my project going and on track. I'm going to try and apply all of your advices, thank you a lot.
    – Lessien
    Nov 25, 2023 at 9:01
  • This is a PhD, the supervisor should guide, but not dictate a schedule. Nov 27, 2023 at 8:12
  • I agree with you in principle- the explicit timelines supposed to be a stop-gap. Given that OP might have year(s?) left in their degree, I think it's worth asking for extra support for ~1 month to bring the full weight of modern medicine down on those "panic crises". Mental health issues can lead to cognitive distortions (like rejection sensitivity) that make effective planning and communication more difficult: I think it makes sense to try and reduce the influence of this limiting factor first. Nov 27, 2023 at 15:31
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Two things. First, I hope you are working with a professional on your clinical anxiety and are finding solutions to that. Some things you say suggest that there is the possibility of some obsessive behavior - not completing because it isn't yet perfect.

Second, you should mention the seeming contradiction to the advisor and ask whether you are actually at risk or if it is just a bit of frustration on their part. Your anxiety may, as I suggested in a comment (copied below), be an interpretation on your part that isn't intended. Your anxiety is, perhaps, stressing any message that seems negative. It isn't impossible that they think they are encouraging you.


The two comments you give in the second paragraph aren't necessarily contradictory. You have time to finish. You are slow (relative to expectations) on some tasks. That might be true of most of us.

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  • Thank you a lot for your insight, I hadn't though about it in that perspective, it is something that I need to keep in mind for sure
    – Lessien
    Nov 25, 2023 at 8:56
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What you actually need to know is not where you are at but what you still need to do to accomplish your goals (such as: to graduate).

Rather than asking your advisor about your progress, ask about what you still need to do and work on a timeline for accomplishing those things. If it's too overwhelming to consider all that there is left to do, ask your advisor to help break the task into meaningful chunks with incremental deadlines. You may need to further divide tasks into what you need to do in the next week, next day, next hour, etc, if that fits your working style.

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  • Thank you for this suggestion. I'm going to try the the task division for sure!
    – Lessien
    Nov 25, 2023 at 8:54
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I am very sorry to say this, but You are doing OK is trying to contain your anxiety attack and God knows what you might do when in the throes of such an episode (yes, PhD students do commit suicide, and the risk that this might happen weighs heavily on the mind of a supervisor, especially when it's occurred in recent years at the institution).

You should be much further by now. is, I am afraid, the unvarnished truth, that you are behind schedule if the aim is to finish within the nominal time frame.

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