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I'm a 4th year PhD student in Germany. I started my PhD in a fully funded project and the funding will run out by next month. I'm still not close to finishing my PhD but I believe that I can finish it. But my supervisor has given up on me and this is bothering me. My PhD research is multidisciplinary and for that I had to learn some new technical skills too (as my second supervisor is from different discipline) which took a lot of time. At personal level I had been dealing with a lot of self-doubts and insecurities which also took a lot of time for me to recover and feel good enough to have the confidence to continue. The whole time I tried to do everything together to make my supervisors happy but in the process I lost my own voice in my own research. And now my first supervisor, who I am mostly with, has lost hope in me as I haven't been able to publish anything. In her way, she tried to help me but my own lack of trust on me took over most of the time. So now I am asking here if anyone has any advice to deal with these situations? For now I'll focus on completing the paper that I have been writing for one year now. Maybe that could help.

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    Can you elaborate on what it means that your supervisor has "lost hope in you"? Feb 20 at 15:40
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    Lost hope in the sense that she doesn't think that I'll finish and I just found out about it. She never says anything directly but talked to one of the postdoc and others from my research group.
    – Claire
    Feb 20 at 15:44
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    How much experience does she have with supervision? Also, how focused on her own career is she as opposed to focus on her doctoral students? I once had problems with these issues.
    – Buffy
    Feb 20 at 15:47
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    I worry you are making assumptions about her "giving up on you" from what you write. Unless she has told you that explicitly, you need to have a serious conversation with her.
    – Buffy
    Feb 20 at 19:47
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    @Buffy: She might have given up in the sense that she genuinely believes her student won't finish and she might be planning for that. I have never met anyone supervising PhD students with a 100% graduation rate, no matter how willing both supervisor and student were. Feb 21 at 11:18

9 Answers 9

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I'm sorry that you're in this situation. Since you're in Germany specifically, I think there might be some resources from your university or institute for this situation, which is why I'm advising a slightly different tack from WhatTheDuck.

  • Step 1: Plan for your basic needs

From what you're written, it seems unlikely that you will be able to graduate before your funding runs out. Based on your current position, do you qualify for unemployment money? Does your institute offer graduating stipends ("Abschlussstipendium") for students who go over time? If your institution has some sort of overarching structure for doctoral students (like a "Graduiertenkolleg"), can you ask a responsible person there what they've done for such cases? Is there an active Fachschaft or student union of sorts that can help you navigate the bureaucracy of applying for any financial aid you might qualify for? In a worst case (e.g. you will still need much more time than you have funding for), are there part-time jobs that could keep you afloat while you write up? You are not the first person to go over time on a PhD, and there's no reason to be ashamed of this. The goal of step 1 is to get a feeling for your remaining timeframe, and take off some of the pressure of your funding running out.

  • Step 1b: Mental Health

If you need professional support, now is a great time to go for help. Coaching might be a good option. It's also a good time to reach out to friends and family: talking to people who (presumably) couldn't care less if you finish in 4 or 5 years can be very grounding.

  • Step 2: Figure out the bare minimum

What are the bare minimum formal requirements to graduation at your institution? Assuming a worst case scenario, what is the absolute floor to achieving graduation? Figure out the preliminary answer in your (and potentially the Fachschaft/student representatives) estimation- presumably something along the lines of "some amount of science, a document of >x pages in format y, z referee suggestions". Does publishing the paper affect this? (e.g. by letting you defend cumulatively with a shorter thesis?) In an ideal world, what would you still want to do to wrap up your project? The goal of step 2 is to have some rough mental vision of how much work you still need to wrangle.

  • Step 2b: Paperwork is not the enemy

If you were employed in Germany, you presumably should have had some sort of annual progress meeting (Jahresgespräch). Do you have minutes/notes on those meetings? Did you write some sort of project agreement at the start of your PhD? Try to collect all of these things and reread them to get a feeling for the intended scientific scope. The progress meetings in particular should have included some sort of "this is where we are/how you're doing, this is where we're going" bit- how have those turned out. This is not about beating yourself up for falling short, but about getting an overview of the scope. (If you struggle negativity during this, ask a friend to go through them with you). If there were things you worked on that fell short of publication, are they still sufficiently well-documented to be written up for the thesis?

  • Step 3a (optional): Talk to supervisor #2

You mentioned that your project is multidisciplinary, and that you learned new technical skills for supervisor #2. How much credit can you get for what you've done in their discipline, and how much more would they want you to do to graduate? The placement of this step depends a bit on your relationship with them. If you think they might be a good resource to help you wrap up your project, it's a good idea to rope them in early. If you think this will cause more confusion (their expectations are too far away from supervisor #1's), you can skip them until Step 5.

  • Step 3b: Miscellaneous support

Ask everyone and anyone (other PhD students, admins, your doctoral program) about PhD-graduation support options. Is there a thesis writing club? Graduating stipends? Subsidised coaching? You are not the first or only one to struggle at the end of their PhD, and having an overview of what's available can help. Communication of German administrative structures is not always the best, and sometimes asking around is the only way to figure these things out. You don't need to go into detail to ask around, just; "oops, my project is going a bit over time, what help can I get to fix this"?

  • Step 4: Get supervisor #1 on board

Set a meeting with them to discuss your timeline to graduation. WhatTheDuck has already written about this, so I will be brief. The previous steps were about you figuring out what kind of financial (stipends, social security), professional (institutional staff, union, supervisor #2), social (your friends & family) and personal (your existing science) resources you can bring to the table. This can give you a bit of a framework for the discussion, and show that you're serious about finishing your project. Maybe you supervisor can help you with funding, but even if not, the main goal here is to agree on a timeline and scope for your remaining project.

It will probably feel difficult, but ideally try to keep this discussion on pragmatic, actionable tasks and timelines as much as possible. It would be nice if they believe in you, but what you need from them is an agreement of what should be in Chapter n. Make sure you write down your plans, then set a next meeting (with action points for what you need to do by then).

  • Step 5: Follow the plan

Assuming you get something workable out of Step 4, try to put aside your doubts and follow that agreement. If you struggle with doubts, go to Step 1b or Step 3b. You can also use Step 3a (talking to supervisor #2) if they're helpful, although I would absolutely stick to whatever you agreed on in Step 4.

  • Step 6: Disengage from the gossip train

Circling back to the start, I'm sorry that you're in this situation. Maybe your supervisor did express some cynicism to a postdoc, maybe they're stirring the pot. Either way, at the moment you only stand to lose by engaging with the gossip mill. It's deriving a wedge between you and your supervisor, and making you feel isolated. Once you've concluded Step 4, announce something vaguely optimistic to the gossip circle and then let them move onto other things- focus your in-office energy on your thesis, and your social energy on your friends, family and hobbies.

Edit: Upon re-reading, I'd also like to add that Steps 1-3 before the conversation are not about presuming any lack of faith from the supervisor, but about trying to be more agentive and independent as a (hopefully) soon-to-be-graduating student.

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    "If you were employed in Germany, you presumably should have had some sort of annual progress meeting (Jahresgespräch)." While I hope this isn’t the case here, in my experience these often are skipped in academia especially if the employee isn’t aware they can demand those - i.e. for students who focus on other concerns. Feb 20 at 20:04
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    @MisterMiyagi Sadly I have to agree with you, but I thought it might be worth mentioning. Feb 20 at 20:10
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Sounds like you're having a tough time, and I hope it gets better for you.

The most important thing you need to do right now is take care of your mental health - whether that's by beginning (or continuing) counseling/therapy, etc. The "lack of trust" you mention (I'm unclear from the phrasing whether that's you lack trust in your advisor or in yourself) has clearly negatively impacted your program of study, and that is something counseling/therapy can help address. There is a tendency for Ph.D. students to go through cycles of mentally "doing better" before cycling back to mentally "doing worse." I encourage you, even if you think you're doing better, to get help now (if you haven't already), because it's a lot harder to reach out and get that help during those "doing worse" swings.

The second most important thing you need to do right now is communicate with your advisor. I know this sounds odd based on the issue you're having, but you need to sit down and have a talk with your advisor about what, EXACTLY, you need to accomplish in order to graduate, and come up with a plan, including timelines, of how you will go about accomplishing these things. Bear in mind that since the funding is about to run out, it is possible that your advisor simply doesn't have the money for you to finish - and this is something that you need to talk about with them, as well.

Having a concrete plan in place, and showing the initiative to put in motion a plan to finish, will probably be more helpful than anything else in convincing your advisor that you can finish.

Finishing the paper is a good start, but if you've been working on it for over a year now I think it's likely you need input from your advisor or someone else with more experience on what to focus on to finish that paper, so again - communication is important.

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I am so sorry you are going through this. I am starting a 5th year and can relate with most of your experience. For the entirety of my 4th year I believed my supervisor had given up on me (it didn't help him saying at some point that he tried to help me with task/time management recurrently but since I couldn't change my poor work habits he might just give up trying) and this brought about a new layer of imposter syndrome, frustration and anxiety/depression. Because this was someone I had taken as a scientific role model, the feeling of letting him down took a heavy toll on my mental health.

I can only share my experience going through similar situations so that you realize that at least you are not alone. I believe your supervisor may be conflict avoidant and career oriented, like mine. If this is the case, there is no point insisting you need her help. They will expect you pick yourself up and self motivate to chase a question like they do, unaware it doesn't work the same for all people.

If I can give you a piece of advice is to worry less about what your supervisor thinks of you and work on building that self-trust. You reached this point in your studies, so I am certain you are highly skilled and capable. Even if your PhD hasn't been the best experience it has gifted you in many aspects. It doesn't matter whether your supervisor believes in you or has given up. Regroup, finish that paper and prove her wrong. More importantly, prove to yourself that she is wrong about you.

In my case, I am choosing to believe my supervisor is finally giving me the space to build my own ideas and focus on finishing this beast. Trying to turn his apparent loss of interest into positives. My perception may change in a month or two, though...

All the best to you

Hope it gets a little better!

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    +1 particularly for "think less about what your supervisor thinks of you" Feb 22 at 17:00
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Adding to the answer provided by coffee_into_plots and WhatTheDuck: There should be an ombudsman/ombudswoman for PhD students if you are at a German university. They are there to help the students and mediate if there are issues between you and your supervisor. This might not help but its free and worth a shot.

Depending on your contract and research: If you cannot finish before your contract runs out it could be an option to finish your thesis while unemployed (receiving unemployment benefits). I absolutely hate that PhD students have to fall back on this option but I know several people who finished this way in Germany. Maybe this lets you finish without having to gain your supervisor's trust back.

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I was in a similar situation as you and I graduated with my PhD last year. In my situation it was me who got rid of the supervisor. Despite being a nice guy he was simply terrible at getting any work done. All the other PhD candidates had sacked him as well before me finding out about his track record.

Losing supervisors happens all the time. In my PhD two supervisors left for other jobs, one was sacked and only by sacking one did I get a much more competent PhD supervisor, who also ended up leaving but just as I was completing. I wouldn't have passed without his support. There was also one who tried to insert herself into my PhD but was told where to go when she displayed a dismissive attitude in conjunction with a lack of competence.

You should maybe reframe your situation, because it doesn't sound like you had a good supervisor in the first place.

I also had to work on my PhD for two years after funding ran out. That's the priority, find an income. I am not sure how it works where you are but you certainly wouldn't be allowed to claim unemployment benefits while doing a PhD in the UK.

Most people go through something similar simply because they let anyone supervise PhDs. One candidate who started when I did is supervising and I don't think that's a great idea based on her lack of experience. From what I have seen nothing seems to happen to bad supervisors, the one I sacked is still messing up other PhD candidates' work.

It's your PhD so take control of it, passing is more important than whether you upset a supervisor or three. The right supervisor will get you over the line, an incompetent or inexperienced one will just shove more hurdles in your way. Always ask how many completions they have as a guide to their effectiveness.

In terms of writing a paper, it shouldn't take a year. There is either a technical writing issue which can be easily addressed, or it another issue which is that you are striving for perfection which isn't possible anyway. Many academics can be obsessive in nature. It's an issue if it interferes with task completion. Finish a full draft which isn't perfect, get feedback on it and move forward.

My impression is that you may have obsessive compulsive traits which will likely be the root of you questioning your abilities and holding up your work. The fact you have been working on a paper that long makes this likely. This can easily result in distress. Addressing this may also be a priority in terms of completing your studies, and career, however with the right help that can be overcome.

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    In my situation it was me who got rid of the supervisor - this is to something that you can do in Germany. You may of course attempt to switch supervisors but it has to be a move where everyone is comfortable. I switched supervisors after my first year to get one who was better suited for the kind of research I was into, but they were very good and long friends so the transition was completely smooth (it was my initiative, though)
    – WoJ
    Feb 22 at 13:33
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first of all, do not be upset. this is very common for any PhD student.

  1. rethink why you want a phd - do you want to be a professor? do you enjoy the academic research? how a phd would benefit your future career or life? Phd is an expensive investment and you have to convince yourself that it's worth the time and effort. I had classmates spending 8 years on his Phd. It is okay as long as you know what you want to get from this experience.

  2. if you are determined to get a phd - calm down and make a plan. there are many ways to make progress, such as talking to your professor to get her support and advice, making a research plan, or, the worst case, working with another supervisor. Professors usually do not give up on their students if they notice their hard work.

  3. if you have not published any articles and it is a mandatory requirement, you need work on it right away. there are many places to submit your articles - some favor theory and method and others favor applications.

stay healthy.

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From what you write (and of course, I do not know the details), it sounds like you should seriously think about quitting your PhD.

Without a very strong PhD, it unlikely that you have a career in academia, and I have seen to many people moving from PostDoc position to PostDoc position and then eventually leaving academia at 35 or 40.

On the other hand, outside academia it often does not matter whether you have a PhD or not.

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You have to decide, whether you still think you are going to finish your PhD successfully. This has two aspects:

  1. Are you able to do so? I.e., knowledge, funding, health, research idea will provide some publishable results.
  2. Do you still want to finish your PhD? Can you suffer for two more years, dedicate your time, life, thoughts at night to your PhD? Or are you okay with moving on and looking for an industry job?

Talk to your supervisor whats needed to finish and if they think you are going to achieve it. Otherwise, how could they support you with an exit strategy like writing a positive letter of recommendation, handing over your work to someone else, keeping you employed so you can finish your paper, and apply for a new job.

Aborting a PhD is always a possibility. Don't make the mistake of sunk cost fallacy. I know several people that regained happiness in their life after moving on and taking a job instead of persisting on the PhD.

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My honest advice to you is yo pack and go. You have been writing a paper for 1 year and you reached your 4th year without achieving any significant milestone. Not everyone is cut for a PhD. Sorry!

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    I don't think this is helpful advice. Timeframes differ a lot by discipline and country so little can be inferred from the length of time that paper is being written, and your statement that they have reached this point "without achieving any significant milestone" isn't evidenced (and is uncharitable).
    – Rdd
    Feb 21 at 11:55
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    Four years ago…have you forgotten there was a two/three-year-long pandemic? That slowed progress for millions of people all over the world.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Feb 22 at 21:37

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