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I just started my PhD two months ago and I am already feeling stressed out. I don't know how to find a research gap and I'm also not good at communicating or explaining anything. My supervisor told me to reply to his emails and also to communicate with others properly. So while I was presenting I got overwhelmed and cried. Now I'm feeling embarrassed about it. I feel like I'm not cut out for this PhD life. How should I deal with this going forward?

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    "I'm also not good at communicating or explaining anything." This is where you can improve, no rush, the others are humans as well, even if they may not show it. You are a PhD student, even when presenting something you may realize you do not master the topic: state you have still to do some of your "homework" and think about yourself 2 weeks from now, accept any positive feedback and if someone bring your "lack of knowledge" at the personal level, please filter their comments, they are nor helpful nor worthwhile to spend time on them ... everyone in the audience with a brain will understand
    – EarlGrey
    Apr 8 at 10:47
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    @EarlGrey That looks like the seed to a great answer. Care to expand? Apr 8 at 12:41
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    "reply to his emails" -- Do you also have in person 1-on-1 meetings with him? It's generally easier to discuss personal struggles and get "life advice" face-to-face. Particularly if it's a more informal "chat over coffee" type setting, rather than an "update the boss-man behind the big desk" type setting.
    – R.M.
    Apr 8 at 17:16
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    People should be allowed to be fully human even if it means crying at times. It's probably a significant proportion of graduate students that cry at some point. Graduate school is hard for a variety of complex reasons. It's important that your find a support network which could include peers, mentors, friends, family, spiritual/religious, or therapeutic professionals.
    – jdods
    Apr 9 at 10:57
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    @EndAnti-SemiticHate: Rather than saying “…reconsider whether getting a PhD is a good match…”, I’d urge OP to simply work targetedly on those communication skills. They come more or less easily for different people, but they can absolutely be worked on and improved.
    – PLL
    Apr 9 at 14:22

6 Answers 6

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It is perfectly normal to struggle and feel at sea, especially when you are right at the start of your PhD.

I have regular one-on-one meetings with students -- a couple of hours each week -- and this is basically on the high end of normal. I don't monitor how they organize the other 38 hours of their work week, because an important part of being a good PhD supervisor is giving my students the space they need to develop into independent researchers.

However, this is an absolutely huge amount of unstructured time, and it is likely that you have never before been on your own that much. Figuring out how to use that time is really, really hard, and it is genuinely not surprising that you are finding it a really stressful experience. Breaking down into tears in a meeting indicates that you are finding the experience more stressful than usual, but honestly not by that much more than average. I think most people are more likely to feel sympathetic than to hold it against you.

The advice your supervisor has given you is actually good advice, though when you are embarrassed, it is really difficult to see past the sense of shame to take it.

Let me break this down.

  1. Your advisor has asked you to reply to his emails.

    This probably (a) sounds like a reasonable request, which (b) feels emotionally impossible, and that (c) makes you feel like a failure.

    The number one thing I tell my students is that the moments they most need to talk to me are the moments that they least want to. If you are doing a PhD, that means you have spent your whole life being "good at school." As a result, when you are struggling, it can feel like an invalidation of your whole sense of self.

    But when we do research, we are doing things that literally no one has ever done before. This necessarily involves grappling with difficult problems and trying approaches which end up not working. So struggle is built into the process.

    Actually replying to your advisor's emails (and even better, emailing them proactively when you have difficulties) is a key tool for minimizing that struggle.

    You have an advisor to give you advice. If your advisor is a mid-career academic like me, that means they have probably spent 20+ years working in the area, and (a) they are less emotionally bothered by failures because they have failed so much and gotten used to it, and (b) they have a broader perspective on the field and can help suggest new lines of attack.

    There are few things better in my professional life than helping one of my students "get it", and then watching them zoom past me to do things I couldn't even have imagined. I'm a middle aged dude thinking about his mortality, and passing on what I know to young people who wield it in ways uniquely their own is really deeply calming. You aren't your advisor's rival: you are their legacy to the world. As a result, I want my students to succeed, and when they struggle, I want to help them.

    So building a mentor/mentee relationship with your advisor, rather than seeing them as someone you need to impress and manage your image with, is important. (Yes, for career reasons, you do need to impress your advisor. But you do that by building a strong cooperative relationship with them!)

  2. Your advisor suggested talking to other people, too.

    The problem with being a mature academic is that the struggles you are going through, are struggles that we went through decades ago, and time has a way of blurring memories.

    Talk to all the other people in your research group, both in your advisor's group, and the people who are supervised by other professors doing similar things in your department. Talk to everyone: postdocs, senior grad students, and your junior peers.

    Let go of your shame about not knowing things, and give yourself the permission to ask people questions. It is safe to say that most of your peers are giant nerds, and giving them a chance to explain things to you is basically an enormous gift to them. (There might be a few people who sneer at you for asking questions. But they are likely a small minority of the group, and you can just stop talking to them, and talk to everyone else.)

    When you ask people things, it is a very good idea to do active listening, where you ask clarifying questions and rephrase what you are told in your own terms. It is also often helpful to start by asking your peers, and then working your way up the experience hierarchy. Your peers will probably have very similar confusions as you, and then once the basic confusions are resolved, you will be more able to interpret the broader perspectives that someone who has seen more things will have, and decide if you agree with them or not. (It's ok to not agree with people, as long as you've made an effort to understand them. You are here to develop as an independent researcher, remember.)

    Paper reading groups are a great way of starting these conversations. If your group has a paper reading group, join it. If it doesn't have one, start one. If you worry you will be embarrassed if your advisor or senior postdocs are present, don't invite them. (Reading groups which exclude the faculty, so that the members can ask dumb questions without embarrassment, have a long and storied pedigree.)

    These conversations are how you learn to identify research gaps. Identifying research problems is a key skill, but it isn't a discrete, trainable skill like shooting 3-point goals in basketball. It is the totality of your experience as a researcher that lets you identify interesting problems.

To sum up, the stress you are feeling is normal. You are here to learn how to do research, and you shouldn't beat yourself up for not knowing how to do the thing you were admitted into the program to learn how to do. So relax, and let yourself ask people questions about the subject that you love enough to spend half a decade studying.

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    This is really helpful. You have summed up what I'm feeling. I have the imposter syndrome, so it has been a stressful for me. But learning that this is the norm makes me a little bit better.
    – Me myself
    Apr 9 at 2:08
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Others have provided good answers on all but this point: Crying in front of your adviser.

If it is any consolation to you, every empathetic professor has had students cry in their office. It is not uncommon. I'm not going to say that we like it, but it's also not something that is entirely unexpected or unprofessional. We know that our students are under pressure, and in some sense a student crying in the office is also an indication that they feel that sharing their emotions with us is at least not an entirely terrifying prospect. It's a reflection of us having empathy.

In other words, perhaps don't make it a habit, but you're also not likely to see any negative consequences. It tells your adviser that they need to ensure you get the support you need, and I hope for you that you have an adviser who knows how to give that to you.

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    Yes. Supervisor assured me that it's normal and gave me plenty of advice. Hopefully I won't make it a habit. I need to get past that embarrassment and make myself better.
    – Me myself
    Apr 9 at 2:11
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    That’s very optimistic and positive! Apr 9 at 2:15
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    I wish I could upvote this answer more than once.
    – Anonymous
    Apr 9 at 3:31
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    There @Anonymous, I did it for you have one me too.
    – civitas
    Apr 9 at 16:57
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    @Memyself, that's actually very good to hear. Wasn't sure from your post above how others reacted, and was concerned maybe the prof wasn't so understanding. Sound like they're trying to be empathetic and generally positive., which bodes well for you being able to work with them as you learn and grow through this process.
    – Nick J
    Apr 10 at 3:44
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Starting a PhD is a big change, and it is no surprise that you need time to adapt (i.e. more than 2 months).

How to find a research gap can be tough. You could talk to your supervisor about what the right strategy is for finding a research gap. Alternatively, talk to your fellow PhD students or maybe a postdoc.

As to getting overwhelmed while communicating: it depends on what the real problem is: it could be being mildly shy and you would "only" need a little practice, to coming from a different culture and needing help adapting to the new culture, to something more serious needing professional help. Notice, that none of my options included quitting. Many universities have resources available to help you. They are usually a good place to start.

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  • Thank you for the advice. I am little bit shy , so I need to improve upon that. I generally don't like to ask help from others thinking it may inconvenience others. So I know it is a learning curve and I need to go out of my comfort zone. Doing that practically is the hardest thing
    – Me myself
    Apr 9 at 2:01
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Have a cry when you need to, and then focus on substantive improvement

Although other supervisors may react differently than me, I don't think you need to feel any embarrassment for crying, and it is not a big deal. PhD candidates will often struggle with work expectations initially, and it can be cathartic for them to have a cry to let out some of that tension and pain of adjustment. (In truth, I've only seen this occur with female PhD candidates, not male candidates; in any case, it's not a big deal.) Just focus on the substantive problem of improving your communication skills and understand that this might take some practice to get used to.

Responsive communication is something you will need in any professional area, whether in your PhD candidature or in a professional work environment. There is no need for you to feel like you are not cut out for your program --- it is normal to come in with skill gaps and have some initial difficulties plugging those gaps. Take your supervisor's advice to plug your present skill deficiencies and do not infer that you are inadequate for your program --- if you are not doing well in your program then this is something that will be communicated to you explicitly in your formal feedback. Have a cry whenever you need to (privately or in front of your supervisor) and then pick yourself up and focus on substantive improvement of your skills.

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  • This makes me feel better. I felt embarrassed initially since I felt like I broke down much earlier in my PhD journey. But hearing that this is normal alleviate my stress, anxiety and embarrassment a little bit
    – Me myself
    Apr 9 at 2:15
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Every major university generally has a wellness centre. For example, UIUC has one: https://wellness.illinois.edu/

Check out your university's wellness centre. They're made for, and qualified to deal with situations like this. This is more common than you think it is, and talking to a person irl about the situation will definitely help you. Hope I helped.

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Ok. You cried. Done. Now to the future. Ashamed? No need! We all have feelings and some are so overwhelming we cannot always control them. Now it is time to look to the future:

  1. For feelings: Have you consider meditation? It helped me a lot. It allowed me to discover the moment when my feelings were getting a bit to much, identify them, re-frame them as just a thought, and the concentrate on the task at hand.
  2. Have a long talk with your pillow: what drives you to do a PhD? Do you want the title for a better future in industry? do you want it because you want to become expert in an specific field? or do you do it because you do not know what else to do?. It does not matter the answer. The only thing it matters is that you know why you are doing it and that you agree with that decision. Once you really know, all the challenges ahead can be deal with if you know why you are doing what you are doing.
  3. Once you know why, then work on the how: You said you are shy. If you can, try gradually to be in different situations testing your limits of comfort. No too rash, but not to subtle too. Follow some of the advises given here like a graduate office, activities that can help you overcome some of the things that you do not like about being shy. Remember: being shy is not a problem unless it limits you and what you want to be. And yes: answer e-mails and be part of the team by talking with others. Academia grows upon the shoulder of the previous researchers. Good luck!

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