I am a second year clinical psychology PhD student. I have had some difficulties with my adviser in terms of never feeling good enough or that my efforts are acknowledged. The adviser has recently made more explicit comments regarding the lack of progress I have made on my critical/academic writing skills. As background, I came straight from my undergraduate psychology program (with a BS) into this PhD program. All the other members of my cohort have had 2+ years of research and this type of writing experience. So from the start I have felt that I have had to make up for my deficit. However, I'm not making the improvements that my adviser wants to see. The most recent discussion with my adviser ended with telling me that I am causing serious concern about my ability to complete the program and that maybe a less writing focused career would be better. Needless to say- I lost it. I have no plan b, and this is my dream. I have clinical and research plans that I am very passionate about but I do recognize that I am in the "needs to improve" category in terms of my academic writing ability. So it's this balance of seeing I do need to improve, which is virtually why we enter grad school. I have only had the last year and one month (I began my program in Sept of 2014) to begin developing and working with this academic writing style.

The first of my two questions is, has anyone else experienced such words of discouragement from an adviser? I don't know how to un-feel or un-hear those words that felt like a punch to my stomach.

Secondly, have any other psychology (or any discipline) students experienced difficulties in academic writing? If so, how you did you improve or what helped you make the necessary strides to improve at a faster rate? I have bought various writing books, I have writing meetings with my lab, and what seems to be the best advice from friends in the field and the books-- practice.

I want to improve and exceed. I just feel so discouraged when the person who is meant to mentor me has virtually given no helpful feedback on how I can improve, because the response to my inquiry on how to improve was I don't know and I feel so discouraged.

Thank you to all who read this. Everyone have a great day!

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    "The first of my two questions is, has anyone else experienced such words of discouragement from an adviser?" What, seriously? Okay, I'll play along: most assuredly yes. (Well, for whatever it's worth: my PhD advisor was constitutionally incapable of true negativity. But there are hundreds of other questions on this site testifying to the commonness of your experience.) Oct 30, 2015 at 21:51
  • Just to note that many advisors have perfectionist tendencies, which is one of the reasons that got them their job in the first place. Trust me, it may be worse in pure mathematics, where some are borderline neurotic. Do have confidence in yourself, sometimes advisors can be lacking in encouraging words and only point out your flaws. That doesn't mean your thesis does not have good points, it definitely does. Good luck.
    – yoyostein
    Oct 31, 2015 at 3:38

2 Answers 2


I will focus on one of the questions you're asking:

[...] has anyone else experienced such words of discouragement from an adviser?

The discouragement being (emphasis mine):

The most recent discussion with my adviser ended with telling me that I am causing serious concern about my ability to complete the program

The answer is obviously: yes, of course, other people heard such words. But it's relatively rare. Most supervisors do not dare to say such things so bluntly to their students, for fear of hurting their feelings (a well-grounded fear judging by your personal experience).

But I think (s)he's doing you a favor. You only spent 2 years in the program and somebody is telling you it might not be wise to invest the 3-4 following years in that program because your chances of completing it are low.

Maybe it's not the right program for you, or maybe not the right time. Maybe you should switch to a field where writing is less of an issue. Obviously, I have no idea if it's the case or not, what I'm saying is that you should take that criticism seriously.


First of all, even good writers find academic writing somewhat difficult to learn. But it can be learned. Judging from your post, you can write coherently, and don't struggle with spelling or grammar. So I don't think it would be that difficult to learn the skill.

I'd like to recommend a book. It's entertaining, and gives really good insight into what makes academic writing different from other forms of writing. I think you will find it very helpful.

Here's the book: Scientific Writing 2.0: A Reader and Writer's Guide [ISBN: 978-981-4458-75-7 (ebook)]. If you buy it direct from the publisher, you can get it DRM-free, but you have to download each chapter separately. (On Linux, you can use pdfjoin to join the chapters into one big book.) Or you can buy it in one piece from other places, but with DRM.

Another thing I suggest is that when you read other people's academic writing, pay attention to how easy you find it to understand what the author is saying. When you find an article that is especially clear and easy to read, try to figure out what about the writing works. Likewise, when you find an article difficult to understand, identify the writing problems, and think about how the author could have made it better.

I'm a PhD student myself, and one thing I found helpful for my first few papers was to write a rough draft in an informal, conversational style, as if I were writing an email to my advisor. Then I would go back through the paper and make it a bit more formal. It's a lot easier to make clear writing more formal, than to make formal writing more clear!

Finally, point to consider: when your advisor complained about your academic writing skills, are you sure that he or she was really talking about writing, as opposed to how you structure the article, or whether or not you incorporate suggestions, or even the methodology you used in your research? The reason that I ask is that, again based on your post, you appear to have reasonable ability for non-academic writing. Advisors can have students who are less than fluent in English, or have poor grammar. Getting that worked up because a student is struggling a bit to learn academic writing this early in the game seems a little surprising.

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    Thank you for your reply! Those are all really helpful. As far as your question regarding whether my adviser was talking directly about my writing - I'm not sure. Like I said, when I asked what I can improve on their response was "I don't know". I'm not sure what all it entails. Other faculty have mentioned that for some of the other clinical assignments I need to improve on my concise style. So knowing that I have been working on that aspect. However, in terms of my thesis I'm not sure. My concern also, I'm a pretty novice researcher/grad student. I figured I'm still in the learning curve.
    – Shelee
    Oct 30, 2015 at 22:50

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