I've been having doubts about the progress I've been making during the start of my PhD. About 2 weeks before I was due to go abroad for a placement at another lab I raised these concerns with my supervisor and they traveled the length of the country a week later to meet me in person to help with how I was feeling.

Now two months have passed (I'm still overseas), and my project is well overdue for a third party progress review within my department. This shook me again when it was brought to my attention, and I started to worry about the progress I've been making again. Adding to this, discussions with the experts at the overseas lab have made me question the value of my research as a whole, and whether or not anything I've done so far or will do for the next 8 months or so is actually worth anything - regardless of whether or not I'd made any real progress with it. (Which I haven't, but that's a whole topic in and of itself).

This has left me feeling terrible and I'm having thoughts of quitting my PhD. I told my supervisor how I was feeling again two weeks ago and they promised a phone call to talk about it, but they don't seem to have found the time. I'm so concerned that I want to raise the issues over their head, but I don't know whether I've given them enough time to respond. Part of this is because I'm out here to do an independent piece of work and not my PhD, so I wouldn't have noticed any changes that we could have implemented in my PhD project. I also haven't actively bugged them about how I'm feeling, as sending constant email reminders makes me feel even worse.

I could raise these issues with my third party project reviewer, as that's largely what they're there for, but I don't know if I've done enough myself to rectify the situation before raising the issue higher up in the 'chain of command'. Should I?

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    I'm not familiar with a "third party progress reviewer" in a PhD program: is that another professor in the department, or what? Is such a person really "over the head" of your advisor or just someone else to have eyes on the case? Anyway, if the thing you want to report is that you are unhappy in the program and considering dropping out, what do you hope this reviewer will tell you that your advisor has not or cannot? Apr 28, 2016 at 21:59
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    It's another professor in the department, who is (in my case, at least) junior to my supervisor, but does serve as a second pair of eyes on the project. In principle what would happen if I were to this third person is that they'd let the department administration know that there's a problem, and what I would want from this is that my supervisor would spend more of their time on my issues. In my home country I work in a lab away from my university, so I can't just visit him any time I want, which I think makes it easy for my (exceedingly busy) supervisor to forget to find time for me
    – user53315
    Apr 28, 2016 at 23:29
  • A peripheral comment: your description of the situation is already not so easy to parse... so if you present what you perceive as problems to someone else, you might want to refine the language... Specifically, much of your description and the implied context are very "in your own head", and this does not reliably translate to anything else. Apr 29, 2016 at 0:10
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    and what I would want from this is that my supervisor would spend more of their time on my issues — What are your issues, though? You are unhappy and want to quit your PhD studies? What do you want your advisor to do about that? It's no wonder (to me, at least) that your advisor isn't spending more time on your "issues": if you have some technical (or whatever your field is) matters to talk to your advisor about, then do that. Sure, advisors sometimes help their advisees through difficult times, but it seems like you are creating a lot of drama where there isn't any need for it.
    – Mad Jack
    Apr 29, 2016 at 0:50
  • Ask again. Professors are busy and things (however important) can slip the mind
    – Luigi
    Apr 29, 2016 at 0:52

3 Answers 3


Your university has a responsibility to provide you with adequate pastoral care. If these issues are related to your well being you should talk to your student support services. If they are related to the managemt of your project and the progress you've been able to make as a result then keep emailing your supervisor and reviewer. If it's both, do both.


The straightforward answer to your question 'have I given my supervisor enough time?' is no.

You are having doubts. Having doubts is common. Doing you PhD may or may not be the best thing for you. You work may or may not be important. Your supervisor may or may not be supervising you well. You may or may not be making good progress (although working on a completely different project is not really part of your PhD). But your case is almost certainly not exceptional. You say that your supervisor already traveled a significant distance to talk to you before. That's a lot of effort to go to.

Your doubts are not really issues that your supervisor needs to fix; they are your thoughts and feelings that you need to work through, with some input from your supervisor. You don't want to 'take it over their head', but you can ask for advice from others who might be willing to give it. I would not expect the 'third party review' to be the right place for that, although you might consider afterwards asking that person if they would meet up with you over coffee one time to give you some perspective on your worries. They might legitimately be able to put some context on the relevance of your work (depending a bit how friendly/competitive your field is).

Being overdue the review without realising it almost certainly should not worry you so much. If it's overdue because your supervisor doesn't think you are ready, you should probably already be aware of that. It being overdue because they think its a pointless piece of bureaucracy, or at least that the deadline is stupid, would be perfectly normal, particularly when you are overseas working on a different project.

I would suggest emailing your supervisor again, saying that your feelings are really bothering you, and that it would help if you can fix a definite time to skype, even if it has to be some weeks away. They could well be very very busy.

Also, do not make hasty decisions. Unless something specific comes up (eg. a high-paying job offer you are really interested in), I would think there is no need to come to a conclusion in less than a couple of months, and it may well not be sensible to do so. You probably didn't decide to do a PhD on a whim, so don't let sudden feelings now override that. If over a sustained period of time you decide that your PhD really isn't right for you then feel free to quit. But don't throw it away until you are sure.


I agree with 'Jessica B' points but also consider these. As a recent PhD graduate and a student Union representative for the duration I came across a lot of issues and as a rule of thumb (at least in the UK) I recommend complaining (but make sure this is not detrimental to your progress). A lot of academics treat their job as a cushy position for life and operate as slave drivers (AKA PhD student supervisors) with no regard for you. Don't quite, but feel free to use it as a threat to get the job done (loosing a PhD student after a few months has a terrible effect on an academics career as the decision is not taken likely). Note this does not apply to the supervisor that does their job or better still goes above and beyond.

All in all it's your PhD and you are paying to get it (even if you have a scholarship), so you expect to gain something out of it with receiving the support you are paying for. University's treat everything as a business except their 'customer care' because most people don't demand the quality they deserve.

Another important note, if you are a lazy person who hasn't done anything and do the things above they will throw you out, but if you have achieved the basic things expected of PhD students and not receiving the due service you will win.

Again use the above as a fluid guidance in your decision making process.

  • "A lot of academics treat their job as a cushy position for life and operate as slave drivers (AKA PhD student supervisors) with no regard for you" -- I appreciate that you will have seen cases as part of your union work, but this level of generalization does not seem helpful to me, unless you add some context about the institutions and the disciplines
    – Yemon Choi
    Apr 29, 2016 at 11:21
  • Some qualifiers on "University's [sic] treat everything as a business" would also be welcome
    – Yemon Choi
    Apr 29, 2016 at 11:24

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