My PhD advisor and I simply do not get along. I think it has a lot to do with the language and cultural barriers (we are in Germany). We had an argument this week that almost led to me quitting, but on Friday we discussed how things could be improved. However I still can't shake the notion away that he doesn't seem to like me very much and that things won't get any better.

Here is my situation: I got a fully funded, 100% research position throug the Deutscheforschung Gemeinschaft in what is loosely translated in English as a "graduate school" (Graduiertenkolleg). We were told that we could concentrate on our own research (no teaching requirements), but our funding only lasts 3 years, so we have to finish by then. When I took the job, I thought I would be working more closely with the other fellows hired by the graduate school, even though we are based in the research teams of our PIs. In my case, my PI has 3 other PhDs with teaching obligations, i.e., not under my funding scheme.

I had thought I won't have any other obligations other than my own work. But little did I know that my PI has been harbouring a grudge against me this whole time. Here's a list of things he mentioned:

  • He told me that I always seem so depressed, so I should think about whether I really want to pursue this path. I have been diagnosed with depression, so this is unlikely to go away overnight. He never once asked me what was wrong.
  • He says I "don't seem interested" in the research going on in his team because "I don't ask any questions".
  • He also told me that I hadn't followed through on my promises to help out with the team. I had once offered to set up a social media strategy, and he just said "sounds good" and moved on to the next point, so I didn't think he was interested.
  • He says I never engage in team discussions or offer helpful suggestions to my other PhDs. This is categorically not true, since I always tell my colleagues whether I see something (journal articles, workshops) that could be interesting for them.
  • He says I didn't offer to supervise any bachelor's or master's theses.
  • He is always critical about the way I present information. For example, I have sent him presentation slides and he says it has too much unnecessary information. Then I send him presentations that he says lacks crucial information. I never know which information he needs, and I get shut down either way.
  • He says I favor the events of the graduate school over his team, since I have had to miss some meetings to attend required coursework.
  • I explained to him that I had thought my obligations are to the graduate school, that I have to finish on time.
  • When I explained to him what I had thought I was hired for (no teaching obligations etc) he told me that he doesn't believe me, that I should have known that I was part of his team primarily and that the graduate school was just a funding scheme.

I felt like he couldn't see my contributions simply because I wasn't behaving in the way he was expecting and doesn't seem to understand that I don't have it all figured out. Later on, when things calmed down a little, he explained to me that in Germany, most positions in my field are only supported up to 65% (if you're lucky), so I should think of my work as a fully paid position for work that can be done in a 65% position. But how was I supposed to know that?

It's worth noting that he is very accommodating to the circumstances of other PhDs in his team (e.g., one home office day a week for those with children). But for some reason he doesn't seem to care all that much that I have depression or that there are some things about German academia that I don't know about. I still want to continue with my PhD, but how do I motivate myself from here on?

  • 3
    Have you actually told him that you have been diagnosed with depression? (from what you write I would have guessed "no" until one of the conclusing remarks). Also, I don't see how you go from you suggesting to do something to which he replies "sounds good" to thinking he is not interested. That one might be a language thing, but to me that would be a clear signal to go ahead and do it (and indeed with an implied promise from you to do it). Commented Jan 22, 2017 at 19:34
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    @TobiasKildetoft I did, though he didn't comment on it further (he just kind of nodded). About the suggestion, he usually says things like "that sounds interesting, I have been thinking x y z..." when he's truly into an idea, so for him to only say "sounds good" seemed like he wasn't so enthusiastic about the idea.
    – iamnarra
    Commented Jan 22, 2017 at 19:47
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    Not enough time for an answer, but I wanted to add that nothing in your post seems to indicate that your advisor does not like you.
    – Dirk
    Commented Jan 22, 2017 at 23:00
  • 1
    Perhaps he thinks it's none of his business what's wrong.
    – JeffE
    Commented Jan 24, 2017 at 2:45
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    @JeffE his exact words are "I feel responsible for your you as a member of my team, so if you're unhappy.."
    – iamnarra
    Commented Jan 24, 2017 at 5:54

3 Answers 3


What a shame that your professor hasn't been giving you constructive feedback as you've been going. I think I would end up depressed, working with someone who waits, and then dumps a lot of negativity in a complaining and blaming way.

So... I see two choices.

1) Find a different advisor. OR:

2) Try to make the best of a less than ideal situation:

a) Take all of his feedback and rewrite it, with positive phrasing. Read the constructive version a couple of times a week, telling yourself, "This is what he meant, only he was held back from expressing himself this way by his own cultural upbringing, personal shortcomings, etc. This is like the Fats Waller song, "I'm gonna sit right down, and write myself a letter." (lyrics).

b) Pick a couple of his feedback items at a time to tackle, to see if you can make some progress with.

c) Guide him to give you guidance in a more positive, constructive way. Here are some ways to do that:

(i) Next time you share a powerpoint draft with him, include the extra material, and in the body of the email, when you send it to him, say, for example, "I know that this draft needs to be pruned down. Can you help me cut it down, by suggesting which slides should be removed, and which ones should be edited?"

(ii) Ask for an appointment specifically to speak about coping mechanisms for your condition. Take an outline on an index card with you. Use I-messages. (You and I know that he has contributed plenty to the difficulties in your relationship, but it won't help matters to let him know that.) For example, "I need constructive criticism, as part of my training. But I get easily discouraged and overwhelmed by negative criticism. So, when I share a draft with you, could you please find something positive to say for every three negative things you say? That will help me keep my perspective."

(iii) Make sure to give him positive feedback whenever he makes a step in the right direction, for example, "Thank you so much for helping me edit my powerpoint. Your comments were extremely helpful."

d) As others have suggested, work on breaking your isolation. (I understand completely your explanation of how it came to be.)

Last comment. You might be right, he might not like you very much. But what struck me more clearly was that you don't like him very much. Sometimes when a person struggles with depression, it is hard to give oneself permission to have strong opinions of this type.

Here's hoping that if you decide to stay in this group, the two of you find more to like about each other!


The said situation comes often in many cases. Though frequency is very less, but it really helps to make one strong to work in adverse situation. Since you want to continue your PhD and keen to get a doctorate degree, so my suggestion is to tell yourself that your supervisor's expectation is natural of being you productive more and more. Don't care much about your supervisor's negligence or disinterest in your work. Because such thoughts will never help you to achieve your goals, but definitely impact on your inner piece and creativeness to perform well in PhD.

So, long story short, it is temporary and may persist maximum until your PhD. Good Luck!!

  • OP now wants to quit PhD :(
    – SSimon
    Commented Mar 24, 2018 at 3:24

In this Situation. I would go ahead and find a different advisor. He does not seem to be that very helpful. If you cant do this, then your best bet would just try to make the best of the situation and persevere.

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