I'm a biology PhD student (25, female). I've recently handed in my thesis after a long struggle but I've not defended yet. In short I've had a really bad experience with my supervisor and my PhD and want to get out of academia altogether but I don't know how. I don't want to quit before my thesis defense but I don't know how I can survive things continuing as they are.
To provide a bit more detail about my situation: I started my PhD straight from my undergrad. I was working on my final year project with my supervisor, she was constructive and helpful despite being strict. I enjoyed working with her. When she told me that my 3rd year project was a pilot for a PhD project and that I should apply, I was delighted. I could continue to work on my research for another three years!
My relationship with my supervisor went well for the first year of my PhD, I was producing results and we were getting ready to publish some of these results in a nature family journal. I think this is when I started having problems. There was a lot of external stuff going on, I was in a terrible flat and loosing sleep, and due to these factors I made a mistake taking down a sample size on one of the drafts (my supervisor insists on at least 5 drafts before anything can be considered finished). It was an easy fix, I just had to check and update some numbers; but my supervisor made it seem like the end of the world. She was so angry I was terrified for days. This was probably when I started to be afraid of her, but I made the fixes, the paper got published and everything seemed to go back to normal. But, I've had problems with self harm in the past and while I thought that part of my life was over, I found myself doing it again. I wasn't really thinking too hard about it, it was just stress and if I could do better I would stop I told myself.
Fast forward about 2 years. The self harm hadn't really stopped, and I was still exhausted but my supervisor was mostly friendly, so although I still panicked when she talked to me I thought things were okay. I briefly considered quitting halfway though my second year, but since I'd come halfway I thought I could make it the rest of the way. I was coming up on my PhD deadline (September), and spoke to my supervisor about whether she thought I'd be able to hand in on time. She told me that it might take an extra month but I'd probably be able to do it. Unfortunately, this was also the point that my supervisor got really busy writing a grant, and kept telling me she was too busy to look at my drafts. Fair enough, I know academics are busy people and that, in her world, my PhD is not the priority. My work slowed down, I felt like I was loosing all motivation. September slipped by, I wasn't going to make the deadline, but, my supervisor said, that's fine, I could hand in at Christmas. In the meantime, my supervisor arranged for me to teach her lectures and do marking so that I could be paid and so that she had more time to work on her grant. She also wanted me to do more data collection so that this time she could get a paper into nature. I asked her if I could prioritize my thesis writing, it was important to me that I handed in, and then I could work more on papers. She reluctantly agreed that this would be fine. Christmas passed, and she still wasn't happy with my thesis, asking for more and more rewrites, even if it meant going round in circles. At this point I was trying desperately to stop self harming, which I have more or less managed, but I was also becoming increasingly suicidal. I couldn't see an end to anything short of that. This was when I finally admitted I was having problems and started trying to speak to the well being services at the university. I have a councilor now, who is helping.
I finally managed to hand in in April, although I'm not confident that any of the work in my thesis is really mine (It feels more like the supervisor has written it). I thought things would get better, I've gotten myself a temporary job working with a conservation organization, lecturing for the students who come out on their expeditions. I also made the decision not to apply for a postdoc with the same supervisor, she'd tried to encourage me to take it, but I cant survive three more years of this. I tried to explain to her that although I thought the project was exciting, my mental health prevented me from committing to a long term post (I did NOT mention that I was terrified of her). Since then, she's been increasingly angry. She's told me in as many words that anyone else would have fired me on the spot and that I should be grateful that I can work on such a great project. She also keeps telling me that its very inconvenient for her that I've got this new job (as it will be taking me into the field and probably out of email contact for two months), and that she wants me to do loads more (unpaid) work for her before I leave.
I desperately want to get out of her sphere of influence, I'm still having suicidal thoughts on a near daily basis and I feel sick at the thought of having to meet with her, as she seems to always be angry right now. I need to defend though, otherwise all of this will not have been worth it. My thesis defense is set for September, although she tells me my examiners are angry because I am out of the country during June and July (although I asked her before I applied for the job whether this would be a problem and she told me no).
Is there any way I can cut contact with her without causing a confrontation or anything like that? I don't know whether I can work with her any longer but I don't want to ruin my chances of successfully passing my defense.
EDIT: I want to say thanks to everyone for their thoughtful replies on here. Its been a few months now and my situation is substantially better. I can happily report that I did in fact pass my viva, and was awarded my PhD in September. My relationship with my supervisor is not much better, but therapy has been helping enormously with my depression and anxiety. I have also ended up making the decision to leave academia, and have had a productive summer working as a teacher with a conservation organization overseas, and have been offered a job with a conservation organization here in the UK. I still interact with my supervisor as she is keen to publish work from my PhD, but I am much less emotionally affected by her threats and criticisms these days. Given my situation, the advice I'd like to offer to anyone else reading this post is that things can get better, but it is rarely possible to cope with issues like stress, anxiety and depression alone. Seeking help is NOT weakness, it really can help, and you don't need to be afraid of judgement from a professional, they only want to help you. My problem with my supervisor left me feeling extremely isolated, I didn't think I could tell anyone without making the situation worse, but getting help is the most important thing.