I am a 4th year PhD student in a STEM subject and I feel that everything has gone off the rails, in part because my adviser and I don’t communicate well. I will try to be brief- there is a lot to unpack.
I started my PhD at 23 without a Masters, so I knew it would be challenging, and I came in with a pretty huge chunk of imposter syndrome. I was hoping my adviser would be a lot more hands-on than he has turned out to be, and without any kind of structure (other than “here’s what our current grant is, do something related to this”) I have struggled to find my footing and push my way forward. I struggle with anxiety/depression that leave me paralyzed when I feel I don’t have direction, and have been left largely to self-direct in a vacuum. Consequently, I have made a lot of mistakes and fallen flat on my face a lot. All of that is on me to fix, and I have a therapist who is helping me build better habits and address these issues. I know it is within my capability to finish this PhD, even if I feel I’ve wasted a lot of time and I’m no longer certain what I’ve been doing is what I want my question to be. I achieved candidacy, so I’ve managed to keep pressing forward despite my own mistakes and some systematic failings in my program. (They want us to finish in 5 years and I have felt very rushed by their demanding schedule, even though no one has managed that yet. I didn’t push back on this schedule until I slammed into a deadline I wasn’t prepared to meet. Consequently I had to re-do my proposal defense, in part because of our communication issues.)
My adviser is a major source of difficulty for me. A year and a half into my PhD (after I had just sat for my first set of exams), he told me that I was “falling behind”. He couldn’t really articulate to me what that meant, apart from suggesting I put in more lab hours on the weekends. It hasn’t gotten a lot better from there. His criticism is always framed with a lot of judgment and personal attacks- for example, when telling me that I don’t do well speaking off the cuff, he told me that I sounded like Donald Trump. He’s also told me multiple times that he doesn’t know if I can make it through my PhD (including the day before my second proposal defense.) He has high expectations but I don’t ever feel they’ve been clearly articulated to me, and all I get from these conversations is the sense that I’m not meeting them. He’s also a bit temperamental, and I find him very difficult to read, so it’s easy to make him irritable without even realizing that you’ve done it until he chews you out. The problem with his criticism is that there are often valid pieces mixed in that I need to address- pointing out that I’m struggling to frame my work properly is valid and helpful. Saying that he can’t visualize how I’m going to be a successful scientist is…not. Admitting to him that I have been struggling has not gotten me a lot of support either- when I said I struggled with the second proposal defense and became really depressed, he told me maybe now wasn’t the right time for me to be doing this. Several times he has framed his criticism with “and other people think this way too” without elaborating on who or in what context. I honestly don’t know if he knows what he says comes across as hurtful/abusive/manipulative, or if he thinks he’s being supportive. I also don’t think it matters which he intends, since the effect is the same.
Captain, I’m aware that this sounds like a terrible toxic relationship. But I love the field I work in, and it’s a small enough field that if I can’t repair this relationship with him, I don’t know that I will be able to continue having a career. I do want to finish school. I don’t want to quit, or be thrown out, but he’s hinted multiple times that he’s unsure of my capabilities and that maybe I shouldn’t be doing this. I know I need to be more confident and assertive and I need to be proactive in pursuing ideas instead of checking every decision with him. I think that’s what he WANTS me to be doing, even if his criticism sometimes makes it hard to feel safe to do so. My resources for who I can talk to about this are thin, and every time I try to think of what to say it mostly sounds like “I know I’m screwing up, but he’s really mean, ok.” The other graduate students are supportive, but I don’t know how to draw on my committee for support right now or how to approach other faculty for mentoring. Particularly when it seems like he’s talking about me behind my back and telling them I’m not doing well. Sometimes I feel so completely lost in this mess that I don’t even know what I want help with any longer, except that I just want help, and to feel supported. Which I don’t think he’s capable of giving.
How do I begin to fix this communication issue? He is not going to change at this point in his career (he’s a significantly older white male, I’m a young woman etc.) I am not going to quit or give up. I don’t care if he likes me as a person any longer, but I do care about my career, and his potential impact on it. I want to make it to the end of my PhD and do a good job. How do I tell him that a) I understand his critiques and respect his opinion on my shortcomings, but that b) the way he frames them makes it difficult to implement them and makes me feel…anxious? Upset? Furthermore, how do you tell someone (who is known for expecting people to read his mind) that his expectations for what he wants aren’t very clear? What can I say to him to get a better idea of what he expects from me, without offending him? I’ve tried to approach the “what do you need from me to help you help me” angle, and tried to get more regular communication going, but for some reason or other it falls apart. I’m willing to try again, but I have to have a clear idea of how to make it stick and how to approach him constructively. Right now I just don’t.
Any help would be appreciated! Thank you so much, Captain. I’m sorry this got so long.
Very Tired Graduate Student (She/Her)
Dear Very Tired Graduate Student,
You are perceptive when you say that your advisor is probably not going to change his communication style and suddenly morph into the advisor you need him to be. I can’t fix your program or give you back the four years you’ve already put into this path or magically fix this dude or undo all of the places where his vague undermining meets your imposter syndrome. But I hope I can give you a process and some questions for figuring out how to make things work better going forward.
Is it possible for you to take a long weekend and do some medium and long-term planning? Like, clear your calendar of all work stuff, fill the house with excellent snacks, take some walks in nature, sit with a journal of some sort, schedule some time to talk with good friends/family/people who love you (people who are not necessarily connected to your current career), and otherwise slow down for a second so you can hear yourself think?
Some questions to ponder during this little break:
Who are some people you admire who do the kind of science that you want to do someday? What path did they follow to get where they are? Is it possible to meet them at a conference/follow them on social media/keep up with that they publish from afar? If your current mentor isn’t getting it done for you could you choose a pantheon of virtual mentors and people you look up to and let them be your guide for part of the way? (Austin Kleon’s Steal Like An Artist is a great template for this in creative fields, but there’s no reason it can’t apply to other pursuits!)
In a perfect world, when this degree is all done, where would you like to end up? Do you have dream universities or other institutions you’d like to work at someday? Can you research those places and think about who you could meet who works there? What kinds of work are they doing? What work could you do that would make you valuable to them? When you go to conferences, could you make sure to meet some people from these institutions? Daydream and then make a list.
What do you like to do about what you do? Long-term do you see yourself as more of a researcher or more of a teacher/professor? What percentage of your time would you like to spend in the classroom vs. in the lab vs. as a writer spreading your work? This is another daydreaming exercise, where you imagine yourself doing awesome science in your perfect environment with your dream colleagues, NOT an excuse to tear yourself down or brainstorm all the ways it won’t work.
Closer to Home: Is there anyone in your current department – especially people on your committee – you actually like and admire? Could you get to know their work a little bit better? Could you get to know them socially? Maybe they can’t replace your advisor or officially mentor you right now, but could you identify three senior people you count on to be generally friendly faces around work?
Your Current Project: Imagine you are pitching your current research to your dream institution/dream mentor. In pitching you are not allowed to apologize for it or denigrate it in any way, you are only allowed to talk about what’s great/exciting/important about it. What are you learning? What are you excited to see happen? What drags you into the lab each day? What do you hope will happen? What do you love about it? How would you explain it to a non-science person to get them excited about it? How would you explain it to a kid who wants to grow up to be a scientist someday? I challenge you to talk (to the cat, to the walls, to your neglected laundry pile) or “free write” about your research project using only positive language for 15 consecutive minutes. If you can’t get to 15, start with 5.
Your Next Three Projects: Your thesis work isn’t the only science you’re ever gonna do, right? You’re in this for life. So, in a perfect world, where you get unlimited funding and creative license and sweet sweet equipment, what are three other projects you would do? Spend time sketching out three one-paragraph proposals for other things you might pursue. Remind yourself that you have many interests and many options. Your current project is just that – your current project. It’s one of a series of things you will investigate in your lifetime. It doesn’t have to be the end-all and be-all of everything you’ll ever do. Daydream. Think big. Then think bigger. Your current project is a mere stepping stone to all the cool science you are gonna science someday.
Ok, that should take you through about three days (with frequent breaks for walks and snacks). Now, let’s talk about what to do when you dip back into your daily life.
Ask A Manager has a ton of advice on managing bosses and “managing up.” Her archives on this are vast and a lot of it will apply to you.
Here are some other things that I think will help:
A. Stop complaining about your advisor to fellow grad students and to other professors in your program, unless you are 100% resolved to take steps to change advisors. It’s been four years, nothing has changed, your peers already know everything you will say about him, there isn’t anything actionable in his behavior that will let you make some kind of formal complaint (it will all get written off as a mismatch of personalities with the onus on you to change the dynamic even though you have less power in the situation). At this point complaining about him has become a habit. What if you could break the habit?
Also, do not complain about your advisor to people in your field who are outside your program. He is their colleague, how you talk about him to them is how you will probably (in their minds) talk about them if they became your colleagues someday. They don’t know all the inside baseball that you know. Your complaints won’t make him look bad, but they will make you look like you have an axe to grind. Even if all your axes are 100% correct there is a big unwritten “don’t badmouth your boss or organization to outsiders” rule and you’ll be breaking it. Nothing about his management style will change because you broke this taboo.
Places it’s 100% okay to complain: Your therapist, your journal, friends outside of your program, internet advice columns. Get the frustrations out! Just direct them into appropriate channels that don’t affect your professional reputation or sap your momentum.
B. Act “as if” he’s a great advisor.
How would a great advisor respond when you ask for feedback? What’s the kind of feedback you wish he would give? How would you translate those notes into actions you can take? Someday when you are advising someone like yourself, what are the things you would do to help and support that person?
Cool. Give that feedback to yourself and act as if he gave it to you.
Also, ignore all feedback that is about who you are as a person. Is what he said specifically about the science you are doing? Can you translate it into something that you can apply directly to the science you are doing? Or is it some vagueness about “your attitude”/mental health/personality? It would be great to have a mentor who sees and values you as a person and who helps you grow in a way specific to you but he is not that guy. That guy doesn’t exist. So what is he good at? What can he do for you? Can you channel your requests to him in ways that are more likely to give you something useful to you?
I know, I know, he’s your advisor, he has power and authority. But he sucks at this. So what if you decided, hey, you suck at this dude but I’m going to outgrow you and my own need for your approval beyond the most basic facts of science and the bureaucratic minimum bullshit I need from you in order to finish this degree? (Decide = inside your head/journal please, not out loud, at him).
For example, when you present something for feedback, do it with very specific, narrow questions to direct him toward the kind of feedback that you need. “Advisor, I have a new draft of findings, can you take a look at it and answer this specific question I have/tell me if you see any bigger-picture pieces that I’m missing?”
When he gives you feedback, reflect what he said back to him and translate it into actions. Do it in an email so you can document the feedback and the way you are incorporating it. And don’t necessarily ask him what you should do next. Instead, tell him what you plan to do next.
“So what I’m hearing is that [x, y, z science stuff] needs to be fleshed out more to be credible. I plan to take [a, b, and c actions] this month to make sure my bases are covered there. I’ll check back with you in [timeframe] and let you know how it’s going. Any other specific step you can recommend right now?”
At the end of [timeframe] check back in with him via email. “Ok per your suggestion I did a, b, and c and this was the result. Thank you, I think we solved it/There’s some visible progress but now I need some strategies to deal with d, e, and f. I plan to try q, r, and s and I did some reading about [awesome scientists] who are doing j, k, and l. I’d love to try out j, k, and l and see if that solves the problem but I need t, u, and v resources. Can we make that happen?”
If you send emails like this – very clearly spelling out your next steps – and what he says next isn’t a specific action step related to your specific science project, fucking ignore it and do whatever will get you good science.
Let that be your question when you approach him. Not “am I good enough” or “can I fix you so that you suck less as an advisor” but “How do we make awesome science right now?” followed by “I’d like to try ______.”
C. Redefine “support” and figure out his preferred communication mode.
You want to feel supported but maybe you won’t ever get that in this program from this advisor. Reassurance is not in his nature. So, can you change your definition of support and be more targeted in what you ask for?
Do you need more resources/a better computer/a lab assistant/a better schedule/some time off from the lab to review more of the literature/to travel and observe a related project at another institution/a short course in scientific writing/more training in some specific skill/a more realistic completion schedule? If this dude can’t give you clear instructions or reassurances is there concrete stuff he can get you? What kinds of requests do other graduate students have the best success with?
Also, figure out your advisor’s preferred way to communicate. Some people suck at email and are better with in-person conversations. Some people are awkward in person and clear and eloquent in writing. Is there a medium by which you traditionally get better information or response from him? Figure out that combination and use that to your advantage. Don’t make appointments with Vague Throwaway Comment Guy, use email instead. Do make appointments with Gregarious Chatty Guy and then follow up by email.
D. Lean on the other members of your committee more.
There’s a reason that you have an advisor AND a committee. When you have a credible draft of something related to your project, or when you get stuck on something, it is okay to run it by other committee members. Your program and yours school will have some kind of policy and process in place, so find it and read it (talking to someone in the office of graduate studies might help). It’s okay to not be born knowing what this process is and it’s okay to ask for help. Chances are your program wants and expects you to make relationships with these people. So, you didn’t start before, but you can start now. I guarantee you won’t have been the only awkward STEM graduate student who doesn’t know this stuff and who needs a little help navigating it.
Script: “I’m at a point in my process where I think it would be valuable to get a second set of eyes on things, how does that typically work?” “I’ve been relying a lot on my advisor to work on these sorts of things but I want to get some outside feedback, too. What kind of support can I reasonably expect from my committee members?”
Or, “[Committee Member], I’m at a point where I’d like a second set of eyes on some recent research findings/I could use some help getting unstuck, do you have some time for me/is there a process you like to use for working with advisees?”
Now, we talked about complaining, but I feel it bears repeating: If you get the attention of another committee member on your work, that is not the time to complain about past slights from your advisor. It is the time to listen to this alternate perspective and think about what you can do moving forward.
E. Practice excellent self-care.
Get regular health checkups, draw on every health resource available to you. Keep working on your anxiety stuff. Get enough sleep. Eat food that makes you happy and feel good. Move your body in some way that is sustainable and enjoyable. Schedule regular downtime to go to the movies or read for pleasure. Make sure you see or talk to friends and family who lift you up and who make you feel good about yourself. Do something outside of work/school that you enjoy. Wear clothes that make you feel good and get regular haircuts (whatever you do to feel good and confident in yourself). It’s so easy to abandon this routine “life stuff “in the hothouse of academia, but your life is your life and it’s happening right now, not Someday When You Graduate.
- You are an awesome scientist who is making awesome science with her life.
- Imposter Syndrome is a jerk and basically everyone has it at some point. You are not alone in struggling in a grad program!
- After a bit of reflection you hopefully have some neat ideas about where you’d like to go and what you’d like to do that excite and motivate you.
- For now, you are saddled with an advisor who is a bad manager who doesn’t know how to mentor or teach. This sucks, but the good news is that lots of people have terrible managers that they can’t immediately flee from or change and have to learn how to “manage up.” You can do it, too.
- Your career is so much bigger than what this one dude thinks of you and of it. Work with him to the extent you can and then figure out how to work around and beyond him. Tell the story as “We are a bad match” vs. “I am failing at everything (and also he is mean).”
- Do it for science!!!!
❤ and awkwardness.