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)