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Dealing with good supervisors that stress me out

5 posts in this topic

Hi everyone, this is my very first post. I am in my final months of PhD. It typically takes ~4 years for a PhD program in my country. I have a very strong supervisor panel. They are experienced and helpful. It is reassuring that all students can graduate under their supervision. I have worked very hard these years and generated very promising and exciting data that can be published in Nature, Science etc. My supervisors are all very excited to strive for a top publication like this. They have been helping me to polish my manuscript. But now, I also have my thesis to finish. It doesn't sound too much of a problem, because my manuscript forms most parts of my thesis. However, I am not a native English speaker and struggled with academic writing. I really wish to focus on my thesis, as my financial support will run out in a few months. My supervisors don't have any funding to support me after that. But then in order to publish in a top journal, there are more experiments to finish. My supervisors keep asking me to do more and more, which I wish to say no very badly, given my weakness in writing. Of course I wish to publish in Nature/Science, who doesn't want to? But given my circumstances, I value my PhD thesis more than a top publication. I have been very stressed out and not taken any breaks since I presented in an international conference last year. To be honest, my heavy workload means I could only catch up writing last Christmas. I managed to keep my writing on track, at the cost of no Christmas break. I am close to burnout and yet more experiments are waiting for me! No other PhD students in my institute worked on experiments a few months before submission! The only possibility of taking a break is after submitting my thesis, while I am waiting 2 months for the outcomes. It is a crazy idea to go on holiday at this critical moment; my supervisors won't allow that anyway.  

I know my supervisors are preparing the best for me, as they help me publish in a top journal. If successful, I will have a bright career afterwards. If I say these words, they are most likely upset because I neglect their good hearts. Probably I have two options right now. 

Option 1: Talk to my supervisors about my stress anyway, but I risk disappointing them and destroy our good relationships. 

Option 2: Tune myself to be capable of dealing with this overwhelming stress, but I am struggling! 

Any suggestions are appreciated. Thanks:) 

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There is no reason why telling your supervisors that you are stressed out and feeling close to burn-out at this point in the writing process should disappoint your supervisors or damage your relationship. In fact, it would be surprising if you didn't feel this way. It's a natural part of the process, no less so because you haven't been taking care of yourself. Sharing with them that this is starting to affect your physical and mental health and you need their help planning and prioritizing so you can finish on schedule without causing yourself damage would be very sensible. I would start there. You want to say basically what you said here -- that you appreciate their support and advice, and that you know that they are trying to help you further your career -- but the difficulties you have with writing have meant that it's taken you longer than they perhaps assume, and therefore you haven't taken any breaks in order to keep up. You now realize that this isn't sustainable and you need to slow down somewhere. You think it should be on these other experiments, keeping the dissertation writing on track; ask them what they think about this. 

Have you considered getting professional help with writing/editing? I'm sure you can find someone who could help take off the pressure by streamlining the text. (Maybe a less advanced student who is in your field and can understand the content? Or a professional copy-editor who works on texts in your field?) 

I personally tend to agree with your supervisors that the publications are more important than the dissertation; but you also need to get the dissertation out of the way so you can take the next steps in your career, so it's important to find a way to do both. 

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If it makes you feel better, students doing experiments in the last weeks before defending is not that rare where I'm at. My officemate just finished an experiment a few days before their thesis draft was due. At my school, however, you can still add to your thesis between the first draft submission and the final submission. You just need enough done to pass the defense. Another one of my officemates added an entire chapter to their thesis between the defense and the final submission.

I also agree with the common saying that a good dissertation is a done dissertation. I would agree with @fuzzylogician that putting time into the publication in Nature/Science will be much better for you in the long run than polishing your dissertation. The advice I got and the advice I would give is to put just as much effort into your dissertation as you need to pass. So, if you are having trouble working on the dissertation and the publication because you want the dissertation to be very good, my advice would be to prioritize the publication. However, if you mean that you need to get the dissertation done so that you can graduate, then definitely ensure that you can move onto the next stage of your career. 

90-95% of my dissertation will be previously published manuscripts. I will have about 10-15 dissertation formatted pages that is original content, everything else is previously published material. Some of the students in my program only write 3-4 pages of new/original content. I don't know about the policies in your department though (but you say that your manuscript will be part of your dissertation, so perhaps working on the publication also helps you finish your thesis!)

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Posted (edited)

I am so glad to have your prompt replies! It makes me feel that I am not alone. It is hard to talk to other PhD students in my institute, because when I mention my supervisors, it can sound like I am spreading rumours. I observed a few previous students and they were writing at full speed (not doing any experiments) a few months before submission. I know, the sample size is too small to draw a conclusion :) 

The reason why I hesitate to tell my supervisors is I am not good at expressing myself. I worry that they will misunderstand that I don't want to get my work published, which is against them. One of my supervisors is very senior and she is the one who looks into this prospective project. Of course, given her age (sorry to say that) and experience, she is very dominating and she doesn't take things against her well. Although she is not officially my primary supervisor, she takes on the role of a primary supervisor given her expertise. I once emailed her that I struggled with an experiment and had a lot of stress. She was not happy to hear that, even though she accepted my emotions. She reminded me to email appropriately though. I admit I could have expressed myself better, but I am 100% sure that I didn't "attack" her with emotions. So, this incidence holds me back to tell them. I am relieved that it is appropriate to tell them my struggles and my previous words didn't sound like an emotional downpour! Of course I will find a good time and perhaps talk to my official primary supervisor, as he seems to be more understanding and she tends to listen to him! I am excited to work on the manuscript, but I wish to have my thesis done as well. I will try to strive a good balance and not have my health compromised. 

To fuzzylogician, my supervisors are native English speakers, so they can professionally fix my English. I am generally okay with grammar. My difficulty is to write like the articles in Nature etc. My supervisors asked me to look at some papers and used them as a guide; I did, but my output didn't sound like I have done so. My supervisors always think that I haven't done this part, which frustrates me. 

To TakeruK, most of my data (results) will be in the manuscript, but a lot other content, like the literature review, discussion etc. will only be in the thesis. In my country, unless I do a PhD by publications, a considerable part of my thesis is new/original. 


Edited by Hope.for.the.best

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If you feel like you have a hard time expressing yourself, you could try putting things in writing before you go, so you have some text prepared in case you get flustered. I wouldn't send an email in this case, but rather have an in-person conversation. 

Advisors can vary in how much they want to know about your personal life and how much they support they want to offer. Professors are *not* mental health professionals (or clinicians, for that matter -- but you'd never go to them for advice on an actual physical problem, you'd see your doctor!); some don't feel comfortable knowing about their students' mental health issues or offering advice that may overstep their expertise.* As an advisor myself, these days, I can tell you it's a very delicate matter -- you want to be supportive and understanding, but you don't want to make assumptions or offer advice that might be taken as more than just musings based on anecdotes or personal experience. Some people are much better at handling this than others; some, understandably, just want to know about your work and not about your life. Seek out those who can also support you in other aspects, if you need it. Sounds like your main supervisor might be that person. Sharing a difficulty and asking for help getting through this difficult last stretch should not be interpreted as being "against" anyone or "attacking" anyone. I'm not sure how that happened in the first place, but making clear that you want to do both, but might need to prioritize one over the other in terms of timing (because you just can't keep up with the demands of doing both simultaneously), should do the trick. 

As for your comment about your supervisors being native English speakers, I guess I don't know how this works in your field/institution, but I personally don't like it when students think I am their own personal editor. I am there to offer professional advice and guidance, and I do my best to help with writing, but expecting your busy advisor to copy-edit your work might be beyond what they think is a part of their job description, especially if the piece requires a lot of work. From the sound of it, their having referred you to published papers, they may not think this is something they should be doing. Again, I suggest using the services of the writing center at your school, if it exists, or someone who does this for a living. 

* Which is not to say I don't want to know that there is a problem that needs accommodating, but I may not be the right person to ask for advice on how to handle it! 

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