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Advisor Unhappy with Lack of Academic Progress?

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Hello all,

I am an old-ish member of this forum. I have been fretting here slightly more than 2 years ago, biting my nails, refreshing my page to see if a new email had arrived in my inbox, and going through the terrible anxiety of applying to grad school as you are all familiar with right now. So why am I even telling you about that?

Let me tell you about what happened then. I actually got accepted into one of my top choices and started my PhD in Fall 2018. (Yay, happy ending! But the continuation of that hasn't exactly been like a fairy tale.)

I have had quite a bit of difficulty working with my advisor since then, which actually became apparent right in the first couple of months of grad school. She is a very smart person, who has a frightening reputation for asking mind-boggling questions to researchers at the end of their talks, for being quick-thinking and very demanding. Of course, given how "great" she is, she also seems to have high expectations of her students. You may expect that this reputation would have been terrifying for me. But no. Having been a straight-A student all my life, I thought I had what it takes to succeed in a demanding program, under the supervision of a very demanding advisor. But things haven't been going as planned.

In my first year, I was constantly frustrated because I had a hard time getting my advisor excited about my proposed experiments. (The structure of my program is such that the students need to have a research project at the end of their first year, however humble its goals and results may be). Sometimes she thought my proposed idea was ill-conceived entirely, and sometimes it wasn't the idea that was flawed, but we "wouldn't find anything interesting" even if we ran that study. Our dialogues often ended with her saying "OK, suppose we do this and find X. What does that tell us about the big picture? Nothing. We'll have a hard time making a case for that and I don't see this going to publication, do you?" It was, of course, soul-crushing. Before that, I had been a relatively independent junior researcher in a master's program in a related area, actually pursued my own ideas and even gotten a few publications based on that (conference publications, not peer-reviewed journal articles, but I was still proud of those because I had conceived and executed a research idea primarily with my own initiative, with only some theoretical help and moral support from my then-advisor). Dejected, I asked my advisor if she had an idea that I could work on, because we were running out of time and she didn't like any of my ideas. She suggested an idea - which I wasn't super enthusiastic about. But I started working on it, half-heartedly. (The end of the story is that, yes, we ran that study; but it didn't exactly work. No worries. That happens in research. It is science, after all.)

Flash forward to my second year. I started a new research project, after we basically replayed the same scenes from last year. Me presenting ideas, my advisor dismissing them all, and us finally settling on a question that my advisor finds worthwhile and I find boring and unimportant, but I have nothing else to replace it with that my advisor would like. It is in my second and current year, actually, that I also started noticing some signs that my advisor was growing fed up with me. These signs are subtle, but there is no way you cannot notice them. Sometimes it is a comment like "I know you are struggling, but don't compare yourself to X and Y (star students in my lab), because they have worked in my lab as research assistants before coming here as PhD students, it is normal that they are ahead of you." This might sound supportive at first, but keep in mind that I had not even mentioned the students X and Y or said or done anything to indicate that I was comparing myself to them and was worried that I was falling behind compared to them. Given that, it was quite a blow to me that SHE mentioned these names and suddenly introduced an interpersonal/competitive aspect to my struggles that wasn't interpersonal at all. (Also, for context, I am an international student from a relatively poor country and the only international student in my advisor's lab AND I did my undergraduate and master's work in a related - but ultimately different - field. So I am trying to be compassionate towards myself and tell myself that there may be aspects of the PhD program that hit me harder because I am less familiar with this field and less familiar with the expectations from a PhD student in the US in general. But being an "outlier" in this sense is already hard and exacerbates one's impostor syndrome. So being compared to others certainly didn't help with that.) 

Sometimes the sign that disturbs me can be something like "Dark Chocolate Mocha, I have the feeling that you still don't know what you want to do [with respect to research or career plans], is that true? I think you are still wandering around." She also dropped this at the end of a dreaded weekly meeting, after I provided updates on my ongoing research. I remember stammering "no" but in fact, thanks to her, I am also asking myself if this is really what I want, to be honest. I certainly didn't expect a working environment like this when I started grad school, where my ideas would be discarded one after another and I would be working on my advisor's questions instead of my own.

Why am I writing this post NOW?

Because of the recent changes that have been happening in my life due to COVID-19.

The thing is, ever since we have been quarantined, I have been less motivated to work on my project than before. I have been slacking off quite a bit, and cancelled two consecutive weekly meetings with my advisor, as I didn't have anything to update her on. She is clearly upset with that. She sent an email telling me that she would like to have an "open-ended conservation" with me about "what I am thinking about graduate school." 

I wonder if you would agree with me, or if I am being paranoid, but I am worried about the part where she says she would like to talk to me about graduate school. Because I feel like she may use this conversation to drop a hint or perhaps even more openly suggest that I am not cut out to be an academic and should drop out of the program. I could see how dissatisfied she has been with me from the beginning, and this couldn't continue forever I suppose, so maybe this shouldn't come as a surprise but I still find it heart-breaking. I can never exactly find out what is going on in her mind until we actually have a meeting and talk things out, of course. But this just added another anxiety to my life.

I am definitely not very happy in my program, I'll be honest. So you might think dropping out should make me happy. The problem is, I have received my previous degrees in fields that do not exactly make me "employable". (Don't judge me. I was a romantic and didn't choose the most marketable major and then foolishly topped it off with another useless master's.) This PhD program is a great gift for me, and not only as a stepping stone into an academic career. I thought, even if I cannot stay in academia, I can use my PhD degree to find an industry job. (My current field is more marketable than my previous fields.) I don't see any job prospects for myself if I drop out now, but I have a disturbing feeling that this is the direction I am heading towards, if I am correctly interpreting the signs my advisor has been sending throughout my second year. And it is devastating.

So I was wondering if there is anyone here who went through a similar phase.

A phase when you felt like you were at the bottom of the "achievement pyramid" in your lab, your ideas were belittled by your advisor, you felt underappreciated despite working harder than you ever did before grad school?

Or a phase when your advisor explicitly told you that s/he was unhappy with your academic progress (or lack thereof) and maybe even finally popped the question and asked you to leave the program because you weren't a good fit? (the dreaded question which I fear I might have to answer fairly soon.)

Misery loves company, so I guess I would like to hear some stories and commiserate with you, the wonderful community that supported me through the dark times of grad school application 2 years ago. Any advice would also be appreciated.

I hope you are all healthy and safe, and thank you so much ❤️

(And apologies if my description of things was too disorganized or confusing. I am stressed out due to the pandemic + academic concerns so I may have some concentration problems.)

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  • 3 weeks later...

If you simply cannot find joy in the research that you are doing in this lab or working with this adviser, then I'd strongly reconsider your decision to remain in this trajectory.  Are there other professors in the department you'd be more excited to work with? Would you be able to switch labs?

Have you spoken with the DGS about where you are in the program and how the COVID-19 situation is affecting your morale? The DGS is supposed to be objective and act as a mediator between you and your adviser.  I've involved the DGS a few times in very difficult conversations (My adviser is super diplomatic, which is great for most part, but when I need her to be a human being...) and things do turn out a bit better afterward.

Your adviser has clearly set a high bar and the other students are rising to it so she may not feel the need to lower it for you.  Her ego is guiding her advising and research productivity, not empathy.

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  • 2 months later...

I'm not a PhD student yet, but I feel from your descriptions from your masters experience that you are interested and able in doing research. If this is something you'd like to do if there was not so much structural hurdle, then you should hang on for a bit more. Would it be possible to talk to her previous students and figure out how to navigate the situation? 

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