Hope.for.the.best

Dealing with good supervisors that stress me out

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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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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. 

Thanks:)

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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Update: I am thankful for all your replies, particularly fuzzylogician who has given me very good advice on the forum and in PMs. The conference I was very stressed about a couple of months ago went very well. It was very surprising that I was chosen for a poster talk. Only a few posters out of ~100 were chosen for a short talk. I could well be chosen for oral if I asked for one! My supervisors were very pleased because they had students with very exciting data but not chosen for a talk. The conference organiser was very nice and she kindly put me in the afternoon session knowing that I would need a fair bit of travel. I was very anxious on the train but was perfectly okay once I was at the conference venue. Looking back, I really didn't know why I was as stressful as that, maybe I was worrying about finishing? 

The extra experiment my senior co-supervisor looked into was turned out not practically possible, so she was okay without that. I kept working on the manuscript and thesis but I am still not there yet. Then another similar crisis like this post happened a couple of weeks ago (so I write back here). Out of the blue my primary supervisor found a potential method to do that extra experiment and my co-supervisor was urging me to do that. My mind was blank and I was panicking, so I could only say "yes" when she asked me whether I would be happy to do the experiment. I can tell you that she is a very dominate person and her asking of happy or not is more like an order, i.e. she does not mean to discuss with me whether or not to do the experiment. So I was not supposed to say no. But she could tell from my look that something was not right and she said I could email her or my primary supervisor if I had concerns. The next day, I emailed my primary supervisor only and wrote exactly the same as my first post, but he did not respond to this email even up to now. However, he replied my other emails, so I am sure that he was not away. I have another supervisor, who is the expert of my manuscript topic, went through the whole thing. He says although my manuscript needs some work, it is great overall. I just need to package it properly and submit. He does not indicate extra experiments at this stage and says we can address whatever experiments the reviewers ask for. This supervisor discussed his suggestions with both my primary and co-supervisor. Then I received my co-supervisor's email that she would like to meet next week. She did not mention anything about the experiment. From the sound of it she does not seem to insist on that experiment, as she would have asked me to look up the methods etc. Even though it was good of me to express my concerns to my primary supervisor, I am not sure what he did with my email. If he paraphrased in his own words and talked to my co-supervisor, she would be fine with it. If he simply forwarded my email to her, she would be angry because I was basically rebutting all her suggestions to manage both experiments and writing. I did not mean to argue, but I am really struggling to write well and do experiments. Given that I already need to postpone my thesis submission till the end of the year, I feel that I should finish the write-up asap. I did not turn down further experiments completely. I just said in the email that I wish to finish my thesis before doing more experiments. 

I am very scared of next week's meeting. I hope she will just tell me what to do with the manuscript and submit and not to mention other things. What should I do if she brings up my email to primary supervisor? I have been talking to my family about this situation and they suggest that I say "Let me think about that and get back to you" if I wish to decline any immediate experiments on spot. Then email my primary supervisor my concerns after that. Is it a more polite way to do so? I appreciate any advice. 

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12 hours ago, Hope.for.the.best said:

I am very scared of next week's meeting. I hope she will just tell me what to do with the manuscript and submit and not to mention other things. What should I do if she brings up my email to primary supervisor? I have been talking to my family about this situation and they suggest that I say "Let me think about that and get back to you" if I wish to decline any immediate experiments on spot. Then email my primary supervisor my concerns after that. Is it a more polite way to do so? I appreciate any advice. 

It's a bit hard to plan, but you can try and practice some replies to statements or questions you might get at that meeting. "Let me think about it and get back to you" is a very good one, as is "oh, that's an interesting idea; I think I'd like to discuss it with [other supervisor] so we can think more about how it fits into this project". But aside from those hedges, at this point in your writing process I think it should also be perfectly acceptable to simply say "I think at this point I should just be writing, and not adding new components to the dissertation" and even muse about a deadline for finishing writing. You can say that other additions could be great for a paper, but maybe the dissertation can do without them. 

This is partly a style issue, but some people have a hard time deciding when a project is done and ready to be written up. It's hardly ever when there is nothing else one could do or think about, but it's when you think you have a strong enough standalone piece that makes an interesting and important contribution. If you're working with one of those "but what about X, and what happens if we do Y" people, you need to gently but firmly push back and tell them those are excellent questions for the next part of the project, but now we're in the writing stages of this one and we shouldn't get distracted. Of course that's not easy when there's a power differential, which is why it would help if your other supervisor could be brought in on your side in these discussions. (Also, important lesson for future collaborations: this is something that is good to know about potential collaborators before you get too deep into a project. These incompatibilities can cause a lot of trouble if you don't know how to manage them.) Therefore, it's important not to just say "yes" to things, but say you need to think them over and discuss them with your other supervisor. Hopefully you can then resolve things in an email or in person, but with their support in saying "later" or "no". 

As for the email question, I think the thing to say is a version of that you're surprised it was forwarded because you thought it was private and you were just venting, and pivot back to the important points: you are getting worn down by the process, you would really like to finish by [date], and you think at this point it's best to write up what you have for the dissertation and not add new things, and later you can all discuss adding something to a paper if needed. But frankly occasionally it's better to submit a first draft and just see what reviewers ask for, and go from there. They may not even think any new experiments are needed, or they may want other ones than what your supervisor proposes. 

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On 7/30/2017 at 1:34 AM, fuzzylogician said:

It's a bit hard to plan, but you can try and practice some replies to statements or questions you might get at that meeting. "Let me think about it and get back to you" is a very good one, as is "oh, that's an interesting idea; I think I'd like to discuss it with [other supervisor] so we can think more about how it fits into this project". But aside from those hedges, at this point in your writing process I think it should also be perfectly acceptable to simply say "I think at this point I should just be writing, and not adding new components to the dissertation" and even muse about a deadline for finishing writing. You can say that other additions could be great for a paper, but maybe the dissertation can do without them.  

As for the email question, I think the thing to say is a version of that you're surprised it was forwarded because you thought it was private and you were just venting, and pivot back to the important points: you are getting worn down by the process, you would really like to finish by [date], and you think at this point it's best to write up what you have for the dissertation and not add new things, and later you can all discuss adding something to a paper if needed. But frankly occasionally it's better to submit a first draft and just see what reviewers ask for, and go from there. They may not even think any new experiments are needed, or they may want other ones than what your supervisor proposes. 

Update: Yesterday I met my primary and co-supervisors separately because their timetables didn't match. It turned out that my primary supervisor did not do anything with my email. He was in a rush to a meeting in the morning but told me that he's happy with me finishing off my thesis before doing more experiments. Then I met my co-supervisor. She was very happy with my writing this time, which is a big relief to me. Then she got very excited that I could finish the manuscript in 3 weeks (while waiting for experiment orders) and then do experiments. She left a note to my primary supervisor and urged him to organise the experiment asap. She sounded very firm but I was cautious not to promise her anything. When she asked me whether I could get the manuscript rewritten in 3 weeks (and then do experiments), I only said maybe. Then I met my primary supervisor in the afternoon. He said he valued my decision and the last thing he wished would be to see me overly stressed out and not being able to do both experiments and thesis. He emphasised that he would be on my side. He asked me to justify the pros and cons for doing experiments before and after finishing thesis and he would take it on from there. He said I could consult friends for that. I know in my mind that both his and my co-supervisor's students spent their last months of PhD only on writing. One of the students needed to do some experiments to revise his manuscript and he requested an extension from the editor because he was writing up his thesis. These are legitimate justifications, but do I sound too rude? I am meaning I wish to be treated as fairly as other students (of course I won't write this sentence exactly). In my last post, I also mentioned another supervisor who went through my manuscript. He did recommend me in email that he wanted me to focus more on my thesis rather than the manuscript. Do I write him in?

Saying that I am stressed out, even though it's true, sounds like a selfish excuse. I definitely need to back up with more objective justifications, but I don't wish to sound too rude.

Thanks for any advice. 

Edited by Hope.for.the.best

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Figure out a time schedule for each. That is, how many hours will you need to spend revising and editing various sections of the manuscript? How long would it you to perform each experiment? If you could make a reasonable (e.g., 8 hours a day) work schedule for the next three weeks, it might shed some light on your ability to complete the manuscript and the experiments simultaneously. It would also be good justification for your email to your supervisor.

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Thanks rising_star for your reply. I think my posts are too long and my story becomes very confusing. I totally have the ability to do both experiments and writing, but my current state of mind is not going to be okay with both, because the stress of not finishing my thesis is just more than I can handle. My manuscript is a snapshot of my thesis and I will have no problems with it when I finish writing my thesis. My co-supervisor is the "what about X and Y type of person" as fuzzylogician pointed out. If I go ahead with experiments, she must ask me to do more and I have to further delay my thesis! She confirmed to the school that I would not need to do anymore experiments for my PhD and yet she still asks for more, so I don't believe she will only want me to do just one experiment! I should have submitted my thesis by the end of this month, but I need to postpone now because my writing is not going well. Although I am able to extend my financial support, I want to get my thesis out of the way! The stress is just too much and I don't wish to have a breakdown. 

I made the plans of writing with or without experiments and indeed focusing on thesis writing is more suitable for me. I hope that I will be able to persuade her that I need to write. Fingers crossed. 

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Update: I am thankful that things are sorting out well. Last week, I met my primary and secondary supervisors. They both agree that I get my dissertation done before doing more experiments. My co-supervisor was sick and couldn't make it, but we managed to have a brief phone conversation altogether. She was asking how the experiment was going, and I told her that I emailed her the "plans". Turned out she didn't receive my email! She hang up after asking me to resend the email, so I didn't need to tell her that I would not do any experiments until I finish my dissertation. Then my primary supervisor said he would talk to her about delaying the experiment on my behalf. Even though they haven't met yet, she seems to be accepting it because she says nothing since I resent the email. That is really a huge relief to me! 

I was meant to confront her in person in the meeting about doing the experiment later. I was expecting some hard times with her because she would not take that well. I know her well and she would definitely lecture me on how a successful scientist needs to be capable of handling a lot of experiments and writing etc. She is always harsh whenever she criticises others, unlike my other supervisors who at least say something encouraging, "Even though you are not good enough at such as such, I can see you are getting there." 

Thanks for everyone who offered advice on dealing with this tough situation!

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