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Problems that PhD Students Face

It’s unlikely that you’ll complete a PhD without encountering at least a few problems. After all, the PhD is the culmination of your academic work to date and represents a substantial, complex research project.

It pays to understand some of the most common PhD pressures and struggles before you begin a doctorate, so that you’re better equipped to deal with them if they crop up in your own journey.

This page gives advice for PhD students in a range of difficult situations, from dealing with PhD supervisor problems to the ‘second year blues’.

Bad PhD supervisors

The majority of supervisor-supervisee relationships are healthy, productive and mutually beneficial. Chances are you’ll find in your PhD supervisor someone who is an expert in their field and a dedicated mentor to you.

However, as with any other situation in life, there is a possibility that you might not get on with your supervisor. Below you can find a few signs of a bad PhD supervisor. We’ve covered several of the main potential conflicts below and suggested how you can go about solving them.

A lack of communication

Often the root of disagreement and difficulties between a supervisor and a PhD researcher is a lack of communication.

Ideally, you should discuss and agree on expectations in this area with your supervisor at the beginning of your PhD. But it’s never to late to address the subject if you don’t think these expectations are being met or if you’re worried that you’re not contacting your supervisor enough.

Showing that you have doubts or concerns about the progress of your PhD or asking for help aren’t signs of weakness, but a signal on your part that you want to succeed. These are a few pointers to think about when getting in touch with your supervisor

  • Identify where you need training or help
  • Share your concerns about where your project is and where it is going
  • Ask about techniques, resources and recommended reading

You’ll be surprised what effective communication can achieve. You may find that your supervisor had no idea you were struggling (or, rather, that you are not struggling at all but experiencing the same emotions as most doctoral students).

However, you should be realistic with your demands and expectations. After all, supervisors are busy academics and researchers themselves, often juggling teaching, research, pastoral or administrative roles along with their duties as a supervisor.

PhD supervisors who don’t get back to you

Having stated the importance of communication, how do you reach out to someone who just doesn’t get back to you or respond to emails?

Perhaps the first step is to try and find out, without being indiscrete, why your supervisor is not available. Do they have research commitments abroad? Are they involved in senior-level work with your institution, the government, public organisations or industry? Are they part-time?

Next, you should arrange a meeting where you can discuss a pattern of contact times that would suit you both.

If your supervisor isn’t available because of the number of students they have responsibility for, try and find out how the other students deal with it.

Remember that in most cases you will have a second supervisor and they are there to help you. If you don’t have one, speak to your graduate school (or equivalent) and try to identify one, but keep your main supervisor informed.

Overbearing supervisors

Overbearing supervisors who look over your shoulder constantly can be as much a problem as absent supervisors.

Unfortunately, there aren’t many ways to deal with this other than to have a chat with them and (diplomatically!) explain that you would welcome taking a more leading role in planning and conducting your research. Gently let them know that meeting too frequently is counterproductive and you feel you have the skills and the enthusiasm to take your project forward.

Supervisors who leave

Thankfully, this doesn’t happen very often, Hopefully, if your supervisor is leaving, for whatever reason, you will get advance notice so that you can work together to make alternative supervisory arrangements.

  • Retirement – It’s unlikely that someone will agree to be your supervisor if they know that they’ll be retiring soon. However, if you do find yourself in this situation, you should ask your supervisor what their retirement means for you. Will they still be able to supervise you? Are they discharging supervisory responsibility to other academics? If so, do you think it is okay? You could propose your own choice or ask your second supervisor if they can step up.
  • Leaving for another university – You really have two choices here – go with them or stay and find another supervisor.
  • Going on sabbatical – Ask whether they think they can offer an adequate level of supervision while on research leave (especially if they are abroad) or if you should look for an alternative supervisory structure.

Changing PhD supervisors

There are many reasons why you may be considering a change in supervisor and your university will probably have a process in place for this. If your research has changed in scope considerably, it’s reasonable to think about having an additional supervisor or to switch completely.

Make sure you discuss this with your current supervisor – especially if the reasons are any of the issues discussed above – so that they know what went wrong.

You should also bear in mind that one of the main skills PhD students develop is self-reliance. Being able to work without constant supervision is a valuable attribute, so it might not be the end of the world if you have less frequent contact with your supervisor, or if you find that you need less and less advice.

Of course, depending on where you are in your PhD, a change of supervisor may be a disruption rather than a benefit. Don’t forget the old adage that the grass always looks greener on the other side...

PhD supervisor

Our guide has more information on what to expect from your PhD supervisor and how to maintain a healthy relationship with them.

Being overworked

Teaching, tutoring and marking are often part of PhD training (especially in the Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences). However, it shouldn’t prevent you from doing your research. If you feel your workload is too high or that your supervisor is asking too much of you, it’s completely fine to say no to new tasks. While a certain amount of PhD pressure is to be expected, it shouldn’t negatively impact your mental health or contribute towards depression and anxiety.

A workload that seems reasonable in the first two years of your PhD may not be towards the end of your doctorate. If your supervisor is asking you to take on more (non-PhD) work, let them know that, while you welcome the opportunity to gain experience and new skills, you don’t want your PhD work to suffer as a result.

If you need a visa to study wherever you are, there are generally restrictions on the number of hours you can work (in the UK it’s 20 hours per week on a student visa). Some funders have their own restrictions so make sure you are not in breach of your visa or your funding agreement.

Isolation

The level of independence required by a PhD is a big step up from what students might have been used to during their undergraduate or Masters degrees. As a doctoral student, you’re expected to have a lot of autonomy, along with the ability to set and meet your own targets (as well as those of your supervisor).

While this sense of freedom can initially be very exciting, once you get into the daily routine of a PhD, you may begin to feel a sense of isolation – particularly if your research doesn’t necessitate much collaboration with others.

Getting involved in extra-curricular activities like academic conferences and teaching can be a good way of combatting loneliness and isolation, giving you the chance to meet other research students in a similar position to you.

Loss of motivation

You need enthusiasm, optimism and dedication to do a PhD. It is a long project, probably more so than you expected. As with all things, your motivation will have highs and lows unless you find ways to keep things varied, interesting, realistic and rewarding. Also bear in mind that you are primarily doing your PhD for yourself. So, be proactive and don’t wait for someone to tell you what to do.

Yes, there will be time when it feels that nothing is going your way and that everything you do fails but don’t despair. Among the qualities you’ll develop as a PhD student are determination and a desire to succeed (both highly valued by employers too!). This is what will see you through.

It is normal to avoid tasks that are difficult or that you do not want to do. For example, looking at a blank page and imagining your completed thesis is one of the biggest challenges that you will face. However, a doctorate requires you to undertake such a variety of tasks that it is unlikely that you will find them all equally easy and interesting. You’ll find it much easier to set yourself some realistic goals and to break up tasks in smaller chunks.

‘Second year blues’

This is a well-known phenomenon. Following the initial high of being a PhD student and the enthusiasm of taking forward your beloved research project, your morale may slump, causing you to experience the ‘second-year’ blues. This happens to many students, but by year three you’ll be so busy trying to race to the end of your project and writing up that you won’t have time to think about it.

If you feel out of your depth and that you’re doing badly in your PhD, discuss it with your supervisor or someone in an advisory position. Are you really not up to the task? Or are you just lacking in self-confidence and actually suffering from impostor syndrome? It’s probably just a temporary period of uncertainty and loss of motivation.

Be aware of your own self-confidence levels and learn to recognise when your self-belief goes down so you can address it. Boost your confidence by seeking positive feedback (presenting your research at an academic conference can seem difficult but discussing your research with others in the same field is really rewarding), try new things or go on training courses and remind yourself what you are good at.

Dealing with PhD problems

The best strategy to solve any problem that arises during your PhD should begin by talking to someone about it (and the earlier the better). Best of all is to try and resolve things informally.

Top of the list is talking to your supervisor. If you don’t feel confident speaking to them directly, why not put it in writing? Not only will it be documented but it may be easier to order your thoughts and to put your point across. This can be particularly useful when dealing with PhD pressure.

Alternatively, if you feel that you can’t approach your supervisor, you can raise the issues at your next formal progress meeting or speak to the PhD programme director, another research colleague or fellow students.

In addition, remember that universities often have support services designed to help you such as:

  • Counselling
  • Student unions
  • Chaplaincy
  • Career advisers
  • Research development advisers
  • International officers

The last resort, if you feel that you have exhausted all other avenues, is to start a formal complaint procedure, either through your university or through an external body such as the Office of the Independent Adjudicator for Higher Education.

Last updated - 15/09/2021

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