Super stressed, super ill and not-so-super Supervisors

Whee, so reading the comments I left on a few other people’s blogs last night and the fact that I was in a right tizzy before I went to bed has reminded me that I’m still totally not okay with this PhD malarkey.

More to the point, the stress of the damn thing is affecting my health. I developed IBS is August and eczema in July and I’ve had a chest infection shortly followed by the ‘flu in the last month. I’ve never had digestive distress in response to stress before, and I never had eczema as a kid, nor any other allergies or hay fever, so to get both now really fucking sucks. The IBS has mostly cleared up but because it was never constant, I’m still going around dreading its return when I’m out and about and can’t do anything about it. There’s nothing like being stranded away from a toilet when you think you’re about to shit yourself.

The eczema meanwhile is just plain annoying rather than painful so that’s kind of a bonus but it’s on my hands and more particularly over my thumbs and where my thumbs connect to my hands i.e. a patch of skin that’s super mobile and is vitally important for gripping things. It’s making opening bottles and flasks in the lab a real pain. It’s also threatening to spread to my armpits and places where my bras rub occasionally. E45 cream is keeping it at bay at the moment but what if it gets worse? What if it never gets better? The patch on my thumb has been there since July and the steroid cream I was prescribed isn’t helping. Wearing a plaster over it at least stops me picking at the flaking, cracked skin but I’m getting through plasters at a rate of knots and soggy plasters are just gross.

The chest infection (which, tbh, I should have gone to the Doctors’ for) was again mostly just annoying, although waking up and having to wait for 10-15 min for the snot in my nose to shift so I could breathe through it was unpleasant, as was the first thing in the morning coughing fit. And now I have the ‘flu. Which I’ve never had before, not the bog standard variety anyway. And which I developed on my birthday no less! Way to go, body mine. Just what I always wanted for my 25th Birthday present.

We’d been out for cocktails and I was only on my third drink when I realised I felt much more drunk than I should have but also really very tired. We went home, watched a couple of movies and by partway through the second movie my body began to ache all over. At first I thought it was just the Jiu Jitsu catching up with me but by the time we went to bed, I was running a temperature. I didn’t believe my partner at first because I felt cold, even with the thick duvet and the blanket, but yeah, he was right. Everything still aches to the point that even leaning forward over the sink to clean my teeth hurts. And damn it all, I hate being ill! I had stuff to do in uni, like Western blots and a Laser-Scanning Microscope to set up and my cells to split but even getting up for food was a challenge.

Fuck it all, I don’t have time to be ill!  And annoyingly, sat in bed, I feel okay, like I could get up and do stuff but I also know that’s not going to happen today. If I feel really adventurous I might tidy my room and do the dishes and cook a dinner involving vegetables, since last night we ordered takeaway pizza we can only just afford.

I wanted to pretend I had a point to this post but instead you’re getting rambly, ill, pissed off Nessie thoughts. Where was I?

Oh yeah, the fucking stupid PhD crap. Like I said, it’s affecting my health and it’s been one damn thing after another, when the one thing I have always had was my health. Getting sick is not something that happens to me all that often, and if it does, it has a story behind it, like the time I caught swine ‘flu (felt like death but not as bad as tonsillitis), or you know, it’s tonsillitis (which I’ve only had twice, thank fuck, and three cheers for antibiotics). So, the fact that it’s been one thing after another is a sign that I really ought to be paying more attention to. I really ought to tell my supervisor and ask for time off, like a week’s holiday at the minimum, but I don’t have the time to do so.

I’m supposed to be out of the lab by Christmas and we’re already half way through November. I’ve got a mountain of data analysis to do because I’ve been putting it off for as long as possible. And somehow, I’m supposed to get all these experiments done when I STILL don’t have a luciferase construct I was supposed to make well over a year ago. Oh and don’t forget the bloody expensive Zeiss LSM710 and 780 microscopes that blew out their lasers the other week, when I can only do the work needed for my final chapter on those two ‘scopes. Lets also not forget the Chapter that is supposed to contain a discussion of the collaborative work we’re doing on a mathematical model, which we’re supposed to use to make a prediction that I can test. Nor should we forget that I’m supposed to start writing up after Christmas, never mind that the original plan had me writing up from the start of October, because my funding runs out in March.

I could ask for a medical leave of absence but that doesn’t help the money situation at all because while the University will extend your final deadline, they don’t give you any money to get you through the extension period, nor as a full-time student are you entitled to statutory sick pay, sickness benefit or housing benefit. Which is frankly bullshit. Not everyone has parents who can support them.

Which brings me to my next stress of people wanting me to write a Paper, aiming for the top tier journals like Cell and Nature no less! If my final experiments work and show what we hope they might, I would indeed have a story worthy of those institutions, but, and this is a big but, I don’t want to be here. I don’t care enough any more to aim that high. I’ve suffered enough and I want out. Yes, as so many people keep telling me, my project is amazing. I had confirmation of that at the JAK-STAT conference when everyone who saw my poster wanted to know whether we were going to publish next year. But, I have had enough. I don’t want to ask my supervisor to find me money for a six month post-doc so I can get my work published. I’ve seen what happens to those that stay on in our lab for “just a short post-doc”. There’s no such thing. It’s like a black hole, once you’re in, you never get to leave! Our PI has no idea how to get a paper out quickly – there’s more than one post-doc in our lab whose career has suffered because of it. Whether it was because the Mighty Boss sat on the paper for over half a year because he was afraid it wasn’t “ready”, or because it got rejected by the reviewers because they wanted “one more Western blot”, or because the Boss didn’t want to reveal our hand with a technical paper or ruin his track record with a “bottom drawer journal”. It makes me, and the people who suffered, absolutely furious!!! It’s a bloody mess and my health is suffering and I’m fed up of feeling like an incompetent bad scientist.

I mean, what kind of scientist can’t keep their lab books up to date? What kind of scientist puts their data analysis off for over a year? What kind of scientist slouches in at 11am and slinks off at 6pm? What kind of scientist never goes to seminars “because they’re boring”? What kind of scientist sits at their desk playing on WordPress all day rather than doing their data analysis?

One whose senior management sucks, whose work environment is so bad it makes her feel like she’s going to prison rather than work, that’s who. One whose supervisor is so bad at giving appropriate praise he had the cheek to turn around and tell her “you don’t respond well to praise”. One whose supervisor had no fucking clue she wasn’t coping with life and was seeing a counsellor until after her situation had improved enough that she finally had enough fight in her to threaten to quit, only for him to turn around and claim he had a sneaking suspicion that she might be actually depressed all along but chose not mention it to her on the grounds that he “likes to chuck his students in at the deep end for their first year to see if they sink or swim”. One whose supervisor thinks the way to deal with his own neglect of his students is to treat them to a trip to the pub once a week, and  to tell them to have a “special hardback notebook to record our meetings in”, so that he can force himself to bother to see them by treating himself to a pint at the same time!

Let me make this clear – my supervisor would rather bribe himself with booze than make any changes to his behaviour that would actually improve our working relationship. He would rather do that than a) get off his bloody phone when I’m talking to him, b) stop talking over me when I’m trying to speak, c) stop going off on irrelevant tangents when he’s distracted by shiny new things completely unrelated to my project but that in his head make perfect fucking sense or d) set and enforce deadlines that actually matter, when I’ve specifically requested that he do so in order to help me get back on track!

I used to be a magnificent student. I’d regularly get over 90% on my essays and the only time I defaulted on a bit of coursework was when my Grandfather died. Everything else I got done on time, even if my method was to pull a last minute all-nighter (not the best plan I’ll admit, but it worked). Heck, one of my selling points at my PhD interview was that I knew how to use short periods of time wisely to get my lab books done! But it still feels like cheating to blame my lack of motivation on my truly awful supervisory relationship. I still feel like a failure, even though I can point out, angrily, all the things that are wrong with the situation. I still hate how powerless I feel being ill, knowing that there are all these deadlines hanging over my head that I feel I have little chance of meeting, given that every other deadline has slipped through my fingers.

And reading over what I’ve written today, I’m still shoulding all over myself, holding myself to ridiculous standards and aspirations only partly based in the reality of others’ expectations. What’s a girl to do, hey? I’ve written loads but I still don’t know where this rant is going, and I wanted to end it on a positive note too, because who wants to read 2000 words of sickness and stress? Join in the pity party guys and dolls and unleash your Rageasaurus.

5 thoughts on “Super stressed, super ill and not-so-super Supervisors

  1. Oh Nessie. I’m so sorry.

    For what it’s worth, I was also a great student once upon a time. Not tremendously organized by nature, but I got my assignments done on time and kept my lab book up to date and planned my day so I could have three different tasks going at the same time. When I have had good supervisors with whom I have healthy working relationships, I have been enormously productive, well-liked by my labmates, and ambitious scientifically.

    With poor supervisors, I got sick, I made mistakes, I avoided the lab, I got depressed and had panic attacks, I was always behind on everything… sound familiar?

    I told myself it was all me too. I was lazy. I should be more self-motivated, more self-sufficient. But it’s a load of shit! Every advisor SAYS they want someone who is independent, but when they make all the big decisions and final calls–when they have to sign off on every grant or paper submission or conference attendance–you have all of the responsibility and none of the power. Of COURSE people start to lose their mind under those circumstances. I couldn’t believe it at first when I stopped giving a damn about producing work worthy of Nature or Cell or even top sub-field journals or even publishing at all… but was it really all that surprising, when I didn’t get to make calls that I believed in about how to do my work or how to write it up or when to submit? Stopping caring is a goddamn defense mechanism. It’s what happens when you’re so burnt out that all that you want to do anymore is SURVIVE.

    I’m so sorry you have to live through this too. On the bright side, you’ve made it further than I did. You’re close. It sucks, and it’s bullshit, but you will be out soon. I’m rooting for you.

    • It sounds so familiar it’s making me cry.

      Do you know how good it feels to be validated? And also how much is completely sucks? So few people get it, not even my closest, most trusted friends. I can find sympathy, but empathy?

      You are so spot on with the having responsibility but not power. One thing I have learned from this is that while I can work completely independently, I can only do so if someone actually cares about what I produce. Working to make a contribution to human knowledge is a fantastic lofty ideal but it’s not directly relevant to me. As long as I’m not doing something actively evil, am not working for a multinational that puts profit first but says they are all about the humanitarian cause, and I’m aiming to make a positive contribution, however small, my morals are satisfied. On the other hand, if the person who asked me to do the work cares so little they can pretty much completely neglect me, what’s the sodding point?

      Also, I had never thought of not caring as a defence mechanism before but it makes perfect sense. My cost-benefit system is saying that while yes, publishing a paper would be amazing, it is unnecessary for where I see my life going. Furthermore the effort it would take to see it through is so not worth the additional mental trauma that staying here a second longer than I have to will cause. One… helpful…suggestion has been to write the paper(s) up first on the basis that it makes the thesis writing easier but I don’t see how that can be the case, given that it is another task entirely. Also the people making the “helpful suggestion” don’t realise just how little I care right now.

      Another part of me is suggesting I swallow my pride and talk to my grandmothers about money so that I can take a month or more off but I’m afraid that taking time off now will mean I never come back. Even a week out for a conference completely scuppers any ability I have to work when I return because I so badly don’t want to be here doing this. Also, I can see myself ‘taking a month off’ and beating myself up the entire time for not doing my data analysis, which defeats the object of taking time off to regroup.

      So yeah, still thinking out loud over here.
      Thanks a thousand times over for your support. Good to know I’ve got you in my corner. 🙂

  2. Reblogged this on a little dose of keelium and commented:
    Reblogging this because Nessie captured perfectly how having a poor relationship with your advisor can destroy you as a scientist, and how you end up feeling like you’re the failure.

    Nessie, so sorry you’re going through this. I hope things get better soon.

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