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This happened with a friend of mine and I am asking this question on his behalf.

My friend was recruited for a sponsored research project in the university and offered a part-time PhD along with that. He is currently completing his coursework (2nd semester) which is pretty exhaustive. He has been working pretty rigorously and one of his poster presentation was accepted in a reputed conference within 6 months of work.

Since the coursework in this semester was tough, he wasn't able to give any tangible output in terms of publications or concrete results. Now, suddenly he has been asked by his advisor to resign. This has come to him as a surprise since he was expecting some scolding as his guide is known for being arrogant (and he is very reputed researcher in the field).

He is unsure whether to leave PhD or how to proceed and convince his advisor.

I believe he is pretty new (1 year of coursework) to the domain and since the project is pure research, he does deserve a chance. But I am unsure of how one should proceed in such cases.

EDIT (based on queries in comment)

Part Time PhD: He was recruited as an employee for the project by the university. And also offered a PhD. The stipend comes from the project cost(funding agency) and not from university funds (as is the case for direct PhD recruits in my university).

Advisor being Arrogant: He is very knowledgeable and reputed but known for scolding students frequently.(Some faculty members also agree to this including my own advisor)

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I don't fully follow the logic of your arguments. He should be scolded because his guide is known for being arrogant? He deserves a chance because his project is pure research? –  Dave Clarke Apr 7 at 12:35
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I am not familiar with the term "part-time PhD". In what country is this story taking place? –  Pete L. Clark Apr 7 at 13:19
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@PeteL.Clark maybe part-time in the sense the friend does this next to his 'normal' job. –  Paul Hiemstra Apr 7 at 15:34
    
@PeteL.Clark: Perhaps what was meant is that a partial stipend was awarded to cover part-time work as an RA? –  aeismail Apr 7 at 15:36

3 Answers 3

up vote 12 down vote accepted

This is a difficult situation. Regardless of the facts of the matter, there appears to be have been a breakdown of trust/communication: either the advisor has been sending signals for a while that the person didn't pick up on, or the advisor is indeed pulling this out of the blue, which also signifies a breakdown of communication.

Probably the best first thing to do is for the student to set up a meeting with the advisor to understand the advisor's reasons. It's possible that a face-to-face meeting might allow the advisor to express their underlying concerns in a more productive way that could lead to a concrete plan for activities.

If that fails, or the advisor refuses to meet, the next person to involve is usually the chair of graduate studies at the department (or the equivalent). There is usually someone whose job is to oversee the graduate program and manage conflicts like this. They might be able to mediate a rapproachment between the advisor and student (or even find another advisor for the student). I've had to do this in the past when I served in this capacity.

Bottom line: if the facts are as you outlined, then I think the student deserves a more reasonable explanation from the advisor as to why they're being terminated. Sadly though, in my experience I've often found that students ignore signals being sent to them, and that advisors are unwilling/unable to give direct and clear feedback.

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I generally agree with Suresh and Trylks advice. The relationship between your friend and his advisor is broken. That is a problem that your friend cannot avoid.

On the other hand, it is not only your friend's problem. It is his advisor's too and since he is the senior party, he is the one that needs to do more than your friend to fix it. I also do not get this "resign" thing. Your friend has a contract with the university, not with the advisor. It has also probably been assigned a committee for your friend's PHD that includes other professors except his advisor. If your friend is incapable for a PHD, again this decision is not entirely up to the advisor. It is the advisor that needs to prove your friend failed to meet the requirements of the project / PHD and your friend should not just "roll over dead" just because the advisor is not happy with him. So resigning is out of the question. If he has already a poster publication, did well in the required courses then I think the advisor will have a hard time proving your friend is incapable.

So, your friend should ask his advisor what he can do better to make things work. He should follow his advice, be extra nice and work extra hard. But there is absolutely no reason for him to resign. If the advisor is right (and as powerful as he believes he is), he can always fire your friend. But he will still have to justify to his fellow professors why he took a promising student such as your friend (otherwise your friend would not be selected for a PHD) and failed to "advice" him. It is your friend advisor's failure as well and both parties should suffer the consequences.

All this advice is based on your "word" that your friend did actually 90-100% the best he could. In any other case, where the advisor repeatedly warned your friend about potential improvements and your friend deliberately ignored him then he should just suck it up, take it like a man / woman and suffer the consequences. But if the advisor failed to effectively advice your friend, then this failure should be fixed by both parties and not simply by your friend resigning.

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Maybe "accept responsibility" instead of "take it like a man" ? I doubt accepting consequences is directly linked to your chromosomal peculiarities :) –  Suresh Apr 7 at 20:58
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@Suresh I think you're deliberately misunderstanding the phrase. The connotation of "like a man" is "and not like a boy, who runs crying to his parents"; it's not "and not like a woman". –  hobbs Apr 8 at 0:07
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next time (or next edit) you can try with "an adult", it's a less ambiguous and more politically correct option. –  Trylks Apr 8 at 8:09

Situation: FUBAR. I'm quite sorry for your friend. Good thing is: things can't get much worse.

Now he is a student and the professor is reputed, if he resigns then they are both just human beings. These are two different contexts and your friend is, more or least, with one foot on each of them. With the insight of the second context and a potential imminent resign, I'd ask, from a person to another, "why?".

If it's for the lack of results/publications, your friend should check why did that happen and whether that is going to continue in the future. It's not only a matter of doing and finishing a PhD, but also a matter of how worthy a PhD with few publications is in the end, considering the opportunity cost and all the effort and time that it is going to need. It may be a "Pyrrhic victory" and that is something very few people warn about (actually I haven't seen anyone).

Your friend deserves an explanation. Please keep us posted.

On the other hand. This is a failure in communication, as @Suresh pointed. We only have one side of the story, your friend's, through a third person (you), so it's hard to know. But the description you make of the advisor is:

  • he is arrogant
  • he makes things suddenly with no prior notice
  • he doesn't provide arguments or explanations

The best thing to do in such a situation (if possible, usually not easy) is to switch to a different supervisor, because that guy may be reputed and good at research, but he does not seem good (from your description) at dealing with people, managing them and advising in general.

But again, remember, it's hard not to be biased when all the information that we have comes from a friend of one of the parts...

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