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I'm currently doing a PhD in applied mathematics, I'm about to start my final year. The problem that I've been working on for the last 2 years was originally proposed by my advisor and one of his colleagues. The direction of research wasn't that good, the problem had already been studied by previous researchers and there is very little one can add to what's there already.

I discussed this with my supervisor early on, but he suggested I persevere because he saw some promise in our approach. In these 2 years I have struggled to find something worth mentioning, and have only produced meagre results at best. What's worse is that my advisor has virtually no interest in what I do. I don't think he's actually read any of my work, or even read any of the surrounding literature. His advice has not been so useful.

Without anybody to guide me and without a clear problem to work on I feel really lost and a bit cheated especially considering the amount of attention he gives to his other students. I'm no genius but I've consistently helped his other postgrads do their own research (in completely different areas), and while our advisor has guided them into publishing several papers each, I'm sitting here clueless, with absolutely nothing to show for myself.

Sorry about the rant, but I'm really lost. Any advice would be appreciated.

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You should mention if you are in the UK (or in the USA). The system is different. E.g. In the UK, you often get locked into your supervisor's project or a project providing the funding. In the USA, people might have some freedom to alter their dissertation direction during the PhD. –  Legendre Sep 11 '12 at 23:12
    
@Legendre: I'm in the UK. The funding is not specific to a project, though the research would have to be in the same general area. –  Tunesmith Sep 12 '12 at 8:41
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Do you have any other faculty mentors (for example, your dissertation committee) who can give you concrete advice? –  JeffE Sep 12 '12 at 14:01
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I find several aspects of this situation troubling. One is the implication that your advisor allowed you to work on only one problem, much less insisted, especially for two years without significant progress. Another is that you are helping other people with their research, which led to their publishing papers, instead of collaborating toward joint papers. Another is the seeming contradiction between "my advisor has virtually no interest in what I do" and "he remained adamant that I continue to pursue this problem". I agree with others: Seek official help. –  JeffE Sep 12 '12 at 14:17
    
@JeffE: As regarding helping others, I certainly don't feel that I contributed sufficiently to be a coauthor, and that wasn't my point. My point is that I don't feel it's the case that I'm incompetent and that he's ignoring me for that reason (I hope not at least!). –  Tunesmith Sep 12 '12 at 14:49

3 Answers 3

up vote 24 down vote accepted

There are two questions to answer:

  • If you got another project from this advisor, would you stay?
  • If you got the opportunity to switch advisors, would you leave?

If you are willing to stick with this advisor, you should bring up your dissatisfaction—and perhaps suggest a plan of action to "migrate" to another topic. (Can you, for instance, use the methodology on a different problem where it might be more successful?)

If that isn't an option—and to be honest, I suspect it isn't—you should work as aggressively as you can to find a new advisor and a new research topic, while if possible staying under the radar. You don't want to create a situation before you have somebody firmly in your corner who's willing to support you.

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Staying under the radar is important. Administrators could view you, not the PI, as the problem. –  mac389 Sep 11 '12 at 20:42
    
Thanks for your reply. I tried to get another project from the advisor, but he remained adamant that I continue to pursue this problem. I'd like to switch advisors but my only concern is that I have only one year left (getting extensions is not easy in this department). And of course finding a willing substitute. –  Tunesmith Sep 11 '12 at 21:51
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If you were in the US, I would strongly recommend pursuing both options simultaneously — Ask your advisor and other faculty for new project suggestions. But as others have said, PhD admission in the US is not tied as strongly to individual advisors, so this strategy may not be appropriate in the UK. –  JeffE Sep 12 '12 at 14:07

Many of my friends doing PhDs in the UK have this problem, even those in top tier universities. Those with the worse problems ended up dropping out and reapplying for the same PhD under another supervisor. I think the supervisor tend to be more integral to PhD students in the UK and there might not even be an option to "switch".

Based on their experiences:

  1. Like aeismail said, you should definitely stay under the radar. This was advised to all of my friends in similar situation. Most importantly, it is deemed unprofessional to openly blame your supervisor, even if it really is your supervisor's fault.

  2. Seek official help: the single biggest turning point for my friends was using the official channels and/or speaking to the director of graduate studies in your department. These people are very experienced at handling situations like your, and will certainly know to do it covertly.

Possible outcomes based on my friends' experiences:

  1. Your director of graduate studies or student counselor might offer to help or get someone to help read your current work and evaluate your situation. This might identify the problems you need to fix to graduate, and they might be able to help communicate any issues to your supervisor.

  2. They might arrange for a co-supervisor. This resolved the situation for several of my friends. The co-supervisor essentially becomes your new supervisor.

  3. In the worse case, it doesn't work out. The student drops out of the program and reapply to another supervisor with the help of the department (making it easier). Unfortunately, it can be a gamble because they have the option of rejecting you. Depending on your school, they might have a different policy and allow for an actual switch instead of having to reapply.

Bottom line: seek official help ASAP. Stay professional and under the radar, do not sound vituperative. Don't be afraid of taking drastic actions like reapplying if need to.

Good luck!

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Thanks for your answer. I'll trying to the director of graduate studies. I just hope I don't have to drop out. I certainly won't be able to start a PhD again. –  Tunesmith Sep 12 '12 at 21:08
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My friends who "restarted" due to supervisor problems did so at the end of their 1st year. I suppose it is harder for you after 2 years. I hope everything works out for you. –  Legendre Sep 13 '12 at 13:07

If you're lucky, our institution have some sort of principal or someone responsible for the graduate students, someone to talk to about exactly these things. A review on the progress should be done at least every year, to avoid being stuck on a problem for too long.

If things do no run smoothly, it is a problem not only for you, but for the institution, so it should be in everybody’s interest to solve this, either with a new problem or new advisor. As people mention, it is not really uncommon, but I'd say be careful blaming your advisor, sometimes there's just a mismatch. Talk to some other professor maybe, they've all been young once, and might have some good advice.

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