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It is a doctoral project in engineering, a long, tedious, and grumbling story. I was contracted as a PhD candidate for another project but when I started, the director suggested me to change for the current one (which they just obtained some funds). Later, a co-director was added who has never led a doctoral thesis before and has no ambition in research but is a nice person to chat with given the previous expertise with administrative tasks (it's the truth...) I accepted and began my journey.

In the beginning, it was the 1st director that taught the 2nd director and me the idea of the project. Gradually, I found out that they repeated the same stuff in all the meetings. When I asked for suggestions on choosing a focus of the project, they didn't shed many lights but suggested a topic that is not within the scope of our group. I tried to avoid it but through more and more readings, I came to realize that this topic was unneglectable for the project. Luckily I got some idea and tried to start either with software analysis or experiment. I asked my directors for support in acquiring software license and equipment, they have been "working on solutions" for years without results till now, not to mention the great inertia to keep up with the project. They copied my report as accessing report for me and their comments to my report were usually only correcting the department name...

I did my best to keep it cool and went for an exchange program at another university in another country. There, I got something done, which was not perfect but more persuasive than the non-evolutional system diagram drawn by my director in each meeting. After the exchange program, I realized that there was a lot of room for improvement even corrections which involved concepts/skills in another field. And such improvement and correction is the essential part of my work- how to analyze data and how to link analysis to reality. We happen to have another research group in our university that works in this field but crosstalk is not appreciated especially with the absence of your own directors... Anyway, I convinced them that I need someone who could give me directions in my project. They said that they would try to find a third director for me from that group. Months have passed with me chasing them from time to time. Finally, they found someone and we went to visit this professor together. I received some useful suggestions then I asked my directors if we could initiate the procedure to include this professor as my third director and they replied: "oh, let's see if it's necessary". I told them I need at least to make my papers and thesis "theoretically correct". If there is any fatal mistake that none of us could tell, I will be failed for sure.

I've got the feeling that I have survived many heart attacks and mental disturbances these years. (Compared with my colleagues, who have given up long before talking to these directors: even if their topics are not as "off-topic" as mine, they didn't receive any guidance either...) Now it is my last year or months of the doctoral journey, I have no faith in receiving academic help from my directors. Their reluctance to bring in someone who knows it would make me drawn (everyone should sign a paper to include a third director so I cannot go my way). Probably by the time they agree to sign, I would only have 2 months left... What should I do? Any practical suggestions?

Revised with more specific questions that came to my mind. 1) I may have to accept that I will never have a "useful" director till the end. However, I know 2-3 other professors from different institutions. Is it very much against conventions to ask for their help to review my papers and doctoral thesis? 2) In order to get things done as soon as possible, should I put more effort on the publication or on the final thesis? I have no publication yet and just started writing the thesis... Is the doctoral thesis more like a continuous physical work? 3) How to make use of my own directors? The primary director has had several graduated PhD students. Given the circumstance, it would be unlikely that they even bother to read my thesis. I don't know how they plan to have PhD graduated without knowing anything.

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    Please can you narrow down your question? At the moment you give a long and specific set of circumstances and ask "what should I do?", which is not a good fit for SE. – user2390246 Mar 12 '18 at 15:24
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You seem to have a problem of waiting for permission before doing something: you mention that something was "not appreciated" so you didn't do it, then you're wondering about what is within or "out of convention", but who cares about convention? What's the problem of going beyond what is "of convention"? You waited months to set up a meeting with someone who may have helped you (and waited for your advisors to do it), and so on.

Stop asking for permission. Break the "rules" (some of which you may think are rules even if they aren't) and ask for forgiveness later, if even necessary.

Take charge of your PhD and get the help you need: ask these professors at other places to read your stuff. Tell your directors that you're doing it. Ask your directors about publications versus thesis. Figure out what you need to do to not fail your PhD, and if you want to stay in academia, start looking for postdocs with advisors you feel can work with you (but as a postdoc you are expected to be much more independent than you seem to be at this point.).

  • You are right. I should have been more proactive and dominant. I always wanted to involve my directors within my activities so that they wouldn't get left out. Besides, in my culture people do respect the professors. During the past years, each time I proposed some collaboration they would say let them do it and later they didn't... Now I understand it's just their gesture rather than intention. I should have just notified them and do it myself. – luw Mar 12 '18 at 16:49
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I am not sure if this advice will help or not. When I started my PhD work I had a vision many great things I wanted to accomplish. I had big plans. I mentioned this one day to may main adviser. He is very accomplished and well known in our field. He immediately, guided my thinking and strongly advised that I change my thoughts. He told me my goal as a PhD student was to get done as fast as possible and that my real research and big picture goals will happen after I earned my PhD. At first, I did not like this advice. Since then I have valued it just about as much as anything I have ever learned. So, is there some way you can adopt this kind of approach towards the time and resources you have left and just figure out how to get done? Sorry to answer your question with a question.

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    I agree. In my case, I have already cut short my project scope because I knew I won't be able to finish that much. 4 years for an engineering PhD with 2.5 years isolated from tools and guidance can't make anything big. I would figure out a way to get myself out of there asap. – luw Mar 12 '18 at 16:55

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