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About a year ago when I was a first-year graduate student, my advisor wanted me to follow up on a project left behind by an honors student. I agreed because, at that time, I thought the topic was important and the findings were rather interesting. However, over the past year, I was busy with other projects and my qualifying exam, so this project was put on hold for almost a year. This summer, my advisor urges me to get it done as soon as possible.

I'd be more than happy to, had I not realized the original project is not methodologically sound. My RAs who re-coded the original data share the same feeling: The experimenter made various mistakes and was overly flexible, yet all data points entered into final analyses. I don't want to spend months chasing after effects that don't exist. Moreover, due to the complex study design, I can foresee what a nightmare it can be to build computational models in the future.

I suggested radical changes that make the experiment more rigorous and subsequent modeling efforts more tractable, but my advisor refused my proposal several times, arguing that making any changes will only delay the starting time. I feel stuck: On the one hand, I don't want to pursue this project as it is since it's most definitely going to fail; on the other, I don't have the courage (or "moral capitals") to defy my advisor because I have put off this project for so long. To make matters worse, I only have one advisor, so if our relationship deteriorates, I have no one else to turn to.

Any advice on what I should do is much appreciated!

  • 1
    I wonder if it would help to rephrase your objections as being related to the review process . I sometimes have more luck saying “I am worried that a reviewer will say ...” – Dawn Jul 14 '18 at 22:01
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Sometimes it is necessary to "bite the bullet" and demonstrate that the method doesn't work. But you need to provide clear and irrefutable evidence in a way that can actually convince people, not just a vague claim.

A classic example of the failure to do this is the Challenger explosion: all of the information needed to delay the launch was known, but because the engineers who had the data didn't present it in a clear manner–just a raw output of data—their supervisors overruled them. If they had come in with plots showing failure of the O-rings as a function of launch conditions, anyone could have recognized the danger of the situation.

So if your advisor is insisting, you probably need to demonstrate why his approach is infeasible or he will continue to insist upon it.

  • Not only the Challenger, but also the Columbia exploded for the nearly same reason: the Powerpoint wasn't presented clear enough – Ooker Jul 15 '18 at 4:38
  • @Ooker No PowerPoint back for Challenger, but a carefully prepared handmade graph would have sufficed. – aeismail Jul 15 '18 at 5:42
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You seem to have answered your own question. If you can not discuss this matter with your advisor without your relationship deteriorating, then you are in for a truly terrible advisor relationship as time goes on, and anything is preferable to this, changing advisors, universities or dropping out.

Unless you are convinced that your advisor is incapable of understanding what is wrong with the project, its worth stating that you dont want to work on it because of X, anx see what happens, he may have an idea worth listening to.

The worst outcome is to do a useless project to keep your advisor quiet, since that is likely to result in being assigned several more useless projects between now and when you graduate, which will take longer the more useless things you do.

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I think the comment by Down, should be incorporated in the answer. I and some other groups did following thing when dealing with the problem as OP have.

Ask external party for opinion (either in academia or industry), there are also companies that are specialized for feasibilities studies, some of them recommended by Elsevier and other publishers. They will provide you information on how long and how much the project that your advisor what you to deal with will take resources and if it has sense to chase it.

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The postponing of yours was a grave mistake for the beginning, yes, but it would still be problematic had you seen the flaws or the problems of the project in the first day.

The catch is this, there is a project around and made some way, even if it is clearly problematic. You only have one way out, you will rapidly advance that project and try to discern all the problems in data/method/presentation of the results and at the end will come at a point where you as clearly documented everything as possible that you can as well publish an article on it. You will then get your thesis and run away from that advisor asap.

Otherwise, they will ruin your academic career, with a good intention. You will be known as slacker/obnoxious blamer for everyone around, and all your future possible advisors question you that "you worked there for years and did not come up with anything", and they will both listen your answer and the previous advisor's. Imagine what they will think, then.

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You are in a hard spot. I'll try to offer more than sympathy here. You seem to have tried the main direct approach (changing the problem) and indicate that the other (changing advisors) is closed off to you, so the advice will need to be a bit, well, subversive.

"Subversive" is probably the wrong word, so don't take it too literally. But note that proving that something isn't true is (or at least can be) just as valid as proving that something is true. Knowledge is advanced in both cases. If you set out to prove that "Dingledorfer's theorem proves the Smittyburger hypothesis" and learn that it doesn't, you may still have the basis for a thesis: "Dingledorfer's theorem doesn't imply the Smittyburger hypothesis". It is hard to speculate whether you have an option like that or not, but consider it.

The second option is that you can make the original study a very subservient part of the whole of your work. You can even, in the thesis, provided that your analysis here is correct, say why the original formulation is incorrect, make a correct formulation and work with that. Unfortunately that sort of thing costs you time as what was originally major is now minor.

However, I don't know exactly what you mean that you have "only one advisor". Is it the situation where no one else is available at all (small department...) or just that you have been assigned only one advisor from a larger pool. In the latter case, again costing you time, you can probably appeal to a higher authority and change advisors. The correct way to do this, I think, is to approach someone else with whom you believe you would be more successful and ask them to permit (and assist in) a switch. You could then go to the department head to make it a reality. I failed to do this once and it cost me more time than making a break would have. In my case it was extreme introversion and a fear of rocking the boat. But the boat needed rocking.

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