My PhD project is a very little part of a big study that my supervisor is currently running. I am already four months into my PhD and I just have a 3 years position to finish my thesis. So far I haven’t worked in my PhD topic because I’m helping her with other aspects of this big study. She says doing that is working on my project, however she asks me to write and do research in things that are not really going to be on my thesis. And during all our meetings so far, we haven’t really discussed my topic, the chapters of my thesis, my research questions, the literature I should be looking at, or the instruments I need for answering my research questions What should I do??

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    Please add a country tag. In the UK it would be highly unusual to discuss thesis chapters by month 4. Commented Oct 15, 2018 at 9:54
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    Also it would be helpful to know how defined your PhD topic is. What I mean by this, is that I've heard of cases where what gets chosen before the PhD beginning needs to be your thesis title, but quite often I've seen people allowed to slightly adapt their thesis title as they progress, the topics evolve, the questions one was hypothesizing about in the beginning change completely. Have you discussed how flexible your topic is with your advisor? Most common practice I've seen is to try and include any and all research the student did into their thesis; why is this not true in your case?
    – penelope
    Commented Oct 15, 2018 at 13:18
  • Make her employ you for this separately. Or get a research engineer. She probably doesnt want to because those usually cost more. Commented Oct 16, 2018 at 8:57
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    Even if I indeed consider that your situation is a bit extreme, please bear in mind that (to me), the purpose of a PhD is to teach you how to "do science". So it is at the end of the 3 years that you have to show that you are now able to do proper research. So it can be helpful at the beginning of your thesis to bring you onboard of ongoing projects so that you can observe how science is "done".
    – ebosi
    Commented Oct 16, 2018 at 10:31

7 Answers 7


And during all our meetings so far, we haven’t really discussed my topic, the chapters of my thesis, my research questions, the literature I should be looking at, or the instruments I need for answering my research questions

So, that seems to suggest a natural course of action. Let her know that at your next meeting, you want to focus on making concrete plans about your thesis. Then do it. Come with a list of questions and make notes. Be sure to bring up the topic of how the big study will tie in to your thesis work, and how she expects you to balance the time spent on both of them.

It sounds like maybe you've been pretty passive so far in your interactions with her. Clearly it's not working, so time to try being more assertive.

If she won't have that discussion, or won't stay on topic, then you probably ought to start looking for a new supervisor.


There's quite a lot of missing information and context in your question. The best I would recommend is to approach this assertively, but non-aggressively. The reason is this: it could be the case that you are missing the point of your current work -- perhaps it hasn't been made clear or it was assumed that you understood -- and that your current tasks are honing your skills so that you can apply them to your own PhD.

There's a scene in the movie Karate Kid that exemplifies this well. The protagonist is asked to wax vintage cars by his teacher. After a long time of repetitively applying and removing wax, the student asks what this all has to do with learning karate. The demonstration that he was, in fact, learning karate all this time led to an epiphany.

The question for you is this: is your work so divorced from your thesis that you are, in fact, learning nothing of relevance?

Good luck to you.

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    it could be the case that you are missing the point of your current work - Indeed I and many of my colleagues often don't explain all of the ideas related to the thesis project at the beginning. Some aspects often require a certain maturity to understand.
    – Kimball
    Commented Oct 16, 2018 at 1:52

Both existing answers provide useful perspectives, but one aspect that I feel is missing is: how are you funded?

Option 1: If your PhD is being paid from funds of the "larger project", you will invariably need to do work that comes up in the scope of this project, even if not all of it will directly contribute to your PhD. Raising the issue with your supervisor that you only want to do stuff that directly relates to your thesis is unlikely to go over well. Of course, both, you and your supervisor, need to ensure that your work can ultimately be framed in a thesis, but you need to see this as a discussion of "how can we turn what I am doing in the project in a thesis?" rather than "I will stop doing work on the project and work on my thesis instead".

Option 2: If you are not funded, or through a stipend that comes from an external source (e.g., a stipend from your home country, rather than a project acquired by your supervisor), using your workforce to contribute to this project becomes a bit more dubious. Even in these cases, it still often happens on a tit-for-tat kind of basis - you help your supervisor in their project and get something else in return. However, the parameters of this exchange should be much less of an automatism, and there should be more an open discussion between supervisor and student. If your supervisor continues to see you as free labor for the project, it may indeed be time to move on.

Option 3: If you are funded by your supervisor, but through a different project, things tend to get a bit muddy. In theory you should work on the other project which funds you, and not on the "large project", but in reality borders between projects of the same supervisor tend to be blurry, and (again) refusing to work on a specific task may not go over all that well. In practice I would recommend threading this the same as Option 1 (make the best of it, and ensure that your work culminates in a PhD), but if you end up doing the work for multiple projects you may need to raise the issue friendly with your supervisor.

For all variants, it cannot be overemphasized how important it is that you are (1) proactive (as Nate correctly observes) and (2) transparent with your supervisor. You and your supervisor typically share the goal that both of you want you to finish in time, but for you the stakes are much higher than for your supervisor. This makes it imperative that you communicate what challenges you see actively and openly, and don't just expect that your supervisor will make things right for you.


Thesis structures can be rather fluid for at least the first year of a PhD.

An anecdote to hopefully encourage you: The main topic I started on looked like a dead-end for over a year, starting about 6 months in. While that was making no progress my supervisor got me working on a loosely-related system, which turned into a first-author paper and a results chapter. Then we found a way to get results on the original topic as well, but the digression actually provided a nice introduction to the problem we were trying to solve.


There's not really a need to have a "why am I doing other peoples' work?" conversation.

Flip the issue, and manage it in a positive way by managing your own project's time aspects. Instead of worrying about whether this is a side trip, I suggest working out a careful schedule with which to complete your studies within your time limit. A Gantt or PERT chart would be a preferred vehicle.

Now, once you have that, sit down and discuss it with your mentor. See if she sees any time issues you may not have anticipated, or has any other suggestions to offer.

After you've both agreed that this is a reasonable schedule, I suggest meeting with your mentor just to go over the status, and handle the inevitable changes that will come up. I think every two months will be a good starting point, unless higher frequency becomes necessary.

  • Seems unrealistic to me. Go rogue? Will the advisor likely permit it?
    – Buffy
    Commented Oct 15, 2018 at 14:37
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    @Buffy -- this is the opposite of going rogue -- it's developing a plan, getting input from the mentor on the plan, modifying the plan, and then periodically reviewing the plan. What I didn't say is that lots of "extra" stuff can still happen, but as long as the timetable keeps ticking along, both the student and the mentor understand everythings OK. If the timetable gets interrupted, then both the supervisor and mentor will notice before too long. Commented Oct 15, 2018 at 14:42

I won't tell you what to do specifically, but I will suggest an approach for making this decision.

The conundrum you present goes to the heart of the question of what is a PhD candidate, really?:

  • Are you a student who's getting financial assistance to focus on your studies?
  • Are you a hire of your funding entity (e.g. the supervisor's research funds), working towards fulfilling its needs in an "academized" settings, with a degree on the side?
  • Are you an employee of your university as a whole - with it being an institute which does research and you being one of the people who carry out that research - who is a sort of a junior version of a Professor?

I suggest you have a look at these two questions here on Academia.SX:

Education or employment: What is a post-doc? What is a PhD student?

Why do universities fund Ph.D. students in the sciences?

(and specifically in my answers... but not just them.)

So I see your dilemma as an incompatibility of expectations: Your supervisor treats you as an being in the second category I described, while you yourself perceive your status, or intended status, to be more in line with the first and/or third categories. Also, the 3-year restriction on funding * make for a harsh conflict of interests in the allocation of your time, and forces at a decision, albeit a temporary one, regarding your effective status.

As for concrete advice: If I were in your position, I would try to:

  • Get my Graduate/Junior Researchers' Union to to give me advice and possibly to either intercede on my behalf or to back me in demanding that non-thesis-related work be contingent upon either additional compensation or extension of the funding period.
  • If such a union does not exist, become active in forming one.
  • Read up on all relevant regulations, for students and academic staff, to determine what rights and privileges are specifically afforded to you and to your supervisor, so that you at least know whether your supervisor has formal justification for requiring this work.

but that's not to say that non-thesis-related work is a bad thing, or is not useful to you, in itself.

* - Speaking from the experience of most people I know and most universities and countries I know about - You are unlikely to conclude your PhD in 3 years. Either you get more funding somehow, or finish the rest while unfunded, or start doing work elsewhere while concluding the latter parts of it.

  • Regarding the 3-year time limit: come countries, 3 years is actually common and people do finish within the timeframe. I did my PhD in France, where 3 years is a standard duration - and was told in fact that if I were to continue my career in France, a duration any longer than 3 years and 3 months would be something to explicitly explain when applying for academic/research positions. In the lab(s) where I was, some people did get different funding, a job, or finished their work while not paid, but a) that was not the majority and b) most of the ones that did finished within half a year tops.
    – penelope
    Commented Oct 17, 2018 at 13:09
  • @penelope: Ok, I hear you. France is not one of the countries I have knowledge of in this respect, though; they are Israel, the US, the UK and the Netherlands (and for the latter it's partial). And maybe a bit about Germany.
    – einpoklum
    Commented Oct 17, 2018 at 13:22
  • Just trying to say, it might not be as universal as you imply :) Tho (maybe since I did my PhD in France, so I only notice the familiar thing), most of the PhD students in my new lab in the UK seem to be finishing within the 3 years on their grant, with an odd one taking the writing "home" after the funding expires, but still returning for the viva within at most half a year. But, I might just be noticing those cases better as they are what I'd expect.
    – penelope
    Commented Oct 17, 2018 at 14:13

You have not provided a basis for whether you are required to do course work in your PhD Program of Study. When no courses are needed, four months in to a three year project is ... awfully short. In some respects, this is a "let me stick my toe in this water" period. When the three years includes perhaps a year or more of course work too, you are still well beyond the point here to worry. Allow that you will explore the topics that are presented by your advisor and find your strengths. After all, by the end of the dissertation, YOU should be advising your faculty advisor what is and is not appropriate to do because YOU will be the expert in your study. Also, a PhD should be based on YOUR choice of a topic, not on a choice handed to you by your advisor.

In any case, at some point, you should recognize the need to establish a Dissertation Committee and defend a Dissertation Proposal.

A Dissertation Committee helps the faculty mentor to guide the student to success. Our Dissertation Committees consist of four other faculty besides the advisor, with one outside the home department.

A Dissertation Proposal provides a foundation for both the mentor and the student to establish a common ground for the work. While it may include preliminary results, the proposal is NOT about work that has been completed. I believe the proposal should be more than just a "white paper". It should be written somewhat in the format of what is required by a national funding agency to solicit for research support. In the sciences in the USA, the template might be an NSF or NIH proposal. In engineering, the template might be a DoE proposal. I defer to other countries and disciplines to substitute their appropriate funding agencies and templates.

Our program asks the graduate student to defend a Dissertation Proposal in this way. First, the proposal is submitted to the Dissertation Committee. The Committee reviews the proposal over two weeks. The Committee can submit questions in writing to the student over this period. The student has one week to review the questions and reply in writing. The student then gives an oral presentation to defend the proposal and the answers to the questions. The Committee passes or fails the student to continue the research work.

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