I'm a PhD student in engineering. I work in a small group with two professors and 5 PhD students (no postdocs).

Both the professors "follow" my thesis as supervisor. However, they don't get along with, and they are continuously trying to pull me to their side and change my research subjects.

It's not that my project is not going well (I have 12 publications: 4 journal papers and 8 conference papers). However my two professors don't want to collaborate together and every time assign me random extra work to do for them, on various subjects, uncorrelated one with the others, and in which I'm not even expert.

All the other PhD's in my group are in the same situation. If we raise a concern about our thesis, their answer is just "now do what I ask you, we'll think to put together a thesis at the end of your PhD". It even happened that I sent a full paper to one of them, ready to be submitted, just to be told "If you want to publish this, you have to do this other (uncorrelated, ndr) work before".

The worst part is that professors and researchers from other divisions know the situation and come to our group every time they need cheap work. So, one day, one of the supervisor comes to your office and says: from now you'll collaborate with professor A of dept. B on this topic. Another day, the other supervisor has lunch with some professor, comes and tells you: I need you to work with prof. X of division Y on this other topic.

Most of the time, these extra assignments are running tons of calculations and collect results, code debugging, or even external consulting for private companies. Needless to say, this is a major slow down to my research activity because I spend more than half of my time on other topics in which I'm not competent. Most of these random activities ends up without publications. I'm only publishing from my main research project.

My only luck is that I have contact in other universities and I have postdoc offers there, and that I've always had clear ideas on my thesis. So I still managed to publish my papers. Other students are not so lucky and they are at the second or even third year of their PhD without having publications nor having a clear direction for their research project.

I'll finish in less that one year and, as I mentioned, I have offers in other places. However, I'm starting to ask myself a question: Is this normal in academy? I wonder if this is the standard, and I'll find exactly the same situation in other universities or if it was just an unlucky combination of bad bosses.

I love my research activity, but if these are the working conditions, I'm starting wondering if it is worth to go on..

  • 6
    What else do you need in order to submit your PhD? I'd say nothing. I'd consider submitting the thesis ASAP. And remember, there's a reason, why sailors always had to take either one or three chronometers to the sea. Oct 28, 2018 at 15:37
  • 1
    What happens if you just say no to the random extra work? Or “I think I can squueze in an hour or two on this next week, but that’s the most I can promise”? Or “Sure, I’d be willing to collaborate, in exchange for coauthorship”?
    – JeffE
    Oct 28, 2018 at 18:18
  • Once i tried and one of the advisors badmouthed me to the rest of the group. I came to know from other phd students. He did the same with other students in front of me. Given this, I'm afraid they could also badmouth me to the phd commission, or write bad recommendation letters (yes, I have contacts outside, but I still need their letters).
    – kratos
    Oct 28, 2018 at 19:05
  • And it's not that I didn't want to do the work, I really didn't have the time (both physical and cpu time).
    – kratos
    Oct 28, 2018 at 19:20
  • If it's any consolation, this experience will prepare you for industry because that is exactly what most IT departments are like.
    – corsiKa
    Oct 28, 2018 at 19:37

5 Answers 5


This seems like a mixed blessing/curse to me. It seems to be hard and frustrating, of course, but on the other hand you have two professors who, while not agreeing on much, seem to love your work. You get a lot of finalized work (publications) out of the deal. I suspect you are building a strong academic career for yourself.

But I suggest you look for the end of the tunnel. Get the main work done somehow and find a good position without alienating either of your "patrons." I suspect that you are in a strong position in the long run and quitting would be giving up too much.

I suspect that you are pretty good already at putting the two off at least a bit to make some room for yourself. If you can continue that, then just start to plan your exit. You won't be juggling their needs forever, I think.


The goal of research for a PhD is to allow you to demonstrate your ability to carry out a successful program of unique, robust and independent literature review, experimentation, analysis, and publication within a reasonable time period. The roles of a PhD advisor are to assure the integrity of your work and to guide you to complete it in a reasonable time.

One danger is that your situation continues with no foreseeable effort by either of your co-advisors to acknowledge the need for an overall plan. The other danger is that your situation continues with no due respect by either of your co-advisors to prohibit you from distractions to your dissertation research. These two aspects point to a failure of your advisor(s) to respect their role in assuring the integrity of your work and guiding you to complete it in a timely manner.

I do not favor an approach that says ... You are gaining experience, so keep your head down, wait it out, and (eventually) you will be granted permission to leave. I also do not favor the approach that says ... Leave now. I recommend instead that you seek to gain some control of the aspects of your work that your advisor(s) are failing to recognize are theirs.

You might seek to resolve this situation in a few ways.

  • Establish that you will prepare a Dissertation Proposal now, not " at the end of your [dissertation research]". This will define the bounds of your work and a timeline to complete it.

  • Establish that you will have only one Dissertation Advisor, not two co-advisors. This assures that you have one person to oversee the integrity of your work (not two who fight about the definition of the work let alone provide no guide on its integrity).

  • Establish that you will engage a Dissertation Committee to co-advise as well as monitor the progress on your dissertation research. This can give you advocates to help guide your work when your main advisor is weak (or fails) in his/her role.

How should you do this in your current situation? You may need to invoke a higher authority.

  • Does your university, college, department, or program have a graduate catalogue? Does it define the requirements for a PhD? Do any of those requirements help you establish either of the above as standards? By example, our program has a requirement for a PhD student to defend a Dissertation Proposal, and the recommendation is this must happen within 2-3 years of starting the degree.

  • Does your department have a Chair or Head? Have you discussed your situation with him/her? I cannot imagine that a department chair will be happy to have such a situation as yours become a standard, especially when that news should start to propagate outside of the department and university and when that news is backed up by consistent reports from all of the graduate students under the advisor(s) of concern here.

  • Does your university have a Graduate Programs Office? Does that Office have a Head or Dean? Again, I cannot imagine that this office will be unable to offer some level of guidance to overcome the failures of your advisors.

Before you do anything independently, you should sit with both advisors at the same time and bring your concerns forward to them. Outline a plan (a Dissertation Proposal White Paper) in writing and have it available as a talking point for the meeting. Bring to the attention of your advisors at that meeting the issues that you raised above as factors that impact negatively on your ability to focus on your own research work and see a tangible end point to it.

As for how where to go to start an outline, you may first need to seek some background or help. When you are funded by a project, your first obligation is to the goals as defined in the project proposal. Ask for a copy of the project proposal and the approval letters from the funding agencies for it. Prepare your Dissertation Proposal White Paper from what the project proposal states as the description of the project. When you are funded entirely as a teaching assistant, you may need to speak with an authority above your advisor(s). Ask for recommendations from someone on your dissertation committee on how to generate a starting point for a Dissertation Proposal. When you have your own funding (a rare event), take the path as offered above to speak with someone on your dissertation committee.

  • +1 especially for “Outline a plan in writing”.
    – JeffE
    Oct 28, 2018 at 18:12

If you are being paid as a research assistant in this lab, then you must do what is needed for the funding supporting you. It would be swell if that is purely your original thesis research topic, but it probably isn't. Imagine a teaching assistant refusing to grade any lab reports that weren't relevant to their thesis work. Of course if your advisor is having you do their independent contract work for them while they personally collect the cash that is probably a huge violation of some rules and/or laws somewhere...

On the other hand, if you have your own funding, then you can probably refuse to do just about anything that won't go into the thesis or your own papers.

As for the question "is it normal, even standard, to get unfocused/scatter-brained direction from academics?" the answer is "oh hell yes". My advisor would propose a new direction pretty much every time I met with them.

  • Actually, I'm not funded by the lab, but by the project I'm working in for my thesis. Other activities can't even be reported to the phd commission for the end of year passage, because it's not inherent to my project and would be seen as a distraction from my duty. I'm explicitly asked by my advisors not to put in my reports any reference to extra activity.
    – kratos
    Oct 28, 2018 at 14:52
  • 2
    If they’re asking you to do work and explicitly asking you not report it, they know their request is unethical. Push back.
    – JeffE
    Oct 28, 2018 at 18:14
  • @kratos The requests may be to avoid burdening the committee with "extra" stuff to read. Alternatively, they may to hide unethical activity. Ask the committee directly for their guidelines. Make a summary report of every activity that you do in a two page format with a Problem Statement, Approach, Results and Discussion, and Conclusions. Collect these documents as a dossier of your yearly activities. When the committee rules ask for a report only on your PhD activities, append your "extra work" reports as an Appendix. Otherwise, put all of the reports in chronological order. Oct 28, 2018 at 20:02
  • Thank you Jeffrey. I already tried with the appendix, or even one or two lines. I had to delete them ;)
    – kratos
    Oct 28, 2018 at 20:32
  • @JeffreyJWeimer you seem to be making my point, except for the last puzzling assertion about a student being required to do work for free. Are you writing from a location where slavery is legal or something? The requirements of a doctoral student are very clearly outlined in the school's handbook. They will not include "work" other than that which is required to pass the hurdles set in that document: earning credits, passing tests, and producing a thesis and related documents. Perhaps you might explain what you mean a bit better. Oct 28, 2018 at 23:11

Have you considered asking one, or both, of the universities if they would accept you to complete the PhD? And then continue Post Doc? May be easier than dealing with two supervisors who regard you as cheap, or slave, labor...

This is not a professional attitude on the supervisors part...


I don't think this is normal at all, I published four peer-reviewed papers for my PhD (STEM) in three years. They were all in top journals with < 20% acceptance rate, so they were good papers and all are still being cited, but four was it, and other candidates in my department were graduating with three papers (but more years).

I think you are being exploited; some professors don't want to graduate their students because they like the free work and paper generation for their own credentials. I realized during the process I was lucky to choose a well-funded professor that wanted to graduate students, and literally the hour after I defended my dissertation, he offered to start me as a post doc at a higher salary. I didn't miss a day of work.

I don't have a definitive answer, but you should narrow your focus to ONE advisor, and just tell them you need to graduate as soon as possible. Changing to a different advisor altogether, perhaps in a different university, is not out of the question. I'd ask them what they think you need to do to graduate by the end of the next semester.

Perhaps you can research how many papers OTHER graduates had published before THEY graduated, so you have a point of comparison to cite. If you can get their names and graduation dates, just use google scholar to find their list and dates of publication. Or maybe the university librarian can help you. You might even be able to email them, if they forwarded their university address to their regular email. Or you can ask other professors you are friendly with.

If they have published less than you have, you then have the case for YOUR professors that you have already done enough original work to graduate. That is the mark of a PhD, that you have proven you can make original contributions to the field. They don't have to be earth-shattering or anything, just an advancement that you prove is useful in your field.

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