I'm a first year recent science/STEM international PhD student. My advisor has mentioned to me that it is my responsibility to come up with a project all on my own. I believe the understanding is that I come up with a project and only will receive help when I'm stuck. I'm wondering whether this is normal? I've asked every student in my cohort how they came up with their project and they said it was a mutual thing between them and their advisor. They both sat down and bounced ideas around or their advisor had a grant and they are taking a sub-portion of the grant idea and they will later on in their fourth/fifth years add more to it on their own merits.

I'm very worried about this, because I was always under the notion that in graduate school you receive guidance from your advisor is what projects might work from their experience. Later, at the post-doc level, the person is experienced enough to master their own project from scratch.

I'm in an unfunded lab and don't have access to protocols/money for wet lab. I have come up with multiple ideas, but they don't seem promising. My advisor only liked one of the ideas, however she is not sure that it will work. I spoke with other professors and they don't think my previous ideas will lead anywhere.

There are two other PhD students in my lab. They have not taken their quals yet and are in their fourth years. I'm worried about my future outlook since my advisor has not had a graduated PhD student yet. We are her first ones.

What is my best course of action?

Thank you in advance.

  • These are things you should ask a potential advisor about before you join their lab.
    – Bryan Krause
    Commented Nov 15, 2018 at 22:27
  • what country are you in, in the west the prospwcts for a professor that has been 4 years with no funding are bleak. in the USA they are non existent
    – camelccc
    Commented Nov 15, 2018 at 22:37
  • Everyone in the lab either has their own funding through a fellowship or will TA when they don't. There is one grant, that if you don't have funding and are a TA you can work on and get supplementary funding. The grant has produced data that I'm encouraged to use to come up with a new project. I'm just stuck on where to start and if anything I can come up with might work.
    – user88517
    Commented Nov 15, 2018 at 22:52
  • 1
    I disagree with your supervisor's model (quite a common model) because in my experience such a model causes students to not finish, takes longer to finish or finish with a poor thesis. However, there are exceptions where students might stumble upon something and finish strongly. My advice -- keep on asking questions, coming up with ideas and run it pass your supervisor. Always have justifications for your ideas. Good or worthy ideas only emerge when you have in-depth knowledge. Commented Nov 15, 2018 at 23:56
  • Thank you for responding everyone! Is there anything I can Professor Santa Claus? I'm considering switching my lab or even in the most dramatic sense leaving the program with a masters instead. Then maybe one day apply again a year later to another program.
    – user88517
    Commented Nov 16, 2018 at 0:47

2 Answers 2


I would say it is not typical to expect a student to come up with their project completely on their own, although I will admit that I have done this with one particular PhD student who had already demonstrated in his master's project that he was sufficiently capable that it made sense to let him "drive" the project so long as it was something I felt comfortable advising. This was also possible because he had a secure source of funding that allowed us to do this.

However, for a typical student, such a route would be very risky and quite prone to failure, especially if she is just beginning her graduate work. I would not expect the student to be able to come up with independent ideas for a project until well into the course of the PhD program.

  • Thank you for your response! I really appreciate it. Is there anything you think I should do? My plan is to try to come up with something good and to try to see if it will work. However if I can't get anything to stick by my second year to maybe switch labs or drop out with a masters. Is this good plan or should I do something else?
    – user88517
    Commented Nov 16, 2018 at 2:31
  • 1
    I would try to avoid getting into a situation where you "drop out with a master's." Start planning now what you're going to do and stick with it. But I'd also want to discuss this with your advisor (and thesis committee, if you have one already!) before making any final decisions
    – aeismail
    Commented Nov 16, 2018 at 15:52
  • +1 for both the answer and comment. I'll note, however, that students coming up with their own project does happen occasionally, as you note, but is more common in some fields than others. Typical? No.
    – Buffy
    Commented Nov 16, 2018 at 16:50

I suggest trying for a compromise. Think of some ideas for a direction. When you have a few sketched out, ask for a meeting with your advisor to discuss them. Don't wait until you have selected one of them and worked it up into a research proposal because you will have wasted a lot of time if your advisor rejects it.

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