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tl;dr I think my supervisor has a severe lack of knowledge, does too many things instead of focusing heavily on just a few things and hence I can't really focus on my research project.

Long Story I started my PhD a few months back and was hired specifically to work on a certain project. We have a few very outstanding research groups as collaborating teams but all in different research areas.

After a few weeks into my PhD, I was hit by all the different side projects my supervisor tries to kick off. They are extremely time consuming and not research related at all. Besides, I noticed that my supervisor has a severe lack of knowledge in one of our core research areas. As a consequence, I can't discuss any of my ideas with him. As the other PhD students feel the same way, we have mentioned the lack of time quite a few times in our group meetings. And although he agreed that we need more time on proper research, things didn't really change yet. As a consequence, my motivation for the project starts to decline, although I continue to be extremely passionate about the project's overall goals!

So my question is, how I should cope with this situation? I thought about leaving his group, but I'm kind of stuck in a dilemma: I'd love to work on the project, and I don't want to let my collaborating teams down.

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  1. It's your project, not your advisor's. Your lack of progress/motivation and supposed lack of time have nothing to do with him.

  2. Nevertheless, you must sit down with your advisor and have a serious talk about both of your expectations. Be honest about your lack of motivation, be honest about your disappointment, be honest about your intellectual loneliness. Ask for suggestions. Listen.

  3. You have other senior collaborators that you can work with, so if you need senior collaborators, work with them. Ask your advisor to fly them out to visit you, or to fly you out to visit them. Schedule regular Skype/Gchat meetings. Similarly, get to know other faculty in your department, who might serve as more experienced mentors/advisors, if not collaborators.

  4. You're surrounded by colleagues who are excited enough about their research to want to draw you in, and you turn them away because you feel stupid? What a wasted opportunity! Of course you feel stupid. Everybody feels stupid listening to other people talk about their ongoing research, because by definition, they're talking about stuff that nobody understands (yet). You're simultaneously complaining about intellectual loneliness and turning away potential collaborators. So what if they're not working on your project?

  5. Of course you're constantly forgetting important things you once knew well. It is totally unrealistic to think that you can keep everything you've ever learned/read fresh in your mind. Don't even try. Write things down. Maintain a library of papers, or at least a close personal friendship with Google Scholar. Let yourself forget details, confident in the knowledge that they'll come back amazingly quickly when you read them again.

  6. Since your feeling is shared by other students in your group, it sounds like your advisor is a bit overexcited and has bitten off more than he can chew. All the more reason to sit down and talk with him directly, and to develop mentoring relationships with other faculty in your department and elsewhere. Also, start looking into other potential advisors, even if it means moving to another university.

  • For 6., what I understood when I read it was that the OP spent time explaining the other PhD student's project to the advisor, but I can see that it doesn't actually say that. – Tara B Aug 21 '13 at 12:47
  • Thanks for your answers! I edited my initial text quite heavily after scaaahu's remark so you may find new insights there. To your points: Although I know that it's my project, the major problem is the lack of time to work on it. The problem with the other collaborators is that they have completely different research areas (by different, I mean different as in computer science vs biology). To 6.: Our supervisor didn't get the other PhD student's research although it was explained in very simple mathematical terms. I had to "take him by the hand" to guide him through some basic equations. – user8269 Aug 21 '13 at 12:55
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I see only two possibly justified complaints here: "supervisor incompetence" and "overloading with routine work". Unfortunately, without knowing both the supervisor and the subject in question, I cannot really tell you anything about the first (beyond the general statement that it may or may not be true and that if it is, nothing short of changing the adviser will cure it). The second can and should be discussed directly with your adviser, or, if it doesn't help, with the department chairman. Remember however that if the load you are talking about is a common rule for all PhD students in the department, you cannot request an exception for yourself without a really good reason laid out in a very convincing way.

I believe JeffE said everything else there is to be said here already.

  • You are right about the two complaints. The act of refining my text as suggested by @scaaahu actually helped my narrow down my thoughts. In essence, I'm extremely unhappy with my work as I'm doing nothing I'm really interested in. As you and JeffE suggested, I will seriously talk to my supervisor and draw the consequences. – user8269 Aug 21 '13 at 14:17

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