I'm a PhD student at my fifth semester in the US. From the beginning of my PhD program, I didn't have sponsored graduate research assistantship from NSF or NIH. I was just on my PhD adviser's startup grant for two semesters and after that I got a job in another department of our university. Right now, I don't take money from my PhD adviser for almost a year and half (so basically I'm a free PhD student for my adviser!). By the way I'm not the US citizen or permanent resident in order to apply for NSF or NIH funds directly by myself so my options regarding funding are really limited or even I would say I don't have any option to get a fund by myself.

As a result, I built my PhD research based on open source available softwares as well as data sets, which I found it initially just by my research without my PhD adviser help. Besides that we don't have any fund, also we don't collaborate with anyone which again limited our options. This relying on open source softwares and data sets is really limited my research, cause the amount of data that I could use for my research is limited to those open source datasets and I don't have access to any other datasets, which might be available in other research groups, because of the problems that I mentioned earlier. The type of data that I need for my PhD research is related to medical images, which is not available easily everywhere and as a result it's really hard to find it as a open source dataset (I was lucky that I found at least one open source dataset!).

Let's say, I processed all the currently open source available data out there and analyze them and answered my research questions. But the problem is: there are several people out there, which are famous people that they are emerged in the field that I'm working on for years and have a big project from NIH or NSF that give them an access to some private datasets that are 10 times bigger than mine. Of course this bigger datasets increase the accuracy of the model that we are trying to work on as my PhD project.

Recently, my PhD adviser compared my accomplishments to these research groups that are engaged in big projects from NIH and NSF for years and said: by using your current open source datasets, it's really hard to say something in this field. I think it's not a fair comparison. Even our recent results with smaller dataset size shows comparable and to some extent better performance than other available models out there. Also, we studied several aspects of our research questions, which did not even touched by other people. So my question is: Am I responsible for that my PhD adviser does not have any fund or grant and as a result it really limited my research? How can I deal with this situation?

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    You are responsible for your own progress, certainly. That is independent of any funding questions. You aren't responsible for things outside your control, of course. But this reads like a rant, not a serious question. – Buffy Dec 6 at 0:28
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    But you are, ultimately, responsible for the project that you choose to work on. If you know you don't have, and can't get, the resources to achieve results that will stand up well in comparison to what others are doing, then it's your responsibility to switch to some other topic where you can be more successful with what you have. – Nate Eldredge Dec 6 at 0:42
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    In academia, you get judged on your results on an absolute scale, not relative to your resources. Well-funded groups have their papers held to the same standard as poorly-funded groups (at least in principle). You have to get used to this, and better to start now. I think your advisor is just being honest with you. – Nate Eldredge Dec 6 at 0:48
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    Or, maybe you really do need to drop this line of research and switch to something that has more potential for success. This is something that happens a lot in research, and again, best to get used to it now. The effort you've already put in is a sunk cost. – Nate Eldredge Dec 6 at 1:45
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    What stands out to me as something you can change is this: "also we don't collaborate with anyone". If your work has actual potential, it should be possible to find collaborators (who could, e.g., provide access to datasets). If your adviser can't or won't help with this, I would see that as a red flag. – Roland Dec 6 at 7:47
up vote 2 down vote accepted

Research projects that are not resource-limited are either very rare or non-existent. The Manhattan Project may have come close. You are responsible for selecting research plans that fit with the available resources. At the worst, if it is not possible to produce publishable results with those resources, you may need to change direction and/or emphasis. Maybe the ideas you have been applying to medical images might also be applicable to another domain with more free images.

As suggested in comments, collaboration may increase resources. Ideally, your advisor would be helping. My advisor introduced me to many of his collaborators. One of them had a lead on a proprietary data set I could use for zero money given the right introduction.

There are things you can do even with neither funding nor help from your advisor. Go to open seminars both in your department and in related departments. Ask questions. Hang around afterwards if anyone is interested in talking. Take an interest in other researchers' projects. Refine a good elevator pitch so that you can use a few minutes attention to get someone interested in your research. If your department does any sort of poster day, prepare and present a poster describing your project. Take any opportunities to give talks. You have a job in another department. Take any opportunities to talk about your research and your data set problem with them. The more people you meet and who know about your research, the better the chances that one of them knows someone who knows someone who would be a good collaborator.

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    either very rare or non-existent — ...or in purely theoretical fields. – JeffE Dec 8 at 0:59

In general, this is bad form on the part of the advisor and your committee (shouldn't be approving thesis topics that are not viable if funding is not available). As a PhD student, you are in training and potential stumbling blocks should be made clear to you.

For example, for my PhD I worked in a lab where I wanted to do field work in another country, but my advisor didn't have funding for this. I decided to go ahead with this part of the project, partially using my own personal funds, as well as cobbling together several small research grants to cover these costs.

So I would recommend to you that you investigate research funds that might be available from your department, institution, scientific society, foundation, or other non-federal source. Funding begets funding and you absolutely have to be successful in getting grants to be a successful academic.

Additionally, it seems odd that an advisor could take on a student with no funding in the lab. That would not be allowed in my department (biology sub-field at a private, R1 university).

Finally, to your last question: I think you are correct and it is unreasonable to compare the contribution of a single graduate student with "famous" well-funded labs! The contribution to your field during your PhD can be modest- that's ok- but it has to be good science, so I would focus on how to make sure that you are doing the most rigorous and sound research with the resources you have available. And get to writing grant applications! Good luck.

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  • Thanks for your encouraging answer but unfortunately the academia is much more aggressive than this to not compare my contribution as a single foreign graduate student to well-funded and emerged research labs. I mean you care and saying it's unfair cause probably you are student still or at least not too far from your graduation. But if I tell my story to professors I bet nobody really care about my stories... I searched a lot to find appropriate grants or fund sources that could be matched to my eligibility conditions but unfortunately pretty much all of them require US citizenship. – Alone Programmer Dec 7 at 22:37
  • And that's because my field is related to high performance computing and accessing to medical images which in order to access to these kind of resources you need to go through a lot of processes which might not be the best option for me even if it does not need US citizenship or permanent residency requirement. – Alone Programmer Dec 7 at 22:38
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    I'm definitely not a student and have been faculty and dean of students for several years, but I certainly concede that your field may be different that mine. – L. borealis Dec 7 at 22:40
  • So you are too kind and I really appreciate your sympathy. – Alone Programmer Dec 7 at 22:41
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    it is unreasonable to compare the contribution of a single graduate student with "famous" well-funded labs — I think this depends on the purpose of the comparison. For the purpose of evaluating your progress as a graduate student, I agree that the comparison is unreasonable. But for the purpose of evaluating whether your contributions should be published, the comparison is between the actual results, not between the environments that produced them. – JeffE Dec 8 at 1:27

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