This is my first year in graduate school. I am studying computer science. Our group has 2 faculty advisors and ~8 students (faculty are married). The group is established in a niche part of the subdiscipline of computer science that I study.

My advisor really wants our group to break out into a second niche. I was chosen to lead the effort to do this. It wasn't clear why I was chosen, but I am older and have work experience and I am unique because I also recently finished my undergraduate and have a very strong background in mathematics. Our group are mostly 1st and 2nd years, there are 1 or 2 4th/5th year students.

I love the area they want to break into, it is interesting to me, but we have no one in our university that specializes in this area. My advisor wants me to figure out a solution to a problem and publish my ideas, but has not set any expectations beyond "you need to submit a paper."

Is this something other people have experienced? Is it normal for a first year graduate student to be asked to single handedly publish work that will establish a new area of research for a group? Are these standard expectations? In the industry usually there were step-by-step expectations that culminated in selling a product.

Road blocks I am facing:

1) Advisor doesn't set expectations beyond "submit a paper"

2) Advisors have all the other students working on different projects, people don't have time to help me.

3) Only 4 of the 8 speak fluent English (as well as both advisors).

4) I am also teaching ~40 students, 2 labs, work heavy engineering course

Is this just how graduate school is? Am I doing something wrong? Did I just land in a difficult group? I am so worried I am too stretched thin to accomplish anything. I want to communicate this to my advisor, but I am worried I will become a burden in my first year which will be a bad thing for me.

  • Where are you, by the way? The work load might be fairly normal in some places. But it sounds high for the US. If it is one course section with its associated labs the only "heavy" part, I think, is the number of students, I think, which sounds high.
    – Buffy
    Jan 19, 2019 at 19:43
  • I am in the US. But you are right 80 is high, this is because I mistyped. I have two sections each with 20 students which totals at ~40, not 80. I doubled the wrong thing... How embarrassing...
    – Turzano
    Jan 19, 2019 at 19:48
  • Fun story on the course I TA.... Somehow I accidentally checked a box on an online form that said I would be willing to TA for it before I started the program. I had never seen anything related to the material in my life, I told everyone this but they kept me as TA. Somehow I did a good job TA'ing it (maybe it was tangentially related to some practical work experience I have) so my advisor and the prof for the course encouraged me to do it again. It made sense to me because I already know how this course works now, so grading is easy. I guess it's neither here nor there, fun story though.
    – Turzano
    Jan 19, 2019 at 19:54
  • by "somehow I did a good job TAing it" I mean: I worked my ass off to learn the material before the students did.
    – Turzano
    Jan 19, 2019 at 19:55
  • That's high for the US (teaching). And the behavior and relationship of the professors unusual also. I figured you were in some cushy European area where the profs had decided they had made it and could rest. I would really look around and make a move. You have more to offer and you are in a country with a huge amount of options. Ditch these losers yesterday. All that said, the new area sounds OK, even interesting. But better to do something less interesting with an advisor who is not a snake versus the opposite.
    – guest
    Jan 19, 2019 at 20:30

2 Answers 2


I don't see it as very unusual. The advisor seems to want to have several projects going at once to maximize the chance of success on at least some of them. It is common, where I've been, for different students to work on different things.

But as you go along, you will need continuing guidance. Setting a simple expectation at the start (write a paper) is probably fine as long as it doesn't end there. And you will also need to depend on the ability of the advisor, and his general experience, to get you over any hard spots or know when it is time to move to a different problem if the chosen one turns out to be fruitless.

It actually sounds like he has some faith in you to carry on. That can turn out to be a great thing.

And, as you go, keep notes on other directions that your work suggests might be good to explore in the future. Having lots of "irons in the fire" is a good way to avoid getting stuck.

  • I was thinking about leaving this group and trying something different. But you say it can be a good thing to have some faith to carry on. What do you mean? I felt somehow a little bit hurt because my advisor signed me up for research credits and then left the country for the winter, but never mentioned to me they were leaving. I felt like my work must just be too unimportant or low quality to bother keeping me up to date. This winter has been hard for me because both advisors are gone and I feel like I don't have direction. Is this when I should be carrying on?
    – Turzano
    Jan 19, 2019 at 19:15
  • That is a different issue, of course. You should have a conversation with one of them. But it doesn't necessarily mean that you have been abandoned. It could mean that, of course, but it is impossible to say at a distance. What anyone in your situation needs, however, is regular communication with your advisor(s). You can get stuck otherwise.
    – Buffy
    Jan 19, 2019 at 19:22
  • Yeah, I am getting some bad vibes from them as well: married conflict of interest, heavy teaching, exploiting you, poor English, vacation, etc. You sound like "a catch" so I would look out for yourself and find something better.
    – guest
    Jan 19, 2019 at 19:23

I don't think it is that unusual to do a new area. I would just watch out a little that you don't get exploited as some sort of subgroup leader versus spending time on your own research.

Going into a new area can be great. Often easier to get more progress more easily at first. I like his advice to just get started with something publishable also.

The teaching load sounds heavy. I would try to minimize time spent on it. It's unfortunate for the undergrads but not your fault (colleges choose to not pay good/dedicated teachers). Do enough not to get yelled at but make it the minimum and be efficient. Your path forward lies in publications.

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