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Some context: I met my advisor during my undergraduate studies (I am pursuing a PhD at the same institution). I took several upper-level elective courses with this professor, and received top grades in both. Both courses were related to field A, in which I have a strong background. I decided to do my PhD at this institution due to positive interactions with this professor, alongside some other personal reasons discouraging relocation. This professor is the only one working in field A at the school.

I contacted this professor expressing interest in working together approximately 5 months before the start of the PhD program (the previous spring, soon after I was accepted to the program). He very enthusiastically accepted my application, and immediately asked me to begin working on a publication in field A with applications in field B, independent from his group's previous work, with a deadline in the next month. I scrambled to put a paper together on my own, which was ultimately rejected (I believe rightly) on the grounds of being insufficiently developed. I also did some work for this professor for a large grant proposal, which was accepted. This all happened in the summer before I began the graduate program proper.

Over the next semester, I focused on developing the work done over the summer. I was also brought into the fold about the grant project (I was not given all of the details when I contributed). This project has far more of a focus on field B, with a tenuous connection to field A. I changed the focus of my work to "strengthening" this connection, and reading textbooks related to field B for the purpose of properly integrating field A. I was told to prepare a paper for a conference entirely dedicated to field B, to demonstrate the applicability of the work. This paper would contain a high-level overview of the the field A material for a field B audience.

Fast forward another semester, and work on the paper mentioned prior has continued (I am contributing all of the material; my advisor is a coauthor). I believed work was going nicely: I was expanding upon the previously rejected paper, and personally learning a lot about both field B and field A by working through textbooks. However, I do not believe my knowledge of field B is at all sufficient (I am unable to read and understand current research; field B would fall under an entirely different undergraduate major than field A).

Right up until the paper deadline, my advisor seemed fine with all of this. I have been presenting drafts weekly for several months, and he has given me minor suggestions, helped fix phrasing, etc. However, about one week before the conference deadline he absolutely exploded at me on a teleconference, partially in front of another professor. I was told that the paper was "garbage" and that nobody in field B would understand or care about it. He implied that I had been doing nothing for the past year, despite my weekly progress reports. Further, I was told that this paper would "make or break" our grant funding, and that in its current state would likely cause all of us to lose funding. I have been told to rewrite the paper, focusing only on field B and disregarding field A entirely.

I am extremely distressed. Until today, our relationship was nothing but cordial and I thought I was having a great first year. Now, I feel humiliated and defeated. I am being asked to write a paper in one week in a field where I am completely unqualified. I am told that the quality of this paper will determine not only my future funding, but the funding of two professors as well. I love and am very passionate about field A even still, but this experience is making me despise field B, which is not helping my outlook or mood. In one day my academic life (and by extension personal life, since I spend almost all of my free time reading textbooks) has gone from being something that brings me joy and satisfaction to something very uncomfortable

What would you recommend I do in this situation? I certainly do not wish to publish subpar work (and any work I do in field B will very likely be entirely subpar). Is this just how graduate school is? I believed my advisor accepted me due to confidence in my abilities and a shared research interest; now I worry it was for other reasons (my GPA and GRE scores are much higher than the average for the school). I don't know what to do and I feel frustrated and alone.

  • what options are you willing to consider? The way you described the situation so far, you have no options. – A Simple Algorithm May 3 at 4:53
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I'm sorry you are being put in such a difficult situation. Assuming your description is accurate, it sounds like your advisor has dropped the ball a bit by failing to give you negative feedback on your drafts in your weekly meetings (prior to his "explosion"). You are probably correct that it is not going to be feasible to fix major problems in your paper in one week, especially if you lack the required expertise in that field.

The fact that you have had a cordial relationship with your advisor prior to this "explosion" is a good sign, and it sounds like your advisor is also acting under the effects of extreme stress related to concerns about loss of funding. Some of this might not be about you at all, and it is possible that you are merely bearing the brunt of stress on your supervisor in relation to his own problems with grant funding. It is not reasonable for an advisor to put that level of pressure on a first-year PhD student in relation to grant-funding --- funding for a research team should not hinge on a paper being written by a first-year PhD candidate, and if it does, then that is a huge fuck-up by the research team.

The fact that you are in the first-year of a PhD program, and you have already submitted one paper (albeit rejected) sounds to me like good progress. Candidature in a PhD program is a long haul, and you will have time to write and re-write your papers to try to get the accepted in journals. It is important to understand that you are not expected to be a subject-matter expert during your candidature, and you must not attempt to hide any weaknesses from your supervisor.


Recommendation: Have a meeting with your advisor and raise all the points you have made in your post. Most advisors are very reasonable people, even if they react badly sometimes when under their own stresses. I suggest you give complete disclosure of how you are feeling. In particular, you should raise the following:

  • Disclose to your advisor that you lack training in Field B and you feel out of your depth in this field. Request enrollment in some courses in Field B as part of your PhD candidature, so that you can acquire the necessary training in this field. If there are parts of the paper where you feel you don't understand the material (or necessary preliminary material) disclose this frankly.

  • Tell your advisor that you do not feel competent to fix your paper in one week. Ask for detailed advice on what parts of the paper are not understandable and what is wrong with them. Commit to attempting to revise the paper, but be realistic about the time you will need for this, or the parts you think you can't do on your own. If this is a hard deadline, and the paper absolutely must be submitted by this time, then ask your advisor to work with you in detail through some parts. (If he ends up doing the substantive work, you might end up having him as first author and you as co-author; negotiate changes to this as needed.)

  • Tell your advisor that you want to do a good job on the paper, and on your research in general, but you feel that in this early stage of your PhD you are having trouble meeting his expectations. Ask if he can give you some advice on his expectations for your progress, and where he feels you are lagging behind. In any areas he identifies where you are lagging, ask if you can do some courses or other practice to get up to speed.

  • Try to be patient and open-minded. It is possible that your supervisor is also highly stressed. Talk with him in the spirit of wanting to help as best you can, within the limits of your own present ability. Try to be as thick-skinned as you can (within reasonable limits).

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