47

I am a second year PhD student at a technical / interdisciplinary lab in Europe wondering when to quit and leave a seemingly unbearable situation behind.

My supervisor (a young-ish professor) mostly works alongside an older professor (his own PhD supervisor back in the day). I am one of his first "own" PhD students. The project that pays my salary is a joint project with another group with a focus lying outside my supervisor's main interests (so he also doesn't care too much about it).

I have mostly spent my time working on ideas suggested by the old professor. Every time he makes a suggestion for something I should work on, I look into it until my supervisor says the results are good. Then we meet with the old professor who basically says the work is ridiculous. At this point in the meeting my supervisor agrees with the old professor and they tell me to do something else. This has happened maybe 6-8 times in the last 1.5 years and all my work has been scrapped.

My supervisor, on the other hand, spends most of his time providing supervision to the old professor's PhD students, pushing them to make the most out of their research (ideas given by the old professor). The result is that they publish really nice papers (and he is of course a co-author). I on the other hand don't really have something going on, and my colleagues really let me know that my PhD is going nowhere (instead of providing encouragement or responding to offers of collaboration from my side).

I know that getting a PhD means being able to conduct research independently and I am trying to get there. I have had a number of ideas for research but when I suggest something to my supervisor he doesn't really care about the topics. All the old professor's students work together on everything but I am pretty much isolated. This makes it really hard to learn what I need to learn and to achieve something I would consider publishable. Most ideas that I try out for a few days / weeks or longer lead nowhere. I think one reason for this is the lack of feedback or helpful ideas etc. that I would expect from my supervisor and/or colleagues which I simply do not get.

One good example for how things are going is the paper that grew out of my MSc thesis. It has been more than 1.5 years and we are still in the process of "making it ready for publication". We meet every few weeks and the old professor (who is a coauthor) demands substantial changes (often reversing decisions that he himself made some meetings ago). My supervisor doesn't really seem to mind that this paper doesn't get published (in the meantime they have put in lots of effort to publish a number of papers with the old professor's students at top conferences and journals).

Overall this situation is obviously very frustrating, up to the point where I have set myself multiple deadlines until which things need to have improved or otherwise I start looking for another position. But I haven't.

I do some teaching which I really enjoy. This is my main (actually only) source of positive feedback (from the students) and as such really motivating. As I have taken up these and other duties at the lab I am under the impression that I am to some extent indispensable for my supervisor as I do lots of valuable work for him (work that he doesn't have to worry about). Therefore I think that no matter what happens he will at some point make sure I get my degree. As the situation currently seems, though, I will have a sub-average research record at best which will make any academic career impossible.

Sorry for the long text. My question is: how bad must the situation look before it is advisable to quit and move on? I am not a quitter and would hate doing so but my personal life and mental health have been suffering to the point where I find the situation unbearable.


Note that there is no such thing as a thesis committee at my university. Everything depends exclusively on the PhD supervisor.

  • 40
    My supervisor (a young-ish professor) mostly works alongside an older professor (his own PhD supervisor back in the day). — First red flag. — My supervisor, on the other hand, spends most of his time providing supervision to the old professor's PhD students — Second red flag. — All the old professor's students work together on everything but I am pretty much isolated — Third red flag. – JeffE Jul 1 at 22:12
  • 10
    Don’t walk. Run. – knzhou Jul 3 at 11:20
  • 3
    @knzhou Finally. I have been waiting for that comment. – user110394 Jul 3 at 11:29
  • 4
    I don't know where you are, but in my university, PhD students have the right to switch supervisors, even when the supervisor is funding them. It is worth checking out if that is the case in yours, so that changing supervisor is an option. – Davidmh Jul 3 at 14:19
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    Just to provide a different perspective, I changed topic halfway through my Ph.D. to something totally outside of my supervisor's expertise (don't ask). Rather than change supervisor, I mostly sought out other experts at other universities and wrote papers with them. I actively enjoyed working more independently, having my own ideas, making my own mistakes etc. I had a really good personal relationship with my supervisor, so he just left me alone to do my thing. Depending on what equipment you need, you don't have to work with your supervisor. He won't want to fire his first student. – jhoyla Jul 4 at 9:53

11 Answers 11

31

This can really only be answered by you. But here are some thoughts.

There are two doors. One leads to a doctorate and the other does not. If there is no path to the first door, then the decision should be clear. But there are a couple of possible paths to that first door.

One is to move elsewhere or get a different advisor. If that path isn't closed to you then you should be considering it. Expensive and time consuming, yes. But whether it is worth it is up to you.

Another, possible, path is to cut the old prof out of the picture and work exclusively with the younger one on some idea and just finalize it without consulting the older prof.

A third, is to cut out the younger prof and work exclusively with the older one and his group, perhaps getting some support from them and hopefully more from the old professor.

But it seems like you are being whipsawed. Find a path that works. Even if it is to the 'no degree' door. But make sure that you will like what is on the other side of that door before stepping through it.

My personal preference (maybe not yours) would be to work with only the younger prof. But get a plan agreeable to both of you that if you follow that path you will find success in a reasonable amount of time. I mean, preferably, a written plan, or at least one that clearly lays out the parameters.

If you don't have a plan, you probably don't have a path.


My situation was a bit different, though also difficult, but I switched universities after four years in grad school and found a much better situation and an excellent and helpful advisor. My future seemed bleak at the time, but it was with the encouragement and help of another professor that got me situated.

  • 4
    this is in Europe and. I assume this would be in France since they have a hierarchical system, which makes the suggestions impossible, it is like burning the bridges with both of them. My suggestion is having an honest discussion. with the young-ish, if things are not resolved, you have to find another supervisor. I feel the OP's pain and I think you are not European that's why you are isolated in the group. – user103209 Jul 1 at 19:32
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    Advice: Your personal and mental health is so much valuable than a degree, don't restrict yourself, you can. see my story and it is really not the end of the world to consider. if the thing doesn't work another lab, of course, this is not easy and takes time, but hope honest discussion could work. – user103209 Jul 1 at 19:34
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    It's not France but the system is similar. Actually the isolation is not due to my nationality but results only from the way work / meeting is organized by the two professors (one holding big meetings with everyone interested in the subject attending, the other holding 1on1 meetings exclusively). – user110394 Jul 2 at 6:50
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    Options 2 and 3 don't seem to fit he way the group current functions. In effect the old prof has PhD students, but delegates "day to day" supervision the to the young prof. The young prof doesn't seem to be doing anything independent of the old one. But what isn't clear to me is why this arrangement seems to "work" for everyone except the OP - except that the OP's funding is coming from elsewhere, so maybe the old and young profs have no (financial) motivation to care about the OP compared with "their own" students. – alephzero Jul 2 at 13:50
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    since he would not be the senior author on any paper that I produce (as he is not formally my advisor) he does not care about me or my work — Fourth and final red flag. Get out! – JeffE Jul 2 at 20:55
11

First try to contact your own supervisor, see if you can find a way to convey the message you wrote here to him in a non confronting manner. If he can make some change, then problem solved.

If not (and sadly it has substantial chance), try to reevaluate your future plan. If you still want to get a Ph.D. then you might want to consider a different supervisor, a different group, or even a different department and school. Exactly how you should do depend on the rule of the department(s) and university(ies). If you decide to not get a Ph.D. (which should not be viewed as failure) then go ahead preparing the job applications. You might find this decision rewarding a few years later.

I understand you don't find the situation fair, you did nothing or very little thing wrong, but are put into this stressful situation, that could potentially make you lose a few years of effort getting nothing. Unfortunately there is very little you can do in this hierarchical academic world.

FYI, 5 years ago a few colleagues and I had the first hand experience of the story similar to what you had here (with Europe replace by US, and minor difference in detail), from a problematic supervisor. One chose to leave to get an industry job, one found another supervisor in a different department in the same university (and graduated), I quit to reapply a Ph.D. program in a different field (also my major in undergrad) and currently 4th year in the new program. As far as I know all of us are doing OK now. Hopefully these information will make you feel less frustrated.

  • 1
    Thank you for your thoughts, I'll think about how to bring up (some or all) of what I wrote with my supervisor. – user110394 Jul 2 at 6:55
11

As well as the advice in other answers about options for your PhD and your research, I think it is worth mentioning that there are also options about how to improve the way you are being managed. These mostly amount to taking over your own management.

If you are having regular meetings, try following up the meeting with a summary 'confirming' what was agreed. That email should include what actions you will be taking (eg do XYZ analysis using ABC method, read DEF) and deadlines. Critically, it should also state why that action was decided - what are you trying to find out etc and, if there was discussion about the alternatives, what were they key arguments on each side of the discussion.

Then when you have the next meeting, you can send an email in advance. That email would say something like 'Please find attached the materials for our meeting tomorrow. We had agreed to do THIS for REASON. The initial analysis confirms our idea...' The idea is to outline your position in the email. If you have a suggestion for the next step, you should also be putting that in as a possible discussion point.

Busy people forget what they asked for and why. The emails both remind them, but also ensure that you have not misinterpreted. They also give you something to go back to. If they change their mind (perfectly reasonable if the results differ from expectations), you can then discuss how that fits with previous ideas.

Good practice is to have these summaries anyway. You will need to recreate your research path when you write things up and you don't want to lose interesting discussion points. Using them this way may reduce some of the frustrating back and forth that you are facing and will also help focus the discussions.

  • 1
    Yes, this is a good approach to have in_any_case. And, if one has been operating in this way, and someone else is still uncooperative and so on, one can feel at least comforted that it is not due to one's own failings in some way, because one has behaved entirely reasonably. There is some comfort in that... – paul garrett Jul 3 at 1:03
7

I agree with both gemma and JenB, good advice on both counts there. What I noticed most in your write up is this:

The project that pays my salary is a joint project with another group with a focus lying outside my supervisor's main interests (so he also doesn't care too much about it).

This other group could prove to be your academic salvation. Are you in direct contact with them? If not, can you arrange to be, even if only at first under some trivial pretext? Assuming the project's focus is something that interests you, this group can supply you with the feedback and exchanges you need. If you take the initiative to find out what they're trying to do, how you can help, what your part could be, you could either present your unsatisfactory supervisors with a plan to finish this PhD that they couldn't object to, or just find yourself a much more congenial new supervisor.

Don't give up, OP, you really are not the first to find yourself with this kind of problem :-(.. Most likely a change will be needed, but it's common enough that you won't have any real long-term trouble from it.

4

One and half years isn't a long time in the long run to change the institute or the prof. Your prof won't change unless you confront which is bad idea and self-destructive. Only when you leave him will the realization dawn upon him. As he hasn't established himself yet as a researcher, he is basking in the glory of his guru. In many ways, this is bad for you.

And it also depends on how you see research. Whether you are passionate about it like the legends or it is just an employment sort. If the latter is true, then you need not worry much, just continue until you fulfill the institute's norms, get the damn PhD degree and find a job.

Suppose you are passionate. Currently you are teaching which is very good thing going for you, continue for some time and at the same time learn about what research actually is and why you are getting stuck in the ideas. We usually get stuck when we don't have any set goal. Consider you are running in the evening. You may stop running at any time, may be after 10 minutes or say 3km. Because you haven't set any goal. Now, you set a goal that you want to run, say, 7km. Then you will finish it. Then tomorrow you will finish 7km in 17 minutes and so on.

Research requires comprehensive understanding of the subject. Read more textbooks on the same subject. This will give you better understanding. I have read Albert Einstein's biography (Einstein: The life and times by Ronald W. Clark). In it he thinks like 'what happens if I travel at the speed of light', then he works towards it for about 8 years. 'Traveling at the speed of light' was his goal. And the rest is just hard work. See Christopher Nolan, he worked for 10 years on the script of Inception (2010). You need to develop awareness.

Maintain a healthy lifestyle for healthy ideas. Eat healthy food and do exercize regularly and maintain your circadian rhythm perfectly for better research and for better society. Good luck...

4

I was in maybe the similar situation like you, but reversed - elderly supervisor, young consultant, so I would like to share my experience.

I realised that something is wrong after one year, when I summarised some of my results into coherent form. His e-mail was very offensive, stating that my text is absolutely unacceptable and we should immediately meet. He was very harsh in his critics, told be that I don't understand even basics and I have to start to study more and gave me several books and papers.

After some time I realised, that he is actually not interested in the correctness of result, but in something I would describe as "formal" correctness; even worse he has certain beliefs (like Fortran best, others shit), and feel anxious about going out of comfort zone.

So I had had two supervisors - young one to do the science, older one to write the essays.

It took us three years to write together the paper, and one and half year to write the joint paper with my consultant. Anxious before submitting, he had been checking every sentence, rewriting it again and again, in order to catch even the smallest error. He prices these papers very high, although I hate them. The review was quite fast, reviewers had required only minor changes.

After four years, the consultant left to industry for financial reasons (born kid), however, he mentioned that he had no motivation to continue and indirectly suggested that my supervisor had been one of the reasons. We wrote together a paper, which took us three months. My supervisor was upset after seeing the paper (after acceptation), stating that he would never let such a "piece of garbage" (citation) go even into the review.

After four years I found a job in the industry, feeling great again, being motivated and gaining back my lost self-confidence. I worked on PhD occasionally during the weekends and evenings. I wrote also one paper by myself, he described its conclusions as weak and incomplete and again, he would never let it go through the review.

It took me almost seven years to complete my PhD, it has been very painful experience. If I wouldn't have my girlfriend, now wife, which supported me a lot, I would probably end up very badly.

If I had had a time machine, I would have returned back to the end of the first year, slapped the young, naive, submissive guy and told him "run away and find regular job or different supervisor." Then I would have returned to the fourth year student, slap him again, and told him "focus on your job, and leave the school."

Some possible solutions from my side:

  1. Quit

  2. Talk to your supervisor. Explain him why are you dissatisfied, and try to find a solution to your situation. Be honest, tell him that the professor is the main reason why are you dissatisfied. Mull your situation over, prepare some points and suggestions how you imagine your work. If you will not be able to find the solution, try to find new supervisor, another PhD position, or quit.

  3. Try to survive - from my point of view and experience the worst option, and prepare for several years of suffering and tentative result. If you decide for this option, be very careful to stay up to date, you can easily find out your knowledge (which you will gain from the professor) is deprecated and you will have to fill the gap in order to find the job.

What is positive on my story is that the professor is retired now, so he won't discourage students anymore.

4

Your situation is not unique, as can be inferred from the other answers and from my personal observations in academia as well. I agree with your feeling that something needs to be done now or the PhD part of your career is not going to be successful.

I would ask these questions:

Are you capable of and willing to finish your PhD?

  • If no, just leave it, find a good job (you probably will with a Master's), and do not worry about it anymore.

  • However, from what you write, I would say: you probably are. If you agree, I see the situation as follows:

Supervision has failed. Is there a chance that you can finish your PhD in the current scenario without being supervised by the bosses? That means to conduct research on your own, with only occasional feedback from your (junior) supervisor. It will only work if the old supervisor ceases to care about you and your work and will not be a reviewer of your thesis. Then you could continue.

If not, change PhD projects and do not look back.

I believe the latter option is your path. Some people would not mind and continue their PhD anyway. Since you are asking here, you are apparently not one of them.

3

You could try to tell your supervisor that you do not think it is going well, and that you would like to know what you have to do in order to get your PhD. If they are puzzled by this notion, explain that you would like to make a list of research topics that define the scope and goal of your thesis.

If they are unable to come up with a more or less structured plan within a reasonable time frame after supervising you for 18 months, I would quite seriously consider getting out of that research group. It is not their job to research for you, but it is their job to provide direction.

Now at this point you can start working actively towards your thesis, with clear goals in mind. Keep maintaining the list that defines the scope of your thesis with your supervisor (see JenB's answer for some very relevant advice here), and continue to write the thesis according to the list. Be rigorous about not extending the scope unless you feel positively excited to do so. Also know that you will fail a lot, research is 90% failure, 9% miserable failure, 0.9% catastrophic failure, and 0.01% progress.

If you follow this process however, you will at some point have something written that contains research. Maybe the results are bad, maybe the results are all negative, I don't know what field you're in. But you will certainly have done something. In the worst case, it's a terrible thesis and you'll know for sure that you have no chance at success in academia. However, it could also turn out to be a really good thesis. Or more likely, something in between.

At that point, hand in your thesis.

Now, without knowing you and the general situation in your field of research, it is quite impossible for me to say whether this course of action would be good advice for you. I can tell you, however, that for a PhD student in Mathematics in Germany, if they followed that procedure, I would be extremely surprised if they did not get their degree. And I also know from experience that when you are anxious about your progress, it helps a lot to have a clear bar to measure it against.

  • 2
    I hope you meant to write 0.1% progress. – apriori Jul 4 at 11:59
3

I spent 3 years of my life in a similar situation as yours. There were also 2 supervisors, one older the other younger. One of them the former phd student of the other, more students on which they paid more attention, I was totally isolated in a different research center, no one cared about me... what I regret the most is to stay hoping they will stop messing me around. In the same way too, many times they suggested me to work on something which after months of work suddenly it was unnecessary meanwhile the other students succeeded in their tasks. This gave me enormous amount of stress and sorrow. In the end they never tried to guide me in anyway, just kept me busy in order not to bother them.

My advice, just quit, the sooner you can, because they have shown in many ways they will not let you work in a proper environment. They can have strange and obscure reasons in order to keep you as a PhD student so never think about "the hired me for a reason". Even though in the case you finnish the phd by yourself alone, you will produce worse scientific results (this is the case of some collegues of mine) compare to others. 1.5 years is not so much time invested yet. So it would be better you start a phd in other place where people will really appreciate you from the beginning. Europe is plenty of them if you want to stay there.

My experience was in Spain. I feel in science, specially when people are PhDs students, workers are not prone to change or to quit because we understand a PhD project takes years of constant work. Meanwhile in industry if you are not happy you just quit and change to another company making profit of the new knowledge you just acquired in a few months. In science this is not the case, since if you quit you probably need to reestart with a totally different project.

3

I was in a similar situation that what you describe: I was the first PhD student of my adviser that he ever had in that university. He had started in that University literally months before I started my PhD, and was so disorganised that he could not cope with the amount of work. The supervision was very, very poor. When I had meetings with him, he told me my work is alright, but when we were in the group meetings, and that the emeritus would tell me that's crap, my supervisor would say "You see? told you so". I was baffled. Most of his answers to my questions were wrong so I gradually stopped asking him questions. I went through a severe depression, and often considered quitting. Ultimately, I thought, if I quit and people ask "why", quite often they wouldn't understand, perhaps some would just think you are trying to find excuses for dropping out of the PhD. Psychologically, the PhD experience destroyed me, no doubt about it, but I decided not to give up and I got it.

Post-scriptum: The experience was an absolute suffering but looking back, I am glad I survived it. If anything, it made me understand the suffering in silence that so many experience. What doesn't help is that it's actually very difficult to share any concern with officials. I did an attempt to raise concern in a very gentle, subtle way, and it backfired spectacularly. Some other PhD student were less careful and more upfront in raising concerns, and sadly none of them (I say : NONE) is there anymore, as all have experience some level of retaliation by the "system" who ultimately made their life impossible, forcing them to quit if they wanted to keep any residual of sanity.

  • So, what do you suggest? Staying there no matter what (even if it means being "destroyed")? – user110394 Jul 3 at 13:54
  • 1
    I feel that there is no correct advice to give here, and we are explaining this by sharing our vastly different approaches to a very difficult life decision. The OP will ultimately have to judge which of these approaches fits his personality and personal circumstances best. – Jesko Hüttenhain Jul 3 at 14:43
  • @user110394: I don't know what brasamical is trying to get at with this post (since it doesn't give any advice or suggestion at all). However, I think you'll agree that it shows that you're not alone in facing such malicious advisors. This kind of people are not worth working with if you can help it, so start looking high and low for escape routes, without telling anyone anything until you have already gotten a job or a different research position preferably in a different university. All you need to tell them (just before you disappear) is "Bye". – user21820 Jul 3 at 15:07
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    @user110394 what i try to explain in my post and that you seem to have missed, is that, unlike the many other posts above that say "red flag 1" "red flag 2" "red flag 3" "run" etc, there is another option: stick to the PhD, and survive it. It will blast you, but afterwards you will be proud of what will have been a genuine accomplishment. – brasamical Jul 3 at 15:36
  • @Jesko Huttenhain thank you , you completely understood the perspective I tried to put: there is really no "good" or "bad" answer or attitude, just a variety of possible reactions. Some decide to give up, some decide to go on and accept that it will be a temporary stage of suffering, hopefully leading to something better once the supervisor will belong to the past... – brasamical Jul 3 at 16:53
2
  1. You are early enough so that you really could bail. And Ph.D. school is in general a bad choice for many* kids. So nothing wrong with getting a real job. That said, the key thing is time to completion. In some systems (Britain?) the course can be very short...3 years...so you might as well stick and get the credential. If you are 1.5 years into a 5+ year endeavor, you should probably bail if it is not working. You would have to stick a long time...and it's not working. There is an OCEAN of other fish in the sea in industry real jobs.

  2. I don't completely understand the changing your course of action. I was always self directed and just did what I wanted (and made sure to be very personally strategic about picking something that "would work" and that I enjoyed). Like I would blow the old man off (both the younger and older version) and just do what I thought would work and write it up for publication...and push it over their objections...fight a little...show some claws. Once you are producing peer reviewed work (even if not Science/Nature), all the fussing will back off...since you have shown you pull the sled. But if you are less self-directed (and it sounds like that is the case), than you probably need to bail.

  3. One other option is to consider a switch of advisor. If you're about to bail anyhow, there's nothing to lose. And, in the US at least, sometimes going to the department and they will want to make it work out. I would have someone in mind that is sympathetic.

P.s. Never work with a young professor. [Note: I don't mean this literally...sure there are people who have good experiences...but...odds are against you.]

*Many...not all...real analysis pedants and academia defenders.

  • 1
    I agree with what you wrote (I don't know who downvoted). I do think that I am self-directed enough, I just approached this with a more collaborative attitude which doesn't seem to work in this environment. Which is why I also arrived at the conclusion that I may need to push my own agenda more... Anyway, thank you for your thoughts. – user110394 Jul 2 at 6:54
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    "and just do what I thought would work and write it up for publication" - You can't do (publishable) research in isolation, it takes some immersion in the field and knowledge of what's going on around you. That's one thing a good advisor would help with. I'm not saying you can't do it all on your own but it's a far steeper learning curve. – Ruther Rendommeleigh Jul 2 at 12:17
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    -1: I suggest removing your postscript or clarifying it in a more helpful way. There are risks in working with anyone - so blanket statements aren't particularly helpful. Younger professors often have more time and energy, but may not yet be proven in their field. Older professors often have less time and energy but may have a greater reputation, more connections, and more resources. Every older professor was young once. – Nathan S. Jul 2 at 21:27

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