I am going into my 4th year PhD in a STEM field. I am my advisor's first student. While things started off okay and the research had been interesting, my advisor developed a tendency to switch projects on me without allowing either of us to really troubleshoot what went wrong with the previous project. These actions have made it difficult to come up with meaningful consistency as well as the results that I would deem adequate for someone in my year as a PhD. I do have one paper in my name, but its subject was not in the research application I was interested in, and was instead in a totally different field (and a very useless one). I honestly don't see anyone referencing that paper.

So basically, I do not have control over my research project. I started off doing what I thought would take me in the direction of my goals post-grad, but my advisor's inconsistency has made that impossible. I understand that plans will unexpectedly change, but the whole scope of my research now is ultimately completely different and uninteresting. For instance, I presented at a conference, and the conference's theme was of something I was deeply interested in, and the abstract I had originally submitted was related to it. However, come time for the actual conference, my advisor had switched projects on me, and what I presented was nothing at all related to the session of that day. I was quite embarrassed, and I could tell during my talk that others weren't really interested in what I had to offer.

To make matters more fun, my advisor will "remind" me that my project is mine. In other words, any failure is my own, not hers. Also, when I go to ask questions regarding the fundamentals of the work she has in mind, she will take my inquiries as a personal attack. This behavior discourages me from communicating with her altogether. The past few years feel like a textbook definition of Gaslighting as well as Incompetence. (As a related example, my advisor had given me permission to get an internship during my first year, but then changed her mind when I went out and actually got an offer.)

So, now my other big program is that my advisor told me that I would have to graduate next Spring 2020, as she would not be able to fund me longer than that. However, I do not have a story to defend, and I would be hesitant to present the data I've gathered these past few years. Furthermore, I do not know what I could do post-grad, because what I want to do would require experience in the fields that I was originally in (not to mention I have no internship/field experience..).

Should I stick with it and see what happens? I would hate for 3+ years to go down the drain. Should I try and find my own funding, and is that really my responsibility at this point? Could I be wrong in that it is not unusual for projects to totally shift their scopes, and I should just deal with that reality?

I do want to remain in good relations with my advisor. I just don't know how to best express my desires and ideas without feeling like I am setting off my PI's short fuse. While I regret not taking action sooner, I really thought these small details weren't that big of a deal. Added up, however, I realize that I have some larger issues to work with, which is why I post here to see if there are any thoughts I should consider. I wish I could be more upfront, but confrontation is difficult for me. I now understand that is a skill I need to work on.

Thank you in advance for your time,


The situation you described is very unfortunate, and, if your description of your advisor's behavior is accurate, not entirely your fault. It is true that sometimes projects don't work out and students need to learn to take responsibility for their own projects, it is also the responsibility of an advisor to guide the project to fruition, one way or another. Most good ideas will not result in a paper without at least one to two years of work, and you end up in a futile cycle if you are constantly changing directions at the first sight of any trouble.

Your current situation is untenable. If you continue with it you will graduate with very little to show for and a difficult time finding a good post-doc or industrial position. If you want to stick with your advisor, you need to have a difficult conversation with her, in a non-confrontational manner, to lay out your concerns and the pattern of inconsistency that resulted in low productivity. Ideally the meeting will produce a plan to make better use of the remaining time you have to maximize your research output and prepare for your next job. But behavior change is hard, and if your advisor is as short-tempered as you say, negotiating a different relationship with her may be next to impossible, and any behavior change may be only temporary. Alternatively you should consider switching to a different lab, which will result in delay to your graduation and people may be hesitant to take you in at this stage of your PhD. Lastly there is always the option of dropping out. It is a difficult decision given what you've already invested. But if it becomes clear that the past time investment can no longer be salvaged the smart thing is to move on; maybe use the time instead to gain some industrial experience that will serve you better down the road?

Ultimately it is a hard decision that strangers on the internet cannot make for you. Nevertheless you should explore these options, perhaps simultaneously, and think through and prepare for the possible outcomes. Good luck.

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