I'm currently working in a computational research lab where my supervisor just hands tasks to me to do that will help him with his papers but I don't get any input in the creative process whatsoever. For example, he's asked me to transfer data and create data tables but I'm never given any context for the project scope or involved in the planning or exploratory/research process, just in the execution. When a postdoc or somebody from another research group asks for his help with a random tech-related task, like debugging some computer issue, he hands it to me instead. I've been in this lab for half a year now and have nothing meaningful to show for it, besides scattered pieces of code written here and there and essentially serving as tech support for people.

I asked for the chance to lead a project and he assigned me one, but he said that he'll be assigning me the tasks which will eventually converge to a paper. I'm not given any context or "big picture" questions or allowed to take my own approach to answer them. He essentially has a list of pipelines he wants me to run and just output the results for. I feel like I'm just getting assigned busy work and not allowed to contribute my unique background/skills.

When I've been done with all my work, I've tried taking simple tasks and making them into a larger-scale project/applying more CS concepts to them but he disapproves and says it isn't priority and hands me more random tasks instead.

He has given me tasks to do late in the evening to have done by the next morning. I asked him to give me more advanced notice going forward to which he essentially responded "People in academia love their research so much that they don't mind putting in extra hours. If you're not willing to work after hours then maybe you're not cut out for academia."

I am totally used to and enjoy working long hours on research projects, and have done so without hesitation in past research experiences during undergrad because I had a sense of ownership over my work and freedom to be creative with it, but here I'm just working for my boss to help make his name bigger. I'm not getting authorship for my work or allowed to pursue long-term meaningful projects. I could be working as a software eng. making muuchhh more than what I'm earning (turned down lucrative job offer) but I chose this because I enjoyed the freedom and creativity involved in my past research much more than being handed random dev. tasks to make money for some for-profit corporation. But this doesn't feel very different from that aside from the huge paycut and having to take work home.

He also doesn't allow me to attend workshops/conferences at the institution I'm at. Every time I've asked to attend something that interests me he says "this other task is a bigger priority" or "that's irrelevant for the task you're working on" even though I'm really interested in exploring what other people are working on and networking.

So overall I feel a bit more like a secretary and less like a valuable member of a research team. Is this what all research is like in academia? If so, I'm concerned this may in fact be the wrong path for me. Any input/advice is very much appreciated.

Update I ended up switching to another lab and my experience is significantly better here. Some of the other researchers in my previous lab that I wrote about opened up to me about their experience there and it seems like the culture in general was pretty toxic (most of us have since moved on to new labs). Thanks everyone for all of your input-- it really helped me reach this decision!

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    Are you a doctoral student in the first year of study? What country?
    – Buffy
    Commented Dec 14, 2019 at 21:16
  • Personally, I would wait for some of the more "well known" contributors to "weigh in" before attaching any weight to some of the comments...
    – Solar Mike
    Commented Dec 14, 2019 at 21:36
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    No, research in academia (and indeed out in industry) is usually nothing like this. It sounds like you have a bad supervisor - it happens sometimes unfortunately. Maybe see if you can move to a different group. Commented Dec 14, 2019 at 22:01
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    Does your current advisor have any PhD students? If so, how are they treated? Commented Dec 15, 2019 at 0:40
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    You know this horror movie? It gives good advice in its title: "Get Out!" - get another supervisor, this is not how a researcher should be treated. Giving a student a lot of work and, initially possibly little initiative may be ok in a competitive group, not giving them the big picture is not. Even so, students differ in how much initiative they want - and if you want more, pick a different group. Commented Dec 15, 2019 at 1:25

2 Answers 2


I'm not a doctoral student, I'm a research associate at a research lab affiliated with a university in the US

So if I'm reading that right, you are not a student. You have completed your BS degree and you are an employee (if that is not correct, please clarify the question). The PI in the lab is not your advisor, he is your boss. So your boss is treating you like an employee, and not like a student. You should not be surprised by this. You are an employee and a fairly junior one at that. If there is any mundane task to be done, it's going to come to you. You will find that the experience of being a graduate student is very different than your current position. You will have considerably more ownership / freedom on the direction of your research (not total control, but much more), and you will definitely get authorship credit for your work.

Having said that, there is also considerable variation from lab to lab and from professor to professor in their style of working. Some professors will try to give even undergraduates a meaningful research experience, but others might treat even experienced doctoral students in the manner you have described. You may have just ended up in a bad lab. When you are applying to graduate school, when you go to visit the campus, the most important question to ask the professors is: "Who are your graduate students and where can I find them?" Then go ask those graduate students what it is like to work in that lab with that professor. If you don't like their answers, then you know not to work in that lab.

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    Also, because of the plan to apply to PhD programs, the OP is not likely to stay for more than a year. That reduces motivation to have the OP invest time in getting the big picture. On the other hand, assigning tasks late at night and expecting them to be done by morning is not proper treatment of anyone, unless it is a very unusual emergency. Commented Dec 15, 2019 at 4:36
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    @PatriciaShanahan, wholy agree.
    – Daniel K
    Commented Dec 15, 2019 at 13:15
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    Even if they’re just an employee rather than a student, this isn’t a very good way to treat them, especially in IT. The number one question employers are likely to have about his experience there are “what did you do there?”
    – nick012000
    Commented Dec 15, 2019 at 20:10
  • @nick012000 This is my precisely my concern. I'll be applying to PhD programs next fall so I'm worried that my lack of meaningful research experience during a research position will reflect poorly on my ability to be a successful graduate student. Commented Dec 16, 2019 at 1:57
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    @mayradio0508, I don't think you need to worry about this. The majority of people applying to graduate programs have absolutely zero research experience. Any experience whatsoever, even a non "meaningful" one, will put you way ahead of the game.
    – Daniel K
    Commented Dec 16, 2019 at 2:28

I got the same experience just like you. Remind that the research should be observed then discussed comprehensively. Therefore, we have to consider whole factores and knowledges which should be included inside the research we purposed. Thinking positively, it will improve our knowledge and skill better on the research field we concerned. However, it needs more works to do all of that. Having consult with your supervisor and experts on it help you for more, at least you seems more active and progressive on your work. Good luck for that.

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