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I'm a PhD student who has been enrolled in my program since the beginning of 2017. I took a half year break in mid 2018 for personal reasons. My supervisor is an Assoc. Prof in our department and has at least 10 other students who he is either primary or co-supervisor for (a few are part timers). As with any tenured academic he's constantly bombarded with a million things to do at once: course co-ordination, academic advice, industry connections, his other students, and (maybe) some research work! I don't envy him at all.

He believes in "free range" PhD students, which I think is partly because he thinks giving his students freedom is a good thing (I agree), and partly because he is lazy and doesn't like committing more time than absolutely necessary to things. I still think the second point is true even though he is so busy, he seems to have a very difficult time saying flat out yes or no to things and seems to have his fingers in too many pies, so to speak.

I entered the program having very little idea what I was going to do - I made up a research proposal and it got accepted, but it had no substance. In hindsight I don't think I should have even been admitted into the program. Fast forward to the start of last year and I discovered a topic that really clicked with me and that I am very interested in. I spent most of last year learning about that topic and trying to reproduce results from the literature. I was able to do this and have gained a lot of knowledge about the topic.

A little over 2.5 years (not including my break) into the program I submitted my first paper to a conference. So finally I have some direction and some form of payoff is in sight. I did 95% of the work on it, and the input from my supervisor was very minimal, but of course his name is still on it. I think this is partly because the topic is outside of his immediate area of knowledge/interest, but also because he put in almost no effort to try and understand what I was doing. From my perspective he basically just agrees with everything I say and doesn't give any clear direction. I got better feedback on my work from my fellow PhD students. I've heard the phrases "We should talk more about this later" and "It would be good if we had more time to do this" come out of his mouth an uncountable number of times, but nothing is ever aggressively followed up on - I have to make everything happen.

So my supervisor doesn't really understand what I'm doing and is not willing to put in any time or effort to improve that. I, however, am (maybe paradoxically) very motivated to keep on doing my research because of my great interest in the topic. So, how do I progress from this point? I still like my supervisor as a person but he is not sufficient to see me through. I have been attempting to contact other academics from my topic area but things are moving slowly. Either they don't reply to my emails or give a response like "Yes I can help but I'm also busy and can't promise anything". It's frustrating - I just want to have a verbal conversation with them about the topic area.

I guess I'm just a bit confused, upset, but also motivated. How do I make my PhD work? What are your insights about my situation? What would you do if you were me?

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    My life experience tells me that you cannot change people's personalities as much. Maybe finding a co-advisor who is compatible with your style? – CoderInNetwork May 8 at 3:33
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    It sounds like this is a pretty good situation as you are self-motivated and have figured out how to do your research. It is hard to arrange for a supervisor who gives you both freedom and lots of help. Usually you need to pick one or the other. My advice is, write more papers and keep doing the other things you are doing. – Anonymous Physicist May 8 at 4:05
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    It's not your supervisor's job to check in on you. – Anonymous Physicist May 8 at 4:08
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    @AnonymousPhysicist Actually, it is. – spacetyper May 8 at 5:29
  • @spacetyper it differs from place to place.. – Praphulla Koushik May 8 at 8:57
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Ideally you need to find someone else who can unofficially supervise you. While such a hands-off style of supervision can benefit a student in the long run (by essentially forcing you to work independently and follow up your own ideas), it's not great when you run into the typical day-to-day problems of research. In this situation, as you have realised, you need someone who you can reliably talk ideas and problems through with on a regular basis.

Rather than contacting other academics, are there any postdocs in your department who you could talk to? Or even perhaps a postdoc from another university who you've met at a workshop or conference? They would be the best sort of person to try and start collaborating with. Postdocs generally have more time for research and if they're keen to stay in academia would probably welcome the opportunity to help supervise a student. The relationship doesn't have to be formal in any way -- you can just start by sending an email. Be clear and upfront with why you are contacting them specifically, so it's obvious you're not just pinging off emails to everyone you can think of in a scatter-gun approach. Ask if they have time for a video meeting, although bear in mind that at the moment, everyone is over-saturated with calls and telecons.

The best way to then move from conversation to collaboration would be to have a concrete idea or question to answer, and preliminary results if possible. This way, the potential collaborator can see you're committed to the project and have an idea of where it's going. Make it clear that you'd like them to be involved in the paper that you're planning to write (or, if you have notes or a preliminary draft, share that too). As things progress, you can then ask for the detailed feedback that you're not currently getting from your official supervisor.

I speak directly from my own personal experience: my supervisor, like yours, is very busy, although we do fortunately have regular meetings. However, for technical matters on which he is not an expert, I have a postdoc collaborator who I can talk to and ask for help.

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  • Thanks for the answer! I agree with everything you said. The point about postdocs is particularly true, will keep it in mind. I also like the point about specifically mentioning to a person why you are contacting them. Unfortunately there are no suitable postdocs at my university who have any knowledge about this specific topic so I will have to look elsewhere. – user123877 May 8 at 22:53

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