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?