I am a Ph.D. student in North America, I am three years into a four-year program. The relevant people in this story are my advisor (A), the other Ph.D. student in my group (B). A is a very well established and respected researcher in our field. B is a few years younger than I, and is only about 1.5 years into their Ph.D., but we work together a lot and have a good friendship. My relationship with A has been good, and I have heard that A speaks highly of me to others.

About Me

During the first two years of my Ph.D. I was involved in an incredibly toxic relationship that significantly impacted my research progress. That relationship has since ended which has led to a very significant improvement in my productivity. A is aware of this and we have discussed it and they sympathized with my situation. Partly due to that, I have not yet published anything (also my first project went nowhere), but I have been working on a new project for a year which is now ready to publish. I am also working on two other projects with B and have a number of other things in mind which I have been either working on or want to work on and publish before graduating.

Absentee Advisor

The major issue that I currently face is that A is extremely busy all the time. This is to be expected for a university professor, but in this case, is quite extreme. In general, A does not dedicate much time to advising or working with our group members, to the point that the majority of their publications each year don't involve anyone from our group (we have a number of Master's students as well). A has acknowledged this lack of involvement and has apologized and indicated they would make a better effort, but so far we have not seen that materialize.* Due to the pandemic and subsequent quarantine, things are even more difficult because we cannot even go to A's office to try to quickly discuss a research problem. This is particularly bad right now because multiple projects are coming to their conclusions and need to be published, which I feel is the most crucial point where we need direct involvement in order to construct well-written papers that will be well-received by the community.

Fellow Ph.D. Student

Now about three weeks ago, I was told that B had a meeting with A during which A expressed that they thought I had "abandoned" the two side projects I have been working on with B, and that B might be asked to take the lead on both of those projects; B was excited about how good it would be for their career and has not mentioned it to me (nor has A), which I feel is incredibly selfish. I was really surprised by this because (a) I am the more advanced and senior student; (b) A should know that I was pushing my current project to completion (a large project which I have completely taken over as my own but which B will also get their name on eventually due to prior contributions) and therefore not focusing on the other two projects, which are both still in an exploratory phase and which we had not had any meetings to discuss recently due to being busy with other things; (c) because I consider B a friend, and I am surprised they would not vouch for me (they are well aware of the work I am doing because we hang out in-person regularly and I tell them about it). I do not mean to speak poorly of B, but I feel that they produce a large quantity of surface-level research while I produce a lower quantity of more deeply thought-out work. Our advisor spends so little time directly involved in our work that they only get a tiny window into what we're doing in which B looks very busy because they produce a large quantity of data which they don't know how to interpret, while I have been spending a lot of time thinking about the interpretations of the data which is a slow process.

Two weeks ago I sent a new complete draft to A for the current project, and they said they were very busy but would get back to me soon, and in the meantime not to continue modifying the draft. I took that opportunity to take the lead on one of the other projects, writing up a partial draft for it, doing novel analysis on the problem, and applying that analysis to an example with an extensive discussion of directions for further work.

One week ago, I sent the draft to A and B, and said we should have a meeting to discuss. A has not replied at all to that email, while in separate discussions B I learned that they had discussed it with A previously without me and A feels something important is missing, but B has avoided telling me what exactly that something is. I am good friends with B, but this rubbed me the wrong way because I feel that I am being boxed out of a project which we are supposed to be equally involved in and they are doing it because they want to get first-authorship on the eventual paper.

Current State of Affairs

Shortly thereafter, I requested a meeting with A to discuss the draft I sent, the notes on the second project I sent, and to discuss my ideas for new projects going forward and how I will finish my Ph.D. I also have been wanting to ask A if they will keep me for a fifth year due to my early struggles, which is something I think they would be open to, though I have not stated that directly. The meeting was scheduled for Tuesday, but then A requested that we postpone until Saturday (today) due to a deadline. I requested that we meet in person and we agreed to meet at a cafe. Friday evening around 7 pm I received an email requesting to reschedule for Monday via Zoom due to "a lunch date I can't reschedule". Honestly, right now I feel personally offended by this, I feel almost insulted by this last-minute cancellation for a meeting which I feel is really important due to a double-booked "lunch date" when we scheduled this meeting nearly a week ago. I don't even have the words to express my frustration and disappointment right now, because this is not only the second rescheduling of this meeting, but it will likely no longer be in-person and I have received almost no input from my advisor for months on my work. I did not want to have a Zoom meeting, which I feel significantly hinders the ability to have a heart-to-heart discussion.


What can I do in this situation? I have tried to maintain a correspondence with A via email to maintain a connection (we are all working from home), but perhaps I have not been regular enough with that communication and they feel that I am not being productive. I have requested again that we can meet in person, but have not heard back from them yet about that. I want to clear the air and clarify all this nonsense that has been happening, I don't like that people are discussing things behind my back about projects I am involved in, but I can't bring up that I was told about the conversation with B. I want to push my current paper to completion and publish it and be able to work on more projects and finish a few more publications before I graduate, but I can't do that without some involvement from my advisor and possibly an extra year (otherwise I will need to transition to thesis writing soon). I would also like to clarify the point about his limited window into the productivity of B and myself and assure him that I am in fact very busy with research and not slacking off. I want to discuss staying another year but I am now worried that A thinks I am not working hard enough or something and is writing me off. I also don't know what to do about B, I kinda feel I should not collaborate with them in the future---I have spent many many hours explaining things to them and yet they are willing to accept getting lead credit on two projects which we are both involved in when they are very well aware of the work I have been doing on the other project that they will also get credit for, rather than vouch for me.

*As a small aside, when I described the situation to a previous advisor they told me I should find a new Ph.D. advisor, which was not really an option and I didn't really want to do that anyway. I do get along well with A, but they are just too busy to be directly involved with their grad students' research. Outside of our meetings, I am not sure that A spends much time thinking about the problems we are working on.

  • A[dvisor] does not dedicate much time to advising or working with our group members: How much time per week do they dedicate? I was told that B had a meeting with A: By whom? – user2768 Sep 15 at 18:01

Meet with your advisor, put forward a proposal for finishing all outstanding works, raise authorship and explain that you feel you should be the lead author. Move-on to discuss future works. Assuming your advisor is positive, suggest timing might be an issue and ask whether an extension is possible. If not, suggest dropping some or all of the discussed future work to fit the available time. Finally, present a schedule for writing up.

Summarise key points, namely,

  • Finishing all outstanding works,
  • Future work, and
  • Thesis,

in the email that requests the meeting.

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