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I've just graduated in STEM in a small but respected university in Europe. I had two supervisors who hold their PhD in my field. The aim of my PhD was to utilize a particular chemical compound in the synthesis of various materials. Very little literature is available about the topic and neither of my supervisors had ever published a single paper about it.

I had a tough time during my PhD because I was left figuring out completely on my own how to do research without having a real expert beside me I could learn from. Moreover, I was prevented from asking for help to anyone. Whenever I asked them for help, my supervisors would just throw out some buzzwords or vague explanations to the data I had produced, which were seldom appropriate. Sometimes, I was also given the silent treatment. Back then, I thought that this was the way a PhD is meant to be done. You know "you have to be independent", "your PhD is only yours"....

However, I eventually realized that my supervisors were not those experts they were supposed to be and came up with the reason behind their "hands-off" attitude. I found out they did not aware of the physical, chemical, and even toxicological (!) properties of the compound I had been working with for the last three years. They were even oblivious to the appropriate scientific terminology and apparatuses relevant to the research topic: one of them was unaware that the term polymerization was also applicable in the context of inorganic compounds, not just organic or biological polymers, while the other did not know a (very) common technique you are supposed to learn during the second year of your bachelor's degree. As an "expert" of the topic, he should have been definitely knowledgeable of. I could continue with other examples, but my thread is not about shaming my supervisors. Their knowledge and expertise are under their responsibility, not mine.

After my graduation, I left both my supervisors as I felt I had been deceived and lured to work with them. I do not trust them anymore. Right now, I continue to feel as if I were used, exploited and tricked. Probably, my PhD served only as a +1 in their CV. I do not think they were so interested in the project or in my growth as a researcher. At the same time, I do not regret my time as a PhD student. It was a stimulating intellectual experience: I learnt a lot of new things and I met many interesting people during my journey.

My questions are: how "normal" or common is it for a supervisor to put forward a PhD project without any expertise or even knowing the terminology and techniques relevant to it, especially in the STEM field? Is doing so considered ethical?

IMPORTANT: this post is NOT a vent or a blame game. I am not interested in discussing about red flags or the specific behaviour of my advisors. I am sharing my story just as an example to kindle a meaningful discussion.

What I am actually interested in is your opinion and/or experience regarding this kind of supervision style and its possible impact on the professional life of a freshly graduated PhD.

Clarifications:

  • They asked me to join them in this project as I was one of the top students of my cohort. I know I should have asked more questions to my supervisors when I first met them. But, you know, I naïvely thought that they were experts. Otherwise, why taking the role as a PhD supervisor?

  • Switching supervisors is not an option here, moreover I couldn't walk out (or run away, as JeffE would say) because I unfortunately realized the lack of knowledge of my supervisors at the end of my project. If I had dropped out from my PhD, I should have paid a hefty penalty of several thousands quid.

  • I was fully funded by a public institution. Is this the reason why they were not so invested in the project? They would not have lost any of their money.

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    Although you are probably rather upset about the situation now, in years to come I suspect you'll realize that you've gained a huge advantage over others in certain skills that you were forced to learn (e.g. working independently, seeking advice from others not directly connected with you, etc.). Of course, this could have been a disaster, and for others it likely would have been, but in your case you gained a lot from having to go through this. Regarding your questions, I don't know (seems field and country dependent), but in math in U.S. universities, this would be unusual in the extreme. – Dave L Renfro Oct 2 at 16:14
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    The following quote from this movie is relevant to my previous comment: "Two little mice fell in a bucket of cream. The first mouse quickly gave up and drowned. The second mouse, wouldn't quit. He struggled so hard that eventually he churned that cream into butter and crawled out." You're the second mouse, and in the process you've learned how to make butter. – Dave L Renfro Oct 2 at 16:20
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    It is very common that you do not know the toxicological (or other) properties of a compound you study. It always happen in chemistry research. I also work in interdisciplinary fields so working with experts who do not know what an undergrad student would know is also very common. From your description it is hard to know if your supervisors were not expert in certain questions for legitimate reasons (ie when one studies a completely new, unexplored field or enter a new, interdisciplinary) or they really lacked essential knowledge. – Greg Oct 2 at 16:27
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    @DaveLRenfro: While such an analogy is nice and all, one should also not forgot the third mouse: He had a really good advisor who tought him to make excellent butter which is absolutely extraordinary. – user111388 Oct 2 at 17:47
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    This does not seem that unusual in engineering from what I have seen unfortunately. – Tom Oct 2 at 23:36
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I have started a PhD last year in a topic far from my background. I have been naive and I did very little research on my now ex supervisor.

I started and then discovered that he was "hands off", meaning that the supervision consisted in meeting without any very meaningful advice on research. This, together with the my non expertise on the topic, made the experience terrible. I felt that I was risking too much, also because I tried to collaborate with other people but I found hard to do so (he did not want to share).

I would have preferred to be aware of his style. I think that this situation was unethical, because I did not feel confident enough to pursue a PhD in something way too outside of my comfort zone without any interaction with an expert or so. For me a PhD is a journey to become a good scientist, otherwise why should I need to get a PhD if I am already able to do good quality research? But a colleague of mine actually preferred this style, he said that he wanted to "direct" his own research, to be able "to do what he wants". In the end, in general I think that´s unethical to not discover from the beginning the lack of knowledge and that´s not correct to not admit it, but there are people who did well with this style.

I left to join a different university, but I always think that I really admire who was able to do research without any particular support. I think you should accept them as they are. They are people and people are not perfect, but I understand if you do not want to work with them again. I would not burn bridges. Now you know that there are professionals like that and If you want you can always avoid them.

EDIT: I just started the new PhD somewhere else, I cannot answer you yet. I really wanted a supervisor and meaningful discussion with experts who inspire me. But I think you should be happy with your outcome, your independence that maybe came with a price: the feeling of loneliness during your PhD. You did your best where you were, I think you can be proud of yourself and forget the rest.

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  • Thanks for sharing. Your experience is quite similar to mine. In your words, I can read the same feelings of bewilderment and loneliness I felt during my PhD. After this experience, do you feel more empowered to carry out research on your own or do you struggle with the feeling that your PhD didn't give you the skills to be really autonomous? 1 up (even more if I could...) – Bwdphd Oct 11 at 22:22
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I can't really judge whether the OP's treatment was appropriate or not, but there are situations in which it would be and, in those situations the answer to whether this is "acceptable" would be yes. I also think it is somewhat common, but far from universal.

The bottom line is that at some point along the line the student becomes the expert in the research topic and leaves the advisor(s) behind. In some situations that comes earlier than in most. The fresh PhD is the world's foremost expert in whatever the specific topic of the research is.

It is also true that in many fields the process of research is distinct from the actual questions asked. In those fields a person can advise another on that process and check that they follow correct process to the end, even without knowing a lot about the specifics. Research questions that rely heavily on statistics fall into such a format, though there are many variations that need to be considered. In mathematics, the validity of a proof can be checked by someone who didn't develop it.

However, for a meaningful and worthwhile advisor-advisee relationship to develop, the advisor(s) needs to be honest about what sorts of help they can and cannot provide. That understanding needs to be reached at the beginning of the relationship and if not satisfactory, then either the student or professor(s) needs to withdraw. Some students (a fair number, but not universal) can excel in situations of minimal specific help. Others (almost certainly the majority) need a bit more. Some need a lot more.

Moreover, a lot depends on what the advisor(s) are willing and able to do to advance the career of an independent student after they complete their work. If they are completely supportive, then there is little reason to be alarmed. The fact that you are exhausted at the completion of your degree is not a valid measure here. Nearly everyone (I suspect) feels that way to some degree.

Red flags arise when you aren't told you won't be helped, or if you are told you will be but abandoned. Other red flags appear when the advisor abandons you after you finish. But having to do much of the work of it on your own, isn't, in itself, a red flag, though it doesn't work for everyone. Be glad you finished successfully. Congratulations.

I'd suggest you reevaluate your decision to leave them behind. It may not be the right decision.

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    I can't agree with any general claim that "a fresh PhD is the world's expert in... <whatever>." In particular, there is a dangerous aspect of this viewpoint, namely, that fresh PhD's may discover that they are not, in fact, the world expert in their thesis topic, and feel that, therefore, they have failed and are imposters. Especially on a world stage, there are some senior people who understand a lot, and whose experience allows them to nearly-instantly assimilate new things... often understanding a thesis better than did the writer thereof. :) – paul garrett Oct 2 at 17:38
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    @paulgarrett, I define "thesis topic" very (very) narrowly. If you define it broadly, you are right, of course. For example, I worked in mathematical real analysis. At the end, I knew a heck of a lot about real analysis, but certainly wasn't the world's foremost expert in that, but for the tiny aspect I did work on, I certainly was. – Buffy Oct 2 at 17:52
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    @Buffy Thanks for your reply. They didn't explicitly say they wouldn't help me but I didn't feel supported either. At the beginning they promised they would help me but they never acted on their promises. However, my question is not about whether I was treated fairly or not, I am the only one who can figure it out and now it is not so relevant. The real question is the title of this post. – Bwdphd Oct 3 at 16:03
  • @paulgarrett I agree with the claim. Perhaps the following narrowing gets towards something you'd agree with: "a fresh PhD is the world's expert in the content of their thesis." – user2768 Oct 6 at 7:52
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    @user2768 :) :) – paul garrett Oct 6 at 15:33
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I would usually expect that the a supervisor had some connection either to the application domain, or the technical domain of a project.

I'll give examples from biology, because that's what I do: A PhD might be to use a particular technique, say a new type of microscopy, to study a particular biological process, say cell division. I would expect a supervisor to be an expert either in cell division, or in microscopy (but perhaps not both).

The best situation would be to have two supervisors, one who was an expert in microscopy and one who was an expert in cell division, but thats not always possible.

I think if your supervisors were unable to give you any guidance, on any aspect of your project, right from the start, then they probably shouldn't have been supervising you. Or at least, not on that project.

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  • Thanks for sharing your point of view. – Bwdphd Oct 2 at 20:44
  • Have you ever come across a PhD whose supervisors were not knowledgeable of the topic of the project? – Bwdphd Oct 3 at 19:53
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    I've come across situations where the supervisor knows nothing about the techniques being used, and situations where the supervisor knowns nothing about the subject being studied. The only time i've come across supervisors who don't know something about one or the other in my field is when a student has been moved to a new supervisor after the original supervisor left the institution. I don't know why someone would want to be the supervisor otherwise. I think this might be different in humanities where 1) supervisors are less involved 2) supervision is a burden rather than a privilege. – Ian Sudbery Oct 4 at 12:43
  • Thanks for your reply. I really appreciate your explanation. – Bwdphd Oct 4 at 12:51
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The existing answers give a good perspective on this situation, but I don't think they directly address OP's question:

How "normal" or common is it for a supervisor to put forward a PhD project without any expertise or even knowing the terminology and techniques relevant to it, especially in STEM?

In short: not common. Some cases when I've seen this happen:

  • A project deviates from the initial concept because a student insists on a particular approach
  • A colleague leaves the academia, and somebody needs to take over the supervision of a student
  • The supervisor might want to branch out to another field out of personal interest
  • There is a new hot topic in the supervisor's field, and having some work on that may improve the group's chances to get funding
  • There is a "low-hanging fruit" project which is likely to produce easy publications or help secure funding, but it is not scientifically interesting to the supervisor

Generally speaking, working outside one's primary field usually means less immediate returns for the supervisor (in terms of funding and publications), so in my experience groups which are primarily funded through grants tend to specialize quite narrowly to keep the machine running.

On the other hand, taking more students may be incentivized by local institution rules - the number of total active students, or students with external funding, may be a metric used to judge the performance on the department/group. I think this is most likely what happened here, given your description. Either way, good job on persisting, and don't spend too much time trying to guess somebody's reasons for whatever they did.

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    Hmm... you say "not common" but then you list 5 possible cases that, to me, seem like they would happen frequently (especially the "new hot topic in the field" or the "low hanging fruit"). I have seen them happen quite frequently actually. – wimi Oct 3 at 9:39
  • @juod The last paragraph of your answer may be the real reason behind my bewildering phd. Thanks for your reply. 1 up. – Bwdphd Oct 4 at 16:11
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Summary:

  • I don't see anything particularly wrong with the hands-off approach to PhD. This may be a perfectly valid, though maybe old fashioned approach to PhD. It is not all that common any more to take that point of view, but it is not wrong per se.

  • However, the expectations/approach should have been clearly communicted. Unfortunately I have rarely met any such communication, and in consequence have to say this is a common and major source of misunderstandings and conflict. (Not restricted to theses, happens will all kinds of projects)

  • It is also not uncommon that a PhD project goes into terrain that was so far compartively unknown in that group.

  • It is not uncommon that at the end of the PhD, the PhD student is more expert in the topic of their thesis than their supervisors (the PhD student will not have the breadth of knowledge that the supervisors have, though).


TL - DR

I did my PhD in chemistry in Germany (already a while ago), and it shared some of the characteristics that you list.

However, with one maybe vital difference. When I was requested for the first time to do a review and did not yet feel qualified to do that, my professor basically told me to wake up to the fact that I'm a fully qualified professional with all rights and duties a chemist has - already since when I finished my Diplom (Master). The PhD will later on demonstrate that I meanwhile acquired further experience in doing a several-year research project on my own.
This is AFAIK how PhDs in Germany used to be.

I also know current professors who say that the PhD thesis is an exam where the student signs that it is their own work. They will judge the work of the student, and whenever they have to intervene that means a negative mark agaist the student because the intervention is not the student's own work.

I now contrast this with the "new" way of looking at PhDs, which is bsaically seen as another step in the professional training - implying that without PhD one is not fully trained.

Consequently, a new-style PhD student would typically have an amount of supervision that for the old-style PhD student means they are totally incapable of doing their professional work on their own, i.e. close to failing.
OTOH, this doesn't mean the old-style PhD student is condemned to do lone-wolf research. But it does mean that they are/were expected to pick the experts with whom to discuss things on their own. I.e., I may have said: "I really need to get a pathologist's opinion on my samples as reference. Could you please intoduce me." - "Of course" as opposed to "Dear cbeleites, you really need to get a pathologist's opinion as reference, I'll introduce you to XY".

For strangers in the internet it is impossible to judge whether you did not get adequate supervison or whether your supervisors trusted your professional abilities and gave you the opportunity to show the full extent of your capabilities.


Personally, I rather think the new style PhD students are abused by denying that they are fully qualified professionals (and also by putting them into a very conflict-prone situation where they are told what to do - and are then judged on what they did as if it were their own decision). OTOH, expectations should be clearly pronounced early on (in my experience this unfortunately is rarely done, and it is a major source of conflict, for all kinds of theses, research projects and jobs in research)

Of course, some people do better with closer supervision, while others do better with more loose supervision.


As for the supervisor not being an expert: my PhD was in between vibrational spectroscopy (the supervisor's field of experience) to a medical application and developing statistical data analysis (chemometric) methods. He was expert in neither of the latter two fields, but we had collaboration with the university hospital and the was clear that statistical data analysis is important and that he wanted the group to develop expertise there.
The supervisor at my first "post"doc expressed it even more clearly, saying "I won't be able to discuss statistics with you. I hired you because we didn't have anyone with any such expertise before."


As for the toxicity of the compound mentioned in one of the comments: here I'd totally go with the "old-fashioned" point of view. You were a fully qualified chemist already before you started your PhD. Here in Germany, that includes exams on toxicology and legal aspects of working with hazardous materials. It was your professional duty to check out hazards and make sure appropriate precautions are taken. (Yes, your professor has an organizational duty as well, but it very unlikely that you couldn't have known how to approach chemicals)


I was also lucky in that I met other people during my PhD time who told me that due to the pressure of the PhD, they were completely mad at their supervisor when they handed in - and in hindsight (years later) realized that most of that was maybe less due to the supervisor's shortcomings but rather due to their level of stress.
One of them told me that they had seen many PhD students putting everything they had into their PhD - and then afterwards needing a break from chemistry and research (spoke of someone who ran a shop for a few years before returning to chemical research).

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    Thanks for sharing your experience. For what I can understand, your supervisor were able to connect you with other experienced professionals. I was not allowed to create my network. As for the toxicological properties, I know it wasmy responsibility to take care of this but I was shocked they weren't aware not only of this fact but also of the fact they knew nothing about this componund, considering also other aspects and implications of my project I won't disclose here. Anyway, thanks again for reporting your precious experience. 1UP for this comment. – Bwdphd Oct 4 at 9:07
  • @Bwdphd: they did introduce me, but conferences were probably more important for the network, and it was not that often that we were both (or more people from the institute) at the same conference. Not allowed to build network is bad, though. One unfortunate, widespread but also somewhat understandabe exception to this is: I often see that PhD students with interdisciplinary topics are sent to conferences about their application topic, and then are not allowed (because there's no money left) to attend e.g. data analysis conferences. Wrt lab safety, we also once had a waking up on biosafety. – cbeleites unhappy with SX Oct 4 at 9:13
  • Nothing bad happend, but years into one project someone suddenly realized that we should have had Hepatitis vaccinations from the beginning... Difficult to say there who was to blame, since we all had been to the work health services, and even if chemists and physicists don't know about biosafety, the work health doctor should know. – cbeleites unhappy with SX Oct 4 at 9:16
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    Thanks for your follow up! The hepatitis thing you are talking about is REALLY distressing... – Bwdphd Oct 4 at 10:41
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It happened to me and wasn't ethical.

I had my own grant, my MSc advisor suggested a specific group at another uni and I set up an interview by phone. There I went.

So for the prof/group it was basically some free TA ("max 120h/year" said grant) and another face at lunch/seminars, at the cost of workstation and desk. I had total freedom from interference (haha), could travel whatever I wanted within my own budget. Plus I went to some conferences important to the group where I wasted my time but I suppose I learned by observation how to benefit from attending/ how things are run/ ... .

This was a waste of my time, and lasted 18m until another group with their own open position (=their money invested) hired me; yes this other group found by talking with someone at a relevant symposium I went to.

I guess it happened because there were more math PhD grants than the market could logically fulfill late 90s, so many industries were digitizing etc. That combined with a small EU country, what I wanted to do didn't have a suitable group (over the border had, I later realized, but I doubt the grant was portable) though there were some a better fit.

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  • Thanks for sharing your experience. I also had to attend meaningless conferences and workshops completely unrelated to my research topic. – Bwdphd Oct 5 at 15:58
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I am going to go against the current and say that this is not so uncommon and also not so unethical.

Research is a moving target. New tools and methods are continually being developed. Professors and PIs might take interest in some of those new methods, either because they look promising, or because funding institutions support research on them, or because the PI simply likes them. It would be very inefficient if PIs had to become experts in every new method before they are allowed to hire PhD students to work on it.

So it will happen sometimes that the PI is an expert in the general field, but not in the particular method to be investigated. The PhD student then has to learn about this method, and usually also explain it to their supervisor. The supervisor will still provide useful input regarding which problems to solve, settings to consider, etc., but the particulars of the method will mostly be left to the PhD student. I actually had this experience during my PhD, and I am happy about how it taught me to be independent and come up with ideas by myself.

Of course, not every PhD student will be happy to have so much independence. I have heard many colleagues express the opposite opinion: they are happy to have close guidance and as many people as possible with whom to discuss the topic. This is why, as other answers have mentioned, it is important that the supervisor sets the right expectations at the beginning.

However, I think that your interpretation of the situation may be too negative. You write:

I felt I had been deceived and lured to work with them. I do not trust them anymore. Right now, I continue to feel as if I were used, exploited and tricked.

I do not think you were used or exploited. You were paid to learn about a topic, and maybe help introduce this knowledge into the department. It seems that your supervisor was the one who secured the funding, and they chose you. It is also reasonable to assume that, if you were one of the top students of your cohort, the supervisor relied more on you to be able to work independently and take the "difficult" project, the one in which the department has less expertise.

So I suggest not to take it too personally, and focus on the good things that came out of it. I do not think anyone had the intention of tricking you.

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  • Thanks for your point of view. I cannot disclose further details but my supervisors had literary no idea of what I was researching on and they didn't disclose before starting my PhD. They lacked the very basic concepts needed to work in the field. I really enjoyed my PhD journey but I feel like I just collected data explained them with some buzzwords. I know I was paid to do research but I thought I was also supposed to be taught how to do research properly by experts on the topic through meaningful discussions and interactions. 1 up for this answer. – Bwdphd Oct 6 at 9:09

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