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.
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.