I have been doing my PhD in Computer Science for one year and a half now (Europe-based) and I feel my research is not going much far. I choose to do this after my master studies because I actually like to do it: I like reading about new solutions, new problems and try to solve them myself. I also really liked taking university courses.

Lately, I started to notice more and more how many of my peers managed to publish in some conferences, while I still have nothing close to submission. Also, I had a talk with my supervisor few months ago, where he hinted that my approach to the PhD was not going to be productive, and that a change was needed. He mentioned the need for more independence on my side, when finding and developing research ideas.

To make it (hopefully) more explicit, it may be that I like doing research for my own fulfillment and curiosity, but I cannot spot questions or problems that needs to be addressed or can have a chance during the review process. I don't know how to explain the current situation in another way. In the meantime I also got a bit discouraged, and asked myself if, career-wise, it is worth to pursue a path where I am happy with my day-to-day activities, but ultimately don't get any "public" acknowledgement. I think I learned a lot in this year (also, my level was maybe not so high as my peers'), so I am not unsatisfied with myself, but the issue here is that progress is measured on papers and not self-achievements. Working hard is also okay for me, so I would say motivation is not the issue here.

Should I consider quitting my PhD, or moving to a lower-rank institute? I'm fine with my work at the moment, but I'm worried it may not get better -- and I don't like the idea of finding myself at the fourth+ year of PhD, still with no publication. I don't think I want to keep on with research afterwards, and I fear those years will not be meaningful career-wise.

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    Gaining independence is a thing you learn over time. To expect it from a student is a bit much. Some can achieve it, but not everyone. Don't be discouraged. Get better advice.
    – Buffy
    Commented Oct 30, 2020 at 13:40
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    If you like reading about new solutions, you could try to publish a review paper that you can reuse for the literature part of your thesis. This usually gives a lot of citations as it is very welcome in the community and most people do NOT really like to study other peoples approaches too much... Commented Oct 31, 2020 at 10:00
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    As the past 1.5 years have not contributed to your research output (though probably to your own knowledge and experience), I think it is not too dangerous to suggest that a change in PhD position - if leading to a more stimulating environment - is not going to cost you any time. Of course you would have to find one first... Commented Oct 31, 2020 at 10:11
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    Some of the answers suggest getting better help from your advisor, or changing your advisor. The following may be entirely irrelevant, but since your account name is a common woman's name in English-speaking countries, it occurs to me that there is a common, but certainly not universal pattern in some academic disciplines of senior faculty failing to give as much supportive guidance to women graduate students or junior faculty as to men due to unconscious or even conscious biases. If that might be relevant, it could be another reason to seek advice from a broader range of people.
    – Mars
    Commented Nov 1, 2020 at 6:16
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    I'm in another discipline, so I don't know whether this applies to CS: In my early research, my approach was very different from other researchers'. I found that it was difficult to get my work published unless I could put it in a context that showed how it was relevant to existing published research. So I worked hard to find issues to write about that, though not intrinsically interesting to me, had a published literature, and that were such that I could show how the work that did interest me would be relevant to those issues. I succeeded, but had to search for ways to provide that context.
    – Mars
    Commented Nov 1, 2020 at 6:29

7 Answers 7


Your situation hints at a mismatch between your supervisor's supervision style (which is fairly hands-off) and the style you would need to be productive (which requires more guidance and input in the beginning, with the goal of ultimately having you become more independent).

My recommendation is: Find a co-advisor with a more hands-on supervision style. That could be somebody in your group who is fairly productive (most likely a postdoc, assistant professor or young associate professor), with a visible publication track record. Most people who are that way have more problems to work on that they can solve on their own. You should have your main advisor on board with this, which might be easy to achieve, since advisors have an active interest in seeing their students graduate.

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    Agree. The advisor isn't really doing the job if they aren't being responsive to the needs of their students.
    – Buffy
    Commented Oct 30, 2020 at 13:39
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    That's a good guess actually. I find myself working better in teams (or at least, having a bit of a clearer plan), but I am not getting this from my supervisor -- in his words, to avoid micromanaging. That's also a good suggestion, although may be a bit hard to put in practice, as our group is very new and thus very small. Maybe I can consider looking into other groups if our research areas are compatible
    – Emma
    Commented Oct 30, 2020 at 15:07
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    Indeed, the co-advisor doesn't have to be from your group, that's just a natural first place to look. Two alternative ideas: 1. Ask your advisor if he knows somebody that might be suitable for this part, 2. Attend one or two conferences in your field and get in touch with relevant attendees (in corona times, online conferences provide special networking opportunities for that). Commented Oct 30, 2020 at 15:23
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    I agree, you see this a lot. The supervisor fails to put the student into a productive environment from which he can develop his own ideas and become more independent. Then he waits 1.5 years and pretends the problem is with the student. For a PhD it is necessary to work independently and be rather exceptional, but the most important factor to start with is to get into the right environment, which unfortunately is not that frequent and also it is hard for master students to spot the good places as everyone presents themselves as being just great, which is definitely not the case. Commented Oct 31, 2020 at 10:05
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    OK, fingers crossed for your conference then! To ease your worries: while the situation with your "hands-off" advisor is rather typical, I think most advisors wouldn't mind one additional person on the paper if they made substantial contributions. Commented Oct 31, 2020 at 21:21

I don't want to step on the excellent answer of lighthouse keeper but an additional idea would be to join or form a discussion group in which a few students, perhaps in a similar situation as yourself, get together to discuss issues and search for open questions. Read a few papers (jointly) and discuss them. What is left unsaid in the papers.

The synergy of a group, if like-minded, can be helpful.

And a group can transform into a collaboration group over time. This can be valuable in its own right.


I like reading about new solutions, new problems and try to solve them myself.

Do you find any flaws in the solutions that you read about? Any space for improvement? Could a different approach be taken?

Are the problems you read about framed appropriately? Maybe they are too theoretical, and making more realistic assumptions would yield different results? Maybe the problems are defined in a too specific manner? Could they be generalized for some benefit?

Start thinking critically and soon you will find plenty of ideas which are publish-worthy.

You can start by nit-picking, finding even small issues in the published works, looking for a hole. Then, you can try a higher level approach, like asking yourself questions why nobody has tried to do something in a specific way, or why some problem has not been tackled in a rigorous manner.

Do not treat published material as some form of revealed truth. You need to believe in yourself. Believe that you can do just as good as your peers (not the other students, but the other researchers which publish), or even better. Basically think of yourself as a researcher, not much as a student. Doing PhD is a (hopefully paid) job, not a school!


On your point about how to spot "research questions": spotting unsolved problems is a challenge in itself because usually one approaches a subject from the student point of view. Practical advice: read papers and pay attention to the conclusions. Often there are paragraphs along the lines of "will be explored in future work" or "remains to be shown". This is where your open questions are. Contact the authors and find out what they are up to.


You should probably quit. Unlike master/bachelors, getting a PhD is all about doing research and publishing the results. In the formal sense, research implies working on novel problems, at the edge of human understanding. Hence, publishable research has to be novel, in the sense that no one has done it before, and significant, in the sense it answers questions other people actually care about.

You should be exposed to a bunch of others research during your PhD, by reading research articles or attending talks (which seem to be important in Comp-Sci). If you watch, you'll notice that almost all research talks end with an 'ideas for further research' or 'limitations to the research'. Doing something that extends previous research, or overcomes the limitations of published research will get the job done.

When I asked about what I wanted to research, I gabbled out some plausible sounding stuff. Years later, I learned that academic research is hard, and that you have to work hard at a very small part of a problem to be able to make meaningful progress. Dangerously, you may pick a small problem no one cares about. I seem to recall books/articles/blogs in compsci about how to pick a good problem. (Professors who ask about your 'research topic' are wankers--a researchable problem is a very small sub-area within a topic area).

Doing independent research requires preparation, and plenty of professors are happy to have someone just doing scut-work. What you have to realize is that scut-work is training to be able to do it on your own, and what you need to be thinking about is why a professor is telling you to do those things.

As for why you aren't/weren't told these things: research is a craft, and academia (surreally) remains much like a medieval craft guild. There is also the awkward fact that many PhD students are second generation academics, with one or more parents capable of advising them on the 'mysteries' of the guild. Some of the rest have been initiated into the norms through a variety of means.

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    Emma, the paragraphs after the first paragraph contain advice for OP if you don't want to take the advice in the first paragraph.
    – Mars
    Commented Nov 1, 2020 at 6:09
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    This is not necessarily the correct answer but -given the high opportunity cost of pursuing a PhD - it is worth keeping in mind. A combination of giving it another chance a -la' @LighthouseKeeper and an open mind along these lines may be useful over the next year to 18 months. Commented Nov 1, 2020 at 17:57
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    Most of this answer makes a lot of sense, but the first sentence is unnecessarily harsh and not backed up by anything in the answer. Commented Nov 1, 2020 at 20:21

Should I consider quitting my PhD, or moving to a lower-rank institute?

Why is your situation frustrating to you? Overall, reading between the lines, I see a discouragement at a growing awareness of your limitations versus what you believe about the expectations being put on you.

My foremost recommendation is this: You should have a discussion with your current advisor.

Your intent should be to determine whether the expectations that you are starting to believe about your lack of performance (no publications) and lack of independence (as per your advisor) are real or simply mis-perceptions. A concrete example is to ask your advisor: Should I really have published by now? A broader example is to ask your advisor what specific actions you can do to demonstrate that you are taking on a greater level of independence.

I imagine that, accepting that you must hold this discussion is not easy. The consequences of avoiding it can however be damaging, for example by causing continued stress worrying about what you think your advisor is thinking or worse, discovering that your advisor has essentially given up on you showing sincere interest in learning by pro-activity participating in the advisor-to-student experience. Advisors are not ignorant about the shortfalls of their advisees, nor are they necessarily ignorant of their responsibility to find ways to help when asked.

I would have one specific answer to the second, broader question about possible ways to show your independence. Step forward at the discussion with your advisor with your plan to prepare a PROPOSAL for your research to defend to a dissertation committee by a specific, hard-set deadline. A proposal is NOT a defense of work done. It is a defense of work to be done. It states why the work is important in context of current issues. It states your hypotheses or problems. It defines how and why you will go about doing the work needed to valid the hypotheses or solve the problems.

This type of approach is one that is common in some PhD institutes. Instead of asking for a qualifying exam on didactic courses to be granted permission to continue with a PhD, the department requires that students prepare and defend a dissertation proposal. They require this even before a student is to have submitted any publications. Indeed, in some cases, they set hard deadlines for this step, with the consequence that the student who does not do it is not allowed to continue further.

This action could be one way for you to start to show independence (something that your advisor has already said seems to be lacking). This approach is likely also to result in greater "public acknowledgement", even if only at a local (university) scale to start. Finally, this approach is likely to focus your attention better to prepare a publication on your research topic, indeed even help streamline the writing and acceptance process because you have done the background work for the introduction.

Taking this step will also help you to discover other issues that may be behind your frustration. For example, do you have appropriate levels of self-disciplin, skills, and tools to self-administer the timelines that are required to meet concrete milestones for your dissertation? If not, start spending more time to learn how to set concrete, realistic, and relevant milestones; start finding the tools that you need to do the administration on your own (e.g. calendars and task-manager apps and citation management apps); and start setting concrete milestones to complete at hard-set deadlines. I might suggest here that you "work the puzzle backwards". When you do want to graduate? When must you submit your dissertation? When must you give your oral presentation? When must you submit the final draft to your advisor? When must you stop doing research and start writing? And so on.

Continuing on the above, the remaining question to ask is whether you have a true, deep-seated motivation to even want carry out your current research. Does your motivation to do a PhD come simply from a nebulous desire to explore things further, or does it come specifically from a burning curiosity about or desire to fix a specific problem in a specific context of a specific research field. As you move from the being in the former situation (nebulous curiosity) to the latter situation (actions driven by the need to meet specific desires), your frustrations will change from "I don't even really know why I am here" to "This is not going to be as easy as I thought (but I will get it done)".

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    Thank you for your input :) in my situation, I see this not working as it doesn't make sense to step out to commit to a dissertation deadline without even a single paper, and not even material for a submission. I find that I would have no reason nor ground to back up this statements, and ultimately it would just make me more nervous -- I have an internal deadline with myself, which is in about three years from now, to present my dissertation. And I really want to move from the former to the latter situation, as you mentioned. Being unable to frame things properly is also an issue.
    – Emma
    Commented Oct 31, 2020 at 19:52
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    @Emma A dissertation PROPOSAL is not a dissertation DEFENSE. I have clarified in the explanation. Consider also correcting for your misunderstanding. Commented Oct 31, 2020 at 21:19
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    While this answer may appear a bit hard -it is quite important to evaluate carefully whether a PhD program "fits". These are reasonable questions to ask. Commented Nov 1, 2020 at 17:58
  • @javadba I've noted something equivalent in a revision. Thank you. Commented Nov 1, 2020 at 22:26
  • Good advice, but careful - Perhaps any good answer to this question (†) will be problematically limiting (or absurdly long)? The answer given (a proposal defense deadline) is very good in many ways but problematically limiting - its only one way, and committing to that one way closes off other paths/options. May well be worth it. (My answer focuses on a different path/strategy.) Commented Nov 2, 2020 at 5:34

(This is more an idea about a different approach than an answer. I'm curious to see what folks currently active in academia (ideally in comp sci) think about it. Meant to complement the other strong answers.)

Seek collaboration.
You have strengths and weaknesses. Make a list of them. I'm guessing you're great at execution, and unusually analytical, based on what you wrote. This is a VERY important skill set, and likely worthy of publication credit as a product intellectual achievement1. People who are great at coming up with good ideas are often bad at execution, and have more good ideas than they're able to make use of. Find out about potential collaborators' strengths and weaknesses including your advisor's. (You CAN ask!) Mars noted your likely gender; likely you have superior people skills. Sharing your list would help your advisor help you, or he's lousy. Odds are good you know colleagues with great ideas willing to collaborate. Also, in CS, PhD students are often paid, so find out what sort of timeline he things is acceptable. So consider having a broader conversation with your advisor to, among other things see what he thinks about complementary skills. Maybe he and/or the department or school hew to the publish or perish maxim.

1:The #1 author criterion: "Substantial contributions to the conception or design of the work; or the acquisition, analysis, or interpretation of data for the work" per ICMJE anyway (Medical). More ideas

  • Interesting stat: "While single author publications comprised over 80% of all papers published prior to 1950, only 7.4% papers published in 2018 were authored by one researcher." ..."there is an increased fraction of students who co-author publications with their advisors" Commented Nov 2, 2020 at 5:51

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