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I am a second year PhD student studying at a prestigious university in the UK. My main supervisor recruited me 2 years ago just because he is interested in my field and hopes to develop a new direction for his research center. I have 3 supervisors but none of them has expertise in my current field. In fact, their fields are quite different from mine (in totally different disciplines) and consequently they cannot give effective supervision on my PhD research. For example, when I present my research they usually just say my research is good without any useful technical suggestions. In addition, my main supervisor and third supervisor meet me for supervision meeting every 3-6 months, and my second supervisor meets with me every 2 weeks.

I don't think I get enough supervision during my PhD studies (my fellow students seem to meet with their advisors once a week), and so I am thinking about starting a new PhD at another university which is strong in my field but not as reputable as my current university.

However, my parents (who are funding me) do not agree on this. They mainly care about the reputation of my current university and the diploma I get rather than the little supervision. I am quite confused about this. Considering my future plan is to work in academia, should I quit my current PhD and start a new PhD in this case?

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    Have your tried publishing? What do reviewers say?
    – user2768
    Mar 2 '21 at 15:08
  • I have recently published my first paper recently in a Q1/Q2 open source journal. Reviewers think it's good and I received only minor revision during the review process. But the work receives little supervision.
    – nbgsrc
    Mar 2 '21 at 15:22
  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. Please read this FAQ before posting another comment.
    – cag51
    Mar 4 '21 at 2:33
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    Can you be more clear both about what "supervision" means generally, and how it affects your work specifically? Is their saying your research is "good" more, or less than half the battle? If it's more, are you in a position to ask who they might suggest could give you useful technical suggestions? Mar 4 '21 at 21:05

11 Answers 11

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For PhD supervisors, an ideal outcome of a PhD trajectory is that the student learns to independently generate good research ideas, and perform solid investigation of those ideas following the tenets of the scientific method. Ideally, this results in several top-level publications, co-written by the student and the supervisors.

You describe (including information from the comments) how you independently generated a good research idea, and managed to get its investigation published as a journal paper. If I were your supervisor, I would be happy with your progress. In fact, if I were your supervisor, I would be very reluctant to start rocking the boat: why would I interfere in something that is progressing nicely? You are achieving what you are supposed to achieve. It would be very silly of me to attempt to change the current situation: if I start micromanaging a productive PhD student, this may demotivate the student and harm productivity, which is the opposite of what I want.

Your post clearly indicates that you expect more from your supervisors. It is important to explore that; you owe it to yourself to make the most of your PhD trajectory. But I cannot see from your post exactly what is missing. You write that you expect "useful technical suggestions on the research", but if your research gets published, what technical suggestions are there to be made? I think it would be prudent if you ask yourself precisely what it is that you are missing, because if you can formulate this precisely, you might also be able to communicate to your supervisors clearly what you expect them to additionally contribute.

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    (+1) especially for "if I start micromanaging a productive PhD student, this may demotivate the student". Mar 2 '21 at 17:51
  • Thanks for your answer. For me the real problems are that 1) all my supervisors dont' know the basic framework and basic concepts of my PhD studies and I need to explain to them. It is obvious that they are in lack of expertise in my field particular in the big picture of my work.
    – nbgsrc
    Mar 2 '21 at 19:03
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    @nbgsrc From my (decades-old) experience, it should be a normal thing that, on your research topic, you leave your supervisors behind at some point in time. A PhD thesis is meant to advance the state of science in a specific branch, not yet explored by anyone else. In the best of all cases, supervisors can be valuable discussion partners all the way, but never forget that the research is yours. Mar 4 '21 at 10:31
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    @nbgsrc If other people in your group already know more about your specialist topic than you do, you aren't doing "research" at all.
    – alephzero
    Mar 4 '21 at 12:26
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    @nbgsrc To my knowledge, one of the functions your supervisors should be able to fulfil is to help you with the problem you describe when you say "I am having trouble finding peers to communicate with since there don't seem to be any at this university". Have you raised this issue with them?
    – Cronax
    Mar 4 '21 at 18:46
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You're a PhD student at a prestigious UK university, who is (I presume) halfway to completing. You've recently published your first paper, which was well received by your supervisors and your reviewers. But you don't seem happy with it. Perhaps you're suffering with impostor syndrome. That's nothing to worry about, just something to live with (or, preferably, get over).

You currently meet with your main supervisor once every two weeks and you're concerned that they aren't an expert in your field. You'd like a supervisor that meets more frequently and is an expert, and you're considering moving universities to find such a supervisor. Rather than moving, maybe you can find a mentor, co-author a paper with an expert, or seek an internship.

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  • please see my comments on the answer given by Wetenschaap
    – nbgsrc
    Mar 2 '21 at 19:07
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    Yes, it seems like there are good opportunities to improve the situation with some more advisors/mentors without starting over . . . it may or may not happen, but maybe worth a try! :) Do you know if you can even have committee members from other schools? (it's possible in the US for a really good reason such as this; don't know about UK)
    – Mike M
    Mar 2 '21 at 22:40
  • @nbgsrc If you make specific comments, I'll try to address
    – user2768
    Mar 3 '21 at 8:11
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It sounds like you're starved for colleagues directly in your area.

Assuming you haven't already, you could just contact the experts at the other less reputable university. Tell them what you're doing, and ask them questions about their own work. Propose writing a joint paper if you think that makes sense, or visiting a seminar they run (or zooming one). It doesn't matter really what you propose - you just want to form a relationship with experts in your area. Once you have, you'll get a better idea of where what you're doing fits in.

Also, reluctance to co-author a paper isn't necessarily a sign of disapproval or low opinion of the work. It could just be straight up honesty in not wanting to take someone else's hard work.

Also it makes sense to be explicit with your supervisors, explaining that you would like to continue in academia, and asking whether you're doing enough to secure a post-doc, and where you could do this.

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    This sounds very sensible. Currently, due to Covid-19, everyone(?) is doing home office anyway, so it does not matter whether you collaborate with people in the office next to you or across the globe. In fact, OP's advisors might even help OP here: They might not be experts in OP's field, but they might know people who are (because they are better connected in academia in general) and might help OP "get a foot in the door".
    – Heinzi
    Mar 3 '21 at 14:58
  • Consider adding said prof to your committee as well. They could even supervise you while you get the high powered degree.
    – axsvl77
    Mar 4 '21 at 19:22
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Your experience feels very familiar to me. My field is economics. Back in the naughties I got a PhD from Oxford (technically, a D.Phil). While a small number of students were part of a "team" of researchers, were given assignments by their supervisor, and got joint publications for their effort, most of the students were left to figure it all out on their own: some did, some didn't. Many didn't.

The amount of supervision you describe would have overwhelmed most of us. I had only one supervisor and met him once every two months. Some of the students I knew would meet their supervisor only twice a year. As head of one of the Colleges, my supervisor would meet me in his gigantic office from behind his gigantic desk. I would sit on an armchair with my notes at my feet. Unlike most of the supervisors, he'd actually read my stuff. He would point out a typo (that "t" on page 12, line 5, must be an "i"), climb on a ladder to grab an obscure book he'd edited in the sixties, would urge me to read it: It had no relevance to the problem and even if it did would be outdated by about forty years. We would be interrupted a couple of times by phone calls from the Chancellor or the Bank of England. This went on for a couple of years until he said, "well it looks like you've got yourself a thesis", we'd better ask around for a committee: Stiglitz, no, he wouldn't let you talk, Phelps, no I think he's off to Argentina, how about X and Y?". And with that I had a committee for my thesis.

A committee but no thesis. Had he confused me for another one of his students? I asked for 6 months and in a frenzy wrote whatever came to mind. I honestly didn't think I was going to pull it off and had plans to re-enroll somewhere else, but in the end the stunt worked. At the end of the viva, one of the committee members asked me what I thought was my greatest contribution. I mumbled something vague. He said, "Well, as the train was pulling into Oxford station, I noticed that trick you did with the exponential. Wow, that made my day. We all need these tricks. I enjoyed that." The other committee members did not say a word and a few months later at a conference did not remember me. Don't worry about the lack of supervision. In my experience, that is/was the norm back in the twentieth century.

Having a doctorate from a famous university is the best thing that ever happened to me. Been able to milk that for twenty years now. In my humble opinion, your parents are wise: stay, do what it takes, move on.

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    I like your approach. I think the difference between you (in short: colleagueA) and your former-colleague-now-on-its-way-to-star-professorship (in short: colleagueB) was only ego and self-confidence (not that you did not have, you had a normal quantities of both) and maybe, really maybe, colleagueB being a genius. Then the world outside do not understand a thing and thinks your skills are coming from the imprinting you were given from the famous university. Go, milk it :D ! I guess being a PhD with a big name is very important because of the freedom (=lack of supervision) you get.
    – EarlGrey
    Mar 3 '21 at 10:41
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    The most wonderful thing about studying at a prestigious university is meeting the people that will shape our world. A friend of mine had written his thesis by the first Christmas and was offered a professorship right away (having been enrolled less than a year and being about 25 years old), but stayed around for a bit longer as a JRF to enjoy the great lifestyle.
    – PatrickT
    Mar 3 '21 at 20:46
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    Interesting how even after twenty years of milking it, you spend four more paragraphs doing the same. Mar 4 '21 at 7:32
  • @PatrickT independently of quality, only a superego can write a PhD thesis in six months, without having doubts/taking the time to address any doubts about his own work (even in the case of a perfect work). I personally think it is a very dangerous strategy, for society, but successful for the individual (high risk high reward) strategy. If you fuel this attitude with <add famous prohibited substance from Colombia> then you understand the irrational economic behavior of many financial actors (and sometimes of political-economical actors ...)
    – EarlGrey
    Mar 4 '21 at 7:54
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    @user1936752 :-) Good one!
    – PatrickT
    Mar 4 '21 at 21:48
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I can help with this one from personal experience! I have finished a PhD with little to no supervision. To give you an example of what I mean, my advisor worked in a completely different area and hired me just because he was interested in a discipline and wanted to explore that by having a student. During my entire PhD, he was extremely supportive as a mentor and a friend, but academically speaking there was effectively zero supervision. He had no knowledge in my topic, could not guide me research wise or support me when I encountered difficulties, and had no knowledge of even the introductory aspects of my field. This is not to discredit him, he is a brilliant researcher in his field, he just had no knowledge in mine and had no interest in learning it either.

I had some very difficult moments where I experienced problems and felt very alone. I could not get the help I needed and his support came mostly in the form of statements like "Don't worry, it will be fine". I don't know how much this mirrors your situation, but honestly I have a hard time imagining a situation with less supervision than I had. Here are some thoughts I can give.

Trust your advisors a bit more than you currently do. They may not have experience in the field, but they have experience of what good/bad work is. They can judge the merits of something they may not be familiar with simply by intuition over decades of experience. Moreover, assuming they are supportive and kind otherwise, their letter of recommendations can go a long way especially since they are at a prestigious university. A letter saying that the student's research was more or less independent speaks wonders. At the end of the day, if you want to continue academia you will have to become an independent researcher anyway. No one is going to guide your hand. The fact that you get a bit of a "tough love" approach and become independent from day 1 may be a terrible experience at first but it can be very helpful later on. A lot of postdocs struggle at first because they never had to do anything independently, they were guided all the way. You don't have to worry about that.

Overall, I strongly recommend you stay in your current program unless you dislike it for other reasons. I know it sucks, trust me, but at the end of the day the best case scenario for an advisor is to have a strong and independent student. It seems like you are exactly just that. They don't have the need to micromanage you or to guide you perhaps because this appears to not be needed. Things will work out and you will be stronger for it. Not to mention that going to a completely new place is always a bit of a gamble. What if things don't work out there either as you would have hoped? Then you went to a less reputable university for nothing. Looking back at my case from years of perspective, perhaps my advisor indeed had no need to interfere exactly because things were going smoothly even when I felt they weren't. If something ain't broke don't fix it as the saying goes. It probably is the same in your case.

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I know this is not what you are expecting to hear, but I believe the experience you get by doing an unsupervised PhD is superior to the one you would get as a supervised student. You are already publishing, so you are doing well, in spite of the lack of supervision. This is much closer to what real world experiences are like.

You don't need a supervisor. Your supervisors act more like mentors than anything else. You need peers and collaborators, and a long term plan.

The professors supervising you can't help you with your technical issues, but they could help you find someone who can. What you need is close collaborators. You can meet such people at conferences, and if not, your many supervisors could introduce you to someone in your field they know and trust. You can also pester your advisors to invite someone whose work is close to yours to give a talk at your university.

Restarting the PhD somewhere else is worth it only if you enter a very strong group working in your field, and you can be sure you have both senior and junior researchers that will work with you. If I were in your situation, I'd rather find good collaborators, and try to work with them, especially if travel money is not too scarce (assuming travel is possible).

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Firstly: I have been in the exact same spot than you. I did a PhD in a field my supervisor barely had any knowledge of. I taught everything myself and yes in hindsight I would not have done it again, however I still feel that I gained much deeper knowledge than being supervised fully so you definitely have an advantage here as everything you do is YOUR achievement, it did not happen because someone told you to do X and Y. This is something that makes you an independent researcher, as suggested by Wetenschaap.

However, I feel with you that the lack of exchange is frustrating. Yet, I would not quit after two years as I also think you are doing well. I am not sure how common this is in UK but could you go for an internship or plan a research collaboration with another group from the University you would want to start over? This way you get a cool new project with some post-doc/PhD student and get some exchange. I know currently everything is really messy with Covid but try to look for other ways to meet PhD students in the field and exchange your ideas. This way you can stay where you are, complete the two years and still talk to peers.

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have you discussed your situation with your current supervisors? Before making any dramatic move I would suggest you clearly and openly make your needs and concern clear to them. There may be a myriad of reasons why they don't seem to give you all the attention you'd want, not necessarily all negative: as others suggested here, maybe they are simply happy with your work? You will never know until you clarify with them. If you need more interaction with people in your field, they may be happy to have you collaborate with other teams (which would be good for their networking too), send you to conferences, having you spending visiting periods elsewhere... etc. So potentially there could be many opportunities which you will never know about until you make your needs clear.

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This will be very dependent on what you want to do later and your personal character.

I did my PhD with no supervision from my two thesis directors. I was extra happy with that because I could push the research in the direction that I was interested in. I ended up publishing very novel approaches (today that would be called AI-Powered Physics TM) without anyone trying to push a way or another.

This said, I was not planning to stay in Academia afterwards (mostly due to the medieval organization, not because of research) and I am very independent - so that was an ideal situation for me.

I wanted to have a PhD for personal pride (since I started it), because it helped me to understand research and science, and as a useful entry on my CV. YMMV.

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  • This would very counterproductive in almost all aspects--for the same reason that no one is making >1 diploma, or >1 Phd (with very rare exceptions).

  • You complain about the lack of supervision, but think pragmatically and try to build connections with experts in the field.

  • By working at you current place you have an advantage of having interdisciplinary connections (with your supervisors). This is quite valuable.

  • It is good for a PhD student to get a broader view. If you get into narrowly specialized team, you will be missing this opportunity.

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Continue to pursue your degree at your current institution. Seek an advisor outside of your current institution, and add them to your committee. That way, you can get the best of both world.

This is fairly common in the US, especially at Universities near national labs. I have a friend at NIST who is not a professor at University of Maryland (UMD), but is currently supervising 4 PhD students from UMD. All of them have an "academic advisor" at UMD who are the committee chair, but are not the direct research advisor.

All in all, this is good because it will help for you to start building relationships with additional people. Or course, this should be done with the consent of your current advisors.

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