Some background. After my bachelor's, I took an interdisciplinary masters that allowed me to switch to a field that interested me. I'm currently in a PhD student with a supervisor that took a similar drastic career turn. After some years, I realized that overall he dictates most of my work and is actively harmful to my research.

The problem is that he is not at all acquainted with the methodologies and the practical skills necessary in our field. Where me and others of his students have taken seriously learning coding and statistics, he has never bothered to do so. He seems satisfied playing a 'managerial' role from the security of his position, setting abstract goals and deadlines, but can't really suggest solutions to the more practical problems or detect problems in an experimental design. In essence, he feels like a very controlling orchestra director that doesn't know how many strings a violin has.

This means he has concerning habits that I think are not normal and have casted a negative influence in my work over my time in academia:

  • He is very controlling. He sets tasks daily for everyone, and asks for progress a couple times a day, leaving little to no space to initiative. He relies a lot on weekly 'internal deadlines'. This wouldn't be a problem if he were competent, but he isn't.
  • He is very active at the writing stage, often including bits in the article that are grounded only on his own expectations, such as eyeballing of plots (often cherry-picking data). On this line, he has often asked for different statistical tests until they confirm his conceptions (p hacking). Me and the rest of students try to challenge these practices when we can, but it's mentally exhausting and demoralizing to have our projects hijacked.
  • When he wants to explore a piece of data we are asked to retrieve it for him (with consequent time spent coding), even if we are not interested in that ourselves or the code is available already to run it himself. This happens often, and the 'results' end up in our project paper where there was no motivation for us originally to report on that. Sometimes the chaining of these tasks develop into projects we get sucked into for months.
  • He can be very confrontational, and there is a history of people leaving the lab due to methodological disagreements. Other researchers sometimes also avoid him as they notice he is smoke and snakes. I didn't recognize that as the red flag it was until it was too late and I was already enrolled.
  • His publication rate depends on our work, so most projects are rushed (as enforced by his internal deadlines). We are pressured to produce results, or things that look like results to him at least, and sometimes he dismisses and downplay concerns about quality because he wants to 'wrap up' a project for publication. Unsurprisingly, I have preprints only as my work as it is is not accepted anywhere. Part of it is the quality of my own work independently of him and part the academic game, sure, but I think a considerable factor in it was caused by the points above and how they affect the work I produce, in essence, for him instead of for myself.

I feel very bad about this situation. I feel like I produce rubbish research that reflects poorly on what I would like to do, and that I am very limited in my efforts to improve it. As someone who has switched fields I want to do things right, and I knew that meant a lot of learning on my own, but I expected at least that my supervisor would be helpful, not actively harmful. A competent advisor should be able to point out flaws in my work much easily, and actually make me improve as a researcher. At this point of my PhD changing advisors is a remote possibility, as someone without the 'right' background to keep working on this field in a country with very few PhD grants, a grant that is tied to my current advisor's funding and a very limited academic network due to my advisor's isolation (department colleagues work on very different things, plus point above). Being at the start of the post-COVID economic crisis doesn't help make this decision easy, as my family is in a delicate economic situation and cutting my income stream for some time is going to make things hard.

I managed to tolerate this situation for some years now, trying to get the better out of it, and now my PhD dissertation is not so distant in the future anymore. I don't have anyone to ask for advice right now, so any advice would be great. What would do in my situation? Do you think I should present and try to salvage the few bits of work that might be worth defending, get the title and keep afloat economically for a while more, or should I try to quit while I can, since I'm clearly not comfortable with the work and I don't feel it represents can I could have been capable of? Or am I missing a third option I haven't considered?

(Sorry if this feels like a rant, but I'm genuinely in need of advice and I felt every bit was necessary to give enough context)

TL;DR: I'm a PhD student. My supervisor is very controlling and a terrible researcher, and he sometimes is more a burden than a mentor. Switching advisors is complicated in my case. Should I go on and at least get a PhD (and keep a much needed income for a bit more) with whatever I feel is salvageable or desist since I'm clearly not comfortable with my research work involving him?

  • You haven't mentioned any alternatives! You say your family is financially vulnerable, so...Quit, and then what? Mar 9, 2021 at 19:57
  • You say "my PhD dissertation is not so distant in the future anymore". Do you mean starting it, or finishing it?
    – Buffy
    Mar 9, 2021 at 20:06


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