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I'm a second-year (almost third-year) PhD student having serious trouble due to lack of scientific direction. I initially worked well with my supervisor, but when COVID hit she essentially ghosted the research group for some months and has been irregularly present ever since. Lately, I've noticed that she seems checked out when I talk to her and so I started explicitly asking for clarification as to what exactly I should be working on whenever I see her. Unfortunately, this strategy has been foiled by my supervisor changing tacks about every 2-4 weeks. For example:

-Conversation 1: "You should focus on x, then do y. Do not include z until those first two are set."

-Conversation 2: "Actually doing q is a good idea, let's work on q together (for a month)!"

-Conversation 3: "What you should present at the conference (in 2 weeks)? Show the data on z, that is the most interesting aspect of the project."

-Conversation 4: "No, you should not work on q anymore, that needs to happen in parallel to z."

-Conversation 5 (after someone at a conference explicitly called attention to my lack of including y): "I understand you are asking to work on y but I think you should try to extend x. But I suppose you can include y."

-Conversation 6, only one(!) day after Conversation 5: "What do you mean about doing y, you should do your whole project without y. Also you should work on a paper with (random collaborator) on k! And actually you should also do/have done x completely differently!"

This is pretty frustrating since all the "x,y,z,q..."s I mentioned tend to be at least partially exclusive and take at least 2 months to complete, so I have sunk a lot of work into projects that are half-done. If I work on something that has lost my supervisor's interest, I don't get feedback, which makes it difficult to wrap up anything. My project is also related to two different collaborations, at least one of which seems a bit pissed off and is now proceeding to publish without our input. (The other one has shifted to emailing only me directly now, which is helpful, but I know my supervisor left the first set hanging at least once/tends to view answering emails as highly optional so I kinda get where they're coming from).

In terms of other people to talk to, our group only has one postdoc, who tends to take about a week to answer emails and is not very forthcoming in terms of mentoring PhD students. The other two PhD students in my group are close to graduation, and struggle with the same issue in the short-term (e.g. getting told to write an answer to referees disagreeing with the corrections on an article, then getting criticised for not having applied the corrections) but have already set the main academic direction of their project.

I'm not really sure how to handle this: should I confront my supervisor about the inconsistencies? Trying to set another meeting to talk long-term goals? Just do whatever I think is best and hope I don't mess up too badly without feedback? My supervisor doesn't always take criticism well, and I'm afraid that I'll just get blamed for being a bad student because I haven't produced anything publishable in a year.

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    Sounds like an opportunity for you, as an almost PhD, to sift through her various directions, pick one or meld a few, and take the plunge. Waiting for consistency: not always the right tactic. Apr 27 at 16:59
  • Is this in the US or elsewhere? More important, were you assigned this supervisor or did you choose them?
    – Buffy
    Apr 27 at 18:26
  • @Aruralreader that is a fair approach, if a bit early (it's a 4 year program). Apr 27 at 19:13
  • @Buffy This is in Europe. I chose my supervisor when entering the program- there is no assignment system at my university, at as far as I'm aware of. Apr 27 at 19:13
  • I sympathise. Are these conversations verbal or in writing? Try and get as many of these instructions in writing so that you have some evidence to show a week/month down the line when she asks you why you're working on topic x. Then you can say, "look, you told me to in this email".
    – astronat
    Apr 27 at 20:08
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As a phd student your job is to ultimately create your own track of successful research. An ideal advisor would suggest reasonable lines of research, help you develop your ideas, and give guidance and advice if you ever get stuck. In practice, advisors tend to fall in one of two camps. In the first camp, advisors treat their students as employees who produce results for the advisor's group. In the second camp are 'hands off' advisors who don't do much at all. It sounds to me like your advisor is the hands off type. Take initiative, decide what makes the most sense to work on, and do that. Unless your advisor has explicitly told you, "I expect you to work on X and your graduation depends on finishing X", they probably just want you to do something publishable and don't care much past that. Take the opportunity to work on whatever you feel is most interesting or most beneficial to you in the long term.

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Verbal conversations are an inefficient means to set directions for a successful PhD project. Random verbal conversations even less so, let alone after a few months of absence for whatever reasons.

Define what you want to achieve for your PhD. Formulate hypotheses to validate or problems to solve. Establish the steps needed to get from where you are to where you need to be. Put the work in context to the current state of the art. State the technological or scientific relevance of the projected outcomes.

Put your plan in writing. Set a meeting and present your written plan to your advisor. Ask for directed feedback. Ask for an opportunity to present your plan to a committee of faculty who you know should have an interest in the success of your work.

In the US, this step is called drafting a dissertation proposal. Some PhD programs require that candidates pass an oral defense of their PhD proposal as the first step to be admitted (given official permission) to do the PhD research.

A dissertation proposal is not a guarantee to be given a PhD. A dissertation proposal is not an administrative recipe for all steps in the research. A dissertation proposal is a roadmap that says I am here, I want to go in this direction, I want to visit these stops along the way, I hope to get at least this far, I plan to use these modes of transportation, I expect the trip should take this long, this is why the trip is important, and these are the pictures that I should be able to show once the trip is done. A dissertation proposal is a plan to help both the dissertation advisor and the PhD candidate frame future discussions about changing plans when something in the research suddenly goes dreadfully wrong, when something only tangentially related to the research plan becomes exceptionally exciting in its own right, or when either party steps aside from the research activities for a few months (for whatever reasons).

Finally, you do not need to ask your advisor for permission to make such a plan. You are far enough along that, in my observation, you should consider taking the initiative. To this end however, you should inform your advisor of your decision. A reasonable approach in your situation is to tell your advisor that you see many directions that you might be able to go in doing your research, that you see possibilities for roadblocks or distractions along the way, and that, with all of this, you feel a strong need to focus at this point on creating a research plan for the best path forward. Use this opening as the way to establish that you will draft a dissertation proposal/plan for joint discussion and approval (with the draft to be completed in perhaps a month or so if I be so bold).

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