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I'm having the problem that my advisor isn't providing me with any real guidance. To avoid making this a rant post, I'll just state the facts: my advisor is an MD/PhD, working almost full-time as an MD. He comes to the lab once a week for lab meetings, and often doesn't have time to meet. He seems to have lost interest in doing research, and isn't being helpful at all regarding how I should proceed with my research.

So far, here's what I've tried and how well it worked out:

  • Talking to department graduate chair: marginally useful, scheduled a useless meeting with me and my advisor. Nice meeting, but no results.
  • Talk to other members of my committee: pretty useful, gave me some very good advice about my research, but I wonder how often I can use them as a resource

Any other suggestions on how I can handle this?

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My answer depends on how far along you are in your research and whether you are in PhD or MD?PhD program.

If you are in a PhD program and you are less than a year in leave the lab. If you are more than a year in at you next Thesis Committee meeting, if it's scientifically reasonable, try to either set a date for graduating or ask for a co-PI.

If you are in the MD/PhD program, you will have to consider your PI's position and whether a lukewarm letter from someone in his position is worth your staying in the lab. If you plan to go into a competitive surgicial or medical subspecialty, it just might be.

I, sadly, think that checked-out PIs- even those without the excuse of having to go see patients- are increasingly the norm. Getting to be a professor is a great way to age rapidly and burn out, especially in the biomedical sciences. Also, professors aren't selected for their mentoring skills so much as scientific productivity. Often scientific productivity means exploitation or disregard because of self-involvement rather than nurturing.

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    I had a similar issue with my advisor between 2006 and 2009. Eventually things didn't quite work out as he was just trying to exploit me. I dropped out of the PhD program and got back in with an other faculty member who was good at mentoring.I am on my way to graduate with a PhD in about 10 months now. – dearN Feb 16 '12 at 16:48
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    +1 for "getting to be a professor is a great way to age rapidly and burn out" :) – Paul Mar 2 '13 at 17:23
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In addition to the department chair, is there a head of graduate studies or the like (e.g., an ombudsman)? You may want to consider talking to them.

Generally speaking though, unless it will severely derail your progress, I'd consider changing advisors, and starting to talk to your committee members about shifting who is your chair.

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    Agreed. If your advisor isn't doing their job, fire them. – JeffE Feb 17 '12 at 12:33
  • @EpiGrad: I don't totally agree. Politics in academia can be very petty, so burning bridges is dangerous. One effect of the glut of biomedical PhDs is that some (anecdotal evidence, I know) feel that the post-doc is what distinguishes you. Then, the PhD just becomes proof that you can manage most of a scientific project somewhat independently. So if your advisor is a mentoring failure but has clout and you can still finish (albeit with an inferior education) in his lab, it's not outlandish to stay. – mac389 Feb 18 '12 at 17:52

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