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Edit #1:

Thank you all for the comments. After sorting out some messes in my recent life and thinking things through. I do realize quitting isn't just a "magic bullet" to make world perfect. Still, it is good to read all of your posts and the solutions you guys offer!

TL;DR:

New starting Ph.D student in my very first year who has lost faith in my current university & my supervisor. Seriously considering quitting but don't know what to do.

Background

I'm 25 and have just graduated with a Master degree in computer science(computer vision, robotics specifically). My publication record is on track with 3 papers on A-tier conferences. I have good internship experience in the summer. Other than that, I have always had a great interest in research, machine learning in general, and I have been hardworking, from other's perspectives. I have a GPA 3.9 out of 4.0 for my master, and have been offered full financial support from my PhD program.

Current Academic Situation w/ My Supervisor

When I first applied to PhD programs, I applied to only two schools (my current university with my current supervisor & another good univ, both top 100) and ended up in the same university (I have also done my BS.c at the same university). While my current supervisor is a nice person & easy to talk to, I always feelextremely neglected & unsupervised the first thing. Most of the time, I only met up with my supervisor to seek research advice once per month or two only(I usually have to email him to ask beforehand so that he can coordinate a time, and sometimes he forgot still). However, for some engineering students, he will meet up way more often.

Secondly, every time I talked to my supervisor, I feel he's no longer interested in catching up to state-of-the-art compsci methods & prefer to work on more ECE-oriented projects on joint stick design or other things. This is also obvious, since all new students he recruited are from ece or mece & he's spending more time discussing with them. Another thing to denote here is that, although I'm working on computer vision research, there's no GPUs in our lab, and every time me or my fellow PhD student proposed for one he will sideline the entire conversation. This causes severe issue for me and my fellow PhD seniors, since we do not have the computational resource to demo any advanced Reinforcement Learning or Computer Vision methods on our lab robot, and we ended up settle with old GPU using our own money & have to make compromises in our methods(which renders our results weaker). However, he has no problem buying a 150, 000 fancy robot arm for the mece students he recruited.

Thirdly, after 4 years of observing my supervisor, I can fairly confirm that he rarely communicates with other professors in other universities (weak academic networking). I have talked to my seniors about this and they pretty much confirm this.

Basically, I feel I'm losing faith in my supervisor's capability in guiding me with a strong compsci resume for my PhD. While I totally agree that PhD students should be totally capable of conducting his own research, it doesn't make me feel less tiring and stressed over the fact that, I have to compete against top labs & univs for SOTA, and without constant feedbacks from my supervisor I sometimes feel very stressed and lost. The other problem is the academic networking, since my supervisor rarely networks himself, it has made it extremely difficult for me to get in contact with other leading researchers / experts. Another thing is the lack of investment in basic equipment (GPUs), where I sometimes felt my supervisor just didn't care.

Other Background

Financially I do not struggle for anything either, and I'm more than happy to pursue my PhD career, since I do love working research.

I come from a family of academics. My father is a professor in MECE with strong academic records & international connections (this is why I feel I'm struggling with my supervisor, since I have had a lot of experience with various researchers from my father's connections, and I feel my supervisor isn't catching up in years). My parents are well-aware of my supervisor and his lab situations(since I talk to them on a regular basis), and they always told me that it's OK and normal, as long as you work hard yourself.

I have talked to my post-doc senior, and my other PhD seniors (one of them has very strong publication at places like CVPR), they are all struggling for their own academic career compared to people coming from other top univs, or simply because the other people are more social with each other. I just feel my future is somehow hopeless even if I get a strong publication track and other thing (and that is a big if).

What would I do?

In summary, I am staying at the university where I graduate from my bachelor's degree. My supervisor has been making some peculiar choices & all my seniors have issues with their own academic tracks throughout the year. I feel my future is hopeless if I am to graduate from my PhD with what I have now. I want to quit my current university, and apply to a better place. I don't know if that's naïve since people get skeptical when you quit your PhD. I honestly have no idea what to do.

If I am to quit my current PhD, I'd need to apply for a work permit & look for a job since I'm not a Canadian citizen. I just feel clueless and feel something is missing from my PhD & am no longer satisfied of the situation I have to work with during my master. I'd love advice from anyone.

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  • 2
    Could you make it shorter or give a summary? That's very long. Sep 2 at 22:02
  • 1
    As far as hardware (GPUs) goes, why not take advantage of AWS? Otherwise it sounds like you and your advisor are off to a rocky start, you needing more attention and guidance than he or she is willing to give, or typically gives, and you expecting a different kind of advisor than you have. Don't quit yet, explore changing advisors later. If you're one week into your PhD work, you're probably still focusing on coursework for the next year. And despite your affinity for research, you might explore whether a PhD is for you. Sep 2 at 23:58
  • Can you tell me more about how he sidelines the conversation? Sep 3 at 1:26
  • A professor at a top 100 university must have at least some strengths other than being just a nice person. Are they a strong publisher? Do they know some ropes that others don't? Sometimes one benefits a lot (career-wise) from working with professors who do little supervising, but have other positive attributes such as writing every lab-member's name on every paper. What is the h-index of your senior peers? Be pragmatic.
    – naco
    Sep 3 at 6:30
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    If you "always feel neglected and unsupervised", why did you chose to stay with your MSc advisor for a PhD programme in the first place? Was this the only out of your two applications that got accepted, or did you have a reason for your preference?
    – penelope
    Sep 3 at 10:03
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I want to quit my current university, and apply to a better place.

Don't make a hasty decision after one week. First I'd suggest you figure out what your options are

  1. Are there any other professors at your current university that are doing work that interest you? Preferably same department, but you could even look at other departments. Changing advisors with the same university will be much easier than changing universities. Don't necessarily contact any of them yet, just determine if this is an option or not.

  2. If you did change schools, what other school would you go to? Make a list of the three or four schools you would like to go to. Now those schools will have application deadlines. Figure out what those application deadlines are. I don't know how it works in Canada, but in the US the application deadlines would probably be sometime in December. Let's assume that it is December 1 for talking purposes.

Hopefully the fact that you know you have some options and that you know you have some time until you have to make the decision on those options will give you some mental "breathing room".

Now, backup a few weeks from that application deadline. Let's call it November 1st. Try your absolute hardest to make things work with your current advisor until then. Talk to him if you can, and express your concerns. Don't tell you that you are thinking about quitting necessarily, but just talk about what you'd like to see changed. Many other questions on this site might help with the discussion.

If you get to Nov 1, and it still doesn't work, then start talking to other professors in your department and see if you can change. And if that doesn't work, then start writing those applications to other schools.

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  • Upvoted mostly for the bold lines, which I also wanted to say. And PhD crisis is somewhat likely to happen for some time to come....
    – Alchimista
    Sep 4 at 8:20
  • Thank you so much for the kind words and the bold. After cooling down from courses, conference deadline and a long talk with my parents, I realize it may indeed be a hasty decision. And you're right about expressing more of my concerns (my supervisor is the kind of person you need to "push" a bit to get your ideas accepted or to make certain changes, it takes long but that's how I get some good tracks with my master). I will definitely try my best as well to see things differently. Thanks!
    – humming101
    Sep 5 at 5:41
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Speaking from personal experience... This could prove to be quite a journey. Good part is that without close supervision you can do things you are actually interested in instead of slaving away doing some possibly dead end research for a few years. Bad part, obviously, is that you are on your own. Now, whether it is a good thing or a bad thing is field-dependent and, more importantly, that is where your personal quirks kick in. Your parents are somewhat right about "just working hard will get you there", but social expectations have also changed since they were starting their careers.

Personally, I do not regret going that path but not having resources and not knowing how to obtain them has proven to be a major obstacle setting me back a few years. To me, that is less important than creative freedom I have enjoyed in the process, but might not be the case for you if you want to approach it in a more "mainstream" way, with tenure track firm in sights and all that.

To that end, I would offer a quick summary checklist for your expectations.

  • Are you prepared to be the main AND corresponding author for your articles? I.e. instead of advisor doing the bulk of the work preparing your results for publishing and handling the process they would only intervene as you encounter difficulties?
  • When do you plan to learn navigating grant funding and observing your research institution relevant formalities? Say, lab equipment does not come out of thin air: do you expect your advisor to sort it out and let you focus on the topic entirely? Would you rather learn how it works from lab head's perspective?
  • Do you actually have a team (yourself included) capable of doing the work you want to do? Top-100 uni is not telling much if its strengths lie elsewhere and the relevant lab is fresh established and lacking support?

You are at crossroads right now. Huge opportunities, huge risks. But no guts, no glory, right? Two big points though, irrelevant of your ultimate decision - no networking is beyond terrible in academy. I could not possibly stress it enough. If the supervisor does not do that, you would have to.

Second, not having support, even if it is stupidest things like affirming what you are doing is okay (in my case, relevant to publishing) could prove crippling to your academic performance. Yes, your supervisor is the person who is supposed to help with that and yes, ideally that happens by the virtue of you both working on the closely related topics or even on the same one. Unfortunately, far from all supervisors are great and approachable, and sometimes you might feel less intimidated approaching your fellow senior students.

TL;DR: What are you getting out of this program? If you got hardly any involvement from anyone (primarily, your supervisor) and no perks of being a PI in your own chosen topic (ability to secure funds for the lab, assign some work to people)... Well, yes, this arrangement is not really helping you in any significant way. Quitting is very much on the table, but it sounds like you do not know that well how things operate around you, relying on second-hand information from senior students and having hardly any networking. Sure, this is a hard situation to find yourself in, but just applying to another program does not mean all listed issues would instantly evaporate. You do things you were assigned to do fairly well, but this is not enough for an academic career. I would say that stress from dealing with everything is probably too much, but do not expect to find a perfect lab ticking all the boxes, or even the ones you prefer ticked the most, just have at least something to help you in your career.

Also, best of luck!

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  • Thank you so much for the long answer. This is actually quite a lot of information. Some things to note: 1. While being in top univs, my supervisor's lab is small, total creative freedom. And with most senior phds graduating from my lab, things are actually looking stressed even for my supervisor himself. 2. Networking is a serious issue for my supervisor, and with covid connecting to new places and new labs are worse. After calming myself down I completely agree with your point that applying to another won't be a magic bullet, so thanks for pointing this out.
    – humming101
    Sep 5 at 5:51
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Same here, a first-year Ph.D. student in computer vision.

I totally understand the anxiety when lacking GPUs, but I would recommend you to talk to your supervisor first and let him know all of your concerns. If it still doesn't work out, you may like to tell him that you would apply for a new position and see if you can stay in the same lab until you make it, and of course, you have to keep working for him.

This is what two of my friends did. Both of them got to better places. One of them has graduated with great tracks.

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  • Been trying to talk him into buying GPUs with no luck. But will see. :P
    – humming101
    Sep 5 at 5:52

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