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I'm a first year PhD student in theoretical physics. My problem isn't strictly due to imposter syndrome, but rather not knowing how I should be spending my time. My supervisor has only given me some vague guidance on what my project should be about, while I hoped to be given some reasonably well-defined first problem to work on. His most concrete suggestion was along the lines of "go study some lattice model on this particular class of lattice geometries and see if you find something interesting".

For the past two months, while trying to follow his suggestion, I have been attempting to learn various methods that might be useful to my project, allowing me to study said models in said geometries, or to at least gain a better understanding of the available literature, but that's not a way to continue; there is not enough time to learn even a handful of methods that would be relevant to the problem at hand in sufficient depth. I've only had a couple of ideas of how I might be able to study the problem emerge during this process, but even then I don't know if those ideas are feasible, let alone sound (and the more I think about them, the less sound they appear).

My supervisor isn't actively doing research himself, and only engages with the research being done by the people in the group through meetings, which is unlike some other group leaders I have done projects with. I appreciate that my supervisor gives me full independence in choosing what I want to work on, but identifying a suitable problem to begin with and means of solving it is what I struggle the most with. Other PhD students in my group are lucky to have co-supervisors who seem more engaged with their projects, or had been supervised by a postdoc during their Master's project and now have some clear follow-up problems to work on with their postdoc partner.

Is this how PhD research is expected to look like at the beginning, or are those signs that my supervisor is not particularly good at supervising? I'm in the UK, so changing my supervisor is not an option.

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  • I won't say that changing supervisors is completely out of the question in the UK. I've known of several students change supervisors. It is, however, regarded as fair big step, and its not guarenteed that the department will agree. Oct 31, 2021 at 16:44
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    Does this answer your question? How should I deal with becoming discouraged as a graduate student? Oct 31, 2021 at 17:49
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    Despite the added UK tag, I don't think this is special to UK in any way.
    – Buffy
    Oct 31, 2021 at 18:49
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    I went through a similar phase then "Boom!". Similar phases happened to many PhD students I met. Take this as a bit of optimism.
    – Alchimista
    Nov 1, 2021 at 8:59
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    @Buffy since PhD students in the UK have a supervisor and thesis title from the get-go, it's harder to change them, unlike systems in which a student is admitted to the department and shops around for a topic and supervisor. Part of the question is about changing/adding supervisors, so I think the tag is appropriate.
    – astronat
    Nov 1, 2021 at 9:25

3 Answers 3

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Firstly, there is always the option to change your supervisor, even in the UK. However, that may be the last resort option, and you have other avenues you can explore first.

Have you tried asking your current supervisor for more guidance? If you don't tell them that you feel lost with your current project, they won't know! You can write them an email explaining things just as you have done here, or ask for a Zoom meeting or in-person meeting if you would prefer to talk face to face. Communication is key! The supervisor-supervisee relationship works best if you can both talk honestly and sincerely with each other from the get-go. It's not too late to explain your feelings and problems to your supervisor. (It's also not unusual to feel lost at the start (and middle, and sometimes even the end) of a PhD, but it sounds like in your case you have had a particularly scant amount of guidance.)

If your supervisor is unwillingly or unable to give you more help, you should be able to officially or unofficially add a second supervisor to your supervisory team. In fact, I'm surprised you don't already have one -- at my university it was mandatory, to avoid this exact situation. Ask around amongst those keen and engaged postdocs to see if any of them would be willing to take you on as a student, or unofficially mentor you and provide you with some guidance. Make sure that you let your current supervisor know that you are doing this, rather than springing it on them once all the arrangements have been made.

Finally, if there's no one in your department who can help you out as a co-supervisor, you could consider starting a collaboration with someone from another university. This is likely to be quite hard since you are a new PhD student with presumably not much of a network. My advice is to to go to conferences and workshops in your field and get talking to people who are working on interesting problems. Suggest something that you could work on together, if you are able to come up with an idea (not always easy!). There are also other questions and answers on this site about how to start new collaborations.

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I don't know if it's the field, but I've heard this story before in UK theoretical physics.

Perhaps it might help to be able to go to your supervisor for specific advice. You said you've been trying to learn lots of methods that might be useful to a sufficient detail to use them. That sounds inefficient.

I have to admit, I'm not a theoretical physicist, but what I'd do is make a list of all the models you can find in literature in the specified geometry, and see which one excites people the most, or seems to have the most open questions. Or hasn't been studied at all.

Then I'd make a list of all the methods that you could apply to it - learn just enough about each one to be able to be 50-60% confident it could be applied and no one has done so before. Then pick one method.

Does (did) your supervisor specifise in a particular class of models/methods? It might be worth finding a combination that is complementary with someone else in the dept. Like if your supervisor has worked with model X, and your list of methods includes a method that someone else inthe dept has experience with, that might be a useful combo. Congratulations, you've found yourself a co-supervisor.

Then write to your supervisor saying "here are all the models I reckon I could study, and here are the methods I think might be applicable. I think perhaps I might start by trying method X with model Y, can we arrange a meeting to discuss if you think this is a productive way forward?"

They might say "no I don't think this model/method will be productive", in which case be prepared to say "what about this other model/method" or "which of this list of methods do you think would be more productive"?

He might just shrug, and say "go try, see what happens".

Again, discipline specific considerations apply, but usually, if you apply a particular method to a particular problem, and do it well, it can form part of your thesis even if it doesn't work.

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Talk to your supervisor

Supervisors are there to help, so if you feel that you need some more specific/detailed guidance at this stage of your program, go and see your supervisor and have a talk about it. You can let him know that you are having trouble with the general task you have been assigned and you think you need some more detailed guidance on how to proceed. Research expectations are not high for a first-year PhD student, so it is likely that your supervisor will be willing to accommodate some additional guidance to help you develop.

Most major problems that arise in supervision of PhD students occur when the student has a problem, or is not making progress, but they are too shy or anxious to speak to their supervisor about it. Effective supervision requires the student to be realistic about their situation and progress, and report candidly to their supervisor about any difficulties they are having. When this occurs, supervisors can usually assist the student and nip initial problems in the bud.

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