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I started my PhD 2 years ago and I was my supervisor's first PhD student. He had no funding for any of the projects he promised me at the time. Later, he received a grant and so I was able to switch focus but I've had this weird feeling that he wants me gone for almost a year now. Here are some things that have happened:

  1. I didn't have a solid project, to begin with. When I finally was given something solid to work on, it turned out that it is a 5-year project - I was given this during my 3rd semester of joining the program;

  2. In my department PhDs are normally about 4 to 4.5 years;

  3. He hired me and another student when I started but the other student had taken all the funded projects our lab offered at the time. This student also receives all side projects in the lab;

  4. In my first year I worked on a review, which he barely looked at. When he submitted it he essentially edited my parts 2 days before submission. I heard about this the day before he submitted the paper;

  5. When I suggest doing one practical training or a workshop so that I can expand my skillset he declines. He only provides me with information about pieces of training that don't interest me (and aren't very much in line with what I want to do in the future).

  6. I've suggested having a second supervisor but he has refused to say that he "knows how to do his job" and that I should leave if I am not happy;

  7. I've caught him lying about a few things. The project he decided to give me after 3 semesters is a new type of project for his lab and we had to purchase equipment and find the space for its storage. For 2 months he kept saying that the orders have been placed and everything has been arranged. But it turned out that the order wasn't placed.

  8. during committee meetings he has asked me to tell my committee that I am working on papers when in reality I was busy reading a textbook he had given me (after asking him 100 times about recommendations because he doesn't recommend anything on his own);

  9. It is now almost a year since I've last heard from anything else I've written;

  10. The lab next to ours is understaffed. I was asked to help out with a couple of their projects but he hired a BSc student to help them out;

  11. He allows other students to contribute to my new project. But I am not allowed to contribute to anything extra - essentially my tasks are taken away and they are not replaced with anything;

  12. He doesn't communicate with me. When I started working on the new project I had to write a proposal for it to the department, it had turned out (I found out about this 2 weeks ago) that I had messed up some of the timelines in the proposal -not on purpose, I thought they were the correct timelines. He never communicated anything with me.

  13. In general, he is never interested in my development and often says he doesn't have time, doesn't have time to review my work, doesn't have time to train me on some methods, doesn't have time for pretty much anything. The only thing he does find time for is a weekly more or less 1h meeting over Zoom. I've tried talking to my committee, the department, him. He says he is not interested in talking about such matters because they are pointless discussions that don't lead anywhere. I feel extremely guilty for what is going on, yet I don't know what to do. Is this normal in academia? Do you have any advice for a lost grad student?

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    Why are you staying? Are you searching for a different position, even a different university?
    – Buffy
    Dec 14, 2021 at 22:38
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    It seems pretty clear you need to find an new supervisor or a new job. This is not normal and the supervisory relationship is clearly broken. I'd suggest that your supervisor's first concern would be that your supervisor is about to loose his job. Dec 14, 2021 at 22:39
  • Discuss this with your department chair or equivalent. Dec 14, 2021 at 22:45
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    Do you have an Ombudsman at your university? Find out and go to them with this info.
    – quantum
    Dec 14, 2021 at 22:59
  • related? academia.stackexchange.com/questions/179187/…
    – BCLC
    Dec 15, 2021 at 12:28

2 Answers 2

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I have to assume you aren't exaggerating. In that case, this is not the advisor you need. You should find an alternative using the shortest and simplest path.

I don't normally recommend inexperienced advisors, and especially non-tenured ones (though you don't say that). They have other things to do and advising isn't their top priority. Some people haven't yet learned how to be helpful.

In addition, if they are abusive in any way they can stall you forever.

I was once in a situation not nearly this bad, but my advisor was simply not helpful in any meaningful way. I wound up changing universities and found a completely different environment and a much more competent and compatible advisor.

It wasn't without cost, however. My original plan was to complete in four years and took seven ultimately. With a different advisor I would probably have met my goal. My problem, however, was really that I was too "shy" to insist on a change. I paid the price, and learned to give up inaction when it was required.

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  • They are not abusive, no, just that our relationship is very meh. He will be there if I ask a question but he will never provide me with opportunity to learn in practice - it will all be done via a zoom call. When I say I am interested in contributing to some of the current projects he says he isn't and that the other student in the lab is already running everything. At the same time, my own project is barely moving forward (it is a 5yr project right..) part of me feels like he knows he f* up but isn't admitting it and is pushing me to leave now.
    – Jojo22
    Dec 14, 2021 at 23:43
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    Some of the actions you describe are abuse, though not direct verbal abuse. Lying, for example. Not reviewing your work. If you see a clear path to completion then stay, but from here it seems doubtful.
    – Buffy
    Dec 14, 2021 at 23:45
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I am going to play devil's advocate here and give an alternative answer. It's a little bit "sympathy for the devil" but never attribute to malice what can easily be explained by...

Before you judge your supervisor, make sure you are judging him based on his actions and not on the intentions that you have attributed to him. Your supervisor may not think badly of you simply because, most of the time, he may not even be thinking about you at all.

Right now, your PhD is your entire life, you live and breathe it. You spend every waking moment (exaggeration, I hope!) thinking up ways to impress or even just please your supervisor. For your supervisor, though, you are only one of several students in a lab working on one of several projects. He has set you to work on a 5 year project, but he knows you only have 3-4 years left of study. Therefore, he is assigning other students to the project not to usurp you, but to get the project done. He may be "defending" your time by ensuring you are not assigned to tasks that can be completed by an undergrad. Your example of him lying: could it have been that he was just mistaken (and/or covering himself when he realised his mistake)? Paperwork can get lost or delayed. The uninteresting training options might be something that he thinks are useful for "some of his students", and you are one of his students. I'm sorry to say that he just might not know you that well, or maybe he thinks you are going in a different direction of research. I have to say, though, the submission of a review paper with only a few edits seems somewhat lazy on the part of the supervisor, but maybe it was a genuinely good draft. He should have told you about it, though, so I hope there was some sort of deadline or major distraction involved for your supervisor. But it might not be malice, just thoughtlessness. He has a 1 hour meeting per week with you and it might be all the time he has allocated in his schedule for you and your research.

One day, you will fly on your own. You will find your own learning opportunities, discover the textbooks that you need/enjoy, find your own research projects, submit your own papers and grant applications if you like. At some point you will stop asking your supervisor things and start telling them things because you will be more expert in that (very particular) area. But that day won't just suddenly happen by magic. You have to practise these things and it will be a gradual process.

So, look on your supervisor with a little pity - one day you might be better than him, let's hope he is not insecure about that. BUT if you're genuinely in a toxic atmosphere or if your supervisor just isn't living up to your expectations, then the step you have to take as an independent researcher is as in Buffy's answer.

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