I started my PhD last year with a new professor where I am the only student in the lab. It has been really difficult trying to work with him. He can not advise me with my research because his suggestions are incorrect and unguided. It does not seem to me that he tries to keep up with the field but does not realize he doesn't understand the field because of that.

I asked him if it would be possible for our lab to collaborate with another lab but he said no. All of my friends in other labs have multiple knowledgeable researchers they work under, collaborate with other students, or work on external projects. My advisor does not seem to be trying to get these connections.

I feel lost and every week my PhD goes on I feel more and more hopeless about ever doing good enough work. I try to push past these feelings to just keep reading papers in my field and hopefully come up with a fresh enough idea to publish but the hopelessness has been making it difficult.

I looked around and no other advisors at my school are in the subfield I'm researching. I wouldn't mind switching fields but I worry that no one would accept me because I'm not in their immediate subfield. I am a good student in class and participate and network but other students do not want to work with people outside their lab, and I don't know how to start to make a connection like that with a professor.

I was wondering what the best course of action should be. I am hopeful maybe we will get new students in our lab I can collaborate with, or somehow my advisor will be invited onto a collaborative project. But am I misled in thinking the PhD should be more collaborative? Should I just accept that I have to research without guidance and try my best? Or are there other actions I can be taking to make my PhD experience closer to what I was hoping for? Thank you.

1 Answer 1


My feeling is that while a PhD is not always collaborative, being in a place where there is a strong collaborative spirit is a very good thing. Unfortunately, if you have found yourself in a lab (and department) that is not collaborative, and you currently have no leads for switching advisors, then you will need to take a different approach to help yourself. Part of being a PhD student is learning to be an independent researcher and in some cases it is trial by fire. In some cases an advisor may hand students projects and help them make collaborations. In other cases students need to (or are expected to) take initiative and find their own way to those things. I would also add that collaborations are a two way street and you need to have something you can offer your potential collaborators. Once you have it, it will be clear who you should collaborate with and you will have a stronger case to present your advisor should you need their blessing.

If I were in your shoes I would start networking outside of your department. Plan to attend conferences and workshops this year so that you can learn new approaches and tools that you can apply to your research, and build personal connections. If you do not yet have a plan for your thesis project, attending conferences may inspire you and help you find direction. Furthermore, maybe your advisor does not want to collaborate, but that doesn't mean that you can't build your network and seek advice on topics from other researchers in your field. Doing these things will help you apply the latest methods to your work without having to rely on your advisor to tell you how. It will also help you become known to others in lieu of collaboration, which will help you later.

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