A PhD student I know is having trouble with their academic advisor. Their advisor is very hands-off (to the level of being neglectful) and has a very sink-or-swim mentoring style. To be clear, the advisor gives next to no mentoring advice and is unwilling to help their students with anything that doesn't directly benefit the advisor (e.g., a paper where the advisor is a co-author) or is something that otherwise of direct interest to them (i.e. might lead to a paper for the advisor). This leads to a recurring problem in the lab where students graduate...and they don't have the skills necessary to survive on their own in academia. The student has been with their advisor for their undergraduate, Master’s and now their PhD (which feels rough – I was always urged myself to attend different programs for each of these steps, not work with the same advisor).

To top things off, the advisor has very narrow research interests and has a very rigid idea of how they want things done, so students are often trained to work on very specialized topics that don't lend themselves to further study and the advisor isn't willing to change projects if the initial concept doesn't work out. The advisor is not open to novel ideas or avenues of research unless the advisor came up with it. The advisor doesn't do anything that feels illegal they just...provide the bare minimum of assistance. This has led in the past to students burning out or quitting without completing their projects, including PhD projects.

The student is starting to feel that they aren't going to get their lab environment to change, and it's not worth burning their academic bridges, so the best thing to do is finish their degree and get out. On the side, they’ve been working on a number of smaller projects in the hopes of broadening their research interests and experience in the hope that once they graduate they will not be stuck in the hyper-specialized field their advisor is in, which has very limited opportunities for funding and advancement.

In this process however, the student has run into a number of problems essentially trying to build their career on their own:

  • The advisor has done next to no work in helping the student make connections in the field or help them identify job/grant opportunities, etc. The advisor has been using their students to perform research, write papers, and nothing else. The student has tried to make academic contacts on their own, but without the advisor introducing them most researchers and even most grad students won't talk to them.

  • The student is trying to circumvent some of these issues by working on small papers on their own, to try and build up a healthy CV. However, to complete the research they need grant money, but most of the available small grants for graduate students require letters-of-recommendation from their advisor. Similarly, research in our field may require visiting archives, libraries or museum collections that one needs advisor recommendations to get access to research material, which the student often cannot get from their advisor (Again, if it doesn’t track into an output for the advisor, the advisor doesn’t care).

  • The student is in a position where they cannot easily leave the lab group. The student especially cannot afford to burn bridges, in our field if any student parts from a lab under unusual circumstances it is almost immediately assumed the student is damaged goods. The student has been in the same lab group for an undergraduate and a graduate degree; leaving now is challenging at best.

  • The student has tried to work out the matter with their advisor and made no progress. They also tried to let other faculty at the university know and made no progress. The department basically knows what is going on but doesn't want to say anything. Part of this is because while this lab's atmosphere isn't healthy, the advisor hasn't done anything illegal or overtly abusive.

I've been providing a sounding board to this student for years but even I find this quandary complicated. I realize there's not much I can do on my end besides be supportive and provide what little help I can, but I'm more wondering what someone should even do in these kinds of situations. How exactly does one build a career when they can’t depend on assistance from their advisor yet can’t simply go somewhere else?

2 Answers 2


How exactly does one build a career when they can’t depend on assistance from their advisor yet can’t simply go somewhere else?

I hate to be pessimistic, but maybe it just can’t be done? The situation you’re describing seems almost maximally stacked to ensure the student failing. Well, it’s hard enough to build a successful academic career even under the most favorable circumstances — many who try even that will fail. Why would you think that there is some trick that makes it possible to do under the least favorable circumstances?

If the student wants to be successful, they need to find a way to put themselves in a position that’s conducive to success. Being in this lab, under this advisor, sounds like the opposite of such a position. Sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but that’s the picture I’m seeing here. And best of luck to the student.


I am leaving a very similar situation. The way I got out was elevating the topic to the director of the graduate program. Even better I did it in a way that what I told the director was seen by the advisor. Nothing bad, just the pure truth about lack of direction to progress, etc. We three met and they simulated that I would be looking for a different advisor. At the end, the one advisor I identified would not take me either (once I showed he would not be able to profit from me as the previous one and that he would actually have to give a serious thesis topic). So my old advisor took me back, provided a silly thesis topic which I have finished.

Ultimately, this kind of people won't do anything if it's not in their benefit. But it's in their benefit that you graduate and it's in their benefit that you don't talk openly about their behavior.

The second key thing is to build "any" connection outside of that lab and university. I've heard stories by very top guys in my field on how they actually found their thesis topic on an internship, came back, defended thesis, then came back to the same internship place and built their career from there. In my case, I have previous education location were they know me. But this does not apply to your mentee.

A last piece of advice that worked well in my case. As Dan Romik puts it, your mentee won't get much out of his advisor. Following my strategy he will get a thesis topic to get out. This means the advisor knows something about the topic (to get rid of the student). Publishing a couple of papers on the topic will show something that it's ultimately more important in a career: people know that your mentee now knows a bit of what his advisor knows. Since knowledge is power it matters little whether he got that knowledge from a good and wise advisor or from an idiot.

One thing my mentor told me that helped me a lot (in particular in pasting the name of the advisor on my papers) was, do you think people in your field don't know how your advisor works? And indeed, of course they know.

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