4

I am a fifth-year CS PhD student in an US institution, co-advised by two professors, and I already passed my thesis proposal in the fourth year. In the thesis proposal, I promised to deliver one last project, in addition to three past projects that I have completed before the proposal.

I also presented a roadmap for graduation during team meetings, and discussed that with both of my advisors. They seem to be ok with it, at least neither of them opposed to what I presented. In the roadmap, I essentially said that I will conclude the project by June this year, after which I just start writing the thesis, and I expect myself to graduate by November.

Earlier this year, I already got preliminary results for the last project, and I am ready to write the last paper for submission before starting the thesis process. Then one of my advisors told me that I need to conduct extra experiments (which is fine), plus doing X and Y which he thought would make the results better (which is not fine, because X and Y are largely just his own research ideas, which do not fit into the last project I proposed). The other advisor's attitude is not clear when I tried to talk to him regarding the project arrangement, and his answer is always pretty vague, being something like "yeah you can graduate this year, as long as you wrap up the project".

I am now pretty concerned of my graduation status, because I was receiving conflicting messages here: (1) Both advisors seem to be OK with the roadmap I proposed; (2) But they said I need to wrap up the last project with research idea X and Y, which I totally do not know how to perform, because they are not aligned with my past research experiences. Besides, designing and preparing experiments on X and Y would take time, which I doubt can be done in a few months of time; (3) Meanwhile they still say that I can graduate by the end of this year. I do not know what do those conflicting feedbacks mean, and I need help. Should I just tell them I am unable to perform X and Y, and please just let me graduate with the current projects? Or should I just try my best until they decided that I have done enough or simply until they give me up?

I am also a little bit upset about the fact that I did deliver what I have promised, and all three of us had agreed that I could graduate after that, but still one of my advisors insisted that I should do X and Y and pressed me to add them into the last project. Worst of all, X and Y are out of my research focus, and I have neither the slightest idea nor the experience on how they could be done.

By the way, the reason that I strongly wish to graduate by the end of the year is that I already got two job offers, and I really want to accept one of them. It would be a lost opportunity if I could not complete the degree by the end of the year.

1 Answer 1

3

One way to proceed is to organize a meeting with you and both advisors to discuss your progress toward graduation (ideally, in person, if COVID restrictions and other circumstances allow). During this meeting, you can lay things out basically the way you have here.

  • Your goal is to graduate by the end of the year, and you have job offers lined up with this in mind.
  • Bring up the slides, and say that you all approved this plan, and that you have implemented the plan.
  • X and Y are a significant amount of additional work that are not aligned with your experience, and you don't have the resources to complete X and Y and write a thesis within the year time scale.
  • You think the results you have (plus additional experiments suggested by your advisor, without X and Y) are publishable. (Be prepared to defend this point).

Of course we can't judge whether your paper is publishable or not without X and Y. But, these are all strong points. Sometimes, people get an idea for what could make a good addition to a project, lose sight of the practical aspects of finishing a project, and need to be reminded of the finite amount of resources available.

In the meeting, aim to be well-prepared, confident, knowledgable, and willing to defend your point of view. It's hard to predict what will happen, but I can see a few possible outcomes.

  • Both advisors are convinced by your arguments (possibly after some back and forth about things like "well shouldn't X only take you a month?"). When you lay it all out for them like this, they may agree that what you are saying is very reasonable, and realize that X and Y are not really needed for you to graduate. In this case, the situation is basically resolved. Based on what you've said, I think this is the most likely outcome, but I don't know the details of the personalities involved and the details of the paper.
  • Your advisors are split, with one wanting X and Y and the other being convinced that X and Y are not necessary. This could be a tricky situation to navigate. But, getting them on the same page is why having them both present in the meeting is important. In this case, they will need to decide between themselves either in the meeting or on their own after the meeting what to do.
  • Both advisors could decide that X and Y are needed to finish the project.

In the third case, you have a few options.

  • You could try to meet with the chair of the department and appeal your advisor's decision, and explain the situation, showing the slides from your proposal. You have to think about this one carefully though, because your department chair may not be able to or want to override your advisor, and it could create bad feelings with your advisor.
  • You could accept that you will need to do some version of X and Y, and that this will likely push your timeline back. To speed things up, you could try to find ways to do a "minimal" version of X and Y, such that there is something to show for X and Y, but not as much as your advisor is currently asking.
    • If you go this route, you could also ask the places where you got a job offer if they would be willing to push the start date back to accommodate you finishing your thesis.
  • You could leave the program early and take the job offer, if the job does not depend on you having a PhD. You should discuss this with your future employer, though. If it is an industry job and not a postdoc, if you explain this situation to them they may be willing to let you start working for them even without finishing the degree. Probably, they care more about the skills you would bring (and they have already vetted you have these skills since they have made you an offer), than they do about the piece of paper.

I think there is a good chance that if you meet with both advisors in person and lay out the situation the way you've described it here, that you can convince them that your plan is reasonable. What you want to convey is that you have already done the work. It is not that you are trying to "get out" of work, it's that you don't want have the resources to complete an additional subproject that wasn't part of the original plan, and that you applied for jobs and received offers based with the assumption that you would complete the work in the original plan that you all agreed to.

While you probably don't want to say this outright, it would be quite something for your advisor to effectively prevent you from taking a job offer to do additional studies for a paper that would be publishable without those results. That's one reason I am hopeful that this situation originates from your advisor not thinking through what is going on from your point of view, and that by laying out your arguments you can convince them to drop X and Y.

9
  • Thanks Andrew! Yeah, it is definitely necessary to arrange a three-way discussion between me and the two co-advisors. Your advice definitely helps. Regardinf the last point: My advisor is a really nice person, and we maintained very good relationship, both personally and on academic matters. I think the problem here is my advisor underestimated the difficulty of performing X and Y, and perhaps is also over-confident on my abilities. Besides, he just submitted a new grant proposal on the topic X and Y, so I guess that also plays as a factor. Commented Apr 3, 2022 at 23:59
  • 2
    @ZeroTwooooo Yeah, this is not an uncommon situation -- even well-meaning people can get overly excited and optimistic about a new approach, or get anxious about a productive student leaving. I think if you have an in-person meeting with all of you present and you lay it all out, you'll be able to find an acceptable solution. But even if not, you have options. But, try the diplomatic way first :)
    – Andrew
    Commented Apr 4, 2022 at 0:03
  • 1
    @ZeroTwooooo One other thought, is that you might want to think through what you would have to do to accomplish X and Y and roughly how long it will take (Eg: learn techniques A, B, C, which will take a month, design and carry out studies D and E which will take 6 months, ...). You don't necessarily want to lead with this, but if you get pushback on your claim that you can't finish X and Y on year-long timescale, having this kind of timeline ready to go will show that you've thought about it and might help you convince your advisor there is more to it than they thought.
    – Andrew
    Commented Apr 4, 2022 at 0:17
  • 1
    @ZeroTwooooo Is it obligatory for advisors to completely clear the thesis for the defense in the US? As in, I would imagine it is okay for them to quote the fact X and Y were not accomplished, state that it is a drawback and possible direction for the future research. You still have a defensible position there.
    – Lodinn
    Commented Apr 5, 2022 at 0:51
  • 1
    @ZeroTwooooo Something to keep in mind is that while you are negotiating with them, you might end up needing to agree to do some version of X and Y to keep everyone happy. Maybe they would be ok with a preliminary/proof-of-concept version that is doable on a shorter timescale. That's another case where having a rough timeline for what it would take to do X and Y can help, you could say "I think I can get to this point in the timeline" or "we can skip this step which will take a long time" or something.
    – Andrew
    Commented Apr 5, 2022 at 1:20

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .