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I'm a fourth-year Ph.D. candidate doing research in STEM. I'm in a US research university. I'm genuinely confused as what to expect from a Ph.D. advisor in general.

To start off, should the student propose the research topic, or should it be expected the advisor assigns a topic to the student to work on? I know the answer to this may not be black and white. In my current situation, I feel it's more like my advisor gave me a general area, and I find some specific research questions within the area to work on. Still, I feel my advisor is able to offer little concrete help, except maybe point to a few papers. Is this normal? To be completely honest, I do not completely trust my advisor's judgement, since they have co-authored a paper in this area which is fundamentally flawed. And despite my advisor having acknowledged the mistakes I've pointed out in that paper, they did not seem to take any further action.

I know this is concerning, but the fact is I have already tried working with several (2-3) faculty members at my institution. All seem to be able to offer little help. One faculty did not seem to know the literature very well and gave no useful advice, with another faculty I witnessed the birth of another erroneous publication. I genuinely don't know why this is happening, my institution is supposedly not terrible (say, top 10 in most grad school rankings of the department I'm in), and these faculty members have published in top-tier venues.

Can someone perhaps shed some light in my situation? Should I basically expect no help from my advisor, and perhaps merely treat advisors taking the role of 'project managers'? In daily communications, should I just report my work, instead of expecting meaningful technical advises?

(I might add that my current research is more mathematical. )

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    This may change drastically based on the country, the University, the advisor, and the particular relationship they have to some particular student. General answer will be difficult, but if you make your question a tad more specific (which country, what type of institution (e.g., research-heavy, small, big lab, …)), it will help in getting better answers.
    – Clément
    Jun 27 at 6:44
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    What field. Math can be quite different from chemistry, say. "Mathematical" can mean lots of things, actually.
    – Buffy
    Jun 27 at 12:55
  • @Buffy I'm doing mathematical / algorithmic research in computer science.
    – loopy
    Jun 27 at 12:58

2 Answers 2

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I get the feeling that your question is not literally "how much help should a PhD student expect from their advisor?" (which is very general question with an infinite number of answers, that probably is not useful to ask on the internet like this), but rather: how do I find a PhD advisor to work with, and what should I do during the early stages of the advisor-advisee relationship to establish myself in the group?

That is a very common struggle faced by graduate students in the US (or in places with American-style PhD programs), where the student has to find an advisor after joining the PhD program. In other countries (e.g. most of Europe) PhD students are almost always hired directly into a research group, and the advisor-student relationship is entrenched from the start. In the US, the trouble is that when you're talking to professors, you're not "their" student yet so they have no responsibility towards you. You may also feel like you have to impress professors so that you can "get in" to their group, and this can be an obstacle to effective communication.

In my opinion, this is one of the downsides of the US-style graduate school system, and there is no easy solution. Some students are manage to find an advisor immediately and hit the ground running. Others may end up awkwardly bouncing around between research groups, effectively wasting a few years of time in the process.

One idea is to simply be direct, and make it clear that you're looking for a project to do. "What is expected" of a PhD student varies widely, of course, but as a general rule, PhD students (especially in their early stages) are not expected to independently come up with original research ideas. So don't feel embarrassed if you don't come up with ideas yourself, and ask you advisor to give you ideas. If they only give you a list of papers to read, then read them! Again, don't feel like you need to come up with a research project yourself (if you start to get ideas--then great!) If you don't have new ideas, be honest about that, and just be prepared to discuss the papers your advisor gave you.

In terms of choosing advisors, you may want to choose a "less competitive" research group. In most departments, you will find groups with well-known professors that everyone want to join, along with some less popular groups. If you've been aiming only for the big name professors, maybe you should reach out to lesser known professors in your department instead.

As a last resort, you can go to your department for help. Typically there is a professor (or multiple professors) involved with administration, usually with some title like director of graduate studies, etc. Talk to them and explain your predicament. In the way that most American graduate schools work, no individual professor is obligated to accept you into their research group, but the department as a whole does have some responsibility towards you. After all, they admitted you to their program, and they don't want you to drop out. If you truly felt like you put in a good effort into finding an advisor but it somehow hasn't worked out, your department should be able to help.

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If you have an idea for a research topic, by all means discuss the idea with any potential advisor to see if they can offer support and assistance (both are important).

In some fields a doctoral student integrates into a well established research program and the advisor may have a lot to say about the topic, but even then, some flexibility might be possible. In other fields, math and some theoretical CS, each student works on an independent problem within a fairly narrow range of topics of interest to the advisor.

Some students are also much more able to carry on independently from the start, though, again, in some fields this is rare, especially in the US. Advisors should have the ability to suggest problems at least. If they don't then they are probably a poor choice for supervision. But the topic will need to seem "interesting" to them if they are to offer any advice.

Along the way a good advisor should be able and willing to review your work and make suggestions, especially when the going gets rough, though in some fields this can be delegated to, say, postdocs in the lab.

There are some places in which a small number of faculty with similar interests will hold a periodic seminar (weekly, perhaps) in which common ideas are discussed. This can take the form of a discussion group with the advisees of those faculty welcome or required to attend. It is a good way to get feedback and also to broaden your view of the research possibilities.

If you don't have an advisor (dissertation advisor might be distinct from academic advisor) figure out what the interests of several faculty members are. Approach someone and be honest about your needs and ability. Some might turn you down, but that is a favor. You need some mutuality of interests to be a success. More senior faculty are more likely to have a lot of ideas, though recently tenured faculty might have more energy. Either can work.

I recommend against untenured faculty as their own interests are likely to overwhelm what they can do to help as their tenure decision nears. It is also possible, with untenured faculty, that they will not get tenured leaving you in an uncomfortable spot.

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