I'm a second-year Ph.D. student at a Canadian university that ranked 100 ish in the world (so that hopefully means we do a decent amount of research not just teaching). I'm fully funded (supervisor pays tuition + TA pay) and have recently transferred from Master's to PhD because I thought research was fun and my supervisor strongly encouraged me to, but we did not have any conversation on what I will be working on and what my responsibilities would be in terms of completing projects for funding and that's starting to cause confusion.

I have a leftover project from when I was working towards a Master's that I talked about at What to do when distantly related project is draining research time. I got into it without understanding what it meant and am trying to get it over with since I'm not enjoying it and it's not publishable (it could be but require a lot more work in an area I'm not interested in). As someone pointed out, I may be responsible for it since I was receiving funding, but I'm not clear since I also volunteered for the project in the first place.

After posting that question, I talked to a few people including the guy managing this project and gathered that once we meet the first deliverable for this project this December, I can call it done and never touch it again. But I never actually discussed this with my supervisor but just made assumptions based on what he & others say. He is very busy and our group meetings are always rushed & we need to book 1-on-1's with him if we want to talk privately.

Now I think about it, I don't really know where my funding is from, what he expects me to do outside of working on my thesis project, and how/if this side project will end, I'm thinking about booking a meeting with him to get things clear for the future.


But before that, I was hoping to get some idea of how things work in academia so I don't come across as an entitled student denying responsibilities. I've done some reading including this book, but still haven't found answers to some of these questions. Would really appreciate it if people could answer some of them and help me get a better understanding of the big picture.

  • In your experience, how much of a PhD should be "proper" research that is exploring new ideas vs how much should be side projects that are more like corporate work where you work to get money?
  • How does the above vary people to people? Do higher-ranked schools do more research and lower-ranked schools do more projects? My supervisor feels more like a corporate director that's pumping out PhD students than an academic and I don't know if this is normal. Most of our graduates are in industry instead of academia.
  • How much support should I expect from my supervisor? In our weekly meetings (with 10+ people), I usually have a few minutes to tell him what I'm doing and how I'm solving the problems, and he may give one-or-two-sentence comments telling me what I think is right or wrong. I have heard friends having 1-2 hour meetings in small groups and having actual discussions, which I'm very jealous of.
  • I find myself starting to think about switching back to Master's, get it over with, work for a few years and do PhD at another place in a few years since I feel like my problems may come from a mismatch between me & my supervisor's style/preferences. Why is this a bad idea?
  • I also find myself unable to discuss these with my supervisor since I'd need to formally book a meeting with him. He's very very busy and I don't know how to be like "Can I talk to you because I'm having existential crisis". I'm working at a different city so I also don't get to drop into his office, but even when I'm at the lab he's almost always in meetings so it's difficult to drop in. Is there a good way I can bring up these questions with him?
  • What subject are you in? In particular, are you in one where you have a 'supervisor' or one where you have an 'advisor'? Nov 3, 2022 at 18:53
  • I'm in engineering but I'm not sure about the difference between supervisor & advisor. I only have one professor that I report to though so he's probably both? Nov 3, 2022 at 18:57
  • Do you think of him as someone who is your boss and tells you what to do, or do you think of the PhD as your own personal project that you ask him for help on? Nov 3, 2022 at 19:05
  • Kind of both, I see my thesis project as mine and only ask for suggestions/resources when I'm stuck, but see the side projects as just work for him. Nov 3, 2022 at 19:07
  • 2
    To answer your first question (and you should try to limit SE posts to one at a time), a PhD must contain original research. That's really the whole point. Nov 3, 2022 at 19:08


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