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I joined a PhD program in Germany 6 months ago. I have two supervisors here - one is a clinician and the other is from natural sciences background. I am really unhappy with the way I am being guided because really there is no guidance. The guy from the natural sciences background is my immediate supervisor. I have never seen him read any scientific papers. He also almost never participates in any scientific talks or conferences and even if he does his scientific work and presentation skills are sub-par. He never asks any scientific questions. The only inputs that I have received from him so far are regarding font size and margins.

Whenever I go to him with an idea, he says, 'Bravo! I was waiting for you to come up with this. I am really happy with your performance. Keep it up!' Initially, I thought that I am really a bright student but over time I realized that he says this for every idea of mine. I also tested him with absolutely rubbish ideas but his reaction remained the same.

Unfortunately, he has also hired other staff in the lab just as incompetent as him. All they want to do is finish their working hours and go home. Never have I received any scientific input from any of the post-docs or other lab members.

Now when I see presentations of other students, I get really worried because they are light years ahead of me. After asking them about how they manage to do such stellar work, they tell me that supervisor guides them to do so and also they also have lots of support from other members of the lab. As for improving their presentations, they often give mock seminars to their lab mates and receive a lot of valuable input from there.

Now, I do not want to be spoon-fed but nevertheless I need some guidance. I need someone to tell me if my line of thinking is right or wrong. I need someone who will point out flaws in my techniques. Neither my supervisor nor my lab mates can provide me this support. I got even more worried recently when a professor from another department clearly told me that I should continue in that lab only if my aim is to get a C grade PhD.

The thing is that I cannot change my current lab because I have already changed my lab once. The only way for me to get out of this mess is to make this work. Can someone suggest me on how to do good PhD given the above-mentioned circumstances? Thanks in advance.

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  • Do you ever talk to your second supervisor? Can you try to work more closely with them and their lab? Nov 18, 2022 at 12:34
  • Unfortunately, my other supervisor is a clinician and he hardly has any time to visit the lab. I have written to him several times but he never replies. He has delegated all the lab-related stuff to my immediate supervisor.
    – user164831
    Nov 18, 2022 at 21:13
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    "I need someone to tell me if my line of thinking is right or wrong. I need someone who will point out flaws in my techniques. " You just realized you are solely responsible for your ideas. You are lucky. It took years to other people, even not realizing that famous name being co-author on idea X does not mean that idea X is flawless or even significant. On the other hand, you are in Germany. Are you employed in an university or research centre? if the second: look as soon as possible for a different academic advisor. You are free to pick them.
    – EarlGrey
    Apr 25, 2023 at 13:56

3 Answers 3

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First, please realize that your position is not that bad. Your advisor is incompetent, but he also seems good-natured and supportive. That goes a long way. I used to work for a very incompetent professor, but this guy was the insecure type who would hide his mediocrity by pushing everybody down. His ideas were garbage and his advice always worse than useless.

The obvious answer is to change labs. You can change labs more than once. It's stressful, but the stress of working with an incompetent advisor will be much worse.

But assuming you really can't change labs: get someone to co-advise. In the experience I mentioned above, I soon realized that every other grad student in that lab was being "co-advised" by someone else, that is, someone else had taken the task of advising while the original professor kept the student as part of his lab (many reasons, including ego and funding.) The co-advisor can also be form another university. It's not a bad deal for them: they get to coauthor with you while someone else pays your stipend. They might even invite you to do mock presentations with them, etc. This is very common. In every research group I've belonged, there were always people (students/postdocs/visiting researchers) hanging around, socializing with our students and postocs and getting informal advice.

In my case, I did the co-advising thing, then never again spoke with my old advisor -- he was really useless. A semester later, I asked the new advisor if he could be my primary and the old one secondary, as that allowed the first one to save face. The next semester I fully changed research groups. Best decision of my life.

Another alternative is to make friends with postdocs. In my experience, they are all ready to start the role of advisor, and will welcome the interaction.

But again, keep in mind that your position is not ideal, but also not terrible.

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He sounds like he has a permanent position and has given up any intellectual work.

If you are early in your PhD I would suggest to change positions, and find an advisor that is actively engaged in research (both in terms of keeping up with papers, but also participating in conferences and generating ideas). Otherwise you will end up struggling to generate new research ideas and direction yourself, which even if it works will be sub-optimal compared to other colleagues that have a supportive supervisor that guides them and are also working themselves.

You need a supervisor who will both support your ideas like your current, but who will also provide you sufficient intellectual challenge to push you further. By simply telling you bravo, without asking any further questions (either on-spot or after some days after some thought) your advisor is not pulling their weight to properly guide your research.

I would say for your sanity and your future mental health, either try to see whether the 2nd advisor can be more actively engaged in guiding you, otherwise RUN. Or try to find some 3rd external advisor that might be more tricky to make the other 2 accept them and their ideas.

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    What does age have to do with it? I'm old. I can still think. I can still write.
    – Buffy
    Apr 24, 2023 at 22:00
  • You are right! It is only more common to find older professors closer to retirement to be already intellectually retired. But I didn't want to imply that EVERY older prof. provides poor supervision. Apr 24, 2023 at 22:03
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    "Is he old? He sounds like he has a permanent position and has given up any intellectual work." The important part is the last sentence of this excerpt. The question is even offensive. Plus, if start straight with the question "Has he given up any intellectual work?" the meaning of your answer would be exactly the same.
    – EarlGrey
    Apr 25, 2023 at 13:59
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There are at least two strategies that (may) work. I know successful examples of both (same incompetent advisor!). A caveat: I am a mathematician and things might/will be different in other fields.

  1. A graduate student X arrived with a well-formed research plan. The student was fairly independent, and wrote a strong thesis (which eventually became a book) without any help from his advisor, found a postdoctoral position after PhD, now is a full professor in a top-50 university in the US.

  2. A student Y published a couple of papers in rather obscure math journals while with the same advisor, from who he did not learn anything. (The advisor contributed nothing to the papers except for putting his name in the list of authors.) By the 4th year of studies, Y realized that he will finish with a thesis but his prospects afterwards will be very bleak since math they are learning is very shallow. Then Y applied to other PhD programs, got admitted to one in my department (I was on the admissions committee and understood student's situation quite well). The student then switched to a different (but somewhat related) research area. After his thesis defense, the student got a tenure-track position, now is a full professor...

In both cases students were strong enough to self-evaluate the quality of their papers.

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