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I joined a research group at a prestigous university last year. The group has existed for several years now and is very small. It has never had more than a handful of students, never a Post-Doc. In this time, no papers have been published by the group. Many more people have left the group prematurely than graduate. There is just one person who actually graduated, an undergraduate whose project's aims as stated by our PI were absolutely not met.

I fear the PI is great at making ambitious plans, but is bad at realizing any of them. I have not actually seen anybody in our group realize anything. I began with a project, which should have been a cooperation with another group, but for various reasons this other group is not really able or willing to fully hold up their end of the bargain. Instead, I feel I am being led on a wild goose chase, where I am supposed to do this or that every other week. I recently spoke with other PIs I am friends with about our research efforts and they are very sceptical this can be pulled off, especially given my current PI's previous track record in this field. I am unsure if he is leading us anywhere.

So I have begun pursuing my own research interests on something that I/one can actually realize. My advisor knows of this, but doesn't show much interest in it.

The PI is rarely at university, less than a few hours a week. In my time at university he has been in the lab maybe twice. Instead he criticizes my colleagues in the group meeting as too lazy and slow. And in private conversations with me, he has repeatedly stated how much he thinks they lack the abilities of being an independent researcher or being generally effective. I do not know what he thinks or says about me.

So to reiterate my question, I feel like this is a text book example of a failing group. Is this true? What to do in this case? I spoke with a friend outside of academia, who said the responsibility that can be taken, is a responsibility left behind by others. Meaning that this failure may be a chance to learn new skills and gather unique experiences in group management. But is this realistic?

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    Can you clarify whether your advisor is also the PI you mention?
    – Anonymous
    Sep 24 at 16:48
  • Yes. They are one and the same person. I want to thank everyone for there responses.
    – Makkabi
    Sep 25 at 1:16
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    If you find that you are unable to collaborate effectively with your advisor, even if they are highly skilled and ..., it may be better to consider transitioning to a different research group.
    – Bumblebee
    Sep 25 at 6:10
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    What is your role in the research group? Are you a PhD student? Sep 25 at 7:55
  • yes, I am a second year PhD student. And because people frequently run away that makes me the oldest, "most experienced".
    – Makkabi
    Sep 26 at 9:28

3 Answers 3

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The PI is rarely at university, less than a few hours a week.

If your PI is employed full time by a university with a campus but only shows up a few hours a week, then something is terribly wrong. Find a new PI. Even if we guess he can do his job on the internet, that's not a good career strategy.

he has repeatedly stated how much he thinks they lack the abilities of being an independent researcher

It's his job to teach them to be researchers. This looks really bad.

The quality of the PI's research is a matter of opinion, and something on which we have no information.

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    There are many other signs in the question suggesting there is a problem going on, but I wouldn't agree unconditionally with the claim that showing up a few hours per week onsite is "terribly wrong" and "not a good career strategy". I would say what matters is the advisor's output and their involvement and reactivity, e.g., when contacted by students to schedule appointments. Sure it's more convenient to have all people on-site, but it's not always possible and not the only way to function (see, e.g., full-remote companies).
    – a3nm
    Sep 26 at 4:51
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    Maybe this is field-dependent, though (e.g., if there are experiments running that need an expert on-site with little advance warning, etc.)
    – a3nm
    Sep 26 at 4:51
  • @a3nm You are thinking of the practicalities rather than the politics. Sep 26 at 10:13
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    I'm not questioning that these are bad signs, but regardless of the PI's techniques, can we take "no papers have been published" and "Many more people have left the group prematurely than graduate" as an objective measurement of the (lack of) success of the group? If it's not producing papers or (more than 50%) doctorates then is that by definition a failed group? If the PI was (visibly to the questioner) only onsite a few hours a week, but somehow the group had 10 top-journal papers per year and 100% completed, then it would be a successful group, right, and the PI would get credit? Sep 26 at 20:20
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    .... which is not to say that it doesn't matter how much the PI is on campus. It is to say that it's not how we measure the success of the group. Time on campus is a means to an end. The politics might not recognise that, and maybe my hypothetical work-from-home PI with a superstar group would still be in trouble. But if the decision were made to replace the PI or to award no further grants due to non-attendance in person, then the group still would have been successful to that point! Sep 26 at 20:29
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What matters more than whether the group as a whole is failing, is whether you personally can succeed.

The whole situation sounds very bad (and very familiar), but the key statement in your question, for me, is:

So I have begun pursuing my own research interests on something that I/one can actually realize. My advisor knows of this, but doesn't show much interest in it.

So in addition to being in a low-performing, non-publishing group, you've shown enough initiative to setting your own goals around your own research interests and... your advisor shows no interest.

If your advisor is not interested in your work, do you think he or she will agree that it is worth a PhD?

I had a very similar experience, except it was an outright dismissal of my ideas. I applied what I still think is the correct logic ("My advisor does not like and will not support this idea, so it will not lead to a PhD through him,") and made the wrong decision ("So I will not pursue this idea.")

It was the wrong decision for two reasons:

  1. A few years later, I saw good papers published on the same idea from PhD students halfway across the country. They had independently had the same idea and, in a more supportive environment, taken it farther than I had even begun to think of.

  2. I ended up leaving that advisor a while later anyway because I came to the conclusion that we weren't publishing enough, weren't graduating any PhDs, and I was never ever going to get more than a half an hour a week of this guy's time, much of it adversarial. (He was on campus a lot, but he was locked up in his office doing his own thing and not advising in any meaningful sense of the word.)

In short, I was complicit in wasting a lot of my own time and effort. I eventually changed advisors anyway, but I also changed my research direction so much that I could never revive that other workable idea.

Is there anything keeping you from taking your ideas to prospective advisors who might be interested in your ideas, and working with you instead of ignoring you?

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    Yours was a bad a decision, we can agree on that, however the logic "My advisor does not like and will not support this idea, so it will not lead to a PhD through him" is flawed. There are advisor that are ok with PhD struggling on their own, following ideas they do not support and finally approving the PhD work. It depends on which system you are, I am not sure it applies universally. Yes, the end of such a PhD can be heavy and demanding, but the PhD must be approved by a commission, not by the advisor alone ... they are going to be a (tough or even nasty) sparring partner.
    – EarlGrey
    Sep 24 at 20:16
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    @EarlGrey I am cynical about both the idea of a supervisor setting aside their disinterest/dislike of my work to be able to advise me properly, and of my ability to reliably discern between those who will and those who won't. But let's assume I have an oracle who has reliably verified that the uninterested advisor will do that: Why would I even want to work with this person? What possible benefit is there to me in increasing the pitch of the uphill struggle of a PhD? I don't want an advisor who makes category errors between 'advisor' and 'sparring partner.'
    – Anonymous
    Sep 24 at 21:11
  • The main reason for staying right now for me, has been good funding, because we are such a small group, I can buy many things without much debate. That is how I was able to start my own research interest. I went ahead started buying stuff. the funding authority with in our group is very lax and I didnt actually spend more than 1,000 USD yet. So in a sense, he jsut serves as a very lenient funding agency.
    – Makkabi
    Sep 25 at 1:19
  • @Makkabi that is certainly a valid consideration. If and when you start talking to prospective advisors, definitely something to keep in mind, in several senses: What will the situation in a new group be, what happens when (inevitably) you have to leave your equipment behind, and whether you're just tying yourself more tightly to this person by using their money.
    – Anonymous
    Sep 25 at 4:08
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So I have begun pursuing my own research interests on something that I/one can actually realize.

This seems like a good strategy to me.

In such groups there can be various levels of prescription and possibilities for working independently. My gut feeling from reading your text is that if you manage to built up something for yourself without getting inhibited too much by the group, this environment may not actually be that toxic for you. As long as the PI doesn't interfere too much or sees reason for conflict. Ultimately I'd say it depends on whether the PI lets you get away with it, and he may well. Chances are you are old and mature enough to lead yourself, which is the right thing if other leadership is non-existing or doesn't work out. There are for sure better environments but at least if your independence is tolerated there it could also be much worse.

I should maybe add that you could be right that the group is "failing" in some sense, and some might say "get out as soon as you can". Depending on how toxic the group is this may be good advice. However I have also seen people in academy who went through groups like this but had enough independence to get through the experience, have something to show, and do well afterwards.

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