I really like my PhD! I'm a 3rd year and need to begin thinking about next steps.

I've found the area of physics I can truly get behind (and I've engaged with a lot of different topics, in and out of physics). The catch? I have no scientific supervision.

My funding arrangements 'changed' somewhat; my funding is no longer tied to a national laboratory and the associated horrors. This left only one supervisor - a busy professor who runs many things. I used the opportunity to radically change the focus of the PhD and I'm exploring methods that my supervisor has no clue about whatsoever. My supervisor doesn't try to direct me/the work, instead choosing to review any additions to my thesis. We get on okay, and I like this arrangement. I feel that I'm producing new results (truthfully not so much of that before), and I feel sure I want to continue in physics (not necessarily in the exact area I'm in; just so long as it uses the methods I'm becoming involved with).

With a view to postdocs, I feel I'm nailing the independent research skills - from setting the research question to its execution, I'm a one-man-research team. However, I cannot escape the concerns that I could be a better researcher if I had an expert guide me. On a purely practical level, I also need references to apply for a postdoc. Where is that going to come from now? Most of the group are spread out in various (external) labs, so I don't interact with anyone except my supervisor now.

What path should I consider taking if I want to remain in research given little-to-no supervisor input?

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    Offhand... I'd worry that you're orphan-izing yourself. No one will be able to give you substantive letters of recommendation, comments on your work, etc. Eventually, sure, we all do want to be independent of "judgement", but, to my perception, you are trying this far toooo early. Jan 29 at 0:13
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    "I don't interact with anyone except my supervisor now." This is the core of the problem, the rest of your concerns are consequences of this. Obtain travel funding, visit other groups working on your topic. In particular, visit the groups where you would potentially like to do a postdoc. Work on establishing in-person relationships with significant researchers in your subfield. Jan 29 at 12:29
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    @EarlGrey That is the most bizarre statement I have seen in a long time. A PHD advisor is not going to have you fill out forms, they’re going to teach you how to do research. Without an advisor you still have to do all the same paperwork to get your PHD, but without any help. Imagine spending 4 years writing a thesis, and then the reviewers are like “no, this is shite, this is not a PHD.” Jan 30 at 15:24
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    @CrisLuengo It's strange to respond to "I used the opportunity to radically change the focus of the PhD" with "What university are you at that they think this is OK?". How is it the university's fault that the OP proactively decided that they want to change the topic of their PhD? Or is the university somehow obliged to provide supervision for whatever topics a PhD student decides to pursue on their own in the middle of their PhD studies? Jan 30 at 23:22
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    @Michael_1812 I've got 1.5-2 years before I have submit my thesis. I probably don't mind whether the US or Europe. In terms of what I do, whilst I don't want to go into specifics as I'm now concerned my situation is so different (ergo identifyiable) that I'll just say that I'm working in a computational area. Although I wouldn't describe myself as a theorist (to me that's pen & paper), I think in practise a lot of computational (computing-based) physics research is hosted under the auspicses of theory groups. Does make me worry - they're not exactly known to be fountains of funding! Feb 1 at 8:20

6 Answers 6


I think you're in a dangerous spot. A PhD is a research apprenticeship. If an electrician apprentice told you that they don't actually have anyone guiding them but they're doing a real good job connecting wires together and feeling really confident they found electricity because they're seeing sparks creating lots of light and everything and that seems like most of the job, I think you'd be worried.

Lots of people come here with problems finding a letter of recommendation after their PhD because their advisor suddenly turned evil when the student wanted something reasonable like to graduate, or stopped responding, or died. You may have the same problem as them or your token advisor may write some brilliant letter for you despite their lack of involvement, who knows. I'm more worried that you aren't getting the day to day research mentorship. I'm worried when your thesis is done you'll find it's not actually as good as you thought it was, for reasons you could never have been expected to grasp on your own. Research isn't easy. PhD programs wouldn't exist if everyone could just automatically do research on their own without guidance.

I don't know how you should move to find a real advisor, but I think it's something you should consider necessary and act accordingly. Maybe collaboration is the way to go, and maybe your advisor can help you find collaborators that you can work with more directly. This might disrupt your preferred workflow but I don't think that workflow is sustainable at the career stage you're at. Maybe I'm wrong, but if I'm right I'd hate for you to have lost the chance to move on.

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    "If an electrician apprentice told you that they don't actually have anyone guiding them but they're doing a real good job connecting wires together and feeling really confident they found electricity because they're seeing sparks creating lots of light and everything and that seems like most of the job, I think you'd be worried." Right, but you'd be reassured if that apprentice electrician passed the summative assessments and got the NVQ; similarly, you'd be reassured if the PhD student passed the PhD and/or got some peer-reviewed papers published, no? Jan 29 at 11:32
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    There are many instances of bad or very light supervision of PhDs, several of the students are good and well qualified anyway and some will make their way into an academic career (personally I had a supervisor who did what he could and did it well, however due to illness he was basically absent 80% of the time I did my PhD). I think this answer is too negative on the possibility of doing good work and learning well without much supervision. Jan 29 at 11:48
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    @ChristianHennig I worry a bit about survivorship bias in that sort of thing. For every one that continues on academia how many don't even finish the PhD? It's possible of course but I don't believe it's the best path for someone early enough in the process to adjust.
    – Bryan Krause
    Jan 29 at 11:54
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    Generally I'm rather wary of the mindset according to which the quality of a young researcher is mainly a product of the quality of their supervisor. I am aware that some people in admission commissions look at the names of the recommendation letter writers in the first place in order to assess an applicant. I think that this is very bad for academia and part of why some fields are rightly accused of being old (white) boy networks.Of course being realistic I have to acknowledge that it happens in some places, but good luck to everyone who gets in using a more self guided approach! Jan 29 at 12:10
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    @ChristianHennig It's not just lack of supervision, they're not interacting regularly with anyone who can give them feedback.
    – Bryan Krause
    Jan 29 at 13:34

I also did a PhD in a group where there was no expertise in what I did, only tangential one, making me a bit of a scientific orphan.

I am still in academia and I think doing OK, so it is possible to get a postdoc after a PhD like that. I will describe my experience, which may be generalizable, or may be I was lucky, take it with a grain of salt.

What I did after my PhD is find a postdoc in exactly the field I did my PhD in. This helped because even with little interaction with researchers on my field, I still had 4 years of work experience on it, so you learn something. Using @Bryan's allegory, I would actually trust an electrician that learned everything by themselves, if they have been learning for 4 years and can show successful completed projects (papers). That said, moving into a group doing the same thing I had been working on for 4 years helped me pick up a ton of things that I should have learned in my PhD, but hadn't, so with a bit of hard work, (I think) I got myself into the expected level of a supervised PhD+postoc by the end of my postdoc, i.e. I used the postdoc opportunity to catch up with everyone else.

While your concerns for finding a postdoc are completely valid, it will indeed be much easier to find one if you already show expertise on the exact field of the job, rather than a tangential one. Reference letters are super important, but proven experience doing the actual job counts more, I think.

Good luck!

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    My experience resonates with yours, although I did less of the catch-up during the postdoc, because I was already thinking what to do next, so I skipped the catch up and I worked on the part "how to optimize complementary knowledge to get fundings". To add another anedoctal point: I got a professorship afterwards.
    – EarlGrey
    Jan 30 at 13:24

In my view a major thing is that you need to make yourself known. Particularly go to conferences, present your work, and talk with people who do related things. If at all possible it is also good to do visits or even internships at research groups that do related works. Also always look for funding opportunities. Contacts are needed for moving forward in Academia, as is initiative in aspects other than just doing good research and learning, particularly when it comes to securing funding. A supervisor who helps you to get to the right places and know the right people can help a lot. If you don't have such a supervisor, you've got to try a bit harder, but for sure it can work out.

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    I would add to "talk to people who do related things" the sentence "and try to arrange a visit at their group of some weeks/months. OP is a bit late to do so, but it is very helpful for OP to spend some time in a group doing what OP is doing, to learn some "tricks of the field" and even to get a possible reference (I stress the helpful, not necessary).
    – EarlGrey
    Jan 30 at 13:26
  • @EarlGrey Good point, added. Jan 30 at 16:26

I think it is important to be aware that your current perception of your situation is just that, your perception. It may or may not be what your advisor views you as (nor is it true that their perception of you is accurate).

I can give you some anecdotal experience from my end as both a graduate student and an advisor.

As a graduate student I was very independent, though I had a great relationship with my Ph.D. advisor. I managed to publish prolifically with his help, but my projects were tangential to his (in my fields, this is less common, you work as a lab group not as individual researchers). I was frustrated things would take longer because "he had no clue about all these advanced things I knew". In reality he was focused on other items which were more germane to his interests, and as I look back now, equally if not more interesting to what I came up with. So while I did learn independence, I likely could have benefited more from his direct expertise. It's been a long time since I graduated now, but I still keep in touch with my advisor - as a friend. We email back and forth, we text, ask each other for advice etc. I can truly appreciate how absolutely brilliant this man is beneath his soft-spoken and easy-going demeanor. I wish I took more advantage of that as a student. I think at this stage of my career I am more successful than he was (numbers wise), but I don't think I will ever have his deep insight, which I lost out on because I was just too smart to humble myself and learn from him.

As an advisor, I have had brilliant independent students, and I have also had un-coachable students. I have had more of the latter than the former. You may think you are a brilliant independent researcher, but you may just be perceived as un-coachable, but smart enough to get through a PhD (which is your case? I have no clue, that's between you and your advisor). Do not fall into the latter trap. Take advantage of the support structure inherent to being a student and learn from it, and harness it so you can grow into a well-rounded researcher.

People tend to repeat situations, and you may just find yourself as a postdoc with an advisor who also has "no clue whatsoever" about all the brilliant things you do. Maybe the role of the advisor is not to know every minutiae of your approach, but rather help guide you towards becoming a better independent researcher - part of that is you actively and openly engaging with them towards that goal.


Get in touch with the people in physics that would care about your work. If your work is on arxiv, send a link around. Go to small conferences where you can network with people who might be potential postdoc advisors. If they find you smart and personable in face to face interactions, then a letter becomes less important.


Find co-authors in your field

Others have pointed out the precariousness of your approach. However, if you intend to pursue this course, there are tactics to minimize the risk, and this is one of them.

A senior co-author can provide many (though not all) of the things an absent supervisor can. They can teach you certain tricks of the publication process, put you in touch with other people in the field, and provide tailored advice. More importantly, they can support you in your search for the next job.

This isn't easy to do at first. It helps if you have some results (pre)-published already. After that, you just need to be bold. Go to conferences and workshops. If there's budget for it, an internship/research visit at a lab in your field might be a good idea (and your supervisor is likely to see the benefit of it).

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