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I am in what should be the final year of my PhD. Essentially, the problem is as follows:

The goal of my thesis is to reduce the uncertainties in a study performed by a previous PhD student. I have probably thought about the problem more than anyone else on the planet over the past four years and have come to the conclusion that this goal is impossible to achieve for technical reasons. In fact, last Fall I discovered that it had been known in the literature for nearly 30 years that there is a physical mechanism that can explain our results and why it might be very difficult or impossible to obtain the precise measurements we are looking for.

Unfortunately my professor does not agree. He thinks I am making some sort of mistake in the analysis. This is of course possible but he refuses to acknowledge the possibility that the project has a negative result. This has been the case every time I questioned the project's viability over the past 2 years. When I discovered the papers explaining the physical mechanism that describes our results I was very excited but he just brushed it off as something he knew already and that was of little significance (which led me to nearly having a nervous breakdown).

He recently stopped responding entirely to my e-mails. He also made it very clear that if I am unable to finish the project I will fail my PhD. Unfortunately, e-mails I have sent to academic advisors and my own committee members have largely been ignored. A co-author tried to help for a bit and then also stopped replying. All of this has led me to feel like I am the problem here somehow and the situation is very unpleasant for me. I am wondering what to do.

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    What field is this? Physics? If so, please say and you can add the tag "physics" to get more attention from the experts. As a mathematician, I'm afraid I can't help. Good luck! Apr 20 at 12:32
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    Not all PhDs are succesful, my parents both had failed PhDs due to technical limitations at the time they did the research (find earlier than you did though, but it meant they had to go to different fields/jobs before finding another subject). It's not a personal problem if you don't finish and have to start over at another thing
    – paul23
    Apr 21 at 10:44
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    I don't understand: showing that the uncertainty can be reduced seems an important result. Couldn't it be rephrased as a positive result: "PhD. X found the sharpest bound on uncertainty. Here is a proof". Did you write a paper on this physical technical reason? That would help you in forcing your advisor to pinpoint the exact problem in your analysis.
    – Taladris
    Apr 21 at 23:07

4 Answers 4

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The first step is for you to take stock of what research you did accomplish so far. Did you gain some new insight into the problem that is of interest to others? Were there any publishable side projects?

Once you have that list, the next question is whether this is (almost) enough to make a dissertation from. If yes, it makes sense to try and work around your advisor and walk out of there with your PhD in hand. If no, it is probably time to quit. It is clear that you aren't getting the advice from your advisor that you need, so you'd be better off starting over with a better-suited advisor than trying to salvage the current situation.

Something that is pointedly absent from the steps above is trying to figure out whose fault the situation is. This is because the answer to that isn't really relevant for your way forward. It seems to me that your advisor failed you. However, even if I could grant you an official judgement that it is all their fault, it wouldn't help you with your current situation.

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From a bird's eye view, though I do not know your field:

  • It is frustrating that your advisor is not with you on this. From what you stated, you have negative results, and that should not be a problem. Of course it is possible that either you or your advisor is right.

  • It would help if you can try not to be fatalistic about the situation. Negative results may seem like a bad thing, and your advisor's response is discouraging, but there is a difference between what can be published in a top, competitive venue versus what can be published in your thesis. As the user @Arno suggests, many negative results can be extremely valuable for the community to learn about, and they can be reported on as part of a thesis.

    For instance, what have you learned from this experience? Are you really sure that there is nothing useful to report on, in a technical and clear way, about the techniques ABC you investigated and what results XYZ came out of that investigation? You do not have to exhaustively rule out every explanation for the analysis (it seems, from your advisor's perspective, that you have not); but you can still report on the preliminary analysis and make a list of ways in which you tried to be thorough about it, and any particular strengths and limitations of this approach.

  • About your academic advisors and committee members, you did the right thing in reaching out to additional mentors. Please rest assured that it is nothing wrong with you; however, the best way to proceed is to try to be proactive and constructive. If the conversations with additional mentors did not go well, it is possible that they saw a situation which you described or perceived as hopeless, and could not find a way to help. It may be best if you can identify a route forward where your results might be salvageable, and can communicate them in an honest and open way.

  • You state that you were excited when you "discovered the papers explaining the physical mechanism that describes our results" -- that is fantastic. To me, it shows that you still remain excited and interested in your field. I am sorry to hear your advisor did not share that enthusiasm; but hold on to it -- don't lose sight of why you are doing this and why you are interested!

Beyond this, I really can't say about the particulars of your situation, without knowing your field and the problem you are working on, but I encourage you to not lose hope and to focus on a positive and constructive way forward.

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There can be many reasons for your professor to disagree. And it may be very hard for you to understand their position. I guess that what is more important for you is not to fail the PhD.

I had a very similar experience and I think what helped me was being more assertive. At the very beginning I wanted to write a negative paper for my first publication. A young student questioning an entire branch of research? Not very promising. I had to find a way out.

My suggest is to start looking for any reason that explains why your idea is just an opinion and not a fact. Focus on such reasons while keeping your discoveries for the future. Learn to be diplomatic, so that when you will be a doctor, you will not only know how to do research, but also how to survive within academia.

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The could be a number of things going on here. The first is that the professor knows there is an issue with the analysis but instead of outright saying what this is, they are suggesting you have another look at it. This is common with supervisors who do not wish to spoon feed you information, but expect you to discover what the issue is. The other issue is the professor and others may have mistakenly or not, taken the stance that you havent been receptive to their input. This can be hard to unpick, especially when both sides are convinced their stance is correct. The fact you said that nobody is willing to enagage may hint this is correct. While I dont know what your field is, in mine negative results aren't really an issue. Doing a PhD is about showing you can do research, not get "positive results". The issue around your PhD will be whether you can demonstrate that you did everything by the book, as its your methodology and analysis which will be judged. When I did my PhD, almost every candidate complained they were being asked to do things they didn't want to do. Usually because they didn't understand the value of the input of the supervisors. In general they want to help you get the PhD, even if its via a method you may not like at the time. What I would consider in your position is that if your professor thinks there is an issue with the analysis, there is a good chance those who assess your thesis may come to the same conclusion. The other issue is that your explanation of the analysis hasn't convinced your supervisor or others of its validity. I would suggest a meeting with the supervisor to discuss ways forward, which may include doing something with the PhD you do not like. This is an important step to learn as a researcher who in the future will be working with others and with constraints you have no control over.

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