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I am a PhD student in Europe and I am in the state of permanent crisis because of my PhD supervisor. He is a very nice person, who is very active with public engagement, very successful at grant applications and all that. But the problem is, it turns out he does not know the subject. Now I realize this is a very arrogant thing to say. However, for a very long time I refused to believe it and thought that there was some problem with me. Now all evidence (corroborated by others) shows that he really is incompetent. He somehow manages to pull it off, getting on other people's papers and so on.

The fact that this takes place in Europe is significant: I had to choose someone from the start of my PhD and the time is extremely limited. Also, I am not sure, but I have an impression that you will not be able to get funded, if you quit your PhD and start over. Is this so? Also, there is a very small number of people doing similar things around and none in the same institution. Additionally, it seems very likely, that no one would support a rebellion (i.e. switching a supervisor), because of politics.

I have a very good track record, I finished at a top American university with very high grades, and most importantly I do want to do research. So this situation makes me very unhappy. I can't see any way out, but maybe there is someone who can? I will consider changing the field somewhat (but not too radically) and starting over, but it seems like the funding will most definitely not be available. Or maybe it will?

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    So this situation makes me very unhappy. Don't walk, run! Change your research advisor. – Enthusiastic Engineer Sep 6 '14 at 20:01
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    Thank you very much for your advice, but as I tried to indicate in my post, the process of changing the advisor does not seem as straightforward to me. – user21538 Sep 6 '14 at 20:18
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    If your advisor is attracting good students to work on good projects and keeping them all funded through securing grants, then he or she is not incompetent. – Eric Sep 7 '14 at 1:11
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    @New_new_newbie Depends on how you do it. If you try to do it secretly, then yes, it'll definitely make a big mess. If you're honest and open with everyone from the beginning, then at worst you'll expose the mess that you're already in. – JeffE Sep 8 '14 at 12:15
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    @D.W. thanks for your comment. My question does have two parts - is it possible to change a PhD supervisor in described circumstances and is it advisable. I think there is a niche for this question. But even if there isn't and I am the only person who has this problem, does it make any harm that others will help me here? (I am not aware of any other resources for which this question would be more appropriate.) – user21538 Sep 22 '14 at 7:32
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It's true that switching advisers might be difficult, especially within the same department. There are a few other options:

  • Make do and finish your PhD nonetheless. Remember a PhD is supposed to be an open-ended research work on a challenging topic. It means that many things are not going to work, that the end result cannot be perfect and, importantly, that your adviser cannot hold your hand and lead you to a guaranteed solution like instructors in bachelor or master courses. It's difficult to judge how serious the situation is from the outside but some level of frustration is quite common and you do need to manage your expectations (if your adviser has time for you and is happy to sign off on your work, you are in a better position than many PhD candidates…).

  • Seek a secondary adviser. For better or for worse, it's actually quite common for professors to oversee theses on a broad range of subjects and exercise only minimal supervision, relying on junior colleagues to deal with the details. In some cases, the secondary adviser can also be a full-professor at another university. Ideally, he or she should complement the first one and help deal with some specific aspect of the topic the latter knows less well. This could help you get guidance on some important aspect of your work you feel your current adviser is not competent to deal with. But do clear that first with him before approaching others.

  • Switch adviser. Yes, it's difficult and politics often make it almost impossible within the same institution but it's not unheard of. If things look very dire, think about switching country. I know someone from Germany who rescued her thesis that way. The way she explained it, things went very bad with her previous adviser and she would not have been able to defend at her university or to switch advisers. But a professor at my university thought the work was good and took over the thesis almost at the end, asking for about 6 months of work to correct and add various things.

  • Start over. It might be somewhat more difficult to get hired (or not) but it's not the case that it would be impossible to get funded Europe-wide. Here again, if some country-specific regulation regarding grants complicates things, consider going to another country. As noted by Pete, going back to the US is also an option and would be easier to explain later on.

You can also seek advice from other people at your university. There might be a research coordinator, a PhD “coach” or councilor or some HR person whose role is to help in those situations. But whatever you do, be very careful how you present things: “my adviser is incompetent” might not go well.

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    +1 for seeking a secondary advisor. A friend of mine did this with a professor she had met at a conference who was able to help her with one particular aspect of her work. They published a paper together and he continued to advise her and became a member of her thesis committee. – Sumyrda Sep 7 '14 at 8:48
  • Thanks a lot! I did try to find a secondary supervisor, that somehow didn't work. Also the people who were supposed to help in the university were very nice but didn't really do anything. So on your first point, do you think it is possible to do a good PhD even when in effect you don't have a supervisor? Are you aware of major European countries that are likely to give funding even if you had abandoned a PhD at another place? If you knew some specifics could you just briefly say that such and such a country is good for this? Thanks a lot, I am accepting your answer anyway. – user21538 Sep 22 '14 at 7:43
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Adding a student's perspective to Pete's answer:

My advisor told me at the being of my master thesis, that soon I would know more about my particular area of research than him. At the time I didn't believe a word he said, but at our third meeting I was already explaining stuff to him and by the fifth I started to feel irritated that I had to explain stuff to him which I didn't have to explain to his PhD student whom I collaborated with.

But then I realised that I worked on this topic all day every day, my collaborator worked on a related topic and discussed my research with me several times a week but my advisor only got to spend time on this topic every other week when we met with him, because he had plenty of other students to advise in the meantime and also had his own research, teaching and some administration to do.

So from the sixth meeting on it became a habit for me to open the meeting with a quick catch up on my topic and my progress before diving into the details. And from that meeting on I always got great advice from him.

I think you need to think about whether you have given your advisor a fair chance to help you when you were stuck and whether he has been able to help in that regard, because that's his job and knowing all the details about your current topic is your job.

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    +1 for this answer. Especially: "I think you need to think about whether you have given your advisor a fair chance to help you when you were stuck and whether he has been able to help in that regard, because that's his job and knowing all the details about your current topic is your job." is very well put. – Pete L. Clark Sep 6 '14 at 22:30
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    +1 Think about what type of help you need to complete your PhD. My supervisors have helped me learn how to write academic papers, how to present my research in the best possible light, how to write grant proposals, etc. When it seemed like my research was doomed to fail, they helped me understand that it was just a setback. They help me keep track of the "big picture" (e.g., what do I hope to achieve with that experiment). I can teach myself the technical things that I need. On the other hand, the things they have taught me would have been difficult (impossible?) for me to learn on my own. – mhwombat Sep 8 '14 at 11:59
  • Thanks a lot for this answer! If I heard a student say their supervisor is incompetent I would also be very skeptical. And I do understand what you are saying here, but unfortunately it is not like this with my supervisor (or so it seems to me). I know you are not likely to believe (I couldn't believe this myself, I thought things like this don't happen in academia), but I am sorry, I am not convinced that my situation is as you describe. – user21538 Sep 22 '14 at 7:36
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Switching from one thesis supervisor to another is hardly a "rebellion". In fact it's a fairly common thing: in my own PhD program it seems to happen roughly 5-10% of the time. (In institutions with a higher rate of faculty turnover, it is probably more common.) And switching advisors is much easier than any form of "starting over a PhD". You should definitely look into this: starting by identifying some other faculty member in your program that you think would be a more suitable supervisor, and see if they are amenable to research-related discussions.

Your claim that your advisor "really is incompetent" is disturbing. I am a bit skeptical of it: not necessarily through arrogance, graduate students often have unrealistic ideas about faculty knowledge. If you walk into my office and ask me a question about something, maybe I can answer it right away and maybe I can't. But if I can't it might still be in one of my papers! Being an expert is much more about knowing how to find out important information / solve problems eventually than about what can be summoned at a moment's notice. In general I feel like I am fairly helpful in providing information to others in a professional context, but I have had the experience of people who for whatever reason simply don't wait a reasonable amount of time for me to answer their question. I remember one person in particular who would ask me a question cold, and after less than a minute of my thinking about it, he would say "Never mind" and move on to something else. That was rather frustrating: what kind of question is important enough to deliberately ask someone else yet not important enough to wait a few minutes for a good response?

Another point is that there are levels of expertise. Most faculty members are regional, national or global experts on something; but that thing or things may not be what they are teaching in all their courses or even what they want their students to work on. One of the hard parts of the advisor/student relationship is to find a topic of mutual interest in which the advisor's expertise is strong and can be appropriately conveyed to the student. Oftentimes this requires some patience and several tries: most of my students have not written their thesis on the first thing I suggested to them.

Anyway, though I may not want to, I have to admit the possibility that there are truly incompetent faculty members supervising PhD students. That sucks. If you feel this way about your advisor that's more than enough reason to look for a new advisor. But I think that in practice you should keep this to yourself as a reason for switching, at least until your thesis is approved and you are ready to move on to your new job. To have an incompetent tenured professor is only possible through some alarming combination of enabling / incompetence / total lack of contact or oversight on the part of the other faculty in the department. Fixing that kind of problem is above your pay grade.

Added: Though switching to a different faculty member in your department is easiest, it need not be the best choice: there may or may not be another suitable advisor in your current department. It's quite possible to transfer from one PhD program to another: doing so need not be (and probably will not be, unless you promote it this way yourself) a failure or rebellion. If you have only been in your current program for a year or two, you could plausibly start fresh elsewhere. If it's been more than that, you may want to look into the possibility of arriving at another program with advanced standing, up to "ABD status". Also, (especially) if you are American and studying in Europe, maybe consider coming back to the US, especially if that's part of your post-PhD plans. I mention that because coming back to your native country provides a sort of implicit explanation for your change of programs: many fewer questions will be asked of you.

  • Dear Pete, thank you very much for a considered reply. For obvious reasons I would like to be careful with confidentiality, but I am not American and the immigration issues (moving together with someone), as well as others, make it much more desirable to stay in Europe. Do you know any European specifics? I am worried that changing a program is not possible due to funding reasons, though I may be wrong. Unfortunately my advisor is very political and I know that trying to leave him will be considered treason (even if I will say that I realized I am passionate about another field etc). – user21538 Sep 6 '14 at 21:30
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    @user21538: Unfortunately I know very little about European academic matters. I've spent about eight weeks altogether in academic Europe. My advice about switching advisors is US-specific. I do find it hard to believe that anywhere in the academic world it could be such a dramatic affair for a student to switch advisors or leave the program: do PhD programs in Europe have 100% completion rates?? Ultimately, you must do what is in your own best interest: most reasonable people would give you their blessing, but if someone wants to make it more difficult, that's on them, not you. – Pete L. Clark Sep 6 '14 at 21:48
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    @PeteL.Clark Leaving a PhD program is always possible and in fact quite common in some countries. It's entering another one after that or switching advisers (especially within the same institution, sometimes within the same country) that might be difficult. Many people who start a PhD are simply left out in the cold somewhere along the way… (+1 for all your advice) – Relaxed Sep 7 '14 at 6:58
  • +1 for second paragraph. Especially for, "Being an expert is much more about knowing how to find out important information / solve problems eventually than about what can be summoned at a moment's notice." and "coming back to your native country provides a sort of implicit explanation for your change of programs". – tod Jan 3 '16 at 8:19
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Actually you are asking two different questions:

  1. The supervisor is not good, for whatever reason. So how to change the supervisor, in a political oriented office environment.

  2. The research area is and its potential contributions are all on you (few people are doing it around), and with addition to the 'bad' supervisor what can you do, such as large number of publications for better future in research (find a postdoc, academic, etc.)

So here are my answer to that:

  1. Let me give you the benefit of the doubt. Some academics are in fact horrible mentors. Lets face it, being an academic means the person has large number of publications and good networking here and there. Also their job doesn't require to be 'nice'. They can close their doors and don't really supervise, act like crazy person, but as long as they have large number of publications, with the name of the university on the top of it; they will be praised. So here what I do:

    1. Talk to your supervisor, and express your unhappiness. Tell him/her this is not what you are expecting. He does not supervise in the area of his/her expertise, and therefore not suitable for you.
    2. Talk to the head of research group, or the person in charge, and express your unhappiness about your supervisor.
    3. All the universities have human resources. You go there and tell them, you need to change your supervisor; and you talked to him/her and the head of the group; but nothings seems to change.
  2. This is the tricky one! Some supervisors get a PhD student, and want them to be a postdoc (independent researchers). Now that you already started your PhD, with some effort, you can change a little, the direction of the research; but stick to the same area. For example, if I'm doing a research about security in software systems, and all the other PhD students around me are doing research in the area of database; I can change the focus of my PhD to the security in the database systems, and write my thesis about it. Remember, you are the one that will defend your thesis, in whatever area you want it to be.

Good luck.

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I have not even completed MS so I can't predict the detailed experience of a PhD student but before changing your supervisor, please give it a second thought.

I had to choose someone from the start of my PhD and the time is extremely limited.

You admit that you have limited time span for PhD completion and most it has already finished. Selecting some other supervisor, creating a mutual understanding and good working relationship, and completing your work atleast at the same pace at which you are working will most probably consume the time left and you may not be able to complete your thesis in the given duration.
Now lets assume, the time limit has exceeded, you'll have to face financial pressures as well in addition to the actual workload. You may get financial assistance (if you are lucky enough) but what if you don't get it? You'll have to work for managing your finances. Obviously, you'll need some time for it, which means your concentration will be divided between your job for managing expenses and your research work. Feeling bored, tired and depressed is very common among graduate students so even if you think you are really happy and contended (which you don't seem to be), with the passage of time you'll get more and more frustrated with the time your PhD is taking to be completed. So in short things will most probably get worse. (At this point i can be called a pessimist :) but still all this is possible to happen)

He is a very nice person, who is very active with public engagement, very successful at grant applications and all that.

So you are actually satisfied with the non-technical/social side of your supervisor and the major (if not only) reason for dissatisfaction is his lack of technical expertise. Lets assume, you manage to somehow change your supervisor (even without facing any political issue). What if the new supervisor is technically very sound but is non-technically too rude, proud and arrogant; not very social, takes too much time to respond to your queries, is not very good at public engagements, not really good at grant applications and so on.
You'll most probably start comparing the two supervisors in each and every single thing that happens to you. There is a big chance that you'll start missing the old one and will find some other problems in the new one. You'll regret your decision and will want to go back but most probably you won't be able to due all those financial, time, ego and politics related issues. If you continue going on in the same nostalgic mood, you'll start comparing the students/researchers working under the two supervisors and you'll probably find the better ones working with your old supervisor. In short, chances are there that you'll feel more depressed and frustrated that you are right now.

But the problem is, it turns out he does not know the subject

It may be just a wrong assumption. I totally agree with the well explained response of @Sumyrda and @Pete L. Clark

Now all evidence (corroborated by others) shows that he really is incompetent.

Don't be misguided and confused. Every one has his own opinion about the same thing and can have different experience based on his/her mindset, psychology, behavior etc. Being a student, i can easily say that there are very few students in the whole world who'll proudly say that their supervisor is actually a good one. Most students are dissatisfied by their supervisor due to one reason or the other.
At this point, you must use your own experience only to decided about your supervisor. Don't try to judge your supervisor in terms of the experience of "OTHERS". He/she may not be considered a good supervisor by everyone else in the world but still there is a chance that he/she prove to be the best supervisor for you or vice versa.
I may be wrong but i think that when you started working with this supervisor you were happy. You started expecting a lot from your supervisor and he/she was unable to meet your expectations. In the meanwhile, you tried to convince yourself that everything is fine. If in case any thing is wrong, its with you. Then at a later stage, you started discussing it with your fellows. They shared their experiences with you and you started making opinions based on their stories. Please don't be judgmental about your supervisor. He/she may actually not be that bad. Even if he/she is, no one in this world is perfect. Every one has some strengths as well as weaknesses and we need to accept this fact. Your new supervisor will not be perfect as well. Strengths and weaknesses may vary but they'll be there.

He somehow manages to pull it off, getting on other people's papers and so on.

It seems that he tries his best to satisfy (but may be unfortunately he is not successful in his efforts). What if he or your supposedly new supervisor is least bothered and does not even try? You'll have to live and work even in that situation. At the end of the day, its your work and your job. No one else can live your life. "Accept responsibility for your life. Know that it is you who will get you where you want to go, no one else"- Les Brown
You are going to be a PhD soon and you should not expect spoon feeding from your supervisor like a FYP student. Its your field of specialization not you supervisor's so you should know more about it than him (and you'll definitely know more). Getting on other's papers is fine because no one is expert of everything.

Additionally, it seems very likely, that no one would support a rebellion (i.e. switching a supervisor), because of politics.

This part is actually serious (although most fellows here will probably won't take it seriously and ideally it shouldn't be). But lets assume you are right that your supervisor and department suffer from organizational politics etc. Changing your supervisor would really harm you. If you manage to change your supervisor (taking care of time limitations, financial, administrative and departmental issues) but your supervisor(both new and old one) are in the same department or even in same university. In such a case, you can't surely assume that you'll never see him again. If you'll have to interact with him, what level of interaction would it be? Based on this interaction, you can decide the consequences.


Last but not the least, have you actually considered alternate PhD supervisors available for switching? Does their research interest match exactly with what your work requires? What kind of guarantee can you provide yourself that your new supervisor would be technically more strong and overall better than the current one. Even if you have enough time, finance and every other relevant thing, you can't spend the whole life experiencing supervisors for PhD. Currently you are experiencing Mr. A, left him, went to Mr. B, worked with him and realized he is no better than Mr. A or is even worst than A, then what would you do? Coming back to A or finding some Mr. C would definitely be not possible

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Oh wow! I've seen other MSc students in that situation - they arrived at college and felt the course wasn't what the were expecting. I've been in that exact same political situation in my PhD (one minute I was publishing papers and cruising across the edge of space like a SR-71, next minute I find myself shot down because someone else felt I had invaded their airspace).

Your university should have a PhD course councilor. That's the first person to talk to, in order to explore your options. Many universities now require that each PhD student has two supervisors to make the thesis stronger, and to avoid any problems due to "sudden departure" by a single member of staff. Perhaps you can suggest this. You could also try to see if you can adjust the direction of your thesis to suit your needs. My supervisor had a preference for tried and tested technology - crufty bits of code out of 1970's coding cookbooks. I let him direct my work in this direction even though I could see the rest of the industry was moving onto cloud computing, parallel processing and GPU's. My external examiner then asked why I hadn't used any of those technologies.

The purpose of completing a PhD is to demonstrate that you have creativity, can keep up with the rest of industry, see where things are going wrong, think up ways that they could be improved or fixed, evaluate them systematically, and convince others logically and tactfully that this is the correct direction to take. So if you have a feeling if something isn't going right, you have to tell someone.

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