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When starting a Ph.D. position, one naturally expects that there should be some kind of supervision of his work. That is, their advisors should be aware of the state-of-the-art and be willing to sit and discuss research directions and provide pointers to the literature. In some cases, advisors may be too "bossy," expecting their students to be "good soldiers" doing what they are told to do without many questions about its research value. However, it's also not uncommon for advisors to be "hands-off," basically leaving their students on their own and so they come back only when they have something to publish.

Navigating solely through the literature is arguably the worst part of Ph.D Grind. It's all too easy for a student with undeveloped "feel" for problems to spend months trying to shape a proper research plan. That is what happened in my case, where I needed more than a year. Now that I've started with actual experimentation I realized that the workload may be a bit high for a single person. Therefore, I'm expecting that I'll need more than a year before I start publishing results.

Given that I'm working totally independently on my Ph.D. degree, can I state that to future academic employers as a justification for what could be sub-optimal research work? or would that sound like I'm not taking full responsibility?

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    In some countries (e.g. USA) the first year in PHD is for passing courses. "I realized that the workload may be a bit high for a single person". Yes, it is. That is why getting a PHD is very hard. One+ year for your first paper seems reasonable. Once you do it, and after many rejection / acceptance circles it progressively gets faster. – Alexandros Jul 9 '15 at 13:54
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    I would argue that navigating through the literature yourself is one of the joys of a PhD, and also one of the critical techniques to learn to become a truly independent researcher. It is also a technique that requires you to messily wrestle with the process to fully learn it. – Jon Custer Jul 9 '15 at 16:22
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    "Given that I'm working totally independently" Does this have some formalized meaning of which I'm unaware? I first read it as meaning "My advisor gives me so little guidance that it's like not having an advisor at all." If the latter, that is a terrible way to describe your relationship with your advisor: it makes you both sound bad. – Pete L. Clark Jul 9 '15 at 19:07
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    Sounds to me like you are trying to resolve a problem that has not yet occurred. If you have any reason to believe that what you are doing is poor quality, then you are most of the way to understanding how to bring it up to scratch. If you can clearly articulate what your concerns are with the work, it will be so much easier to get help from your formal adviser or or other faculty. Further, you are implying that you expect to get the degree with sub-optimal work. Whilst not all PhD work is of the same standard, having a plan for "sub-optimal" sounds like a good way to not get there at all. – Keith Jul 10 '15 at 3:54
  • Welcome to real life I guess. The hard part of a PhD is becoming a independent researcher, not becoming a researcher. People expect that being an independent researcher is what you learn in your PhD, if you state that your results are bad due to you independence researching (I know I am repeating myself a lot) you are kind of saying that you failed at your learning! Don't worry, not everyone has a brilliant PhD and most "big guys" in academia didn't. – Ander Biguri Jul 10 '15 at 9:37
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You should be very, very careful about seeming to criticize your own department or supervisor. It might be unfair that you received sub-optimal results, but if you try to blame somebody else for your results, search committee members are much more likely to just think you are a complainer or a malcontent.

The best advice at this early stage in your career: either find a way to work together better with your advisor, or switch advisors.

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    "The best advice at this early stage in your career: either find a way to work together better with your advisor, or switch advisors." Ca y est. +1. – Pete L. Clark Jul 9 '15 at 14:42
  • @PeteL.Clark It's not a personal issue between me and my advisor. This simply his style with all Ph.D. students. Moreover, changing advisors is not an option in Germany. – user36661 Jul 9 '15 at 18:35
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    @abk: Yes, you are allowed to change advisors, if necessary by changing programs and/or countries. If the latter sounds severe, remember that most European PhDs who want to stay in academia need to take jobs outside of their home country. Going to a different country is a much better option for your future career than soldiering through a PhD program expecting substandard results the whole time. The academic job market can barely carry people who have gotten fantastic results. (By the way: I find it hard to believe that no German PhD student has ever changed advisors.) – Pete L. Clark Jul 9 '15 at 19:02
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    One more piece of advice: You need to find somebody senior in your faculty whom you can trust. Perhaps that's the department chair, perhaps that's some other tenured faculty member. I would identify such a person and approach him or her with a very careful, very measured question about handling your advisor. It might be that the chair, for instance, knows a way to move you to another group without ruffling feathers. Or it might be that a colleague can tell you: "yes, this person is impossible you're better off running for the hills." – shane Jul 9 '15 at 21:11
  • Can't +1 this enough. A similar situation led to me dropping out of grad school, after 2 years. One of the last times I saw my advisor, he asked me if I'd found a new one. The thought had never crossed my mind. If only he'd mentioned the possibility before it was too late. – Potatoswatter Jul 11 '15 at 4:19
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Given that I'm working totally independently on my Ph.D. degree, can I state that to future academic employers as a justification for what could be sub-optimal research work? or would that sound like I'm not taking full responsibility?

Well, are you taking full responsibility? It does not sound like it to me.

Basically, playing the blame game is never a good idea in the hiring circuit. You will try to frame your situation as "I was in a bad spot, but I made the best of it even if the outcome wasn't great", but to everybody who is hiring it will sound like "I was in a bad spot, and I made no attempts to change the spot". Even worse, in your specific situation, what I hear is "I was in a pretty regular spot [my advisor did not spoon-feed me with ideas, and I needed some time to get started], and now I am pretending like I was in a very bad spot".

What you should do:

  • Re-evaluate your expectations. Being "more than a year in" when you start publishing sounds quite normal to me. Having "wasted" some time researching directions that did not work out is also the most normal thing in the world in science.
  • Start taking responsibility. Do good work in the environment you are in, or change the environment.
  • Accept that in a PhD study, the by far dominating factor of your success is you. Advisors, topics, environment matter. You matter much, much more.
  • It's not about blaming or criticizing my advisor. Actually, It's more about mentioning that my Ph.D. degree was earned independently with the hope that I receive a fairer assessment of my profile compared to regular Ph.D. students. – user36661 Jul 9 '15 at 15:06
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    What a regular PHD student is? Most people do not publish before at least 1.5+ years as the main authors. – Alexandros Jul 9 '15 at 15:12
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    If you do your work independently of your advisor, you should be able to publish it under you own name only. That will be a good proof that you have done the work independently. It is also tricky, depending on the personality of the advisor and on whether you have to use complicated equipment that is paid by adivsor money, etc. – Stefano Jul 9 '15 at 15:34
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You never want to pass the blame to someone else that's career suicide. Consider quitting a job and then at an interview you are asked "Why did you quit?" and you going to answer with "My boss did not pay enough attention to my work so I could not perform as well" while that might be true that doesn't mean it's a good idea. As soon as you throw someone under the bus during an interview the employer is to assume you'd throw them and/or their company down the same way.

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Given that I'm working totally independently on my Ph.D. degree,

Well, it seems quite normal to me. That's your PhD, your research. The advisor is here to provide guidance, not to work with you or for you (while the former is of course the ideal situation).

can I state that to future academic employers as a justification for what could be sub-optimal research work?

You can state whatever you want, but keep in mind that the hiring process in academia is a competition. If your application is weaker than the others, you won't be recruited, even if there are solid explanations to the weakness of your application.

I'd like to add a point on your sentence "Navigating solely through the literature is arguably the worst part of Ph.D Grind. ". I don't know in which field you're at, but if you don't like this part, you will have a painful academic life. In some fields most of the time is dedicated to literature (art, history, etc.), and even in the most recent fields (CS for instance), it's still a large part of the working load.

  • Navigating literature at the beginning of your Ph.D. is much harder than later on. Basically, one needs to build a big picture about what has been done already and what could be done to build on that. This is where advisors are actually needed to save students substantial amount of time and make them more focused on interesting areas. Later on, I'd argue that the role of an advisor would be much less required since students can already "fly" on their own. – user36661 Jul 10 '15 at 7:37
  • @abk Advisor may help at this step of the PhD, but they are not archivist or information officer. So helping with the methodology is our job, but not telling the student what is the perimeter of what (s)he should read. As a PhD student, you are not here to solve a problem, you are here first to find your own problem, then to solve it. The first step being the most important to start a good research career. – Sylvain Peyronnet Jul 12 '15 at 21:54
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The whole point of being awarded a PhD is that you're able to develop your own research ideas and carry them out. If you go whining that you did badly because you were forced to develop your own research ideas and carry them out to get a PhD you're not going to get sympathy from anyone. You're definitely never going to get a postdoc.

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    He mentions that the advisor isn't really aware of the state of the art. Being sent into the wild by a non-expert, for something that may be impossible or useless, generally does not lead to productive results. The process of even realizing the advisor's ignorance is gradual and demoralizing. Part of any intellectual work is evaluating one's team and management, and at some point you have to draw the line. It depends on chances of success, and whether "successful" completion of the project translates meaningfully to the actual field, which may have been misunderstood in the first place. – Potatoswatter Jul 11 '15 at 4:33

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