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I am a third year PhD student, and since joining my advisor's lab, I feel like I have made very little intellectual contribution to any of my projects. My advisor tells me exactly what to do, rarely asks for my ideas, and whenever I make a suggestion, he comes up with some reason why it's a bad idea and we should do it his way instead. Generally I feel like I am just carrying out his orders and don't get to do original research on my own. And if I don't get to do original research, why am I doing a PhD?

Sometimes my advisor gives me problems, and they are pretty interesting. But they stop being interesting when he tells me exactly how to model the problem, exactly what experiments to conduct, and exactly what figures should go in the resulting paper. Other people I've worked with just gave me problems and let me figure out how to solve them myself, and at the end of the week I'd send in results and they'd give advice (not orders) on what to do next. I felt a lot more attached to those projects because I felt like they were mine, and not someone else's.

When we meet with our collaborators about my projects, they mostly talk to each other and I can't get a word in, even though I am the one writing all the code and generating all the figures. Sometimes they are on the wrong track about something and a single sentence from me would clear up the confusion, but when I try to talk they frequently talk over me as if I weren't there, or didn't have anything valuable to contribute. Also, if I disagree with my advisor about how to do something, he will just assume I'm being stupid, but if my collaborator disagrees he actually listens.

How can I stop this and be in charge of my own projects?

  • How many papers have you published under this strategy? Were you first author or any of that? – Alexandros Jul 10 '15 at 4:00
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    How did your advisor answer when you raised this issue? (You did raise the issue with your advisor, didn't you?) And how did your other faculty mentor(s) answer? (You do have another faculty mentor, don't you?) – JeffE Jul 10 '15 at 9:49
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    You won't be in charge until you actively take charge. Whether that is advisable is a slightly different question—but I don't mean that pejoratively. – Calchas Jul 10 '15 at 23:03
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    @JeffE I haven't brought this up with my advisor yet, I'm waiting for the right time. I did talk to my brother about this and he said I have to work harder. But I don't think I could possibly work harder than I am already. – user37018 Jul 11 '15 at 5:06
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    The right time is Monday morning. Send an emaill today asking for an appointment. – JeffE Jul 11 '15 at 12:34
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I don't say this lightly, but it's in your best interest to switch labs. I think you know that already but it's a soul-crushing reality to face. Let's face it now, before it's too late.

I had many friends throughout graduate school in similar situations, and the spectrum of outcomes is telling. The students that stayed in their labs despite functioning primarily as a technician were miserable, for years, and fundamentally deprived of their opportunity to grow as a scientist. None stayed in science or academia. The students that joined new labs had a better idea of what kind of mentor they wanted to work for, were happier, and universally wished they had left sooner.

You are likely thinking to yourself:

1) You've done so much work already! How could you possibly start over?

  • I know, it stinks! But your job as a graduate student is to become an independent thinker, not push through projects already defined for you. Plus, you're not really starting over. You're TAing, doing coursework, learning to program, and hopefully learning how to assess the literature. You'll continue to build on all those skills.

2) You're still a junior member of the lab! As a senior more experienced student you'll get more freedom!

  • Advisors that promote independence establish that environment for their students early on (like first thing!). Based on what you've said, I don't think there's much room for growth.

3) You just have to talk to your advisor about your frustrations and maybe he'll give you more latitude.

  • I wish it worked that way. What I think you'll get is some small concession, enough to keep you hooked and doing his work. My pessimistic sense is there are very very few, if any situations where an advisor will have a change of heart adequate enough to improve your lot in lab. What you describe is a clash of philosophy: advisor knows best vs. allowing students to grow, make mistakes, and even deviate from the original trajectory. It's not that your advisor is a bad scientist, or a bad person, it just may be that he or she is better off running a lab of technicians rather than graduate students.

4) Your brother's advice: you just have to work harder!

  • I have to respectively disagree with that. As above, I think this is fundamentally a philosophical difference between what you want out of your education and what your advisor wants out of a student. No amount of hard work will change that.

5) This material is really interesting! There's nothing else I'm as excited about.

  • If the material is awesome, it makes it harder to leave. Nevertheless, I think you'll derive much greater satisfaction with a mentor who treats you more as a colleague than as a peon.

Lastly, I think your situation portends even more dire consequences down the road. This sounds like the advisor who you might have authorship problems with, who decides you need to stay another year after publishing 4 papers, or who doesn't write you the best of letters (how can he/she if you never demonstrated your full potential?).

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