I am in the 4th year of my PhD and still has no paper published. I am working on my first ... but it has taken a long time because I had not been very satisfied with that piece of work and had been making modifications here and there. I have a second piece of work expecting to be published, but that one needs considerable improvement, too. My advisor is very grumpy about this, and he is now anxious to get me enough publications to send me off. Things are a tangled mess and I have no idea how to get out of this.

One, during the past three years, I had been working on something totally different from the main interest of my advisor. He is now sending me bits of pieces to work on in his main field. But I have little background knowledge, while still having to spend time writing that poor old paper and RA-ing on another project that supplies funding. I would never graduate in time were I to work on the new topic. I have not even identified a reasonable topic yet! On the other hand, if I were to incorporate some of the previous work into my dissertation work, it is different from my advisor's interest, and I fear another two unproductive years.

A second difficulty adding to the first one is, I find myself unable to discuss work with my advisor. The meetings are just like: I told him what I had, he made some comments, and then told me what to do next. Things never lasted more than 20 minutes. I feel lacking the big picture or a research objective. Sometimes I wish he could help me look at this piece of source code or that, but then in the meeting just failed to show it. Also, I am not a methodical or precise thinker, but my advisor is and he is very quick and sharp. I can make things clear on paper, but am terrible at taking facts from memory. This probably does not help him form any good impression. He also keeps mentioning I need more publications which are terrible blows to my psychology.

Finally, I have to graduate in two years, because funding is definitely running out by that time. In fact he is not even paying me at this time.

Seriously I want to quit, except to quit almost means the end of academic career. If I do not quit, what can I do to remedy the situation?

  • 2
    1. write an agenda/checklist of topics for each meeting, 2. have your advisor or someone else review the 1st paper, make any changes and submit it!
    – mkennedy
    Aug 28, 2015 at 20:37
  • Thanks. 1. I wrote a checklist before meeting, but still failed to mention things. 2. Yes,I really should. Aug 28, 2015 at 20:39
  • 2
    Try printing two copies of your checklist, and hand one to your advisor at the start of the meeting. Aug 28, 2015 at 21:00
  • 1
    Advisors tend to be busy people. Try to find others (in the group, other students) to discuss details with. Send out your papers as they are, seek feedback that way. "Perfect" papers will never be done.
    – vonbrand
    Aug 30, 2015 at 2:26
  • @vonbrand Thanks. Now that I think, one reason I cannot bring my papers to an end is that I found others have found out the same thing during the past couple years. So I really feel the paper is not of value. In fact one of the papers was heavily criticized because their results was old. I had not been good at extracting information from papers until the beginning of this year ... and missed a lot of information. Aug 30, 2015 at 15:07

1 Answer 1


Here are a few ideas, hoping to help you get unstuck.

  1. My spouse had a big-name, brilliant advisor who was impatient and rarely had time to meet with his students. Fortunately my spouse found a person in the department who was able to be the mentor on the ground, the person to go to when a question came up. He had a positive, supportive attitude, and was very knowledgeable, but was not able to be the advisor of record because he didn't have the right sort of title. Perhaps you could find someone like this? It might even be an advanced grad student or a postdoc.
  2. Suppose your advisor is out of town for a month, but you and he still want to have some collaboration. A good way of doing that is by writing a weekly email to your advisor, where you make an itemized list of what you've been working on and what questions you have. I would suggest that you try writing this type of memo even when he is not out of town, and sending it to him the day before your meeting. That can provide a helpful structure for your in-person meetings.
  3. It sounds like you would benefit from having a study buddy. This is someone who will listen to your troubles supportively from time to time, and help you stay on track with your goals. It doesn't need to be someone you enjoy going to see a movie with -- this is similar to a study partner for a particular class, that you compare homework answers with. Ideally this would be a mutually supportive relationship.

I would also suggest that you bite the bullet and resolve to spend some time learning the background material necessary for a productive collaboration with your advisor. You don't have to continue working in that particular area your entire life -- you just need to get this PhD done, and it sounds like that's going to be the easiest way to do it.

Reassurance: it will probably not take as long as you fear it will to learn that background stuff. Although you might not realize it, you are a more efficient learner now than you were a few years ago. Also, I think you are motivated now to figure out how to do things methodically.

I can see that both you and your advisor have had your frustrations with each other. I predict that as he sees you taking steps to meet him halfway, you will start to see more patience and a more positive, supportive attitude from him.

  • Thank you for all suggestions. I am not sure about the feasibility of point 1 ... there is no advanced grad student or postdoc in our group because my advisor is new. For point 3, I have not experienced that kind of study buddy...how could one just to find someone? Aug 31, 2015 at 3:35
  • Once you know you are looking for a study buddy, you'll look at people a bit differently (in seminars and classes). Be a good listener, show authentic interest in the other person. Invite a likely candidate to have lunch or coffee with you. It doesn't need to be someone in your exact field. Aug 31, 2015 at 3:51
  • @eddieisnutty - It doesn't have to be someone in your immediate group. Sep 16, 2015 at 3:08

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