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So, my advisor works in a group style, meaning we have these weekly meetings, where all of his PhD students and RAs are present. We plan the work ahead and set aims, but these aims are always very general and non-specific.

For example, it is always like "you must publish in the X journal something about improving the 4G network, because that's where the money is". He usually asks for publication planning without having done the work first.

We rarely have 1-1 meetings and even when we do, he does not provide any guidance, he just sets aims and I have to work alone to achieve them (no one else in our group works on the same topic).

This gets even worse by the facts that:

  1. I do not enjoy the topic that much. Long story short, I was assigned this topic after changing supervisors for logistics reason (Worth mentioning the relation with my previous supervisor was excellent, but unfortunately as I said, I cannot go back to him due to logistics).
  2. More importantly, he is very cautious with sharing his research and does not like to work with people outside the group.

As an example of the 2nd, I had asked him if I could write a paper with another researcher outside our group. He said yes, but after a month of work and 2 days before the deadline, he changed his mind and said I should remove the other person's work and name from the paper, otherwise we are not going to submit.

I am 2.5 years into the PhD out of a 5-year long program, so half-way through. However, I cannot work alone on a topic I do not enjoy, with a person I do not get along with. What should I do? Should I change supervisor again, keep working alone or quit maybe with a MRes?

Some people I have talked with say this situation is common and normal.

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    Sorry to hear that you are having some conflict in this - I don't envy your situation. Have you made a pros and cons list of each of your options (stay, change supervisor, or take a MRes instead of a PhD)? If not, I'd recommend it as it can help with the decision. It might also be useful to consider what you can do to make the PhD more bearable. This could include things like finding ways to reframe negative thoughts, aspects, or encounters in a more positive light – tea4two May 12 '16 at 14:10
  • @HoboSci The pros/cons list only exists in my mind for now, but it is a good idea to put it down on a paper, thanks. I have tried seeing the positive side too, (for example, my advisor is happy with me attending trainings, workshops etc.). The position I am in now, I am just trying to see what the least bad approach could be. Quitting without anything is also on the table and quite tempting, but I do not want to have wasted 2.5 years. – lone_researcher May 12 '16 at 15:12
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    I do not enjoy the topic that much. — Then don't do it. It's your PhD. You have to hunt it down and kill it. — Should I change supervisor again — In my opinion, yes. But more importantly, you need to understand any new potential advisor's research expectations and working style before you agree to let them advise you. – JeffE May 12 '16 at 17:15
  • @JeffE The only thing I am worried about is that in case I change advisor, I will have lost another year of work (I changed advisor for the first time after the first 1.5 year), having left only 2.5 years to publish, write-up and finish. – lone_researcher May 12 '16 at 17:47
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Some people I have talked with say this situation is common and normal

Absolutely!

It is going to be a very hard process to change how your advisor work! Most of the time, you won't be able to! So, you will need to learn to adapt. You need to consider the following;

  1. This is not your first PhD! You changed advisors before.
  2. You are half-way through your current PhD (only you knows how many years you wasted or what's your current family situation).
  3. You need to graduate!

So, my advice is to follow your adviosr and be flexible.

When I first started my PhD, a new PhD student joined my grouped and have similar issues like yours. He changed advisors, schools and wanted to continue publishing with another researcher (his friend who have finished his PhD from a previous school where he joined before). The bottom line is, my advisor tolerated him for sometime but then gave him two options;

  1. If he [the student] continues the "drama", he can leave. If fact, he told him that he knows a professor in another school that might be willing to take him.
  2. Follow the process and get his degree!

To me, that student was very brilliant, had very unique way of thinking and solving for solutions! But, it was very clear that he needed to do everything on his own (and way)! Many advisors do not like that (especially, well-known ones).

I get that sometimes you can get a project that you do not like! So, what!! Do you think that you ganna be always working on projects that you like! I doubt that! At this level, you are a researcher (try to be a professional one). Think of it this way, if you are a surgeon, you operate on people! You can not say, "No, I do not want to operate on this guy because I do not like him" This may sound harsh, but in a way, is true!

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    But then what is the point of doing the PhD in the first place? A surgeon has chosen to become one, no one forced him to do that. He does it because he likes it (or at least this is how it is supposed to be). If he doesn't like a person, it's just a single case, not 2.5 more years of his life! I do not believe your analogy is accurate. – lone_researcher May 12 '16 at 13:32
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    I cannot follow your thinking. I agree with what you say in your comment, but how is this relevant to my comment? From your answer, you seem to believe a PhD is just a project, whereas I think you have to love what you do for research. As I obviously don't, let's go back to my main question: What should I change? Nothing? – lone_researcher May 12 '16 at 13:59
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    I cannot see any logical reason as to why you can't work with people outside of the group and publish papers. In fact, building professional relations should be one of the objectives of the PhD. However, the situation is far worse in the industry. You can't say something like "I don't like this project". Learning to adapt could be the option. Also, working with other members of the group should bypass loneliness. – Mikey Mike May 12 '16 at 14:39
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    It differs from one field to another and one advisor to another @MikeyMike. For instance, when you are fully funded by your advisor, s/he tend not to "like" when you work with other who are from outside the group. Think of it this way, if your advisor has gotten a fund and used it to do an experiment, why would he share the outcome with somebody else who did not participate in bringing the fund! In the same manner, if he is fully sponsoring your and paying your tuition and salary, why would he wants you to work with others (and "waste your time not working for his projects!"). – The Guy May 12 '16 at 14:47
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    @ The Fire Guy I see your point. However, I don't think the supervisor should limit so much the students to work only on his projects. – Mikey Mike May 12 '16 at 14:54
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"What should I do" is hard question, but you must answer it yourself :) If you find the cooperation hard then it might be a good reason to change.

Usually you should learn (at least on a general level) the form of cooperation with an advisor before you start to work with him. You do that by asking his/her students about this and asking him/her directly. If you do that, there should be little surprise on how things work when you decide to join the team.

Regarding the "not enjoyable topic" problem, one of the aims of PhD studies is to prove that you are capable of doing research on your own, so I'm not surprised that you are not given any concrete solutions and specific guidance.

On the other hand, you are right to expect some help in problems you're facing and at least a fruitful discussion about the topic, especially if your advisor is the co-author of papers you produce.

Working on a topic completely unrelated to your PhD research might be alarming, and a reason to quit - but then again, this is still something that helps you to learn how to conduct research on your own and write papers.

During my PhD studies I was also participating in projects/papers that weren't directly within my field of interest - but I don't consider them a waste of time. On the contrary - they helped me to improve my general research skills. And this was really helpful in conducting research for my thesis.

  • "Usually you should learn (at least on a general level) the form of cooperation with an advisor before you start to work with him. You do that by asking his/her students about this and asking him/her directly." I did that, and I was happy with the previous advisor. But I was kinda forced to switch and work with the new one. I am well aware that I have to work on my own, but in my case, it is to that extend that I cannot see any benefit from having an advisor. He has never given me any feedback apart from "you need to focus on simulation software" or "big data is the next big thing". – lone_researcher May 12 '16 at 17:23
  • @lone_researcher I get that -> see first paragraph :) Also, I understand you were forced to end the cooperation with your previous advisor - but was your current advisor really the only possible choice? I assume not if you're considering a change - hence the second paragraph. – BartoszKP May 12 '16 at 20:20
  • No, you are actually right, he was not my only choice. But unfortunately, it was also not me the one making the choice! I was placed to work under him by my department, which seemed to be working initially, but the problems started appearing as time went by. Regarding changing again, I am a bit reluctant if this will benefit me and allow enough time for me to publish, write-up and graduate, as I repeat above. – lone_researcher May 12 '16 at 21:05
  • @lone_researcher Yes, very tough decision. But only you can evaluate whether it is possible to graduate with this advisor in a sensible time-frame? Consider how many PhDs this advisor has already "produced" - if the number is, let's say few every few years, or at least more than 10, then you can assume that he knows what to do, to get his PhD students successfully finish their theses. – BartoszKP May 12 '16 at 21:35
  • Although he is not a big name in his field and he does not produce world-leading research, he has a few good links in the industry and for sure knows what a PhD student needs to pass his viva. But that is not enough: you might get to work with an expert, but what if his attitude is not something you can withstand? – lone_researcher May 12 '16 at 21:45

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