I am in the first year of my PhD studies. Was involved with the same group since a while as a student, and then I was offered a PhD there.

Project work

The topic of my PhD is completely different from what I had done before, so the first 3-4 months passed while I was trying to get into the new topic. In the meanwhile a project arrived. It was loosely related to my previous experience, but still completely unrelated to the PhD topic.

I was assigned to this project. Soon it started hogging all my time. Project meetings, proposal, presentations, reports and all that. Months were passing by without doing anything on the PhD topic. Also it was hard switching between the topics as the context switch was immense.

I tried different strategies. Switching topics within the day. Switching topics week in week out. And in the end what worked for me was switching between the topics as the deadlines for the project were met.

Lack of supervision

On top of all this the supervisor is busy constantly. All in all I might have had less than 3-4 hours of one-to-one discussion with my supervisor within these 12 months, whereas I hear other professors have monthly meetings with their students. Also, no one from the seniors in the group has expertise related to my PhD topic. Neither there is a fellow student working on the same topic with whom I could discuss.

Assuming that my work-flow and the tools I use were faulty, I constantly looked around for approaches to become more and more efficient. To make sure there is nothing extra to be done from my side I started working actively on the weekends and did not take any holidays.

Yet, looking at my PhD topic I still think there is so much to learn there regarding the basics let alone advanced concepts. Much more than one usual candidate who is researching within a topic which s/he might have encountered previously during studies.

What next?

As the time for the contract extension is approaching I am trying to figure out what is the best to do next. Below I will list pros and cons from my POV.


  • I like the PhD topic
  • I like the group
  • I like teaching duties (although it requires significant time investment)


  • I hate the project work
  • Lack of input from the supervisor
  • There is no one in the group to discuss with

Bottom line: How should I deal with this situation? Is it a common situation for PhD students?


  • Request a helping hand for the project (an extra student that will help me). I am even contemplating of paying from my own sallary.
  • Start contacting other groups worldwide and switch for a PhD there.
  • Visit another research group (e.g., my co-supervisor etc.) for half-a-year (or longer), whose main research aligns with my PhD topic
  • other...?

Update (6 years and 7 months later): Guys, I defended my PhD and graduated with honors. Just in case that anyone stumbles upon this question here, let me tell you that your supervisor and the people that you work with day in day out will have the greatest impact on your PhD.

That time-consuming project that I have mentioned above ended at some point, so that's okay... But the part regarding supervision didn't change.

  1. At some later point in my PhD I learned that in some institutions the PhD supervisor and the student can sign a "PhD supervision agreement", but I never did that. Some Professors might not like it, because it is also legally binding.
  2. Be more proactive in asking for supervision. Professors that have a hands-off style of supervision (like to) assume that everything is okay, unless you deliberately raise an issue.
  3. "Remote supervising" is not good for the newbies in the group, they need close supervision in the beginning.
  4. "Remote supervisors" have an inaccurate picture of the group. There is a mismatch between what they think is happening, and what is really happening. This also reflects in supervisor-student relationship because the demands and what is really possible do not fit.
  5. From my observation, when the head of the group is not around also the group tends to slack.
  6. One good thing with a supervisor who is absent is that they probably network a lot. They are absent because they are visiting some conference, giving a keynote here and there, attending project meetings etc, as such they are well-connected and you can benefit from their network.
  • A third alternative is starting to contact other groups worldwide and finding a co-supervisor there.
    – svavil
    Commented Sep 11, 2016 at 14:12
  • 1
    @svavil I have a co-supervisor, and I am ashamed telling him every other week that I have not been able to do anything on the PhD topic because of the other tasks Commented Sep 11, 2016 at 14:52
  • 1
    On the topic of your advisor being busy, you might these questions helpful: How to deal with advisor not allocating time to me?, How can I make my thesis supervisor be more responsive? I acknowledge that your question is bigger than that, but this subproblem can be tackled separately.
    – svavil
    Commented Sep 11, 2016 at 16:19
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    Option 3 ("visit another research group...") sounds like a great option if you have the opportunity. As a bonus, this kind of thing looks good on a CV, regardless of your other circumstances. Commented Sep 12, 2016 at 12:52

2 Answers 2


It's not clear to me whether you did Step 1 (or Step 2) yet. Forgive me if you already did them.

Step 1. Talk to your advisor and let her know how much time per week (or a percentage or proportion of your time) is being spent on the project, and ask for help and/or advice about how to balance your time more effectively.

Step 2. Work in the library, work at home, but limit the amount of time you spend in your office where other project members can grab you or distract you.


The first and the most important element of the PhD thesis is the topic and field of research that provide you the next years afterwards. The thesis work needs some elements from your background and also your PhD courses.

The first thing is to think on your PhD topic that is suitable based on your background and available tools.

About your busy supervisor, if you think that you need someone to lead you on the hard path of the PhD life, my suggestion is to rapidly change your supervisor in that school or other ones.

Also, you can collaborate with well-known researchers around the worldwide on your topic, give advice how to begin, and maybe work with them as your advisor on your PhD committee members.

Based my experience, sometimes we need to dive into a topic rather than to start step by step from the beginning to the advanced level.

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