I have now submitted my thesis. My advisor didn't help me at all during this 3 and half years time. My thesis hasn't been read properly and I fear about the outcome. Unfortunately the culture of my school is not something where you can change things but nothing I can do except getting on with it.

I will feel burdened If I see my supervisor's name with my papers the ones I will get out of this PhD. She hasn't contributed anything than only accepting me to do this project. I also worry she has hand on my data and she can use it for her own publication once I get out of the University.

So I would like to ask, Are these just my own fears or is it something I really deal with it? Has it happened with someone else too? What are the strategies I should adopt? Thanks for help!

  • 8
    If your supervisor publishes your results, then that's plagiarism.
    – user2768
    Oct 18, 2016 at 10:47
  • 1
    So you were not financially supported, never met with them, never discussed anything, never used any equipment, never benefited from introductions to others?
    – Jon Custer
    Oct 18, 2016 at 14:07
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    @JonCuster: What do you want to imply with this? Should a student be happy if he/she gets financial support but no support for the actual research? I know that there is no use in complaining about unfair supervisors - you need to be pragmatic about that. But there is also no need to thank them for their effort. Oct 18, 2016 at 15:30
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    @J.FabianMeier - the implication is that we have one side of the story. The OP declares that their advisor "didn't help me at all" - well, is that really true? It is possible that this conclusion is colored by personal perceptions.. A neutral observer might have a different conclusion. While the feelings of the OP are not changed, the path forward is different.
    – Jon Custer
    Oct 18, 2016 at 15:40
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    @JonCuster I think it easy to generalise a phd story. But we should know that there are students who are doing self-funded PhD, I am one them. I have paid £21,000 in three years to pursue a PhD. Yes I met them (not often and they stated they are extremely busy), I had a desk and I haven't been introduced to any well known scholar in my field. My perceptions are ultimate result of my experience. I approached the management for this matter but it appeared that they are all part of a gang. If I had some help I would have appreciated it. Unfortunately I am not the only one in my school with this.
    – Ahmad
    Oct 18, 2016 at 16:03

3 Answers 3


I had exactly the same situation. My supervisor has 2 students (including me) and in the 4 years she was in the department (she joined the same time as me) she didn't publish a single paper with either of us.

Initially I tried to be very involved, deliberately going to see her at least twice a week to discuss things, going through my workings, asking for advice on what literature to read etc. I realised within 3 months she wasn't really engaging in anything and her other student said the same to me. The supervisor published 2 papers in her first year there, both jointly with people she knew from other universities. As I became more involved in collaborating with them I realised she didn't actually contribute anything to the work beyond the most superficial (largely thanks to how her English was better than the collaborators so she always did the writing up...). In one instance she presented "her research" to the group in one of our weekly internal presentations and at the end I leant over to her other student and whispered "Every single result in that presentation [Collaborator 1] sent me 3 months ago, she didn't do any of that!".

To make matters worse she was away the entirity of my 2nd year due to having a child (and when she returned she'd mentally 'checked out'). I felt completely lost and without direction, due to the fact all the other people in my domain were elsewhere in Europe or in the US. Eventually I managed to give myself some drive in the area AND I picked up a 2nd supervisor on a different topic. By the end of my PhD I'd published a paper with the 2nd supervisor, one with the collaborator and one entirely on my own, without her even reading it. I'm also certain she didn't read my draft thesis. She didn't read any of my paper drafts. I once asked her "Have you seen anyone do this sort of approach before" and she said "No", only for the External Examiner of my thesis, whom she picked, to say "I did a similar approach in my last paper". To find that out during a viva was a hell of a shock! I managed to defend my thesis though, my approach and ideas were different but I'd definitely have benefited if she'd informed me correctly.

Her other student wasn't so lucky. Our supervisor actively blocked her taking up a 2nd supervisor. She'd also done enough with the student that the student couldn't publish the work herself without breaking rules. The supervisor sat on a final draft of the student's paper for 9 months! Eventually the other student had to take her to the Head of Department to force her to either sign off on it or fully bin it because the student was approaching the 4 year deadline.

We both managed to get our PhDs and I think I came out of it stronger but it's not something I'd like to repeat. I couldn't say "**** you to Dr [Supervisor] for being useless" in my thesis but all I did was acknowledge her existence. I didn't mention her in any of my papers at all, which might be considered the height of rudeness usually but that was kinda the point... I think the department realised it was something problematic too because she didn't publish another paper and ended up leaving Academia 6 months after I finished.

In terms of ways of dealing with it I found that picking up a 2nd supervisor really helped. Collaborating by email is okay but it doesn't replace a face-to-face discussion in front of a blackboard. Ideally it's in an area with a lot of overlap with your own, it'll make it easier to hit the ground running. By making progress with this second strand of work it reduces the stress of working on your original problem and often that's enough for you to start making headway on your own.

You definitely need to be regimented with your time (though you could say this about doing a PhD in general). With no one looking over your shoulder it can be easy to just become apathetic. Keeping a schedule and daily routine helps to avoid that. If you're stuck on something then don't just stay at home that day, find a paper in your area and try to rederive the results (I was in theoretical physics so lots of maths workings) or work through the details the paper might have glossed over. That way you're keeping the subject active in your mind and who knows, maybe you'll think "Hey, I can do this a much better way!" and there's the spark of a paper all of your own.

At the very least, talk to people. Don't shut yourself off from other PhD students in your group, either socially or professionally. The occasional rant or indepth discussion about some aspect of research can be mentally uplifting.

  • It wasn't an easy journey and but some friends really helped to get on with the research. I don't know how a supervisor can be so lazy. I mean once they were a PhD student too and they should know the importance of this relationship. But its just so frustrating when they become selfish and lazy. I am glad I am almost done with my supervisor.
    – Ahmad
    Oct 18, 2016 at 21:07
  • The ratio of rant to information in this answer seems a bit high; could it be edited to preserve the salient points and advice, while toning down the chatty stuff?
    – Yemon Choi
    Oct 29, 2016 at 21:52

Many supervisors do not help their PhD students (I do not have statistics, obviously, but experience from different universities and research areas). These students often feel lost and also unsure about their PhD thesis. At least in Germany it is not uncommon that PhD students who have these kinds of supervisors drop out or take exceptionally long for their PhD.

I think the best you can do in such a situation is to get help from other sides (often difficult), and if this does not work out you should finish as quick (and as good) as possible and leave that particular environment.

It is unlikely that you'll fail if you submitted a proper PhD thesis. It is also unlikely that your supervisor will directly use your data or results if she is not really involved in your research. She might give them to the next PhD student, but you (as a postdoc) will probably be much more experienced so that it is unlikely that this PhD student publishes something you also tried to do.

So, I would not worry too much but look for a better place for your future research.

  • Also, not every negative supervising experience is bad. For example, I know a guy who had a bad supervisor which didn't help him at all. Although it was tough at the start, he managed to publish only sole author papers and to finish the PhD without any help. He now works as a researcher for an institution, and have a very good publication record, being one of the best researchers in this institute. I gave you this example to show that in certain conditions some "negative" experiences turn into very positive ones.
    – Nikey Mike
    Oct 18, 2016 at 12:58
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    I don't share @MikeyMike's optimism — I think those "advisers" do not usually create strong researchers but put lots of potential in a meat grinder. But I agree that a bad start does not have to be the end of your career. So yeah, get that bad experience behind you and concentrate on your career (i.e., publications). As for "fearing the defense", ask whether anyone did fail. Usually that's rare because it always falls back badly on the adviser. Oct 18, 2016 at 12:59
  • @MikeyMike agree!! After submission I can say that the journey was definitely very difficult but the self learning experience is something I would cherish. I might sound bitter with today's question but I am learning everyday through these experiences.
    – Ahmad
    Oct 18, 2016 at 21:00
  • I disagree with your sentiment Mike, that a brilliant researcher is only brilliant because they went through an abusive relationship for X years. Sometimes there isn't a silver lining. Sometimes bad people in high positions just hurt science as a whole. Discoveries go undiscovered for another 5 or 10 years. We should not consider it acceptable to ignore a PhD student for any reason. It's like saying "Sure rape sucks, but on the plus side it makes you better at sex." Oct 19, 2016 at 12:56

(At least in the UK) a PhD student is required to have more than a single supervisor. In other words, here exists a figure of a secondary supervisor with whom you can discuss problems that you may have about your main supervisor and general topics about your research when the main supervisor is not available.

This approach mitigates issues where a person is unavailable too often or not interested in the research of his/her PhD students (which I find strange since that should be a good source of ideas for his/her own research). Moreover, it is not uncommon to see papers including the names of the PhD student and the second supervisor (main supervisor not included).

Even more, just the fact that someone is working inside a university allows him to interact with other PhD students and often exchange ideas. I believe that, on at least a single paper, you may have included (possibly not in the authors but maybe acknowledgments) some of your colleagues. That must be worth something.

Nevertheless, you managed to complete a thesis (you submitted it), congratulations! You can argue that it was a difficult journey without the help of your supervisor, but you made it. (Well, almost, but if you submitted the thesis you're a good way towards the completion of the road.)

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