I am not sure what word is best used to describe this situation, but the PI puts up a facade of great research, advertised to incoming students as groundbreaking, but after one or two mediocre papers in low-tier conferences (heavily publicized) the support for the research disappears, so the work never gains momentum. Is this kind of thing common? How could an incoming graduate student recognize this kind of lab?

In my situation, I am a PhD student at a well-regarded, top-15 STEM program. My advisor is decently well-regarded in field A, and also purports to do work in field B (not specifying the fields as they are uncommonly found together). He heavily recruited me into his lab for field B. In field A our lab regularly publishes work in top conferences, but in field B the work never seems to gain momentum. However, when my advisor discusses his work publicly, he only advertises field B as it is a "sexier" field and more exciting to talk about, and to hear him talk about it we are doing exceptionally ground-breaking work. However, behind the facade, I am one of just two students working in field B, my work is not supported, I have little to no funding to do the projects he recruited me for and continues to recruit good students for. I have managed to get a couple of publications in decent venues, but the last publication I tried to work on he actually told me I should not publish (upon discussion with someone actually in the field, that person said it was very worthwhile work). Instead, I find myself regularly writing newsletter-style articles about work in its infancy, for non-academic venues, which bring a lot of publicity to the lab but are worth nothing to my academic career.

Additionally, as I progress (slowly) in my research it is painfully apparent that he knows absolutely nothing about this field. In my last meeting with my advisor, I came prepared with a list of 5 different research ideas, and after presenting them all, I was told "You should work on simple, practical things, not hard academic research." I told him what the top conferences were in my field and he said I was wrong (I am right) and told me to publish in incorrect venues. I am early in the program and am looking for a new advisor, because it is obvious that if I stay in this lab I will never be able to publish in my field and thus never be competitive for an academic (or likely even an industry) position in this field--at this point I am basically an academic publicist.

A lot of detail, but is this "research facade" a common occurrence? It is almost analogous to falling victim to an "academic con artist." For awhile I thought it was my fault, that I just wasn't working hard enough and that I just had to work harder to make the work gain momentum, but every time I am on the cusp of making progress on something the funding dries up and I am diverted to another project (after of course writing several press releases). Also, how would one recognize this type of lab in the future? It seems difficult as an incoming grad student being promised exciting projects to tell the difference between active research and sham projects.

  • I tried to edit the title to more accurately reflect what you're asking about, since it was kind of hard to understand before... Did I understand your question correctly?
    – ff524
    Commented Jan 11, 2017 at 7:22
  • 1
    I am early in the program and am looking for a new advisorGood for you!
    – JeffE
    Commented Jan 13, 2017 at 12:46
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    Re: investigating a potential advisor, see the advice in this answer.
    – ff524
    Commented Jan 16, 2017 at 2:15

1 Answer 1


In this question, I see two separate issues: First, you have the impression that you fell for someone similar to an "academic con-artist". Second, there is a conflict of goals between you and your supervisor. Your question is worded in a way that emphasizes the first issue, but in this answer, I want to make the point that it would be more productive to focus on the second issue.

Let me summarize the situation from my perspective. Your goal is to make an academic career, and for this goal you (reasonably) strive to produce work that gets published at top-level conferences. Your supervisor's goal, however, is to establish a new research direction which may or may not ever pan out to be of interest to top-level conferences. Since these conflicting goals seem impossible to reconcile, it is clear that you need to change your supervisor.

Since you don't want to wind up in the same situation again, you're wise to ask how can avoid that in the future. By focusing on your goals, this question becomes almost self-answering: Choose an advisor whose goals are easier to align with yours. The ideal advisor would be one who lets you work on a topic where he has recently published papers in top-level conferences.

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