67

First of all, I need to apologize for writing a really long description.

I started my PhD in Mechanical Engineering 4 years ago and working with a professor, who has no idea on what we are doing and keep changing research area based on the funding possibilities irrespective of our capabilities. He is holding an administrative position as an associate dean and he has no idea on latest methods. He always refer to the methods published in 1980's.

First, I worked on an experimental research and had to stop after 1.5 years due to lack of funding to continue that. Then, I moved to a numerical research and used an open source software as my adviser didn't have money to buy a commercial software. Even though I had some experience in numerical work it took sometime to learn an opensource software.

After spending so much time, I finally managed to develop a new solver to simulate my problem.

I didn't get any input from my adviser as he didn't even want to listen to my research issues. The only thing he ask whenever I met him is do you have results to publish and when you are going to write a paper. Whenever I explain a technical issue he get furious and blame me. Then he doesn't talk to me for at least a month and he forgets what happened. Most of the time, I have to explain what's the problem I'm working on.

Last year he asked me to change my research, as my problem takes at least 2 days to run one simulation, which is normal in similar simulations. He told me that my solver is useless and there is no point of having a such code if it takes more than 4 hours. I was explaining why it takes long time and it's normal in such simulations even with a commercial software. But he got really angry and scolded me. Finally, I had no option other than changing my research because, I'm funded from his TA position (though the funding coming from the department).

Now, I have worked on this research for 6 months and he is still complaining about the simulation time. Now he wants me to abandon my work again as one of his friends found a paper (which is published in 1975) on a different method that claims it can solve similar problems faster. However, that method is based on many assumptions and no one has used that method after 1985 due to its limitations.

And my problem has completely different physics and cannot be used at all. I showed him some of the review papers which explain why that method is wrong and why no one uses it. But, he doesn't believe it and told me don't trust all the papers you read because most of the review papers are wrong as different authors interpret things in different ways. And he scold me saying there is no error in that method and it's me who try to find excuses not to change it.

I have tried to change my PI several times, but no other professor wants to take me as they don't want to make any problem with associate dean. I tried to apply other universities and they are expecting a recommendation from my adviser. I know clearly that my professor will never give me a recommendation to leave the group. He once told me and our lab mates, it won't be easy to leave this group even if you want.

No one in this university will dare to take my student. and he once told me that he cannot see me graduating at least in 2020. I don't really know what I should do.

I'm an international student and my I-20 will expire in 2 months and I need his authorization to extend it. I'm 29 years old and I'm actually not in a position to take a risk.

  • 12
    Sorry for your frustrating situation. It's not clear what exactly you are asking. Are you asking if you should leave? Are you asking for strategies on how to succeed in spite of bad advisor? – kindredChords Jan 27 '17 at 3:42
  • Comments are not for extended discussion (or mini-answers); this conversation has been moved to chat. – ff524 Jan 29 '17 at 23:06
  • 1
    Is the fact that your simulation takes 2 days instead of 4 hours really the whole reason he's not accepting your work? Perhaps teaming up with some skilled computer science / engineering gurus could help speed up the simulation. If, for example, your code is written in MATLAB, porting it to something like C, which is inherently faster will help. Also, perhaps your simulation can be (better) parallelized, also making it run faster. Expensive commercial software has this advantage over MATLAB scripts; that's why it's so expensive. – Jonathon Reinhart Jan 29 '17 at 23:30

17 Answers 17

0

From your initial description, he sounds like quite a problem, but not necessarily a malicious one. He's causing issues because of his way of thinking, or lack of thoughtfulness, not because he wants to use you, so to speak.

Could you speak to him at all, and see if he is able to understand the problem you face and what you need, for your progress? Get him to solve the issues his own behaviour is creating ("I need help to solve these issues") without making it a "you do X to me" blame situation?

Incidentally sorting out the visa 1st sounds very good, +1 for the ideas above on that.

14

The big questions here are:

  1. Do you really enjoy your research? If not, why not change that? Hiding in the seeming safe bubble is even riskier. 29-year-old is too young to not make a change.
  2. If you don't have the resources to make a change, can you borrow them from others?

Your situation resonates with me. For the past 6 years, I exhausted my energy to get a Ph.D. Although I got a postdoc position after graduation, I pondered for several weeks and realized this was not the life I wanted. So I say sorry to that offer and now making a career change, away from academia.

Previous posts have given some suggestions: leave academia, transfer school, change for another boss, work more effectively with the boss, etc. These are all possible solutions. But the missing piece is: what's your passion and your life goal? PhDs tend to narrowly focused on the research area and are blind to the bigger picture. Try to think beyond your current dilemma. When you started your journey 4 years ago, you only have a very vague goal. Now it's time to reset your goal and make it as smart as possible.

With the ultimate goal in mind, let's hack the realistic bottleneck, money. This may be the only question that this post is about. I am also an international student. I understand how money is important for a student coming from a developing country, and this is also why so many poor students have to tolerate an abusive professor. But I have to say, you have overpaid your price to get a Ph.D. It's not worth that.

Many people don't know the difference between a tough boss and an abusive boss, see this. Be aware of that the abusive person is eating your energy. Try your best to stay away from that. You may play communication tricks to ease the tension. But you are always vulnerable and psychological unsafe. It's definitely not a productive environment. If your goal is not clear, he will always try to push your bottom line, because the cost is on you, not him. It is a zero sum game. Remember, a good relationship is a shared journey. Effort from only one side is not enough.

So money, as well as visa restriction, are actually where the abusive power come from. This explains why American students have a much higher drop-off rate at school. There's no reason to suffer the abuse. School is a place where you are supposed to gain energy, not lose. You exchange your time and money for potentially more valuable skills and knowledge. But it is not worth to damage your mental health.

Now we pin down the problem. It's time to invest your courage to make a change. Don't be afraid to abandon the Ph.D. degree. You can imagine that, if you continue your academic career for the next 10 years, you may still live under your professor's shadow. So forget the Ph.D. thing.

As long as you enroll in school, the F1 status is secured. Change to a nice advisor to have the signature for the extension. Now, money. If it's too embarrassing to ask parents or friends for the "activation energy" money, why not do it in the American way! Get a student loan. 0% APR credit cards are a fast path.

Say goodbye to the 1980s paper. Transfer to a master program instead. Find a way to leverage your current skills. Enroll the hottest and most useful classes, which can best equip you for good paying jobs and pay off your debt. If you earn enough and can have more choices, that's the time you may reconsider your Ph.D. dream.

The world is changing at an accelerated pace. You should periodically reevaluate your situation and adjust your goal. So you never lose the big picture. Work hard, spirit up and good luck!

One final note: I can feel that you are reluctant to change, partially due to sunk cost and path dependence. But these are the least important things to consider when you are making a long-term rational decision. I would recommend everyone reading this article: Life is too short for bullshit.

  • I like your answer very much. Just a minor correction: it's "shadow" not "shallow". – user21820 Jan 29 '17 at 3:46
5

Kalyan, first of all, I'm so sorry that you've found yourself in this situation. It isn't your fault. There are bad people out there.

Before I launch into my answer, I want to challenge you on one thing that you said. You said:

I'm 29 years old and I'm actually not in a position to take a risk.

I don't know what your age means here (do you feel like that's old?). I'm 33, am starting my fourth year of PhD, I have a child on the way, and yet I can take risks. Reasonable risks of course. Life is full of twists and turns. You're employable. Worst case scenario, you'll have to go home without a PhD. But you are still a good person. He's the scumbag. Remember that.

Ok, let's break this down, and see what we can do. What are we facing?

  1. You are dependant on your supervisor for funding and your I-20
  2. Your supervisor is interfering with your research process, and not mentoring you
  3. Your supervisor is abusing you
  4. You haven't published yet

We'll start with number 1 -- this is the most urgent issue for you. However, this might also be the thing that needs the least attention on your part. For one, I think it's extremely likely he'll renew your I-20 because:

  • You are free labour for him. It's to his advantage to keep you.
  • If you leave without completing your PhD it will reflect badly on him

I know you feel powerless, but if these two things are true, then you have a very small sliver of power in this situation. You can use it to turn this situation around. And I will suggest ways that you can increase your power in this situation.

If he doesn't renew it, well, then no choice -- it's time to go home. This sucks, but there's no tough decisions to make. It will turn from a nightmare into a bad memory, and you will move on.

I want to spend quite a bit of time talking about issues 2 and 3, which are related.

You sound like a sincere person who really tries to do what they are supposed to do. It must be confusing to interact with someone like your prof, who is not like that at all.

For the sake of your mental health, and your effectiveness in handling this situation, adopt a pragmatic approach to managing your professor. Figure out what makes him tic, and how to hack him. Do not take anything he says seriously, but rather, consider it as data.

If he get's upset, that's data--and very useful data! When a person gets upset, it suggests that they were threatened or it may be that they are trying to use intimidation as a control strategy. Both of these things create major opportunities for you to get the upper hand.

Based on the behaviour you're describing, it seems like your prof gets upset during technical discussions, situations in which his outdated awareness of methods is at risk of being revealed. I suspect he is insecure about that.

If true, this is a source of hidden power that you can seize. Using someone's insecurities might be a foreign idea to you, but it's justified in self-defence. Your goal will be to use his insecurity, and your ability to alleviate it, as a subtle control strategy. Put the following things into practice:

  • If he gets angry at you, stay very calm, speak in a low tone, as if you are quite comfortable. Practice visualizing this. It's good to combine tactfully formally submitting to him, through your choice of words, while using your body language and tone of voice to indicate that you aren't intimidated at all, and not intellectually submitting to him. If you show no signs of worry when he gets angry, it will disarm one of his main control strategies.
  • When he says something that isn't true about the literature or the methods you're using, you need to react in a very specific way:
    • frown ever so slightly, as if mildly disappointed
    • look off to the left, as if you are thinking of how to say what you're about to say gently
    • then gently indicate you know he is wrong while not saying so directly, and graciously saving him some credibility.

If you start to establish yourself as more knowledgeable than he is (of course without that ever being acknowledged), you will be in the position to control your conversations with him more.

Now, whether these very specific recommendations work at all has a lot to do with your prof's personality. It may also be more difficult for you if that isn't how your personality normally works. Try to remember that his getting angry is pretty silly. If he was a serious researcher, anger would be totally unnecessary.

My main point here is to try to illustrate how you can engineer your interactions with him with a concrete example. Generally, you should approach him not as a person, but as variable to be managed using careful and calm strategy.

An important part of making this work is to cut yourself off emotionally from him. This doesn't mean not expressing emotion (do, strategically), but rather don't let him drive your emotions. He has shown himself unworthy of that level of concern.

Let's touch on item 4.

I think it's easy to overestimate how big of a problem item 4 is. I know people who didn't publish until their 4th year, and people who didn't publish at all. It's true that it closes off opportunities to become a prof, but Academia is not all it's cut out to be. This doesn't prevent you from finishing your PhD, and it could be quite a fine PhD too.

There are some other things you can do to substantially improve your situation. Probably the main reason that this situation is so difficult is that you are so dependant on your prof. You can significantly reduce how dependant you are by building and strengthening your alternatives:

  • seek out other professors that are working on things related to your research, and find excuses to meet with them and discuss their research. Many profs are very kind and open and interested in intellectual discussion. Form professional relationships based on your field and your knowledge. Explore collaboration and co-supervision if it makes sense. Co-supervision is a great way to pivot out of bad supervision relationship without having to hurt the original supervisor. It's a potentially win-win situation and I know people who have used it to get out of a bad situation.
  • apply for jobs. You have a mechanical engineering undergrad degree I assume. Many employers would understand that you want to get out of your PhD early -- Academia is not for everyone. Of course you would be paid less, but still decently well, especially if your research is relevant.
  • Reach out in your network -- acquaintances, friends, family back home, and really explore all of the opportunities and resources that are available to you. Are there people in your life that can offer some support emotionally, financially, or with transitioning out of this situation?
  • Find out if leaving with a Masters is an option, and what you need to do that.

There are two reasons to engage in these activities. One is you might find a way out that is better than finishing your PhD. The other is that letting your prof know you have a real alternative will fundamentally change your relationship. It doesn't need to be a great alternative, just a real one.

If you alter your interactions with your prof by staying calm when he is angry, signalling your superior knowledge of the state of the art, and developing viable alternatives, it could really change your position.

Now, imagine a scenario where you aren't held back by this prof. Imagine it is just you in an office -- no professor to help, but also no professor to interfere.

Given the work you've done, don't you think that, in another year or so, you could publish your work? I bet you could. Could it be that to take care of the fourth problem, you really just need to manage your prof enough to protect your intellectual freedom? This isn't easy, and most PhDs don't need to manage their prof while trying to get the hang of research. But I'm trying to suggest that it is doable.

One last thing you should do is seek out internal resources. There are probably support groups at your University for students that find themselves in tough situations with their supervisors. There may be university staff that you can confidentially discuss your issues with who might let you know about other options. Institutions have different kinds of rules and safety valves to handle irresponsible people like your prof. You might be lucky if you work at making your luck.

Do these things. Develop alternative exits. Manage your prof. Keep working while you're there. You can turn this around. Maybe you'll have your PhD after 5 or 6 years. Great! Maybe you pivot out to something else. Also great! Maybe you'll be out in two months -- at least there will be relief! It's uphill from here Kalyan. I know you can do it!

42

"My I-20 will expire in 2 months and I need his authorization to extend it.... He once told me that he cannot see me graduating [until] at least in 2020."

The second sentence suggests to me that his intention is to authorize the extension.

Getting your extension is Step 1. See if you can continue working to a reasonable level of satisfaction until the cat is in the bag with the visa. After that, your priority should be to get something published. That would be easier with the help of an informal mentor. My spouse had one. The famous name formal advisor signed the thesis but the informal mentor helped shape it.

Once you've found a mentor and have worked with him or her for a while, then you may think about transferring, with the help of a letter from the mentor. You can also ask a higher administrator for a letter.

You can look for a mentor outside your department or even outside your university. Going to some conferences might be helpful, and you can write to someone whose papers you read and liked.

In the beginning, as you are looking for a mentor and getting started in the relationship, there is no need to lay out the whole unpleasant story. You can say that your advisor is extremely busy with administrative duties.

8

You know, I left my PhD program in a very prestigious university, after having to deal with a very nasty guy. I also spoke with whoever it was necessary to try to fix the problem, but the answer in almost all the cases was: he is a big gun in the field, so, or you exchange your boss or you leave the school, in other words, not a real solution at all.

My strategy was as following, make research in your school to see if you can leave with a master degree, in the same time that you do that, start sending emails to potential new advisors (it is a good idea to move overseas too, ex: germany). In those emails, you can explain what is your knowledge and the skills that you have got in this time, and what you want to do with him/her. What I have seen so far, is that often, PI's prefer to take experienced students (even with fails in their ways), instead of unexperienced ones.

I am suggesting Germany, because it is a more flexible system in which you can get an acceptation letters in weeks, without applying to any university, is is direct contact between PI and students. Usually, German PI's have money without problems, because they have a safe funding from his/her institution, plus the projects money. Also, you can apply to DAAD making a proposal to get funded. In Germany, you don't pay any fee, as a result, your advisor just needs to make your salary.

What you have to understand is that it is necessary to move out from that toxic person, although people tell you that a PhD is tough lane, it shouldn't be a daily injury.

talking about recommendation letters, try to speak with your PI, but without transferring guilt. Is is better for you to, for example, say that you feel that this is not your area (white lie), or that you have some domestic issues, or something like that, to try to avoid conflicts, to at least try to get a neutral reference letter from him. You always can come back to your undergrad recommender.

3

I'm not from academia and this looks like a poor leadship situation in which you've not developed the relationship.

I know from bitter experience you will not get anywhere trying to prove a boss wrong you need to out manoeuvre him. Being assertive is good but being confrontational is unlikely to be effective and you don't appear to have revised your tactics when they failed to make advances.

Be clear on your ultimate goal.

Is it to be right or graduate?

What was the goal of attaining the PhD? If it was to achieve a leadership role in an organisation then you have an opportunity here to learn and hone your skills. You going to meet a lot more ugly bosses.

It does look like you knew the adviser did not know the subject. How have you attempted educated him? My experience has been that when I wasn't providing the right type information rather than the right amount of information was when I got the most additional questioning.

I believe you haven't found the right approach for this person, yet. If you feel trapped then you need to look at your tactics, have you appealed enough to his need for significance, as a university dean, it's definitely one of his needs.

Failure to win the argument on method by researching why he was wrong was probably as futile as just demonstrating his approach was (probably) flawed by doing what he asked and then providing the findings.

What stopped you attempting it aside from ego? Did you even approach his friends about their reasoning for suggesting the outdated methodology/approach?

You need to recognise this situation is not optimal and one we often have to face in our careers. Do we take on ownership and attempt to improve things or admit we can't/won't and move on.

Tough situation. Good luck.

2

In similar situations I know of people who have gracefully moved forward by dropping the PhD and finishing a Masters degree instead. Even if you already have a Masters degree, it may not be useless, especially if you can explain what happened to prospective employers and/or if the Masters you get from this PhD-attempt is not the same thing as your previous Masters degree.

My partner had a very similar situation as you. Professoral politics, and an oddly stubborn advisor that had a high-and-distracting administrative position, had them stuck with the advisor and at a loss for any research progress. Funding fell through, the advisor didn't help progress research and would send them in a new research direction every time they met. There were other advisors on their committee but they would both just give other research directions as well, and ultimately neither would do anything to risk defying the primary advisor due to politics. Other students in the same lab had mixed experiences - for some people that primary advisor was very open and flexible with them, for others the advisor was very critical and presented many unfair obstacles.

Eventually, finding that switching professors was not an option and moving to a different university would be very difficult, my partner decided to drop the PhD and complete a far simpler Masters degree. One of our friends did this as well, using already completed PhD work to get a Master of Science degree much sooner and get out of a bad rhythm they were finding in their PhD work. My partner dropped the work already done for the endless PhD and opted to complete an internship which was fairly distanced from the advisor, and then they got a Master of Professional Studies degree. There was also the option to use an already completed literature review to satisfy the MPS degree requirements, but the internship available was a good work opportunity which led to a foot-in-the-door with a good organization and led to a different person having a primary supervising role in the final steps of the degree.

  • i dont get this. you are actually allowed to start research studies without having finished a masters? – mathreadler Feb 3 '18 at 23:20
  • In some cases yes, but I don't think I said that anywhere in my answer. I was referring to people who already started research studies in a PhD - whether or not they had a Masters already - and then dropping the PhD down to a Masters level degree to finish sooner. – cr0 Feb 5 '18 at 14:57
  • "dropping the PhD and finishing a Masters degree instead." there would not be much of a point doing it if you already need to have a Masters to start. If you already have one, why would you get a second? – mathreadler Feb 5 '18 at 17:09
  • Because after sinking a few years into a PhD that isn't going to completion, a 2nd Masters is better than nothing. It is a tangible product for the effort already put in, rather than abandoning the effort put in and having nothing tangible to show for that time. – cr0 Feb 5 '18 at 17:31
  • That's the idea at least. There are other options of course, including cutting your losses and simply leaving the PhD program. But dropping down to a Masters has another benefit of salvaging any potential bridges built during the PhD: professors are generally happier to have their struggling PhD students complete a scaled-back project for a Masters, than completely abandon an incomplete project. – cr0 Feb 5 '18 at 17:33
4

I have seen such things happen much more often than one thinks they do, but they are rarely spoken of. The blunt truth of the matter is that nobody cares about you (the student). If your advisor's peers let him get away with such behaviour and even get such a high position, there is absolutely nothing you can do, because no-one will support you (even though you have been wronged). The system is so broken that you are not protected unless someone is willing to stand against their fellow colleague, which almost never happens. Your legal options depend on which country you're in, but I think that you must come to terms with the fact that you are not going to complete this project or get a degree from that particular university (if you do not finish, you are typically blacklisted in that university. People may tell you this is not true because it is illegal, but I have seen it). Save a lawsuit against your university and your boss (which will get you compensation but not a PhD), your only realistic option is to apply to a different university, and find a decent person who will take you in. Better yet, take the leap of faith and take your valuable skills and go to the industry. You will find that both your time and mind are valued much much more than in the hive of psychopaths called academia.

I am sorry for my tone, but I have seen many people fighting this futile battle. As disgusting as the system is, it is highly unlikely that you will win. Your time is valuable, so spend it somewhere where people appreciate it.

  • Makes sense. IMHO anyone who starts down the academia path should be made fully aware that they are going to end up like OP if they choose the wrong advisor. – DepressedDaniel Jan 28 '17 at 2:58
  • it's peoples problem not system. Why blame system? It's simple not there. – devprashant Jan 28 '17 at 6:39
  • 3
    @devprashant The system is to blame for this because, within this system, the professor is not accountable in any way for crapping on graduate students careers and academic future. Plus, there is the visa issue which more or less makes it incredibly difficult for international students to simply leave an abusive environment. – user21264 Jan 28 '17 at 7:32
3

So you're in a rather unique situation. Ordinarily, the best thing to do is to transfer to another school. That is because everything you said is correct. No other professor will be willing to take you. This is something that happens in all Ph.D. programs. There's far more politics in Ph.D. schools than in elections. If you go the route of appealing to committees, Deans, Student Affairs, etc., you won't get anywhere. Your professor has all the power, and you have no choice but to deal with. Now I think you still have a good shot in getting something done with your professor. First he said he thinks you may be able to finish by 2020. That's far better than him saying, "I don't think you have what it takes to finish".

Now this is what you have to do, and you have only 2 months. You have to basically beg to stay in. That's pretty much your only hope. The reason I say this is because he has ALL the power. The Dean and the University has given him that authority. Read DrDr post above his advice is correct. You pretty much have to come up with your own idea, and sell it to him. You have to show that you're ultra excited in doing research. If he changes your project, just accept it with enthusiam. Now I'm saying this because I believe based on what you're saying is that leaving the university is not an option.

Don't complain to him, don't say things are unfair. No negativity. If you show enthusiasm, and show excitement, your professor will too. You have everything to lose, he has nothing to lose. It doesn't matter how right you are. I don't have to retype everything DrDr, but follow his advice.

  • This is the most practical comment. Appeal to his compassion. That's the only thing you can do as a student. – dev_nut Jan 27 '17 at 21:25
  • 1
    No negativity. If you show enthusiasm, and show excitement, your professor will too. -- I think this is incredibly naive. – JeffE Jan 28 '17 at 2:52
  • @JeffE I shall relay your insult to the Dept. Chair of EE where I went to school. It was his advice, and it helped me when I was struggling. My advisor kept moving me from 1st author to 2nd author on papers. If you did your Ph.D., you will know that 2nd Author is the same as not even having your name on paper for purposes of meeting the Ph.D requirement. – Joe Jan 28 '17 at 5:48
  • @JeffE It's not so naive. The adviser is a politician and used to make quick judgements of people. You come to him saying you encounter difficulties, or you aren't excited of the new projects he will think you are not making progress and you are unhappy with his obviously brilliant advise. He doesn't care too much about his students, he only cares about the output of his lab. I'd wager once OP leaves the lab he won't even remember his name. – user21264 Jan 28 '17 at 7:21
  • @Joe You think your advisor would be insulted? Really? In general, yes, enthusiasm and positivity are necessary for a successful student-advisor relationship. But it's naive to think that they are sufficient, especially in OP's situation. (I'm a full professor in a field where "first authors" don't exist.) – JeffE Jan 28 '17 at 14:56
1

Only option is to quit the university. Apply better university and check the course details with new university course substitution. If most of the courses taken from previous university is enough to post university requirements in order to begin the PhD thesis, you can start with fresh university and advisor in a shorter period.

1

You have a variety of issues here. No advisor will accept the dean's student - to change advisor you are going to have to look outside the university, so change universities if you need to change. Unfortunately this is probably not even an option since getting the INS to extend your I20 without your advisers help is going to be interesting

Once you graduate, academic jobs are extremely competitive to get, and a change after 4 years is going to look bad. Realistically you will be a very poorly paid post doc for the rest of your life if you try.

If possible in this situation, I'd try and do whatever is necessary to graduate, by the sound of it keeping your opinion of your adviser's methods to yourself. Maybe you'll actually learn something in the process, or maybe not. It doesn't matter if the thesis is based on an old method or not. You can change directions afterwards. It's better to graduate without papers than not, If you can't get a plan of action with your adviser, or worse your adviser has no intention of letting you graduate because he wants you around to do his menial tasks, then:

1) go to the dean of the university, explain the situation, and see if they can't work something out. This may make an enemy, you may be lucky and the dean see your side. Who knows, the Dean and the associate dean might not even like eachother.

2) In the likely event 1 doen't work out, simply quit. I've known people spend as much as 19 years in this situation, with the end result they end up in post docs that pay less than McDonnalds

7

I think there are only two options for you

  1. Move to a (much) lower rank university.
  2. Quit your PhD.

If you can change your advisor, this would be ideal. But I'm afraid, your chance of successfully changing advisor is close to 0. Regardless of the reasons, 4 years without publications make your productivity questionable. It's unlikely that anybody will take the risk of hiring you, in particular when this upsets an associate dean.

If you still want to pursue a PhD, the only chance is to move to a lower rank university. A 4 years gap without publication, without support from your advisor make your profile significantly worse than 4 years before.

he once told me that he cannot see me graduating at least in 2020

I rarely recommend quitting doing anything. But in your case, even when you can have a PhD after 2020, it's unlikely that you have enough result to get a postdoc elsewhere (it's not impossible, it's very unlikely). I don't think it's worth your effort.

12

Writing papers is important - if you want to continue in research, you need to have a track record of publishing. You are lucky to have the opportunity to publish papers. There are different ways of writing papers; you can do a STAR (State-of-The-Art report)- you just do a survey of what's available and compare the performance of each with various test data. Or you can write a paper based on your own solver, and compare it against other systems; open source or commercial. Is that little bit faster or more accurate? Draw some graphs comparing processing time against other systems. Can you take advantage of latest technology like cloud computing, parallel processing with GPU's and multi-core CPU's? Just try and throw something together. It might make your supervisor happy to see that you are at least trying.

The whole idea of a PhD is for you to demonstrate that you can be creative in solving problems while at the same time being logical and analytical in solving a long range goal. Your thesis is like a cruise missile zooming into a target; you list the range of choices at each stage; their advantages and disadvantages, the conclusion that you come to. Then you move to the next stage. It should form a logical consistent trail to the final goal.

Can you find work on campus as a research assistant or scientific programmer in the Physics department? How about applying for internships with local companies? Do you have your own webpage where you announce your own projects?

  • +1 for trying to publish something even if it's not the best paper there ever was. – Sumyrda Jan 28 '17 at 8:28
16

Firstly PhDs at my institution are expected to at most last 4 years, though the 1.5 years you spent before lack of funding stopped that line of research is a setback.

Academia often focuses on open source software as not only is it cheaper it can often make the results obtained more repeatable, so I wouldn’t worry about that too much.

Methods from the 1980s are valid, related work and can’t be discounted merely because of age, but should be considered in the context of more recent advances i.e. you have to move with the times. The fact its not applicable to your problem should discount its usage.

A solver that has a long runtime, can be explained to be useful still, it’s a limitation but the solver may potentially be made to be multi-threaded, or otherwise distributed. If the answer it provides is superior to other works then it is still novel and a valid contribution for a PhD. He's trying to push you down a route he sees as valid and is likely to advance your work, but I'd be cautious, listen to him, evaluate what he says and as it is your PhD make your decision accordingly.

In regards to technical issues, and wanting to publish papers, he should consider giving advice on how to solve any issues encountered, the provision of monthly supervision is also limited and perhaps should advance to every 2 weeks, dependent upon updates and the need for such a meeting.

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    Firstly PhDs at my institution are expected to at most last 4 years Are you in mechanical engineering, as the OP is? This kind of thing varies vastly from field to field. In experimental physics 6 years is normal, and 9 is long. – Ben Crowell Jan 28 '17 at 3:12
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    I agree, I should have clarified, I'm from the UK at a Russell group university. My colleagues in Germany for example can expect to take 6 years. Awareness of the norms in your own field and institution is important. – Richard Kavanagh Jan 28 '17 at 9:16
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    p.s. I'm in the Faculty of Engineering at my institute. – Richard Kavanagh Jan 28 '17 at 9:23
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    The final sentence of the OP indicates they are in the US. PhD programs in the US tend to not expect a prior masters degree, unlike PhD programs in the UK. For this reason they take longer, and 6 years is quite normal for almost any PhD program. – Sasho Nikolov Jan 28 '17 at 15:48
  • Yes I made a statement regarding my institute's limit on the length of a PhD as a means to add weight to the original question's importance, to their future. It's a big choice whatever they do. Its worth considering the international audience of my answer however. – Richard Kavanagh Jan 28 '17 at 16:20
20

You need to change advisors.

Your department and university should have administrative positions (assigned to senior faculty) whose job is to deal with problems like these, and who have the authority to confront troublesome faculty even if they are associate deans. They can help you extract yourself from this research group.

  • The department should have someone known as the "graduate research advisor" or "academic adviser for doctoral students" or something like that. Their job is to make sure that all the doctoral students in the department finish their degrees in a reasonable amount of time. Make an appointment to speak to this person as soon as possible. Describe the problem to them in the following terms: you have been at the university for four years, you are making no progress toward your dissertation, and this is because your advisor keeps changing what you are supposed to be working on. (Four years in, you should have a definite idea of what your thesis is going to be and you should be making the decisions about what to work on.)

  • The university should have an office dedicated to supporting international students. One of their jobs is to make sure that nobody gets stranded without a visa. Make an appointment to speak to them as soon as possible, too. Describe the problem to them in terms of possibly having to drop out of the university and leave the country if you can't get your visa renewed.

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    ... and to add to this sound advice: keep a written (email) trail of these discussions. – WoJ Jan 27 '17 at 16:20
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I sympathise, my husband had a very similar problem with a supervisor.

Changing your adviser sounds like the only thing you can do in this situation as it will just get worse otherwise. If you are unable to change within the school due to other professors not wanting to upset your current advisor, I would suggest looking at different universities who can take you. Maybe even on a distance-learning basis so you wouldn't have to move area.

If you get into a different university, they could easily sort out extending your I-20 for the term your PhD is expected to take. From a new position you could then launch a formal complaint against your old supervisor that would hopefully prevent other students finding themselves in your situation and might even award you some sort of compensation (even if it is just a note on your PhD to explain why the research took longer than expected)

  • This answer seems to be of limited practical applicability. It seems doubtful OP would have enough time left to work out a transfer before the current visa runs out. – aparente001 Jan 29 '17 at 21:34
  • I doubt the OP could make a formal complaint stick. Faculty as a rule - and administration especially - are pretty much immune to any consequences short of something illegal. That's part of tenure. Unless the OP can prove the adviser was doing something against the law, it's not going to be worth his time. Still, warn any prospective students against this faculty as an advisor is worth it to save someone else. – FundThmCalculus Jan 31 '17 at 9:01
  • I would have thought the same thing as my husband's supervisor was very high up in the university and his position was very secure. The formal complaint certainly warned future students but also brought his behaviour to the attention of the HR and postgraduate bodies, meaning that in his case, he was able to change supervisor and extend his PhD time while still retaining the same bursaries etc. Without this assurance, he would not have been able to continue his PhD and the extra time taken would have reflected badly on his future career development. – Anya Hope Feb 2 '17 at 8:40
63

Change your adviser. Probably time to cut your losses and leave, your time is more valuable

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    Short, simple, and totally disregards everything OP said in his last paragraph. – user1717828 Jan 27 '17 at 20:46
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    How does this answer get upvotes when he can't change his advisor. – dev_nut Jan 27 '17 at 21:36
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    @emory you do need an advisor if you want to graduate. He can't change advisors and can't get into a new school. This answer is completely misses the point. – dev_nut Jan 27 '17 at 21:53
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    @Joe If one can not change advisors, then one can change universities. If one can not change universities, then one can change vocations. One does not have to do anything. Time spent to date at university is sunk costs. Graduate school is not a prison and a PhD committee is not a parole board. – emory Jan 28 '17 at 15:26
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    This answer is OK for the question described in the title and in the first 10 paragraphs and in the tags. That question is the most general case, and what most people who find themselves in the same general situation can relate to, and this answer is the most helpful to them. Hence the upvotes. The fact that there's another underlying question about I-20 and visas, a detail hidden in the last two lines of a ~40 line description, is probably irrelevant for everybody else but OP. – walen Jan 30 '17 at 8:33

protected by Massimo Ortolano Jan 28 '17 at 21:30

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