I’m a fourth-year PhD student. For a while my advisor has been complaining that I don’t take enough ownership of my projects and I just do what he tells me to do, and that I don’t have any critical thinking skills. He told me that if he left me in a room for six months by myself, I would not be able to produce a paper.

After our last project finished, he just never gave me a new project, and I haven’t had a research project for several months now.

I asked him why he did not give me a new project, and he said that he shouldn’t have to give me projects, because I am the graduate student and I should be coming up with my own projects. This is very different from all of our previous projects where he came up with the whole idea and I mostly just followed instructions.

Is this a polite way of firing me?

  • 3
    Have you shared these project ideas with him? (And before you say "no, because none of them are any good", answer the question.)
    – tonysdg
    Jan 28, 2017 at 2:11
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    4 years is a time by which you should have several papers, and increasing autonomy. He clearly has been giving you signals to become more independent, but it seems that you find this difficult. You need to propose projects and see whether your advisor can help you improve them - but yes, he should not have to give you new projects at this stage anymore. You have reason for concern - it is high time for you to become independent. Do you see a chance for that? Jan 28, 2017 at 2:12
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    Your advisor is correct. As a 4th year PhD student, you should be coming up with your own projects. It doesn't matter whether your ideas are as good as your advisor's. Follow them anyway. (The fact that your advisor let you only follow instructions in past orojects is a failure on his part.)
    – JeffE
    Jan 28, 2017 at 2:58
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    This is not a polite way of firing you. // Í imagine he'll give you some assistance with the selection and scope of the next project, as long as you show some effort. Read some papers, propose some ideas. This will be a new phase in your studies. Jan 28, 2017 at 5:00
  • "my advisor has been complaining that (...) I just do what he tells me to do, and (...) that if he left me in a room for six months by myself, I would not be able to produce a paper. (...) After our last project finished, he just never gave me a new project, and I haven’t had a research project for several months now." - if it weren't for the suspicion of being about to be fired, I would genuinely be tempted to VTC as "unclear what you're asking". Jan 28, 2017 at 7:27

3 Answers 3


Your advisor is right: a PhD student needs to take more and more ownership as the PhD progresses, as one of the main goals of attaining a PhD degree is to become an independent researcher. Taking ownership includes that a PhD student should develop the ability to formulate research hypotheses and a matching research plan (main milestones, methodology of investigation, time plan) on his/her own, and your supervisor should merely provide feedback on your plan, but not have to write it in main parts anymore. For a "normal" PhD project I would expect that after about half to two-thirds of the allocated time the student has shown strong signs of taking ownership.

As Captain Emacs said in one of the comments, it is indeed high time for you to do your own stocktake of your PhD project and develop your precise research questions / main hypotheses for the remaining PhD, including a draft of the research plan (as above: main steps / milestones, indicative time budget, being clear on the research question addressed in each step, and defining a methodology that can indeed answer the research question, make an analysis of the risks involved [do you have all the equipment / data / source code / ... you need]). Ask your supervisor for feedback, but do not ask for his/her "approval". You are the lead on your PhD project and have all the responsibility for it, and you merely ask your supervisor for expert advice, not for any decisions or his/her blessing.

And if you still find that you do not get a handle on taking ownership, and if you were my PhD student, I would ask you to seriously consider the question whether a PhD is the right thing for you and whether other options (e.g. exiting with a master degree) would make sense.


No, he's not firing you. Quite indeed the opposite. He feels you're ready to move on to the next phase. He thinks you just need a little push. Do you want to lead the next research project? You have already published some papers (probably as 2nd or 3rd author). Do you have an excellent idea for the next publication but don't have time to do the low-level coding; maybe if you could borrow the time of 2nd or 3rd year students? When others are leading, does it make you feel envious? Do you have the itch to direct your own project? If the answer is generally "no" to these questions, then the Ph.D. is not right for you. If you are feeling forced to lead, then you'll be struggling throughout the Ph.D. program. As a Ph.D. you are expected to lead, but you must want it. If you're nervous, because it's your first time, don't worry. Just let your advisor know, and ask for guidance. Tell him you want to be 1st author on the next paper, and ask for feedback throughout the paper writing.


Whilst I fully agree with your advisor, I understand your feelings.

In my opinion you have now the opportunity of working with a better supervisor than your previous ones. Perhaps you have moved to a far place to take your PhD and now essentially you face a cultural shock. In some cultures (e.g. China) most academic advisors and professors expect students to obey without questioning. In other cultures however (e.g. Central Europe) academics believe more in the importance of independent and critical thinking. I am of the latter opinion.

My suggestion is that you study your field of research deeply, discuss the state of art with your peers and best specialists you can reach, and then identify the areas where you believe you'd be able and willing to contribute with. Then you write 2-3 short proposals in such directions, ask your peers for advice, and then present them to your supervisor.

If you're unable to do that independently, or if you find yourself merely copying/following others on everything, I suggest you think again whether a PhD is truly what you need and why. If you're better off following orders perhaps others fields are the best fit for you, and your advisor would benefit from a different sort of advisee.

Personal hints: (i) Give special preference to a project style you're most intimately passionate about, as that will keep you going in your lonely ride; (ii) sending indirect implied messages is actually misguiding others, and thus can never be a truly professional, efficient way of advising a student. Take this message home, regardless of what is considered "polite" there.

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