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My advisor introduced a model 15 years ago, published a lot of papers (including PNAS). Now, he makes me incorporate this model into well-established model from the neighboring field of research. I think he just tries to stay in the known waters (cite his own papers, etc). Of course, he is well aware (but not proficient) that everything we try now to research was already published in this neighboring field.

What should I do?

  1. Continue to reinvent the wheel with minor modifications (people from the neighboring field will probably laugh)
  2. Try to switch the project (although it will be hard)
  3. Freelance in the "spare" time ;)

Edited after Piotr's remark. Hope that nailed it down a bit.

  • Hi! Thanks for asking a question on Academia.SE. However, here we discourage open-ended questions (e.g. "life advice questions"), see academia.stackexchange.com/faq. Could you rephrase the question nailing the main point (i.e. advisor on insisting on developing a certain projects; e.g. is he aware of the previous work?). – Piotr Migdal Mar 14 '13 at 14:48
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    Have you asked him if this is a warmup exercise, and he also has in mind some problems from this neighboring field which previous techniques have been unable to address? – Anonymous Mar 14 '13 at 19:04
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The issue seems to be that your advisor isn't willing to acknowledge that the problems he's attempting to work on have been solved. I would recommend bringing the relevant papers to him and discussing with him how his proposed projects differ from what already exists in the literature. This way, either (1) he'll clarify how his projects are different from the literature, or (2) you may be able to demonstrate to him that the problem is indeed solved.

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If this is early in your PhD studies, your adviser could be giving you this task knowing that it is solved to test your capabilities. Generally, when you are new to research methodology, you will want to try to repeat previous work to make sure that you know that you are doing it correctly. A test where the correct answer is unknown is a poor test. Your adviser could be taking this approach with you while not explaining his purpose in doing so.

If this is the case, none of your three alternatives are really appropriate, although the first is the best. If you are being evaluated on how you solve a known problem, then you need to solve it very well. Then you will be given better and more exciting work.

If your adviser genuinely thinks this is a worthwhile novel problem to pursue, then see the other answers.

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    That's an interesting take. Is it common for advisers to "test" their students in this manner? – Paresh Mar 14 '13 at 17:05
  • I don't think this is a test. He asked me to reproduce others work before in the explicit manner. – NPcompleteUser Mar 14 '13 at 18:55
  • @Paresh - I've only had one PhD, but it happened to me. Not in the high stakes pass-fail kind of way, but in the assess your skills kind of way so that my adviser knew where to start training me. – Ben Norris Mar 15 '13 at 11:00
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If you are already very far along in your PhD (which I assume you are doing) I would finish the PhD. If you are still at the beginning, and feeling like this is not where you want to go, and it does not teach you the skills you need, I would consider trying to switch.

But first and foremost, try and talk to your supervisor about your frustration. Of course, keep it civil and professional. You might be able to give your current research a twist that makes it more appeal to you.

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  • I was trying to suggest in talks with him that "everything is already published" (exaggerating a bit) and we are not proficient in this field. – NPcompleteUser Mar 14 '13 at 15:06
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    What did he reply to that? – Paul Hiemstra Mar 14 '13 at 15:59
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    It could also be that your supervisor more clearly sees the bigger picture, what makes you so sure that this will not be good science. – Paul Hiemstra Mar 14 '13 at 19:09
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    What is the nature of the "twist"? Will the twist allow you to come up with minor differences in results but do it cheaper, faster, or better? – Irwin Mar 14 '13 at 21:57
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    like any other scholar — I don't think that word means what you think it means. – JeffE Mar 15 '13 at 3:39
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Some of the answers presuppose that your advisor knows what he is doing and that perhaps you need to change your attitude. Perhaps they are mistaken. No good advisor would waste his or your time by "testing" you on well-covered ground. There are some stubborn people around who may have a distinguished publication record and who may lead the peripatetic life of the in-demand speaker, but have an acute Achillies heel when it comes to having underlings implement the superannuated visions they cannot implement themselves. The important point is that this is academically low-value work for them, but your time is not valuable. This situation is more likely to arise if your advisor is not paying your salary; it's less likely if you are on soft money. I don't know what advice to give you, except to say that I have been in this position, have rolled with the punches, and in the end there were no publications. And this was a case where the advisor announced to his team that others (better funded and staffed groups) were implementing the kind of thing he wanted (with some minor differences). No matter--he still wanted his team implement his "vision." It was professionally damaging for all parties involved. I decided it was pointless for me to work supporting professors and their students on low academic value, poorly remunerated work if I was not getting published, and made plans to leave. I hope that others in similar situations do likewise.

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    it is not easy to leave. I want the prefix (PhD). It is maybe possible to switch advisers. "Vision" thing is annoying as hell. – NPcompleteUser Mar 18 '13 at 19:52
  • I'm not a Ph.D. student any more--I'm further along in my career to the point that the kind of sacrifices and opportunity costs that you might be able to assume at this point in your career are no longer sustainable for me. You may have to stick it out and work hard to find something the competing group overlooked, or else find another adviser. You have to be as hard-nosed. I joined a group, no publications--I'm out, whether I'm needed or not. Your remark on "vision" suggests that this affliction (how many books of the Bible begin with mention of the vision of some character?) is not uncommon. – Anon Mar 18 '13 at 21:32

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