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I'm a graduate student at a top-20 research university in the US who's working towards their PhD in an engineering field.

My issue is that I feel like I'm making very slow progress towards graduating. It's the end of my third year and I haven't even chosen a thesis topic. While I'm sure that some of the blame lies with me, here are some other extenuating circumstances.

  • Few mentors. My PI is fairly busy and takes trips overseas often. As a result, their leadership style is mostly 'hands off, learn by doing' and they are rarely available on a day to day basis. My professor recently moved from another institution a few years ago and although they are highly regarded in the field, they weren't able to bring any of his graduate students with them. I joined the lab nearly when it first came to the school, so there really aren't any senior graduate students to give any practical guidance.
  • I'm self-funded. My first year I took loans out, every term after that I've been able to pay for tuition as a teaching assistant, which is a good gig that I enjoy but it does take a significant amount of hours per week. (15-20 per week) Some of the lab members are research assistants, but not all.
  • Lab projects can provide research funding but don't always contribute to graduating. My lab does a lot of short term (6mo-2 year projects) that can provide research assistant stipends. However, we have so many people that are trying to get in good with my PI that most times, people are volunteering to do the work for free. These projects tend to be pretty time consuming with close deadlines and high stress. I've joined a couple of them as a volunteer in order to be a bigger part of the lab but they ended up taking up so much of my time and energy that I couldn't really work on anything else.

The area that I'm interested in (robotics/controls) is fairly difficult to get into because you need to have some background in programming, electronics and mechanical design. I had an okay experience in undergrad which meant that I've spent a lot of time relearning/augmenting skills and theory. I feel like even after three years of grad school, I've barely gotten to the heart of what I need to know in order to understand current papers, much less advance the field of knowledge.

Should i stay/join another lab/leave for another school?

I've debated this ever since I came to the school. Initially I had just planned to do my master's here and then leave. However, I ended up staying because I felt like I had already made it pretty far at this school and have a way to provide for myself through TAing, have a good living situation, have been in the lab for a long time, etc. I'm hesitant to try and join the other professors' research groups because I'm not very interested in the topics they are focused on. I'm also hesitant to try and leave and go to another university because I don't have much to show for my time in grad school (I have a single conference paper that was recently accepted, no completed projects aside from classwork) and I'm not sure if I can get a good recommendation from my PI.

EDIT: No direct conflict with anyone, but possibly misunderstandings with the professor. I've worked on a few short term projects, most with middling success. In the first one, our lab didn't have the facilities to really make something well. The following year, I made a prototype design and later decided to pursue something else because I didn't feel like it was going anywhere. Most recently, we had a relatively large team project that I was heavily involved in but due to really short deadlines, it ended up being somewhat shoddily put together. I'm also working on a design project that's what my paper is in with a teammate but our work is being overshadowed by another lab mate who is taking a different approach.

I think the biggest difficulty making it hard for me to communicate with my professor is that I don't think he has a positive view of me/ how useful I'll be to him. Most of the face-to-face meetings I have with him he either doesn't seem to be interested in what I'm working on or doesn't think that I'll be able to contribute. As a result, I don't meet with him very much. (maybe once or twice in the past year)

EDIT2:

When I graduate I want to continue to work as a researcher, eventually leading a research group. As far as I can see, that could either be in academia or in industry. A teaching only position wouldn't be of much interest to me.

A minimum effort PhD isn't of interest to me because it wouldn't get me very far; I'm aiming to stay in this field and build on my work/knowledge afterwards. I'm aware that it will very likely be another 3-4 years before I can graduate.


TL;DR I'm willing to put in the work to graduate but I feel like it's been quite a while since I've made measurable progress and that I'm probably spinning my wheels due to a lack of mentors/people to learn from. What are my options, and what would you do in this situation?

  • 2
    "I'm sure that some of the blame lies with me". What have you done to contribute to this situation? (To answer properly): Any misunderstanding with the professor? Any conflict with anyone?... – llrs Apr 19 '17 at 13:17
  • With 15-20 hours of teaching per week and presumably taught classes on top of that, you aren't leaving enough time for research, imo. – user2768 Apr 19 '17 at 13:26
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    If you are in robotics/controls, why are you self-funded? – Jon Custer Apr 19 '17 at 13:30
  • @user2768: Maybe, but 15-20 hrs/week of TAing (half time) is quite standard, at least at many US universities. It's usually how departments pay for grad students' tuition and health insurance. I should add that most US grad students work 50-70 hour weeks, or even more when taking classes. – jvriesem Apr 19 '17 at 14:06
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    Are you actually paying for tuition as a TA, or are you getting tuition remission for being a TA and then getting paid on top of that, using those funds for living expenses? The former would seem very very unusual to me in the US, the latter is common, and I wouldn't really consider you "self funded" at that point. – Bryan Krause Apr 19 '17 at 17:44
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I'm concerned that you don't mention anything about what you are aiming to do after you get your degree. While this is very common, it's no less dangerous. Do you have a personally-compelling answer to the questions "why am I doing this?" and "what do I want to get out of this experience?"

The problem with just kind of going along with the flow is that you will only get where the flow happens to take you, and this generally has absolutely no consideration for what your personal preferences and values are. This destination could be "being flung off a waterfall and onto a pile of rocks", for all you know, if you haven't put in serious effort to chart a course and decide what you want to aim for.

From your description of the situation, I imagine that the analysis of you from your advisor's perspective might be something like this:

  • Nice person
  • Does at least non-objectionable work
  • Stays out of the way
  • Doesn't cost me much of anything (money or time)
  • Not particularly motivated
  • Not really sure how I can help this person

What do they do? Well, they just kind of let you do your own thing, because as far as they can tell you are fine with that. It's not exactly active advising and mentoring, but it's the low-energy response, so it sounds like what they are going for. Some students even want exactly that out of their relationship with an advisor, so I can't even say you have a bad advisor - just one who's extremely hands-off.

The real danger here for you is: what's at the end of this flow for you, based on your current trajectory? What is the value to you of a "minimal PhD" (you passed and got the degree, but you didn't really do much more than what you had to)? Do you have solid evidence to support that this is a reasonably likely outcome?

The Options Ahead

Once you'd done the probably-very-hard work of deciding what you want to aim for (which is extremely important, because every outcome requires a different technique), then you'll need to do the hard work of deciding how to make that happen before it is simply too late.

If you want to stay with your current advisor, you'll really have to light some fire under yourself and ditch the acceptance of the lab-hanger-on position. Make a provisional plan, make a meeting happen with him (anyone worth working with is busy - don't rationalize avoidance), and make it amazingly obvious that you aren't screwing around anymore. Have a reasonably detailed plan in hand, and talk about what you need to do as a next step to get things straightened out and headed in the right direction. Insist on being of value, and of being appropriately valued. You'll need to start to be assertive, no matter how uncomfortable it makes you, and see if your advisor is supportive of your new-found direction and goals. They won't be sending limos for you or anything, but they should at least be interested to see if you really do change your behavior of hiding in the background and going along to get along.

If you decide to seek out a different advisor, all of the above still applies. You are going to need to know at least somewhat about what you want to explore short-term and long-term, and be willing to start hard at work somewhere.

If your long-term goal requires more research, you're going to have to start trimming down the time and energy that goes into teaching and redirect it into research, either to get a research assistant position or just to get things done. If you've decided you want a teaching-only position - and you read up and explore what that really means in the real world of 4/4 and 5/5 course loads with no class buy-out or prep support - then you'll need to start pushing for being more than just a TA and find out what is necessary to start being an instructor of record, and any other professional development you'll need.

If you decide to switch institutions, none of the above changes. You'll be "starting over" only in the sense of having to bring a new approach, attitude, strategy, and energy to your work, or you can end up in the same place you are now in 3-years time. Most of anyone you'd ever want to work with will be busy advancing their own agenda, because that's just the reality of most modern University programs, like it or not.

If you decide to jump out of academia entirely, I would encourage you to still take the same attitude. I have personally never found life to hand out treasures easily, and going with the flow never seemed to take me anywhere I wanted to actually end up. I don't know if you would find the same thing - but I would strongly encourage you not to passively wait and find out.

Finally, I encourage you to consider the concept of sunk cost. The decision you made to be at this place for this period of time is done and gone, and absolutely nothing you can do will recover that. It isn't "invested" in the proper sense, and it isn't something you lose or don't lose - it's just the past. It's natural to try to use it to make decisions, but it provably encourages "throwing good money after bad" (or spending more time on a relationship that just isn't a good one, because you've already spent so much time on it) and other such bad decision making.

Do the hard work and soul-searching to make the best decision from this point forward, as considered from the perspective of you in 5-10 years. What is behind you is a very small thing compared to what is ahead of you. Good luck to you, regardless of what you decide.

  • I added more info under my question as EDIT2 to answer your question. Thanks, that's good advice in general. The part about having a really detailed plan is something I'm not sure how to do though. How am I supposed to come up with a through research plan when I still feel like I barely understand the state of the art? I don't even know the right questions to ask. – oubliette Apr 20 '17 at 0:42
  • Excellent answer (+1); your assessment from the advisor's standpoint is spot-on, and a lot of graduate students could really benefit from reading this. – Mad Jack Apr 20 '17 at 5:55
  • @oubliette That's actually a big part of why the plan is important, but realize the detail is an end goal - you just start with what you can do, and you progressively begin to replace blanks and question marks with more details. It can start high level, like "identify a thesis topic -> graduate -> find a job", but you just keep refining and filling in the missing pieces. It should start as vague junk - and progress towards something increasingly clear as you work. And I'd bet you know and understand more than you think - but only in sitting down and connecting dots does awareness appear. – BrianH Apr 20 '17 at 15:37
  • @oubliette Oh, and based on your edits of interest in research, I cannot more highly recommend you check out the book "The Professor Is In". There are more details and specifics spelled out there than can fit in any answer, and while it was written from a humanities/social science perspective, it will still be largely applicable to you. If you wait until the end of your degree to develop a plan to get you the job you want, you are quite likely to be unable to attain it - and most people won't warn you, because they don't want to have hard conversations. – BrianH Apr 20 '17 at 15:43
  • Good advice from a supervisor point of view. Hope the graduate students who are in the middle of their studies can understand the situation in a better way. – Mithun Apr 20 '17 at 17:31
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It's not clear to me whether your PI has made a commitment to be your advisor. When you wrote "PI," should I take that as a synonym for "advisor"?

For the rest of my answer, I'll assume that he has made such a commitment, or that you go ahead and ask for clarification, and he provides it.

You need more regular guidance from your advisor. Typically, a PhD student would have a standing face to face meeting scheduled with the advisor. You can request that. (Don't let yourself get defensive or offensive -- just ask.)

Apparently there are things you like about this professor. In that case, it would be worth your while to bring the mountain to Mohammed, if you find that in practice, weekly meetings do not occur.

The way to bring the mountain to Mohammed is to use whatever mode of communication works for your advisor. You can try email, fax, Skype or something similar, phone, recorded audio or video, powerpoint, etc. You can ask him what would work best for him. You can experiment and then ask his opinion.

You'll have to take the initiative to find things to ask and discuss. For example, you can

  • write a weekly report, where you can write up things you've learned in coursework, things you've learned in seminars, summaries of papers you've read, project proposals, project progress reports, etc.

  • write an informal proposal about something you propose to do (either on the short term, or Some Day).

  • invite him to edit or comment on what you've written.

  • write up some questions. (If he doesn't answer them, work on finding the answers, and then the following week, write up the partial answers or additional confusion you have discovered.)

Have you finished all your basic exams for the PhD? If so, congratulations! If not, you can report on progress made, places you are stuck. (Presumably you are working from old exam questions....?)

If your advisor is unresponsive and uninterested after some time attempting these initiatives... then you'll know where you stand, and you'll know it's time to work with a different advisor and perhaps a different department.

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