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)
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?