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I am a PhD student in Mathematics. I have found one advisor in my local University who does not know my research field at all, but has allowed me to choose my own problems and solve them independently.

Initially, I was quite happy as I didn't need to switch places (which I don't want at all). The problem started when my advisor could not assist me in solving the problems I chose. It even happened that I chose a problem to work on and when I told him about it, he said that's an excellent problem and I should solve it.Later on after meeting another professor in this field he told me that it has been solved long before and hence I had no point working on that again.

He does listen to me when I say something about the problems but fails to give me any critical feedback in my topic. I searched the web but there are so many directions of the topic I am working on, I am feeling puzzled which way to go. Moreover there is no research group existing in this field in my local University with whom I can discuss or get some inputs abut my problems.

I am unable to answer the following questions of mine which is affecting my research considerably:

1.Has my decision to stay in my hometown and not go to reputed institutes and talking to experienced professors backfired on me? How can I come out of this situation?

2.Is PhD done in this way only without any help from anyone ?At least my advisor says so.

Any comments/advice will be helpful.

  • 28
    Find someone else to help you. Help is essential. – Shake Baby Apr 27 '17 at 7:46
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    The vast majority of researchers need support, that is why they co-author papers. For a PhD, the supervisor needn't know the area in advance, but they must be an expert who is able to understand the area. In your case, it sounds like that isn't the case. Given that you're "mid way," to "come out of this situation," I think you should seek external support. E.g., by co-authoring with people in your field, by finding a mentor (either directly yourself or indirectly with your supervisor's support). – user2768 Apr 27 '17 at 8:07
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    Do not expect much of help from advisors in general. They can give you some general advice, however, in the end, it is going to be your Ph.D., and you have to be able to do it independently. Even if someone is an expert in your area, it does not necessarily mean that he/she will guide you through your Ph.D. step by step. It can be even worse; sometimes they might not agree with you on something which you strongly believe in and want to work on... – Moh Apr 27 '17 at 9:21
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    "I have found one advisor in my local University who does not know my research field" indeed implies "my advisor could not assist me in solving the problems I chose": When I read about certain choices, which appear quite frequently here, I can't help remarking that one makes certain choices at their own risk, and should be aware that they could get what they asked for. – Massimo Ortolano Apr 27 '17 at 9:28
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    Rishabh, @MassimoOrtolano is saying that it isn't surprising that an advisor who does not know your research field could not assist you in solving the problems you chose. – Antonio Vargas Apr 27 '17 at 14:41
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Well, then go and find another advisor. Do not get me wrong, I don't mean a new one, I just mean someone else to talk to. With a PhD, you are supposed to show that you are able to do independent research, that you are able to do more than just work on minor problems that dropped out of some paper/publication by your advisor (as it is often the case in Bachelor or Master thesises).

I think a PhD (at least in Mathematics, I don't know that much about other fields) where you only worked with a single advisor for multiple years is really uncommon. Go find other people, other professors, etc. to talk to. Your advisor should help you with the following points in case you get stuck there (list might not be complete...):

  • How and where to find research material, maybe giving you access to institute libraries that are normally closed to regular students or access to the universities subscriptions to online journals.
  • Establishing contacts to other researchers on the field, giving you advice on who to talk to, maybe even recommending you for a research stay of a few months at another university for a project related to your research.
  • Administrative processes. That also includes questions on "How and where to best publish this result I came up with?" or "Which conferences should I visit, should I maybe even present something there?"

During a PhD, it is not the advisors job to do your research. You yourself have to decide what you look into, what you do, how much time you spend on one problem until you deem it too hard and move on, etc. If your professor could answer all your questions, then that would mean that your research is not really original and/or rather trivial and thus might not yield a PhD (or at least not an excellent one, and I'm sure you are aiming for that :) ).

So don't worry if the professor can't help you solve your problems. Maybe they will turn up to stay unsolved for centuries, who knows? Try to rephrase your questions, don't go and ask "How can I solve this?" but rather "Do you know of experts on this topic that might be willing to talk to me (maybe even at the same university)? Can you put us into contact?" or maybe asked more generally like "Do you have a suggestion on which direction to look from here on? Should I continue down this path or maybe try a different approach?".

So long story short: Even if the professor knew your research field, he would not be able to always assist you with your problems.

PS: As I am also writing a PhD in math just now I'm a little curious: What is your research field, for which there are no research groups and your professor has no idea about? :)

  • 5
    @Rishabh So your advisor for you math PhD is not even a mathematician? – Tobias Kildetoft Apr 27 '17 at 15:42
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    Yes @TobiasKildetoft;but he has a BS-MS in Mathematics but did his PhD in Theoretical CS – Learnmore Apr 27 '17 at 17:05
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    @RishabhPant you are doomed. it is important that he has a phd in math – Rüdiger Apr 27 '17 at 22:27
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    @Rüdiger Don't be such a snob. As long as they're an expert on the topic, it doesn't matter which department gave them a PhD or which department gave them a job. Spectral graph theory lives at the boundary of math and TCS; you can find experts in both math and CS departments. – JeffE Apr 28 '17 at 4:49
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    You should remember that quite a number of computer scientists (especially theoretical ones) came from math, some of them even hold a math PhD. The line between applied mathematics and theoretical computer science is often blurry. – Dirk Apr 28 '17 at 7:04
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I had to work on projects my supervisors were clueless about. They had the money to support my work, but not the time to go into any details, and help me, even with a reference.

What I ended up doing, was ask friends if they knew anyone in the field who was using the methods I needed to learn and I got introduced to a few people, some of whom I still collaborate with. I visited my new collaborators and worked on my projects while I was there. Their postdocs or graduate students helped me with details and so on. In Europe, there are some grants which support us going to collaborators to work there for longer periods of time.

In your case, it is possible that your field is too specialized, which might be a reason you say there are no groups working in that direction right now. But, isn't your field a subfield of a larger field? Maybe you can find groups working in that field and using methods you need to use in your work.

You can ask your adviser, or other faculty you know to help you connect with any of those groups who might help you and see if they are interested in your problems, and/or they can help you. If not, you can try to connect yourself, via email (some answer, some don't), or at conferences.

You don't need to leave your adviser if he's not a specialist in your field of choice. He allows you a lot of freedom which is both desirable and dangerous for your progress, as you are finding out. On the other hand, if he doesn't support your going to conferences, doesn't pay your stipend and doesn't help your research in any way, you should consider this. A more experienced adviser might help you more, but might also force you to solve other problems they find interesting.

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In mathematics at least, the number one job of the advisor is to actually assist you in formulating a problem (or series of problems, even better), which if resolved would result in a reasonable/acceptable PhD thesis.

If the advisor has no idea about your field, I don't see how he can help you do that. It may happen that you are lucky/capable enough to choose and solve good problems on your own, but a very small percentage of grad students are in that category. So you may end up biting much bigger than what you can chew, or aiming too low and end up with small problems which make no impact on the field.

For instance, how will your advisor judge if/when you are ready to graduate ? Is he simply planning to count publications/preprints that make up your dissertation and put a stamp on it ?

At the very least, I suggest getting a co-advisor who knows your area. Doesn't have to be at your university, professors from other universities can be approached.

0

I have found one advisor in my local University who does not know my research field at all but has allowed me to choose my own problems and solve them independently.

Most of the problem solve independently, advisors can only advice you about the research that how to conduct it, he provides feedback, make critical analysis of your work, but evaluation of the research purely dependent upon your knowledge that you will provide to your supervisor. Certainly, Phd work is a kind of novel work and your supervisor also poses same knowledge that you have, that you will provide to him.

The problem started mid way when my advisor could not assist me in solving the problems I chose.It even happened that I chose a problem to work on and when I told him about it,he said that's an excellent problem and I should solve it.Later after meeting another professor in this field he told me that it has been solved long before.Hence I had no point working at that again.

Well in current age of science and information, you selected a topic that already covered Long before. Before selection of the topic, why did not you conduct a comprehensive study or search? Did you make any discussion with your adivsor? Most of the advisor can't do this job for you that they search novel topic for you. This is your mistake that you didn't make the selection of novel a topic. It is expected from a PhD student that he know preliminaries of the research.

He does listen to me when I say something about the problems but fails to give me any critical feedback in my topic.

If this statement is true then, surely there is something wrong with the advisor. No matter that you don't know about a sub-topic of your field but you can make critical analysis of it. Even a common PhD student or researcher can do this in his field and this behavior expectation become increase for advisor. surely something wrong with advisor.

I searched the web but there are so many directions of the topic I am working on,I am feeling puzzled which way to go. You should need to do this work earlier before selecting the topic.

The problems are cropping up now after 1 year,Initially all was well and fine.

Moreover there is no research group existing in this field in my local University with whom I can discuss or get some inputs abut my problems.

Internet, Google, Social Media, forums, are your friends, always ready to help you. Search expert of your fields on social media, make them friend/follow, get advice from them. Its easy now.

Has my decision to stay in my hometown and not go to reputed institutes backfired on me?

You should travel to seek knowledge. This is common and very helpful also.

How can I come out of this situation?

Review your topic again, check its novelty and evaluate it yourself. If it has already solve then your methods can make it more efficient or can make any significant difference? Make questions, get technical feedback from advisor. If he satisfy you then, continue otherwise quit. BUT also tell him all the story that why are you quitting maybe he will advice you a lot better than this forum and my answer. He is advisor surely poses more knowledge and wisdom of his field than us.

ask is Is a PhD done in this way only without any help from the Advisor ? Blockquote

No help of advisor is necessary but i don't know what are you getting from the meaning of "help". Mostly the adviosr don't bother for you to search novel topic and conduct any comprehensive study for you. you should do it yourself and get feedback from him.

Would the situation been better if I had chosen an experienced advisor?

certainly, but again its dependent on you also.

Note: I am not a PhD student but I conducted some of the research recently write a few papers and currently doing MS thesis in computer science. The answer based on my last 2/3 year experience in research and relationship with my supervisor. And the fact i get to know during this short period that you have to do everything yourself. Supervisor make critical and helpful comment on your work. And assist you if you are caught in any problem.

  • Hey Mohammad, your answer will be easier to follow if you proofread carefully. – aparente001 Apr 29 '17 at 16:17
  • @aparente001 you are right, i proofread it hopefully it is much better, please can you confirm that it is better or you can edit it also – Muhammad Faizan Khan May 2 '17 at 4:33
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    Sorry, Mohammad, there are just too many mistakes. I really think you can do a better job with this. – aparente001 May 28 '17 at 15:29

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