I just completed my first year at a PhD program at a University in the United States. It's been a semester since I joined a lab and I'm slightly confused about my decision at the moment. I feel like my academic advisers are not as involved in my project as they should be.

I'm working on a joint project between two professors in a field that is new to them, besides their expertise on instrumentation. Both my advisers are well accomplished in their respective fields but their experience in the area that my project is concerned with is (at least on paper) substantially less (only one publication from the lab so far). Besides, there is only one other graduate student involved on this project while all other group members work in a different area, making it difficult for me to get any help from members in the lab. On top of this, I meet my advisers only once every 2-3 weeks and although they are extremely patient with regards to my queries, their feedback hasn't been very useful yet.

While I was aware of this situation before deciding to join the lab, I went ahead with the project for its future prospects and overlap of required skill set with mine. It also offered the opportunity to build up a lab almost from scratch with very experienced advisers, which I thought, was great. While I don't hate working on my project, I'm concerned since I haven't made much progress and am not sure if what's happening is normal. Both my advisers are experts in instrumentation, which is a major hurdle in the project (and hasn't been tackled by any other group yet), but aren't aware of the current scientific problems in the field.

Finally boiling down to my questions:

(i) I often find myself worrying that the problem I end up working on for the next few years as a graduate student might turn out to be insignificant or turned down as trivial by experts in the field. Am I thinking too much?

(ii) I often hesitate digging deeper into articles in my field (not directly related to my project) wondering if it's useful at all, considering that I'd be all by myself if I pursue it and would thus stand no chance against other research groups that are actively involved in the field. Is that reasonable?

(iii) Would it be rude to confront my advisers with these concerns?

(iv) Would it suffice for me to get help from another faculty on campus and continue with my project?

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    This is a wall of text. Please edit it to add paragraphs.
    – Shake Baby
    Jul 4, 2017 at 0:06
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    i) normal, but if your supervisors are experienced, they should 'save' you whenever you are lost and also tell you whether a problem is worthy, (ii) you should have at least a working knowledge of relevant works, (iii) nope. Your advisers can't help or advise if they don't know you are drowning, (iv) probably not. It is important to commit to something. it is fine to explore at the beginning, but eventually you need to focus on something. Also, your supervisors may think you are less than enthusiastic about the chosen area if you run off to another faculty. Jul 4, 2017 at 1:46
  • For (iv), I am not clear on what you are suggesting. Are you perhaps suggesting that there is another faculty member on campus who would be a useful co-author and bring things to the project that neither the current advisors or you have expertise in?
    – Dawn
    Jul 4, 2017 at 2:01
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    Whoa. In my world, your PhD supervisor... should be a mentor, in the first place... and to find yourself asking "how involved they should be in your project" is like asking (outside of surreal pseudo-aristocratic contexts) how involved your parents should be in your upbringing. There are prior errors... e.g., if your parents don't care about you, you need, in many regards, some other "grown-ups" to care for you. You do not want to be a street urchin, either literally or academically. It's not one of these "builds character" things, no matter what anyone says. Jul 4, 2017 at 2:04
  • It would be rude to confront; it would be sensible to share your concern. // Are there any other possible topics? If not, can you spend 10% of your time discreetly looking for other topic options? How about if you and your advisors try to find someone known to them who can provide more specific guidance on some aspect(s)? Jul 5, 2017 at 8:18

1 Answer 1


1) Email your advisors short (few sentences) progress reports every week or less. This forces you to move at a quicker rate than 2-3 weeks, and keeps them more invested in your progress.

2) As a junior student I suggest that for now you trust your advisors and peers and grind through this project. Researchers tend to always be critical of their own work, no matter how good it is.

3) It would be ideal to work side by side with a more experienced graduate student or advisor.

4) Part of a PhD is intellectual independence. You should not be afraid about pursuing an area if no one else is pursuing it, so long as you can see its merits. Why work on something that everyone else is working on?

  • What do you mean by working side by side with a more experienced advisor?
    – Severus
    Jul 10, 2017 at 20:04
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    I mean work closely with a more experienced person in the field that you can easily access Jul 10, 2017 at 20:44

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