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Steven Brown

How To Finish PhD with an Unsupportive Advisor

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Hi all!

I'm [supposedly] at the end of my studies, but I've had what I feel is an awful advisor/student experience and I’m concerned it’ll prevent me from finishing. I’m currently finishing writing up my dissertation. The majority of it is written, I completed my last science (work) chapter earlier this week and am now working on my introductory and concluding chapters. 

Short version:

Problem: I haven’t gotten meaningful feedback on the last 60% of my research work and it stresses me out! Put short, my thesis is three mini-projects, with the last 2 being spin-offs from the first that was actually published. I submitted the work for my 2nd project last September (as a thesis chapter) and the work for my 3rd project last February. My main feedback, concerned the number of citations, formatting of the paper and introduction. Is this normal?

 

 I ask for feedback all.the.time regarding my research and I just don’t get any. I have no clue if my analysis is sound, techniques are good, just nothing. We actually had a group meeting, two of is other students presented on their research about 10minutes (They do get regular meetings and feedback). When it was time for me to go, It didn’t go so well. He asked me to present on a paper I found a week earlier, so I started with that before my research. Well….it was a 25 minute tangent lead by my advisor on why the people in the paper are wrong. I didn’t get to present on my work because they all had to go. It was really frustrating.

On top of that, I can’t even manage a meeting with my advisor at best, maybe once every two weeks, because he is “to busy” (but he wants me to be in my office all day Monday-Friday, it’s crazy). It really has me worried. Any advice? He also does not want me to confide (or ask advice) from any of the other faculty concerning what is going on. I remember once, I was talking with the faculty head in the hallway (my advisor was running late for one of our meetings). While we were talking, I spotted my advisor standing awkwardly nearby, before he interrupted our conversation (rather abruptly) and sent me to his office while they talked. What do I do!? I literally feel helpless at this point.

Edited by Steven Brown

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Seek help elsewhere, in a way that doesn't burn a bridge with your advisor. Maybe you can form a small reading group among your peers so you can read and comment on each other's work. In addition, use your other committee members (I hope you have a committee!). Or, have a meeting with another faculty member to talk about your work, despite your advisor's "preference". Advisors who isolate their students from everyone else are what I consider abusive. Academic research works best when there is an open discussion with multiple points of view and (aside from fears of scooping and the like) you show your work locally to friends and colleagues on a regular basis to get advice from various sources. 

For context, though, meeting with a student every other week at this late stage in their career doesn't sound all that out of order for me; you should be writing. I don't think the lack of feedback is okay, or the "don't talk to others" part, but I think you want to concentrate on what's actually a problem. Keep in mind that you'll likely still need your advisor's support after you graduate for letters of recommendation, so you should be careful here. Sometimes it's up to you to "manage" the relationship to get what you need out of it. If he isn't good at reading drafts (not okay!), maybe you should come to your next meeting with a handout summarizing a chapter/result/project and talk through the main points you argue for. Maybe your questions are too vague ("is this good enough") and he doesn't want to get into that, because frankly it's very hard to answer. Maybe he gets easily distracted, and you need to come with a pre-prepared written down agenda to make sure you don't digress, and if/when you do, you can pull the conversation back in. It doesn't sound like he's perfect or anywhere near, but if this is what you have at the moment and it's too late to change, it might be best to manage expectations. 

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8 hours ago, Steven Brown said:

I ask for feedback all.the.time regarding my research and I just don’t get any. I have no clue if my analysis is sound, techniques are good, just nothing. We actually had a group meeting, two of is other students presented on their research about 10minutes (They do get regular meetings and feedback). 

On top of that, I can’t even manage a meeting with my advisor at best, maybe once every two weeks, because he is “to busy” (but he wants me to be in my office all day Monday-Friday, it’s crazy). It really has me worried. Any advice? He also does not want me to confide (or ask advice) from any of the other faculty concerning what is going on.

What do I do!? I literally feel helpless at this point.

That certainly doesn't sound normal, given that you are about to submit your dissertation. From your description, I do feel that your advisor somehow treats you unfairly compared to his other students, as you don't get the regular meetings and feedback as they do. However, I agree with fuzzylogician that you need to approach the situation carefully. Other than your dissertation committee, do you have other advisors? Very often, PhD students have co-advisors on top of their primary advisor. In my school, all PhD students must have at least 3 advisors. I had 4.

In some situation, it is the co-advisor who offers the most help to students. That's exactly my case. My primary advisor is a selfish man who cares more getting publications (for his own sake) than my dissertation. He and my other co-advisor pushed me hard for more and more experiments, and I simply could not have time to work on my dissertation. It happened that another co-advisor, *Ben, who seemed not to care about me over the course of my PhD, stood up for me at that critical moment. Of course, that got my main advisor angry and he played nasty by deliberately delaying my submission, e.g. not reviewing my drafts in a timely manner and yelling at me when I wanted to work out a turnaround schedule. It took me a lot of effort to get my dissertation out. Those final months of my PhD were the worst time of my life. 

Back then, I only met *Ben once a month at most. I get on well with him, but he would not be the first person that came to my mind when I needed help. Even up to now, I still cannot believe that he was that supportive when I turned to him in desperation. So, try to reach out to your other advisors; you may be surprised! By the way, I am now working for *Ben as a postdoc. 

Have faith that this too shall pass. Wish you all the best! 

*pseudonym 

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I'm not sure I can offer any advice, but just wanted to say you're not alone.  I'm still at the master's thesis stage in my program, but I too have an unsupportive advisor and it isn't getting better.  I've gotten advice for several others and unfortunately I'm just stuck.  Perhaps because you're so close to the end your department will be more willing to assist you.  I also think you can take some solace in that this is almost over.  I know that's easier said than done, but its still true.  

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I deeply appreciate the advice on this topic. Our faculty chair is also my academic advisor, I'll seek him out this week for advice. Forget to consider life after this process so the advice to be careful not to burn bridge is so great here. I'm really encouraged reading these responses! Thank you all!

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If you already have a committee in place, seek advice from another member. Be specific about what you need from them (e.g. read a chapter and give comments; help address a particular problem you are having). Once you are done, you'll need recommendation letters to apply for jobs, so doing this will also help you get great additional letters (don't put all your eggs in one basket).

 

Edited by MrsPhD

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