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My advisor is incompetent

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I go to a school ranked top ten in my particular department and my advisor is completely worthless. I've heard through the grape vine he was hired to scratch his PI's back (a rather famous PI in this field) which is the only logical explanation he is here. He has been a PI for three years (I'm a second year..I know, my first mistake was choosing a new professor). At first, he would overwhelm me with big words and fast talking and it wasn't until about six months in that I realized how completely clueless this guy is. In my 2 years not a single useful piece of advice has come out of his mouth and I even feel like our meetings are only a further waste of my time.

So that's a little background, here's the problem: Of a new group of 7 students, two have already been fired and two are now on the chopping block. Most of the grad students are funded by the department (he only has start-up funds because companies, the government, and national labs are smart enough to see through this mans BS). We believe one of the firings was due to the fact that our PI's project idea was seriously flawed, failed miserably, and he could no longer afford to fund it and the second firing was because of a personal grudge. We keep wondering how long the department will let this continue but no one seems to care. Three separate grad students have been to our departments graduate student coordinator and one has been to the vice provost and nothing has happened.

The remaining grad students are now considering going as a group to the coordinator so that maybe someone will actually address our concerns about our PI's inability to do his job and our fear of loosing our jobs. They can't ignore all of us, right? I know this is a risky move but I'm not sure I can continue like this. I am not getting pHD training being advised by this man and I don't want to waste another two years and then be suddenly fired.

Any advice/input appreciated.

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going collectively to your grad director/coordinator is a good idea. if you have a departmental graduate student organization, you should consider getting them involved as well. if the coordinator says he will not help, then take it to the chair/head of your department. these meetings should solely be about the prof's firing of students and your collective fears of losing your jobs. one issue at a time.

you should also talk to your grad director/coordinator separately, individually, to switch advisors. i don't know how easy this is in the sciences, since profs fund their advisees directly, but this doesn't sound like someone you should work with. however, you not wanting to work with him (or him being a bad advisor) is a separate issue from several students losing their funding under him and they should be treated as separate issues.

for your own sake, you should be trying to switch advisors (in consultation with your grad coordinator) long before the students collectively approach the coordinator about these issues. if you switch first, you're free. if you talk collectively first, then the "answer" might be to talk to this prof, help him see the light, and then give him a chance to improve for about a year. you don't want to be his guinea pig for learning how to properly advise.

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I am in your situation...new supervisor, I am his first PhD student, and he just doesn't have the experience to effectively provide supervision and support.

I think you're making the best choice. Go to your graduate coordinator - I might suggest just a solo meeting - discuss your situation in confidence, and ask about (1) changing supervisors, and (2) adding specific committee members. My grad co-ord suggested that I look up a few individuals who I would like to work with, and she would let me know if they have successfully worked well with students in the past...i think most grad co-ords know the truth about professors- they see the numbers of the students who move on from the professors and what students get funding- so i am sure it will not be a shock.

I have taken the approach of not burning any bridges. So this is a two year relationship you have worked on, you might want to stay on their good side- but this is really a personal choice. I approached my supervisor with the basis that my interests have changed, and therefore I want to change research projects and bring in a co-supervisor that is more inlined with that discipline. I am in interdisciplinary studies, so it's pretty common to have co-supervisor- I am not sure if that is an option for your department.

I know emotions are up and down, and it's frustrating and maddening to have spent all this time (and money) into your PhD and feel you haven't really gotten what you should. But I wouldn't jump the gun by forming a party against him. You said he was hired to scratch the back of a pretty bigwig PI in your department...so he might be pretty untouchable. It would suck to bring all this attention to yourself if he is going to stay there for awhile and you might have to have a working relationship with him.

So, I dunno...I might start with talking to the grad co-ord and seeing what your options are...if you are unhappy, they will want to help you. I think you have a lot of options ahead of you, and things will work out. But for me, I always try and remember that this is a decision/experience that might impact me down the road.

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  • 2 weeks later...

Without knowing any more than you've written here now, I would avoid the group approach, and I would also avoid basing your complaint on the firing of other students. Do you really know everything about those fired students? Are you so sure of it, that you want to hitch your wagon to theirs? It's MORE than possible that there were things going on you were unaware of because, after all, why would the faculty keep you in the loop? But even if the reality is that you are correct, what matters more for you is perception, and if those students are perceived negatively by the faculty then you still wont want to hitch your wagon to theirs.

The only thing you can concretely say is that YOU feel you aren't getting good advice. Take that complaint above him, and ask for help finding a solution. Avoid all conspiracy talk about this individual. All that matters is the quality of your relationship with him. After all, this isn't about justice for this terrible advisor, it's about you getting a good PhD experience.

Or at least it seems that way to me!

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