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The absentee advisor

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My advisor and I do not mesh... I keep hoping it will get better, but it's only getting worse.  She's taken on too much, she's in over her head, and she seems to make time for everything except advising me.  But she won't admit it.  She forgets to tell me things, she forgets to send me things, she's completely unavailable and I'm the one who ends up looking unorganized and unprepared.  I'm so sick of it.  I don't know if it's because I'm becoming so resentful, but now even the time she does spend with me, it feels like we're speaking two different languages.  We just do not click.  Any grad students have some advice?  Unfortunately, she is the only professor in my program doing research in my area.

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This is a crappy situation! But first, I would advise you to not try to "diagnose" your advisor's reasons for neglecting you--I don't think it's a good idea to try to rationalize your advisor's behaviour as "she is in over her head" or "she has taken on too much". You are not your advisor--you don't know what "too much" is! I would recommend that you stick to things that you know for sure. That is, the symptoms that you feel are valid and legitimate complaints--not whatever reasoning you might think is "causing" these symptoms. I say this because it is both disrespectful of another person's individuality to decide for them that they are "taking on too much" and because it could cause you more problems if you focus on what you think is the "cause". 


So, what can you do? This depends on if you are ready now to switch to a different advisor or if you want to continue working with your current advisor (or if you have not yet decided to switch). It might help to first bring up your feelings of neglect and/or disconnect with your advisor. Remember to make sure to be clear on how you feel and not judging her work/priorities/advising. Perhaps your advisor does not realise how you are feeling or perhaps there is some misunderstanding. 


If you do not think the first step has resulted in any changes that you would like or if you are certain you want to switch advisors, it could be a good idea to talk to the professor in charge of graduate students in your department (e.g. a DGS or similar role). They might be able to help be a mediator and/or help you figure out what to do next in accordance with department and institutional policies. 


In my opinion, even if this advisor is the only one doing research in your area, that is not a good enough reason to stay. I think having an advisor that you "click" with is far far more essential to both your sanity and your success than having a research topic in your primary area of interest. So, if you can find another professor that you would have a good working relationship with doing something that might also be interesting, then I'd suggest you look into a possibility of switching to these professors. 


Hope this is helpful! 

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I know this feeling. My advisor is susceptible to this as well, whenever we have a scheduled meeting, she looks as if she doesn't have time for you, while come asking why you've been skipping meetings when I think I should probably wait for more data. You are not alone in this situation! I don't really have a good suggestion how to cross this disconnection.

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Sorry to hear about that.


I'm in the same boat, and unfortunately can't give any advice. Knowing how busy my supervisor's schedule is, I tried setting up appointments weeks ahead to try to find some time to sit down and discuss what's going on/the work I've done, and yet it hasn't worked. At this point, I'm not even getting replies to my messages about setting up appointments...it's really disheartening. I hate the idea of doing work for like 2 weeks, then finally when I see their face, them telling me it was wrong/not what they wanted. That's why I tried meeting you to begin with...


I have no idea how it works at your typical school/program, but I try finding some comfort in discussing my work with other faculty members. Nothing in depth, but just little talks in areas where their interest/work overlap with mine. Although nothing can replace your supervisor and the control they have over your direction of work, it helps every know and then.

Edited by HYHY02
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  • 2 months later...

I understand how you feel.  My PI is very similar in not having a lot of time for me, and he is the model example of a hands off adviser.  His issue is that he's terrible at managing a research lab and his own schedule.  If he has three meetings in a row, and I'm in the middle, he's run the first meeting through my meeting time entirely, then tell me he's skipping me and having his third meeting as scheduled. 


I agree with TakeruK that you shouldn't diagnose your adviser.  Really ask yourself and try and figure out why your PI doesn't have much time.  Maybe you're not that high on their priority list?  When my adviser has skipped over my meeting, it's usually because he's skipping me over someone closer to publishing or a labmate about to defend their proposal or thesis defense.  He gave me top priority when I had to present at a research symposium last year.  


It sounds like your adviser is really busy and is a bit hands off.  Maybe there is something you're doing that's causing her to not focus on you as much?  Maybe she has other things to do that are unfortunately more urgent than helping you?  I'm not saying it's right, but this is how academia is sometimes.  Some of the best researchers are often horribly dysfunctional human beings. 


Most importantly, I would express your concerns with your adviser.  This seems to be a big enough deal to you to warrent meeting and talking about it.  Put your thoughts out there and get their opinion too.  Maybe it's a misunderstanding.  Maybe he/she doesn't realize you're feeling neglected.  Maybe they need to hear that you're pissed off in order to change. 


If it turns out your adviser is just a hot mess, ask yourself if that's a grad school deal breaker?  If it is, master out and apply somewhere else or talk to the department head and see if there's an opportunity for you to switch to a new adviser who'll give you the time you desire.  


I hope that helps.   :)

Edited by Bear247
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