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Adviser With No Time/Doesn't Care, Student Thinking of Leaving Lab

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My adviser and I don't have the best relationship.  He isn't a tyrant and he's never done anything unethical, unprofessional, or something of poor faculty/researcher character.  But, he is neither my mentor nor my friend.  He's my thesis adviser, and that's it.  I've read enough about grad school from this site, other blogs, and articles to know that being a mentor/friend to his students isn't in the job description nor a requirement for getting more funding. 


I've had thoughts of quitting the lab for about a year now.  They've faded in and out depending on how work has been going and how well my adviser and I are getting along.  When I started thinking I should just get the masters and leave, I scheduled a meeting with him.  It was scheduled for right after my weekly meeting with him.  This 'one hour' meeting turned into 30 seconds of him telling me not to freak out or rush any decision.  Let things play out, defend my masters thesis if need be, and go from there.  Cross that bridge when we get there.  I was not given the chance to respond or ask questions. 


About a month later, when he was on sabbatical, I decided to email him with an update of where I was at.  I told him I would update him once a month on my status, how I was feeling, and what I think could be done about it.  This email was about one page worth if it was in Word, Times 12 font.  His entire response: "Thanks [my name]."


I spoke with a few more senior students in the lab about this response as I was confused that he didn't have more to say.  The two main theories the older PhD students had was that either he didn't have the time to actually respond or he doesn't care that I'm thinking about quitting.  


After this, I felt so awkward about telling him more about how I felt.  His concept of professionalism and professional relationships is almost completely void of being personal.  He's not one to hold his student's hand on anything, but I would think one of his students telling him they don't want to work with him anymore would be pretty alarming.  If you don't have time for a student who's thinking of dropping out, what do you have time for?  


I haven't made a final decision, but I'm pretty sure I'll be quitting the program by this December.  I guess what I'm looking for writing this post is: 


Is this common in your experience?  Has this ever happened to you?  With you or someone you know who's dropped out of a PhD program, what was the PI's response and how did they handle the situation?  Do professors care if they lose a student or do they just not have the time/care to deal with it when it comes up?  


I welcome any thoughts, theories, and ideas on any of the above.  Thank you for your time.

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It sounds to me like your PI isn't a bad guy but he seems pretty extreme in being distant from students. This isnt necesarily bad and you probably have no idea why he is like this... he may have had a bad expreience with a student in the past that taught him to keep relationships only professional for example. My PI can be a bit cold sometimes, not to the extreme that you discuss, but I recently learned that it is due to a harassment issue that he witnessed as a grad student. You never know why your PI has become so cold to students so I would try to get less frustrated and realize that he may have a reason for being like this. With that being said, it sounds like he isn't what you would like in a PI. You seem to be looking for someone who can fill more of a mentor role in your education which is a very normal desire. I see a few options that you can take from here:


1) You can realize that your PI will probably never have any more intestest in your education and will be there only for research guidance. If you do stay at your school then I think that it is important that you adjust your expectations so that you don't remain upset by his one word answers or lack of concern. This route has the benefit of being the faster track to a PhD. It would be useful both emotionally and professionally to find other professors to go to for mentorship if you go this track though.

2) You can switch PIs but stay at the same school (if that is option to you)

3) You can switch schools completely which will set you back but could result in a better PI relationship.


I can't give much guidance aside from writing the options out. You ultimately need to decide whether his distance is something that will continue to upset you or if you can fill the mentorship role by someone else in your department so that you can still have someone to go to for career or other advice. This is something that I would have a hard time with as well and is something that many others on here have probably dealt with to some extend. Good luck!

Edited by bsharpe269
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I think bsharpe269 makes a good point about your options. I think there is something unfortunate about the timing of this problem. Sending your advisor a long email about how you feel in the program as part of a progress report while he is on sabbatical makes it hard for him to address the problem. (Though I don't think he did a good job handling it, sabbatical or not.) There are a few things you haven't mentioned that are probably important here. First, are you an MA or a PhD student, and how much time do you have left in your program? How experienced is your advisor? Is he a seasoned veteran or are you one of his first students? Is he tenured? How many other students does he have? Do you know if this has happened before, and if so how frequently? 


On the practical side, I think you need to do two things. First, you need to work on deciding for yourself what you want. If you stay (and whether I think you should would depend on the factors I asked about above), you need to seriously adjust your expectations from your advisor. He appears to be doing everything in the official job description, but not satisfying your other needs. I think his choice is fine and on the other hand your needs are legitimate, so we have an issue of fit here. His advising style will work for some, but obviously not for you. You need to figure out if you can satisfy your remaining needs some other way, unrelated to your advisor. This is important --- it is absolutely awesome if your advisor and your mentor are the same person, but that doesn't always work out. You can and should seek out multiple mentors with various expertise to support your career. Maybe someone else can fill this gap that you feel, while your advisor continues to just be your thesis advisor. Second, once you have this figured out for yourself, you need to talk to your advisor again, and plan this so that it's more than a 30 second conversation. Your advisor appears not to be good at the personal stuff, but is just fine at providing professional advice and information. Maybe that's the way to approach this with him: ask for advice in a way that he can process, and let him help you develop the resources that are missing. Either way, I think it's worth talking to him at least once more before quitting. Don't just give up and leave without making another effort to make it work. Also, along the same lines, I suggest finding someone else in your program to ask for advice about compatibility with your advisor and quitting. Is there another professor you trust? The Director of Graduate Studies, or the Chair, or simply another experienced professor? 

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Thank you both for your comments.  They were extremely helpful. 


To answer fuzzylogician's questions:  I'm about to start my third year in a Chemical Engineering PhD program.  I came straight to the program from my BS in Environmental Engineering.  The program averages about 5.5 years for a PhD, so I'm not quit half way done (in theory).  If I stay, I'd be defending my proposal sometime this academic year.  The masters students in the department take 2 years.  If I were to decide to get the masters, I could certainly be done by December. 


My adviser is tenured.  He's in his 60's, and has been a faculty member at the university longer than I've been alive.  I'm one of eight PhD students in his group.  I am the only American in the lab, and all the international students either don't mind the what I've mentioned above about him or are willing/able to deal with it.


We do have a research faculty who does some collaboration with our group (not on my project however) who I do speak to regularly.  He just got promoted from post doc to assistant research faculty and is very personable.  I have been meaning to speak with him a lot more, about research, careers, and life in general.  The department did just hire two new faculty, one who does work similar to my project.  I met him last week, and he told me to stop by sometime because he wants to know more about my project.  Now that I think about it, I do have some mentor options, even if my adviser isn't one of them.

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My short assessment is that this sounds like a case of bad fit.  As was already stated, you have three options: adjust your expectations for working with this professor, find another advisor in your department, or leave and go to a different program altogether.


To be quite frank, nothing sounds particularly wrong with your advisor.  Some people have warm, friendly relationships with their PIs and others don't.  Some PIs are happy and interested in being mentors and friends to their students, and others simply want to serve as professional guides or research overseers.  Nothing is wrong with any of that, but only you can make the determination of what you're willing to accept and whether you're okay staying with your advisor given that you now know how he operates. 


Part of a mentoring relationship in graduate school is asking, explicitly, for what you want.  You said that your meeting with your advisor was scheduled for 1 hour but turned into 30 seconds, with no chance to ask questions or respond.  Why is that?  Did your advisor push you out of his office, or did you simply feel uncomfortable asking?  Did you sense a note of finality from his statements or get the idea that he wanted you to leave?  You need to feel prepared to ask for what you need from your advisor, so if you had questions about the thesis process, you need to ask them.  Another thing about the email...how exactly did you expect your advisor to respond?  1 single-spaced (most emails are single-spaced) page in TNR 12-point is about 500 words, which is pretty dense for an email.  It doesn't sound like your one-page missive had any questions, just that you would update him once a month on how you were feeling.  Which, frankly, is not really what advisors want.  Even the most caring and warm advisor doesn't really care, solely, about how you feel, nor do they want monthly updates on your emotional wrestles with the program.  They want to know what you plan to do.  What did you want him to say?


When I contemplating leaving my own program in my third year, I told my advisor.  I told him succinctly how I felt, but in the context of my work and the decision I made made about wanting to leave the program.  I spared him the 3-4 months of torturous contemplation ahead of that.  He was disappointed but sympathetic; he did seem a little alarmed, but less about the impact of my departure on his own work and more about my mental health status at the time (I was really depressed).   When I changed my mind and decided to stay, I explained that to him in a separate meeting.  In the middle, I did need to deal with my feelings, but I enlisted a counselor on campus to talk it out with and help me make the decision.  I did meet with my advisor several times in between that, but I honestly have a really hard time remembering that period of my grad program other than the crushing depression, so I don't remember what we talked about.  Your advisor isn't necessarily the appropriate person to do that - they're not going to beg you to stay.  A great advisor will talk to you a little about it, perhaps give you some advice and wish you well.  A decent advisor will be like "Let me know what I need to do so you can withdraw."  I'm not sure what kind of response you were expecting, since you only told your advisor that you were thinking about dropping out and weren't sure.


All of this might be irrelevant, though, because it sounds like you are looking for a different kind of mentoring relationship than you are getting from your advisor.  I did forget a fourth option above, though - which is to continue working with your advisor as your primary research advisor, but to 'adopt' another professor as an informal or formal mentor.  This second professor might be someone you collaborate with on a side project, or they might be someone you place on your dissertation committee.  They may meet with you infrequently (like once a month or as needed), and might agree to look over your papers and job search materials or whatever.  I had a few informal mentors like this - most of whom I called upon when I was dealing with the depression in the middle and for other things, like being a woman in academia (my two main advisors are men).  You might even get some peer mentoring or advice.  I have had ( :D) a peer in my lab who started her doctoral program the same year as me, but had done a master's in the same department with my advisor, and so she had a lot of insight on the field and was able to give me a lot of great advice.  It was a mutually beneficial relationship, as I often edited/proofread her written documents :D  There were also a couple of senior students I wouldn't describe exactly as peer mentors, but who did give me a lot of insight and advice and motivation and are just genuinely awesome people who I still love.


However, adopting an informal mentor may or may not be an easy thing to do - as professors are busy and some are disinterested in mentoring a student who doesn't collaborate with them or work in their labs.  So this depends on the culture of your department.

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JuilletMercredi's advise is solid, and I'd echo it. 


I don't think it is the PI's duty to stop a grad student who wants to quit from quitting. Most PI aren't going to get upset, beg you to stay, or really probe you about your desire to quit. It doesn't mean that they don't care - but the PI-student relationship is fundamentally a professional one, and as such it is constrained within professional boundaries (the same way as a supervisor at work wouldn't necessarily spend a lot of time persuading their subordinates to stay when they announced their intention to quit). This certainly sounds like the case with your PI - they are there to advise you, not be your friend. 


Supervisor's reactions have varied, from my experience. If a PI has to ask a student to leave the group, then it is usually a dispassionate affair on the part of the PI. If the student decides to leave, then usually the PI doesn't make a fuss. PIs want students who are good fits, and when a student decides to leave it becomes clear to the PI that the individual in question is a bad fit and therefore not a huge loss. Unfortunately, as a grad student we're rather replaceable. Don't take a dispassionate, muted response personally. 

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