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I'm two years into a PhD program, and I've been working on a project that isn't producing any of the type of data that I work with. I thought it would, my advisor thought it would, but it just hasn't worked out. My advisor is on sabbatical and told me if I had any issue to talk to the faculty who are around. I did and more and more people started encouraging me change or expand my project so that I could do work that aligns with my research interest. It sounded great to me, and I tried to ask for a meeting to get my advisor's advice on whether to switch my project and decide how to move forward, but since sending them that email they've been avoiding me (they're on campus), ignoring my emails, and at one point they pasted their out-of-office auto reply into the body of an email and sent it to me. It's surprising and a bit hurtful. I really didn't bring any interesting skills to their project, since the type of data I work with isn't there, and they'd previously said they'd still be happy to advise me if I was working on a project other than theirs.

So how do I move forward with this? Do I stick with them? Does this mean I find a new advisor? Do I keep them on my committee so as not to ruffle any more feathers? I haven't gotten a response from them in nearly a month, other than the aforementioned not-auto auto reply and a quick note saying they're not available until June. I know one student was able to get a meeting today. I realize they may be unhappy that I sought advice from others on my committee, but I didn't feel that was out of line, especially in light of their sabbatical.

If this factors into the decision, even before their sabbatical they were only available to meet about once a semester and they often asked for my help with administrative tasks (sorting out flights for their colleagues, delivering and picking up material across campus, pet care, cleaning and rehousing their research collection, ordering food for events) which took several hours each week. I guess I thought I had done enough to be in their good graces, even if our research directions diverged a little. I've also been cut out of those responsibilities (which I'm fine with) since sending the email requesting to talk about the directions of my research.

The department is wonderful and I feel very supported in general, so I don't feel changing advisors would be too difficult. If I do change advisors, I want to create as little drama as possible. Any suggestions?

Edited by NoSleepTilBreuckelen
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I'm a bit confused between your advisor and "them". Is "them" the rest of your committee? And by "committee" you mean what exactly? I ask this because my exams committees of first and second years changed in my third year, and my prospectus committee was very different from my dissertation one. At least in my department, committees do change, and I know people that changed primary advisors. You should ask people in your program so as to see how to tackle the situation. My intuition tells me you should talk these things over with the DGS. He/she is in charge of making sure no one gets offended if you change advisor (or anything else). Also, remember we are adults. If people get offended, you cannot do anything about that. 

I'm also confused by your second to last paragraph. As I understand, you want to change topics. Have you been writing grant applications? The evolution of your interests should be reflected there and your "committee" should be reading those. In this paragraph, however, you seem to resent other things besides their indifference. I'd go smoothly here. I don't know how your e-mails look like, but maybe you could revise these (and use all those responsibilities to your advantage)? EG: Dear Professor X, bla bla bla. I am writing to request a meeting with you to discuss my work as I move forward in the program. As I have been exposed to colleagues, methodologies, and other faculty, I have though more about issues such as bla bla bla. This means expanding my previous interests into bla bla bla. I'd love to hear what you have to say and bla bla bla. Or something like that (use "positive" verbs). But, again, I am not entirely sure I completely understand the problem.

On a side note, sabbaticals are regular among faculty. You probably realized that many professors are on sabbatical at any given time. Some, for resting because they had a lot of responsibilities lately; some others, for finishing up books/projects. That said, I am sure there has been a misunderstanding with your advisor as he/she thought the year would go one way and apparently it didn't. Did you talk things over before the sabbatical started? Eg, with my advisor we agreed I'd send everything to another professor first. (I wouldn't look too much into the auto reply e-mail). 

Hope it helps a little bit! :)

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Thanks AP!


Yes, I was trying to be vague in many aspects of my post (just so the situation wouldn't be too identifiable) and I think it just got confusing. I was referring to my advisor as 'they'. I happen to use gender-neutral pronouns all the time, but saying 'she/he' would have made my post a lot more clear, especially since I also once referred to my committee. Your advice is very helpful and I'm going to do another post which (I hope) will be a little clearer :)

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This sounds like a good reason to change advisors and honestly, I think the most important thing in making an advisor change is a supportive rest-of-department. So, do you have people that you know would be interested in being your new advisor? From your post, it sounds like the answer is yes, but while it's one thing for them to encourage you to expand your project, it's another big commitment for them to actually take you as their student.

So, first, find a faculty member who you would want to switch to. Then, let your advisor know that you want to switch---talk to them in person if they are avoiding your emails. If they further delay or do not meet with you, then get someone from the department-level (e.g. the chair? The director of grad studies?) involved in mediating this and making the change happen. 

The important thing is to get the other faculty members on your side. There are often lots of politics / unwritten rules / norms in a department that we might not fully know as a grad student, so ideally, if you can find someone on the faculty side to help you navigate the switch, it would be best. It's hard for outsiders to give more specific advice because every department operates differently.

In my department, this would be no problem at all as long as you find another advisor willing to take you. In my school (and department), graduate students don't "belong" to any particular faculty---your advisor can't "fire" you and kick you out. The view is that our success is also partly the responsibility of the school/department, so in some places on my campus, if an advisor wanted to stop working with the student, they would have to justify this to the department because if the advisor cuts funding, then the department is on the hook for paying the full stipend of the student. If it's justifiable (i.e. the student really is just not performing up to standard) then it's ultimately the department's decision to fail the student and remove them from the program, not the advisor. This description was to give context to how departments I'm used to operates and you can decide if your department works in a similar way. In this point of view, if you have another faculty member willing to take you and you want to switch, then your old advisor will have little choice in the matter and they would either agree to the switch or be forced to by the department (ideally not by you because that would cause more drama).

Finally, while sabbaticals are common, I think what your advisor did on sabbatical is terrible mentoring and a sign of poor advisorship. And even before they went on sabbatical, they should not be asking you to do some of the things they asked you. Ordering food for events related to your research group (e.g. if ordering food duties were rotated between lab group members) is not out of the ordinary but booking their colleagues flights?? Caring for their pets?? This is not part of the graduate student job description. (Although booking your own flights or if you and your advisor are traveling to a research location then asking you to book both your flight and their flight is okay). At most places, there are full time staff hired to do most of these things, and they are generally paid better than grad students. 

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@NoSleepTilBreuckelen Pronoun confusion aside, it seems  to me that you've been asking  "How should I decide what should I do now?" when you might be better served by saying "Here's what I want to do and why I want to do it, here's how I need your help."

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