Hello fellow PhD students, I would like to receive your opinion about the situation I've found myself into. I' ve just completed the second of a 3/4 years long PhD (STEM field) and I'm about to quit. This experience has been a nightmare since the beginning: my advisor assigned me a project he knows absolutely nothing about and that after a few months of study I realized was intrinsically flawed and could have never worked. From that moment onward I have taken all of the decisions regarding my PhD, starting to work on a loosely linked variant and a series of side projects with the hope of making something work. My advisor has been unhelpful at best, never giving me feedback on a paper I sent him that was crucial for our work, almost never helping me to access the facilities or instrumentation we needed and often belitting me in front of others and in general not caring, but he keeps asking to "chunk out papers", despite the fact that there is no cleary defined research path, I'm well out of my background (it's more about chemistry, while I am a physicist) and he is not providing any useful suggestions. Recently I have begun to avoid him entirely, since i believe he is more of a burden than an help and actively sought the help of more competent researchers. After two years there are basically no result to show and when I complained with my co-supervisor (who is also his boss) and expressed my interest in taking an internship but I' ve been told to quit (complaining is really a bad idea in academia). I know I've suffered from depression and in the last months have been rather unproductive and procastinated a lot, and I keep telling me that I could have done better by working harder or communicating more effectively but honestly I was lost. Has any of you experienced a similar situation? Do you believe that this is a toxic advisor and that quitting is actually a good idea? Thank you in advance.
The decision to quit is entirely yours. No other person will be in exactly your situation before and therefore no one can make that decision for you. The internship does nothing to resolve your primary problem - your PhD, so resolve that first before distracting yourself with other matters.
Before deciding, could you think about the following?
1) If you can find another co-supervisor who is helpful, would this help change your situation?
2) Can you speak to an experienced senior researcher to help you frame your project?
3) Can you speak to a postgraduate and research coordinator at your school and see what his/her suggestions are? There is one in every school. They are responsible for you besides your supervisors. I think this is your BEST option for now.
4) Can you switch to another project with another supervisor if you want?
5) Do you still want this PhD? Or are you happy to finish with an MPhil and start another PhD or get a job?
Staying in an undefined PhD project with unhelpful supervisors damages one's confidence and does nothing for your career prospects. However, do not complain. Seek advice from other people and make a decision quick to improve or end your situation. Do not prolong your suffering.
Dear Tru, thank you for your reply. The internship I was planning to apply for was actually in a research center where they are doing something closely related to my PhD, so I hoped to learn the "tools of the trade" there and then apply them to my project. Much of my complaining is due to the fact that my supervisor is not just unsupportive from an intellectual point of view, but also never asks for access to equipment or external support (despite having promised to do so), thus delaying research for months. I do not believe that this is a normal situation, nor one where one can expect to achieve good results and be productive.
I had similar with my supervisor, to the point where I wondered whether she was obstructing my progress on purpose (though more likely she just didn't care). Things like not turning up to planned meetings, ignoring emails, failing to complete paperwork/write me a promised letter of recommendation meaning I missed out on a conference bursary and other opportunities, delaying for months and then years over edits on a paper draft that never got submitted in the end, and finally flatly refusing to read my thesis.
With hindsight, I wish I'd done something about it instead of trying to struggle on and hoping for the best (ended up with revise/resubmit verdict for my thesis). I can't say whether you should quit or not, but I know these 'toxic supervisor' situations can happen and it can be incredibly difficult to make progress. Maybe explore other options for support first as Tru suggests.
An unsupportive supervisor is extremely damaging and should not be treated as normal. Unfortunately, academia appears to "normalise" abnormal situations including completely absent supervision, bullying and obstruction of progress.
You have taken initiative to learn the methods necessary for your PhD. Great! However, if your supervisor is horrible, he may not appreciate this as you going to another group to learn suggests that he is lacking. A supervisor should not behave in this manner, you might say... Then again, he should not take on a student for a project he knows nothing about, then go on to belittle you. His actions have been consistent all throughout your PhD. He will not change.
However, YOU can change. Please go through the thought processes which I have suggested earlier. They helped me when I myself was in an extremely bad situation with my own supervisors and project. Nearly all that you have experienced, I have too and in some cases a lot worse. So, I completely understand. I will not detail my own experiences because I refuse to relive those memories. You are not alone. Ephiny has shared some of his/her own experiences. Like Ephiny, I have submitted my thesis although the outcome is still up in the air.
In conclusion, decide on what you want to do ASAP. You either improve or end your situation. Hoping for things to become better on its own NEVER works. Do not heed the advice that a PhD is hard work, and you should persevere under unhealthy and possibly career-damaging situations. Those words are probably spoken by people who had good supervision/clearly defined project but lots of experiments to complete. They will never understand the pain of an undefined project with uncertain hypothesis and aims and unavailable methods, and without any support. Trust me, I know what you are going through. Please do not break.
Take action now. I wish you lots of strength in overcoming this challenge. Decide what is best and right for you. Ignore unhelpful comments from people who have never been burned by bad supervisors.
Dear Tru and Ephiny, thank you for your support and suggestions, I'll arrange a meeting as soon as possible with my supervisor and my research coordinator, where I'll present a clearly defined plan of action, including needed resources and timeline from now till my graduation and pin them down to it.
I wish you both a bright career and future.
Hello pm133, definitely. I'm learning a lot of stuff on the fly, or asking for advice from more experienced researchers. Science itself is not the difficult part, it's more the utter lack of resources that hinders progress, and the uncaring attitude of my PI who never asks for them (e.g. access to equipment). One thing is getting frustrated because the experiments don't work, an other is getting stopped because you don't have access to a basic technique and you have to figure out a way around. To me my PhD projects starts looking more like one that would look nice in a science fair and not in a doctoral dissertation
Is it possible to have more theoretical chapters on what you aim to achieve and back it up with extensive literature reviews. Then propose a few pilot experiments which would show some of your objectives? You may have to organise equipment use yourself, it can be good networking and grease wheels with 'collaboration' papers.
Not all phds show ground breaking experimental results. You just have to show what you are trying to do is new to the field of research and has the possibility to advance knowledge. Good luck!
Hello, in the end I've decided to end a situation that was getting worse every day. It was clear to me that the divergencies between me and my supervisor were too deep to be reconciled. In retrospect, I believe that a better communication and organization would have allowed me to complete my PhD, although the fact that I got nothing but misadvices that sent me on the wrong track for months, received little to no training on research methodology and had a seriously flawed project makes me feel less like a failure. It has been a long and challenging march, and it would have only gotten worse. The good news is that I'm not leaving Science altogether: I'll continue to do research elsewhere, where I'll have a chance to learn a lot, from people that are passionate about what they're doing, and possibly in a couple of years from now I'll go back to grad school. Thank you all for your support, and good luck for your careers
I am glad that you found courage to make an important but difficult decision on your PhD. No one can decide what is best for you except yourself. Remember not to feel like a failure, because you are not. Your supervisor and the education system that was meant to monitor and help you through your study failed you, but you did not. You have tried everything you could on your own. Walk away knowing that you are worth more than this project.
You may come across people in future who without much understanding of your pain, say that you should have persevered on through a difficult PhD, because a PhD is meant to be hard. You could perhaps consider this as an answer. Even if you were to push through and be lucky enough to finish a PhD with poor relations with your supervisor and possible little or no publications due to the bad project, you may have no good reference and are unlikely to be competitive to fight for grants or fellowships. Especially since the grant success rate is already so low and academic positions so few. People with good project and supervisors can have multiple papers and combine that with good references and connections from the supervisor, can go very far. If you had a bad PhD with very poor outcome, you will be playing catchup for many years to come. Therefore, cutting your losses now, may be the best decision for you.Especially since things are getting worse. You can always start over with another PhD. And you will now know how to choose a good supervisor and project.
All the best to you in your future undertakings. Perhaps you might get a job researching in a company? Combine that work experiences with a PhD later on will get you very far. Or work as a technician in uni. Or have a short break. The decision is yours to make. Again, kudos for your very brave but difficult decision. Good luck.
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