How to do PhD with no proper technical advisory?

posted
01-Aug-18, 11:31
edited about 3 seconds later
Avatar for arabidopsisthaliana
posted about 4 months ago
Hi to all of you here! It's my first posting here and I hope it's ok to open a new thread. It would really help me a lot to get some advice on my situation from people outside my department.

I do a life science PhD at a university in Austria. I have a fully funded position and just completed the first year.

My problem is that neither my advisor nor other PhD students nor technicians introduce me into new techniques. I have to learn it all on my own, with protocols from the internet (including complicated stuff like HPLC). My advisor doesn't work with many of the techniques I use, the other PhD student doesn't have time and the technician is not very competent.

My advisor also doesn't provide any solutions for things that do not work. If something doesn't work as we expected, I have to find a solution on my own. I feel that I don't have the experience and also not the in-depth knowledge for finding solutions. And if I do, it takes much more time than it would if my advisor would help me.

After one year of continuous failure I am starting to freak out. My advisor is also not very helpful for this because he gives me the feeling that it's my fault.

Is it normal that things in a life science PhD project go like this? What would you recommend? How do you solve technical problems?

I don't really think about quitting (I will gradute somehow, the standards at my university are not that high), but it might make me insane. It would really help me to know if the things I'm going through are normal aspects of PhD and I just have to cope with it or if this whole project is actually going totally wrong.
posted
02-Aug-18, 23:05
edited about 7 seconds later
by pm133
Avatar for pm133
posted about 4 months ago
You should expect to have to learn new techniques yourself. You should also expect to solve any problems that arise. That isn't your supervisor's job. Neither is it the job of anyone else in the lab. Not having enough experience is exactly the whole point. The PhD processs gains you that experience but you have to do it yourself. How much time it takes is irrelevant. This is your PhD process. It doesn't belong to anyone else.

It sounds to me like you are struggling to understand what is expected of you. What you are going through is entirely normal. Enjoy it and stop giving yourself such a hard time. The PhD is quite possibly going to be the hardest thing you will ever do in your career. It's meant to be like that.
posted
03-Aug-18, 13:16
edited about 1 minute later
Avatar for Tudor_Queen
posted about 4 months ago
Hi arabidopsisthaliana

I am not really sure what to advise, as it is hard to judge whether what you are going through is normal (or rather that the level of support is reasonable) or things in other labs are different. Do you have any contacts in very similar fields who you could ask? The reason I suggest this is that I recently visited another lab and my eyes were opened to how things CAN be... genuine collaborating and people being supported through such collaborations to go way further in their development, thinking, and outputs than what they likely could do by themselves. Yes a PhD is independent research. But research involves collaboration and learning from others too. Probably to varying degrees depending on your field. So my advice would be definitely try to find out how other labs in your research area function. Maybe visit some - perhaps if you're interested in a particular person's work you could get in touch about visiting.

Once you've established whether it is just you who is struggling in this environment or actually other labs are not like this - you can make a plan about what to do (e.g., adapt your own expectations, seek support in other ways, or maybe even try to transfer to somewhere else).

Hope this helps stimulate some ideas.
posted
03-Aug-18, 13:45
by pm133
Avatar for pm133
posted about 4 months ago
You are quite correct TQ but collaboration is not about person A coming to your lab and solving your research problems for you, even if Person A is your supervisor or a lab technician.
posted
03-Aug-18, 14:01
Avatar for Tudor_Queen
posted about 4 months ago
Absolutely agree. I don't want to infer that this is where the OP is coming from though, as it may not be the case. That's why I'm trying to get at whether it is a problem with lab or a problem with self. We are probably on the same page here but just coming from opposite angles. The fact that she/he says that the uni standards are not high and he/she will probably pass anyway kind of raises the possibility that maybe it is just a crap context to be in.
posted
03-Aug-18, 14:24
edited about 2 minutes later
by pm133
Avatar for pm133
posted about 4 months ago
Yeah I think we are coming at it from different perspectives. From my personal experience, I always start by assuming the problem is with the person and working backwards. There are almost always problems with the self in every situation. That is not to say that I intend to be accusatory or apportioning blame but I find it is a better place to start fighting your battles from. That is for two reasons. Firstly it immediately focusses the attention on things the person can control easily and immediately rather than having to change how the university or a supervisor or a group of other people works. Secondly, when working through a solution, it empowers the person rather than them having to face the crushing battle of deposing or changing a supervisor or university etc. Once your mental state is crushed, it is nearly impossible to fix it in situ. I discovered this approach when trying to fix my early career problems. For me, this approach was genuinely life changing and liberating.

I know your personal experience leads you to take the exact opposite approach but I think you need to pick your battles wisely. Fix the self first and only then start to tackle the other problems. I use the following all the time - "Never mind anyone else right now. Am I personally doing enough? Can I do something to help my situation?". When you try to fix other people you inevitably end up having to press the nuclear button. In your case that worked an absolute treat but the risk is huge.

If you have another approach i would be very interested in hearing it.

If any of that reads like mansplaining then let me know :-D
posted
03-Aug-18, 15:08
by rewt
Avatar for rewt
posted about 4 months ago
Hi Arab,

It can be difficult if you are doing research were there is minimal support. I am assuming that the technicians are competent but don't have experience in your methods, so you have to do all the method development yourself. I totally know the feeling, same problems here (especially with HPLC). It sucks not having much of a research group or more experienced lab mates to help with even the most basic stuff.

The thing is that this it what a PhD is. Other people might have it easier with more support but they still have to learn/develop/use methods. It can be hard but if you don't enjoy it, it isn't for you. If you enjoy it you won't go insane, you are just having the usual breakdown in confidence/motivation. You will be fine.

The way I see it is that I am getting far more experience than if I was in a big group. I am trying to do all the same experiments, might have to work incredible hours to get the method working but I know the method very well now. How many people in big groups, use a method but have no real understanding of it?

Agree with Tudor_queen, try and get a visit to another lab. My supervisor got me a 2 month visit in another lab plus a couple of young researcher events that helped a lot. Just to pick up some good habits or get insights on how other people work, is great. Most universities/societies have money for external lab visits, use one of them to get some experience. Your supervisor should be able to help you find a lab.

pm133, is also right. This is a PhD and it is you got to take responsibility for your own work. Usually the best thing you can do is work harder and not to expect help. Help is a bonus or like Christmas. Most of the time no-one gives a sh*t about your work except yourself, so get used to it.
posted
03-Aug-18, 19:34
edited about 7 minutes later
Avatar for Tudor_Queen
posted about 4 months ago
pm133 - I can appreciate your approach. I use it too - more so with myself than with others. But I also see value in having the default position of giving the benefit of the doubt. I think people (especially PhD students) can be highly self critical, and, in the context of the great unknown of academia, undermine themselves and be drawn into constantly thinking that the problem is with them.

All I'm saying here is maybe the problem doesn't lie with this person. Maybe it IS the context. Or a mismatch between personility and context. Maybe check out other labs and talk to other people and see if what is being experienced here is really OK. If it is, and nothing is seriously amiss, then change your attitude and move forward. But if it isn't... move on! You'll thank yourself later! (Or deeply perhaps regret it if you don't).

I admit that my attitude is very much shaped by my own PhD experience. I wish I'd had that kind of advice a few years ago - but to be honest I'm not sure I'd have even taken it. I was too undermined in the context and too busy trying to "fix myself" to make it work.

I was interesting to hear about your approach - no mansplaining as far as I could tell. It's interesting to hear where people are coming from - especially as our opinions/advice often seem so diametrically opposed!

Tudor
posted
03-Aug-18, 22:39
Avatar for Tudor_Queen
posted about 4 months ago
Typo corrections:
*trying to "fix myself" in order to make it work
*it was interesting to hear...
posted
05-Aug-18, 15:52
edited about 1 minute later
by pm133
Avatar for pm133
posted about 4 months ago
The more I read your response TQ, the more I am convinced that we are in exact agreement.
We are both talking about taking as much personal responsibility for fixing the problem as possible rather than blaming others and waiting around for others to change. It doesnt matter really what the problem is providing it is you who drives the change. That is precisely what you did in your situation.
So, taking that into account, I see both the original poster here and stargazer on the other thread trying to "blame" others for their mindset which to me suggested they have not transitioned to the proactive mindset necessary to change their situation. It is that attitude i am trying to warn against on both threads because it is potentially very damaging.

I think we are just describing ithe same thing in different ways but the solution is the same I think.
Do you agree?
posted
07-Aug-18, 21:55
edited about 4 seconds later
Avatar for Tudor_Queen
posted about 4 months ago
Somehow I didn't see this sooner. I do agree that the solution often lies in being proactive, yes!
posted
08-Aug-18, 20:09
Avatar for alinadavid
posted about 4 months ago
I completely agree with Tudor_Queen...

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