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Handling graduate advisor

  1. Dec 18, 2016 #1
    Hi everyone,

    I am a second year postgraduate student working in astrophysics. I chose my university pretty hastily, and now I feel like I am at a dead end. My colleagues do not speak to me in English and I need to fight to be able to hold a normal conversation at lunch table. I am currently working on my topic alone, where I do not get feedback on any of my writings or progress from either my supervisor or my colleagues. I have talked with my supervisor, who most of the time ignores me, if it would be possible to try and get in contact with people from other universities to aid in my research, since I sense he does not know about my topic too much. His answer has always been no, and that we should get in contact with them once I have published something. At the same time, it is clear that if I ever publish anything during my postgraduate, then I would need to put three other names on the paper (other than my own). These three people have not thus far added anything to my research. Further, if I ever discuss or even hint of any complaint about my postgraduate studies, my advisor gets pissed off. As an example, when I talked about my TA duties taking 30 hours per week as opposed to the 10 hours that is in my contract he seemed to just think I am supposed to do it without saying a thing. I can say trying to talk with my supervisor on this topic is pretty useless. Further, there are no complaining channels at this university, and switching advisor is not an option. It may be an option for me to contact someone outside the university.

    I am feeling a bit at a dead end, and I am looking for honest opinions on what to do. I can see myself screwing up my education in near future completely.
    Last edited: Dec 18, 2016
  2. jcsd
  3. Dec 18, 2016 #2


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    Is your supervisor also not good in English? I also wonder how you could end up being hired by him if he doesn't have enough background in your research topic to be able to give your direction.
  4. Dec 18, 2016 #3
    Hi Blue leaf,

    Thank you for your reply. My supervisor is good at English and studied abroad for his PhD, but does not talk in English if there are others around. The problem is that he wants to do things that are completely out of his expertise -- or the group's. For example, my advisor hired a website developer (without physics education and little to no knowledge of c++ / Python) as an RA to do numerical relativity simulations (nobody in our group, including my supervisor, does numerical relativity or even research involving general relativity and she was supposed to do it alone). At the beginning, she was convinced she had made a big leap to physics, and at the end of her first month she left. I also consulted to my supervisor suggesting that this project might need a bit more support if she wants to complete it -- in a completely non-arrogant, non-hostile and indirect way -- and I just got a very blunt answer saying that she just needs a bit of time to learn NR. I also did not tell her anything about her project possibly being quite hard, since I figured it might force me to a bad standing in my group, and hence her leaving has nothing to do with me.

    I am in a very similar situation. I am doing my research 100% alone, and it seems like unless I do something I am not going to get forward.
    Last edited: Dec 18, 2016
  5. Dec 18, 2016 #4


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    Sorry to hear about your experience. Graduate school should really be about opportunities to flourish rather than fighting for feedback.

    Is seems like you're facing a lot of overlapping issues. I don't know that there's any simple fixes, but here are a few thoughts...

    1. Colleagues not speaking to you in English
      Is English the official language of your program? If so, any official communication needs to happen in that language. But unofficially, what happens over the lunch table is what happens over the lunch table and you can't force people to converse in a way they don't want to. You might want to try having lunch with a different group of people. I know that can be difficult, but if you're not getting along with your current friends it's probably better to explore a little more.

    2. Supervisor ignoring you
      One thing that might help here is setting up a formal meeting schedule. Supervisors can get extremely busy, but if this person has agreed to take you on as a student, you have a right to expect a certain amount of dedicated time. Sometimes this can happen on an informal basis i.e. the student can walk into the supervisor's office more-or-less at will, but you have to remember most supervisors don't sit around waiting for students. Setting up a regular meeting once a week will guarantee that you have your supervisor's undivided attention.

      If you haven't done one already, it can help to map out your project. Break it into sub-projects and set up a schedule for yourself. Make sure you establish clear questions for your research program and a method by which to investigate them. Then run this past your supervisor. This will nd non-confrontational and where he will have input.

    3. Contacting researchers outside your university
      In most cases it's best to defer this decision to your supervisor. There can be several reasons for this. First, it can be important that you as a student go through the exercise of struggling with a problem and/or build up a base level of knowledge in the field. It's possible your supervisor feels that you don't have this base level of knowledge yet and doesn't want you conversing with other groups without first establishing it. You want to communicate as a peer in the field, not a lost student. Second, there may be existing histories that you don't know about - individuals that are better avoided, favours owed, etc. Third, if your supervisor is on the cusp of patenting something, he may not want other people to know what he has his students working on just yet. Fourth, you only get so many "phone a friend" cards. If you contact outside researchers too often, at some point it becomes a collaboration, or they just stop getting back to you. Fifth, it can really help to have a well-formed question in mind when you contact someone. Asking for help with a specific question is more likely to get a response than asking for general help with a project that's not someone else's responsibility.

    4. Authorship
      In most cases with students, even though it feels like you're doing most of the work on your own, your supervisor is often a big part of the experimental design, and puts in a lot of time reviewing your work, conducting independent analysis and offering feedback. Most reputable journals have guidelines on what constitutes authorship, and so it's a good idea to go through these for the journals you read on a regular basis.

      That said, there is a political dimension to these things. We'd have our heads buried in the sand if we pretended that no one ever finagled their way onto a paper they did not deserve to be on. Unfortunately as a student, it can be difficult to stand up against such circumstances when the people abusing their privilege have such power over the future of your career. Choose your battles wisely.

    5. Teaching Duties
      In most cases student TAs are paid for "face time" only - at least in my experience. Prep and marking are on your own. It might be worth asking around to see if you're the only one in this situation or not. If it is unique to you, you might want to think about ways of streamlining your workload. If part of the added time is just that you have to review basic physics, well, that's one reason students are hired as TAs in the first place.

    6. The qualifications of other people your supervisor hires
      This one isn't really worth spending much mental bandwidth worrying about, considering everything else on your plate.

    Anyway, I hope some of this helps. If things get really bad, you can always find a different school/supervisor. That flushes a lot of time away, I know, but beware of the sunken cost effect.
  6. Dec 19, 2016 #5
    Hi Choppy,

    Many thanks for your reply.

    1. I will try to socialize with different groups of people, and have already tried to do so.

    2. Most of what you say is true and makes perfect sense. However, in this case my supervisor does not have knowledge of my topic, and I am not exaggerating. He really has not read one single article related to my research. I am not pulling your leg when I say this. I have already made a proposal I ran past my supervisor. He did not read it. I have also already requested for weekly meetings, but it is just me telling what I did and then he says he has to get back to work. Further, every week I try to summarize everything I did with bullet points and figures and send it to him before the meeting, but he never reads those either.

    3. I suppose I agree, but to be honest I need to figure something out. I can not continue like this.

    4. I think you are right. To be honest, I do not mind adding names on a paper. I suppose the real problem is the fact that it will be many times harder to try and publish alone. From what I understand, he also does not read people's paper drafts (I heard this from another student who abandoned his publication due to lack of support).

    5. You're right, TA work is good for learning. In this case, I was very familiar with the topic already, and from what I understand most TA workloads are less than 10 hours.

    6. That's true, but I can not really help to notice the amount of people getting ignored.

    Somewhat extra disappointment comes from the fact that I had a very promising career ahead of me before I came here. I had been working in research during my undergraduate and I co-authored three publications (my part was mostly on technical things, but still). I worked in a really good, welcoming team where everyone was going forward rapidly, and I had very good grades.
  7. Dec 19, 2016 #6


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    So here's my $63,000 question. How did you choose your advisor, and this particular advisor, in the first place? Did you choose him, or were you assigned to him?

    I have seen situations like this before, and that was why I spent time writing down about this in my "So You Want To Be A Physicist" guide. I know there were people who were skeptical that something like this can occur, but you've just added to my argument that it does! Considering that this is the person who controls your academic, and possibly your career, future, it is imperative that a student spends time and effort to select someone suitable.

    The only option I can think of right now is to see if you have the ability to switch advisor. Of course, this will depend heavily on finding someone who is familiar with your research area, and someone you can get along with better than the one you have now. But then again, your current advisor isn't an expert in your research area from what I gathered (how agreed to let you pursue this line of research in the first place boggles my mind). So it can't be any worse.

  8. Dec 19, 2016 #7
    You've gotten some good advice. Listen to it.
  9. Dec 19, 2016 #8


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    Some more questions come to mind: how did you decide on your current project? Although rare, in my experience it's not unheard of for a student to propose a research topic and the supervisor to let him or her run with it. Some supervisors prefer to let the student sink or swim on his or her own and then only act as a lifeguard. Personally I think this is a bad idea if the project lies in an area where the supervisor isn't well read, but I suppose that's beside the point. The question that arises for me is if you can't change supervisors, can you change topics? Can you find something that's perhaps an offshoot of what you're working on now that aligns better with your supervisor's area of expertise.

    The other point that I feel needs to be made is that you're encountering obstacles right now - not a complete career roadblock. You'll find a way through all of this.
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