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I am a 6th year Ph.D. student in the sciences. The typical duration of a Ph.D. in my program at my institution is 5 years. I am months away from finishing the last component of my research; however, issues have arisen.

I am having strong doubts that my advisor cares about my success in my future career. In addition, she is forcing me to graduate in 2 months. While I myself would very much like to graduate as early as possible, I am faced with a series of challenges:
1. There is unfinished research work. While I'm not trying to solve the problem at hand completely, I do wish to produce something of quality, and for the manuscript under preparation to have a reasonable chance of being accepted.
2. I wish to spend adequate time preparing my thesis.
3. I need time to prepare postdoc and job application materials.

While someone as capable as my advisor may be able to finish all these in the time allotted, knowing myself, these tasks will take more than two months for me. And yes, I've discussed this with her many times, and she has been quite adamant about not financially supporting me after two months.

Recently, she has also asked me to withdraw my paper in a respected international conference, which has been accepted and selected for a meritorious award.

My specific questions are:

  1. As a student, I may not understand the rationale of the decisions of my advisor, who is not only technically competent but abreast of the research community. However, I am having strong doubts that my advisor is advising in my best interest. I've had several arguments with her about the remaining work and I feel even if I do somehow defend my Ph.D., we will be on negative terms thereafter. Is it uncommon for Ph.D. students to leave on less-than-amicable terms with their advisor?

  2. One of the options I've thought of is changing research advisors. However, I'd rather not change my research topic - the scope of my dissertation research has been approved my Committee after all. So, is it likely that a faculty member would be willing to serve as the Chairman of my committee in a topic only peripherally related to his/her expertise? As my advisor is senior in her field, I'd think a junior faculty member is unlikely to take on this role, in avoiding any run-ins with my advisor. Are there other considerations I've missed that may discourage a senior faculty member from agreeing to be my Chairman? (The university department is usually able to provide funding to students in their final semesters, so financial support may not be an issue.) And my committee members are either junior faculty or close collaborators with my advisor, so I doubt any of them would be willing to replace my advisor as the Chairman. Should my new advisor approve of my work, he/she may also serve a reference, which I will very much need for my upcoming job search.

Thank you. All advice is surely welcome.

1 Answer 1

I'm sorry to hear about your situation. I had to change my Ph.D. advisor (and I'm very glad I did), but it was in the early phase of my dissertation process. I'm quite surprised by your "discovery" about a potential of your advisor not caring about your career. Firstly, it is unlikely (why would she "tolerate" you for 5+ years then?). Secondly, if your advisor would truly not care about your career, it should have been pretty clear early in your collaboration, so either your assumption is not true, or you paid no attention to this aspect at all, which is quite difficult to believe in.

Anyway, in regard to your potential actions. I strongly recommend you to consider all possibilities to avoid changing your advisor, considering how far are you in the program. Changing an advisor is not only a administrative / logistical nightmare, but, if it would require you to start your research from the scratch or almost from the scratch, it would be extremely depressing, to say the least.

If you could save five years of work and life by defending your dissertation and graduating, even if parting with your advisor not very amicably, I would say that it is worth a serious consideration. The two obvious dangers in this case would be: 1) being able to defend dissertation successfully; 2) potential problems with obtaining a recommendation letter from your advisor (she could either decline, or give a negative or not so positive one). The second aspect is quite important, as your postgraduate applications, not listing your dissertation advisor as a referee, might raise quite a lot of eyebrows, with potentially negative consequences in regard to your postdoctoral offers / career.

You have to carefully think about all these (and other) aspects, consider feedback from people here and your own environment, but, ultimately, only you can decide the best course of action, based on various details, known to you only, as well as your gut feeling, as some new research suggests.

Regardless of what you decide on the subject and how you part with your advisor, I wish you to successfully graduate and achieve your professional and personal goals in the future. Be strong in staying your courses, but flexible in ways of reaching your destinations. Or, as Lao Tzu has said,

Nothing is softer or more flexible than water, yet nothing can resist it.