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Supervisor Problem

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    • Thread Starter

    I am currently one and a half years into a PhD, but I'm worried my supervisor and I may not be on the same page.

    First the backstory: my intention is to head into industry with my work once I have completed the PhD rather than move into academia. Through a combination of a huge gap in knowledge for the industry I'm studying and a need to take a new degree to adapt my first degree to the field, I pursued and was fortunately accepted for a doctorate, which from my perspective continues to be tremendously worthwhile, and I am very pleased with the findings and progress I am making – as too is the industry I plan to move into. From my work in the first year alone I have been offered a number of jobs in the field this past year, so I feel I am in a strong position right now. Whilst I could abandon the doctorate and head into the field, I strongly want to stay with it to complete my research (both for my own enrichment, and a sense that it will really have an impact on my industry, its practice, and its academic study), something that I wouldn’t be able to do if I entered employment.

    Because of that goal, I have consistently repeated my desire (through many jumping-through-hoops papers to faculty boards and the like) to keep my project interest where it will have practical application to my field, and I first approached my (then potential) supervisor for her experience in this. However, for my supervisor, I’ve found this experience comes second to her own pet area of high level theory (read: intelligent and interesting for explanation, with very little practical value).

    For the past year I have pursued this line of approach hopeful that it would provide insight, but over the past few weeks I've come to accept that it will not be useful for me. Yet I think my supervisor considers it the core theory to my work, something I think has only recently become clear to me. Just as Bruce Willis watched a montage of clues whizz past his eyes that he's been dead all along, it seems so too have I had re-revealed to me the clues that my supervisor and I weren't meeting eye to eye without either of us realising it. I should say I do not have any ill-will towards my supervisor, I just think we’ve ended up in a bit of a mess.

    I’m not entirely sure how to deal with this problem. I don’t know whether to run with my supervisor’s theory, which will risk me losing relevance and employment prospects with my industry, or to reject the theory and risk losing the PhD. Not to mention the awful anxiety of simply discussing the situation with my supervisor.

    (Original post by PoeWrote)
    I’m not entirely sure how to deal with this problem. I don’t know whether to run with my supervisor’s theory, which will risk me losing relevance and employment prospects with my industry, or to reject the theory and risk losing the PhD. Not to mention the awful anxiety of simply discussing the situation with my supervisor.
    Why, have you had negative experiences with that in the past? Surely trying to talk this over with your supervisor and trying to give her your reasons why, after having tried it for a year, you don't think her pet core theory actually works for your project would be the best way to resolve this? If you can, though, you should probably avoid mentioning the fact that you want to go into industry afterwards, because clearly that's not a good reason in her eyes, but focus on the other reasons why another approach would work better for you, i.e. try to convince her you're not just rejecting her approach because you're hell-bent on selling your soul to industry but because there are valid reasons to do so.

    Put aside the anxiety and simply discuss it with your supervisor. Preface the conversation with an explanation that you are about to raise a difficult topic, and you are nervous about doing so. She will fear the worst and be relieved when it's 'just' your concerns about methodology, and not some awful disclosure eg you have been sexually harassed by one of her colleagues.

    Before you do this, try to see this from the perspective of the supervisor and try to figure out why you are at odds. Without knowing the subject in question, it's hard to know exactly where the problem might lie, but it sounds a bit like she might be concerned that you will deliver a thesis that doesn't have a sufficient grounding in theoretical concepts. Your goal is a career which enables you to put the practical elements of your thesis to good use; her goal is to get you to pass your viva. Maybe she's worried that you won't put your practical work into a sufficiently rigorous and detailed critical context.

    Whatever she says, though, this will be your PhD - it's your career and your name on the cover, not hers (also - she's not going to examine it!) So if you really think that the two of you are at odds, I'd suggest you go with your gut. It's better to try your best and fail, than to follow someone else's advice, that you were never comfortable with, and then have them to blame. You must be prepared to stand on your own record, not someone else's.

    Do you have a second supervisor, or independent tutor, who you can ask for a second opinion? That might be a sensible next step.

    Edit: Also, the very fact that you have followed her approach for a year and found it unsuitable might be worthy of mention in the thesis itself. That would be daring but fun.

    If your project is so important to industry then get them to pay for. Otherwise accept that no academic is going to work on something they find boring/unpublishable just because a student thinks it will help their private sector career. There are many channels such as consultancy and co-funded studentships where private industry pays for academic expertise, universities do not exist to provide this service for free.

    To be honest, it sounds like you should have either done a Masters instead, or got an industry-funded doctorate. However if you are going to persist in your current PhD then you should tell your supervisor that you are unhappy with your project and discuss other things you could work on (either with him or someone else in the department). Its not uncommon for PhD students to dislike their research and there should be some channels to address this - either you and your supervistor trying to transition your work towards something you enjoy more, or (in the worst case) moving supervistor.

    However, it is extremely unlikely that you are going to find someone to help you with your pet project unless you can make a strong academic research case for it and convince others that it is the sort of thing that coule be published in a respectable journal ('private companies are interested' does not make something a legitimate academic research project). Its fine being unhappy with research which lacks practical value (this is a totally legitimate complaint) but you need to be prepared to compromise; there is a lot of middle ground between 'pure abstract research' and 'ultra specific topics which directly address private sector needs', and most academic research exists in this space. So if you really hate your current project you could try and find a different one, just be aware that its unlikely to be the specific thing that you want to work on, and that you are probably going to have to go along with someone else's broad research agenda.

    As an aside, I dont know your field but generally private industry doesnt care about the precise topic you covered in your PhD dissertation, they just want smart people with relevant PhDs from good universities. As long as your PhD area is broadly relevant to the field you should have decent employment prospects (condiitonal on other factors), you dont need to actually do your dissertation on some precise topic since its highly unlikely that you would find a company who would employ you to do that exact specific thing anyway.
    • Thread Starter

    Thank you so much, nonswimmer and hobnob - really great advice. It's a funny situation when you know you have the answers in the back of your mind but don't know whether to listen to them, and very much relief when others articulate them for you.

    The anxiety really isn't because of any bad experience, just my own nervousness! There's that horrid feeling of a year having been wasted (of course, it really hasn't. I've made far more progress than I could have even hoped for a year ago). My rationality needed a booster, I think.

    So, head in with allusions to sexual harassment, then back up to disagreements over methodology. Brilliant, haha. The university equivalent of "Mum, I'm pregnant - only joking, I failed math." I think you're entirely right that it's my supervisor wanting to make sure I have the right theoretical grounding, I think the problem is just that there's too much of a push for her specific theory.

    I'm really taking your advice on board, and it's already really eased the worry. I think I need a sit down, some hot chocolate, and a far more calmer think about how to broach the subject.

    And poohat, thanks for your contribution, but I do know I'm right where I want to be in doing a doctorate. Just because something is of practical value does not make it boring or trivial, and my work has genuine academic value in addition to being relevant for a next-step to private industry. I think you misunderstand my problem; not that there is no theoretical grounding to my work (or that I think 'theory' is irrelevant, quite the opposite), just that the favourite theory of my supervisor is not the right one.

    (Original post by PoeWrote)
    And poohat, thanks for your contribution, but I do know I'm right where I want to be in doing a doctorate. Just because something is of practical value does not make it boring or trivial, and my work has genuine academic value in addition to being relevant for a next-step to private industry.
    Honestly with a few superstar exceptions, early PhD students usually have very little idea whether something is interesting in an academic sense, or could be published in a good journal. Thats why a PhD is a learning process; you dont start out as a good researcher, but you eventually become one. Its good that you believe your project is important and interesting, but perhaps you are not in as strong a position to make that call as you think you are. I'm trying not to be too patronising here, but it is common for early PhD students to think that they have done something really important, only to later discover that it has largely been done before, or that it fails to address current academic research concerns. Its good to have your own ideas, but the fact you apparently have no senior academics backing your proposal, and that your concerns are entirely motivated by private industry rather than addressing academic literature, makes me sceptical.

    On the other hand, if you have actually published something based on your work (or are about to do so), then ignore this post, since in that case you probably do have some idea what you're doing.

    edit: despite all this, I do agree with the other posters that you need to have an honest talk with your supervisor.
    • Thread Starter

    Ah, okay, I do understand your scepticism, and I very probably am under the spell of the typical student naivety as I make my way through that learning process, but I'd say your assumptions are incorrect. 'No senior academics' is wrong, as I've had good feedback from other faculty members and other academics in my field. The issue was rather that my supervisor, who has the most significant impact on my work beyond myself and who I hope to rely on to help me through the process, and I weren't matching up concerning the theoretical approach. There is, I'm sure, not one singularly correct approach. I wanted advice on dealing with a situation where my supervisor had already narrowed it to one approach, and where pursuing that line of inquiry would not fill the knowledge gap I'm addressing.

    Nor are my concerns motivated entirely by private industry as you say. This couldn't be further from the truth. I am very aware of the academic situation in relation to my subject and am attempting to fill a gap that other academics in the area have explicitly identified needs filling (a lack of industry experience is something which has been missing previously, and which I feel I am able to provide). Even if I was not heading into industry afterwards (which I did genuinely consider; I should also mention that after working within the industry I do at some point intend to return to academia), I would still see this as an area to address.

    So you see, I'm not just filling a gap I find personal (or profitable) to me. Following my supervisor's theoretical approach would produce work that may back that theory, but would not contribute to the gap other academics have identified.

    I appreciate your scepticism, but I don't think it's quite as doom and gloom as you're interpreting it (which I suppose is actually quite a good thing for me to realise).


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