MentorDoctor: Suffering From a Lack of Direction

Isabella Finkelstein

Dear MentorDoctor,

I am currently pursuing a Ph.D. in signal transduction in northwest Europe and need two more years to complete my degree. Although my adviser is a very understanding lady and always makes time to discuss problems with us, I feel she isn’t a good adviser. She isn’t up to date with the relevant literature--there have been several instances in which she has suggested I do an experiment that has already been done. Every week she comes up with a new idea, so my project suffers from a lack of direction. Due to unavoidable circumstances, I’m unable to change my adviser. What should I do?

Caught Between a Rock and a Hard Place

Isabella Finkelstein: Because you are unable to change advisers, I would make several suggestions.

Isabella Finkelstein is Professor of Biological Sciences, Department of Biological Sciences, Clark Atlanta University

  • I assume that you have a dissertation committee. You should call a committee meeting to review your project and discuss problems that you have encountered. Get collective thoughts about the direction for the next 2 years.

  • It is also your responsibility to be knowledgeable about relevant literature. Although sometimes it is important to repeat an experiment if you are building on the information, I hope you didn’t spend an inordinate amount of time doing an experiment that had already been done.

  • You need to define your project. At this point, you should have outlined in detail what is expected of you to complete the Ph.D. Get your adviser and committee to sign off on it. This should keep everyone focused. Good luck!

Thomas Landefeld is Professor of Biology, College of Natural and Behavioral Sciences, California State University-Dominguez Hills

Thomas Landefeld: You truly are in a tough situation. If you cannot switch advisers, then you probably cannot effectively discuss this issue with the chair. Perhaps the best thing for you to do is to “take the lead.” By that I mean whenever the two of you discuss projects, have all the pertinent and recent literature on hand. Also, outline some projects (or at least ideas) that could represent feasible projects. Don’t tell her these are what you want to do, but rather, suggest that these might work based on pertinent literature. If this does not work, you may have to seriously consider transferring to another program, either in the same university or another university. This should be your last resort, but it would be better than spending an inordinate amount of time on a project(s) without an ending. Good luck.

The GrantDoctor: I don't think your situation sounds all that bad, and it certainly doesn't sound unusual. Despite what they would like to believe, it's really quite common for PIs not to know the literature very well. Often as not, this is because the adviser has several projects going simultaneously and relies on students and postdocs to fill in the empty spots, or it might just be that they've lost a bit of interest in research. I was still in my second year of graduate school when I became aware that my topic knowledge had outstripped that of my adviser--who had a strong international reputation and some important papers in the field but was not the lead author on any of them. So what did I do? I took over the project. I figured out what we needed to do and proposed it to my PI. Most of the time he went along. I did the work, wrote it up, and published it in good journals.

I've heard many PIs talk about the importance of students gaining "ownership" of their work. I've even seen it in undergraduate labs. The case that comes to mind most strongly is that of a young woman--a college junior at the time—who, 6 weeks after starting out in an undergraduate laboratory, presented the work she had inherited at a regional research conference. She did brilliantly; after only 6 weeks, the work was already "hers." So how did she do it? Her intellectual gifts were modest in comparison to those of the most gifted scientists, but they were fully adequate. What this young researcher brought to the table was maturity and a proprietary approach to her work (class work and research) that I haven't seen before or since in someone so young. She was admitted to graduate programs at Caltech, Woods Hole, and three other top research institutions. She will do well.

So what's my point? My guess is that your adviser keeps proposing new topics every week because she thinks your work lacks direction. She tells you what she thinks you ought to be doing because you don't give her the impression that you already know exactly what to do. You've got to get past that.

It's time for you to take ownership of your work. It doesn't matter what your adviser knows or doesn't know. It doesn't matter how much of the literature she commands. She is just another scientist who happens to be older than you. If your work isn't up to par, it's not your adviser's fault. What matters is what you know, and the kind of work you do. Although not all advisers take well to this kind of independence, I suspect that your "understanding lady" will admire your maturity and take pride in your accomplishments.

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