Don’t waste my time


Alice and her friends answer questions that you don’t want to ask your preceptor, peer, or colleagues regarding your career in science.

Dear Alice,

“Do NOT tell her that her ‘pet project’ is ‘going nowhere fast.’ ”—Alice

I am a doctoral candidate in my fourth year of studies, and I am just now starting to make real progress on a project that is interesting to me. My thesis adviser, however, is pressuring me to focus on her pet project, which I think is going nowhere fast. What’s more, she has a reputation for making her students go in circles and spend extra years in school, which is dreadful. I’m confident that my project will work out, and I don’t want to waste my time on her half-baked ideas. How can I balance my desire to get results with my need to please my adviser?

– Frustrated in New York

Dear Frustrated,

Your situation is not uncommon. The best answer is to compromise and spend time on both projects until it becomes apparent which will best satisfy the Ph.D. requirements. Sometimes the two projects can complement each other.

Another approach is to utilize your thesis committee, if you have one. (Not everyone does.) This approach, I have found, works well for both students and advisers. Although these committees are often perfunctory, they can be called upon just to solve problems like yours. The committee’s responsibility is to monitor the student’s progress and make sure that training does not take longer than necessary. They can, if asked, guide the student and adviser to select an appropriate project.

Thesis committees are especially helpful when there are differences of opinion on whether to drop a project or when it is appropriate to stop doing experiments and start writing the thesis. Usually, committee discussions are constructive and cordial. Committees have been known, occasionally, to rescue a graduate student from an abusive adviser or to give that extra push to a student who appears to be intent on remaining a student forever.

If it doesn’t work out, you may have to switch labs and start over again. You’ll lose some time, but it won’t be the end of the world.

– Alice

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