Advice needed

Laura Pyle llp2 at ACPUB.DUKE.EDU
Tue Mar 25 17:52:50 EST 1997


Hello,

I'm fairly new to this newsgroup, but I've been impressed with the quality
of responses that requests for advice have received in the past, so I
thought this might be a good place to turn now that I need advice. My
problem/question is rather lengthy and involved, so I apologize in advance,
but I really need some OBJECTIVE advice.

I'm a first year PhD student, and am having problems with my advisor.  When
I originally applied to this department, I came to talk to a research
professor whose work I was interested in.  She told me that she could not be
my major advisor, because of lack of funding and because research professors
are not allowed to serve as advisors, but that her employer, a tenured
professor here, might be able to be my advisor, and I would still be able to
work on the project that had caught my interest.  I spoke to the tenured
professor, who agreed to take me on and fund me as a research assistant.
However, we had several weeks of negotiations during which he tried to get
me to accept a stipend which was lower than what other students typically
receive.  In fact, because I was convinced that this was my first choice
school, I agreed to accept a lower stipend.  The professor said that he
couldn't afford more, since he already had five or six grad students and was
taking on three more that year.  Luckily, the department intervened and
insisted he pay me the regular amount, which he agreed to.  During this
time, I talked to several of his current grad students, who were disgruntled
for various reasons.

Once I arrived, my advisor made it clear that I needed to find my own
funding (through outside fellowships or some other source) as soon as
possible.  Late in my first semester I did manage to receive a fellowship
from a government agency, which would pay my stipend and fees for three
years (tuition was waived by the school).  This was not part of a regular
fellowship competition, such as those held by NSF, but was really a sort of
grant for a specific project, which would serve as my dissertation.  I
managed to get the contract by discussing the project with agency contacts
made through the research professor.  The problem is that the amount of
money that will go to my stipend (about $18,000 a year) is larger than what
I had been receiving in the past ($14,000).  My advisor said that the
difference should go to him, because it was inappropriate for a grad student
to receive so much.  I asked several people in administration who had
handled student fellowships before, and none said that this amount was out
of the ordinary.  After I presented my advisor with this information, he
said that if I received the money he would need to be reimbursed for the
fees he had paid for me during the past year.

Besides these money problems, there are other problems that I and the other
grad students are having with him.  He provides very little advice- some
students have gone six months without speaking to him.  Not one of the eight
students (some of whom have been here as long as 7 years and are nowhere
close to finishing) has graduated in the last six years.  Several of his
past students have left the lab, either dropping out with an MS or changing
advisors.  The other two students who entered grad school at the same time I
did are also considering transferring or leaving...  In addition, I have
heard stories from other grad students about things he's done that are
ethically questionable, although I have no proof that they are true.

To get to my question, I would like to know how unusual or bad these
experiences are compared to the typical grad student's; are things like this
typical of the system and likely to happen at any school?  I'd also like to
hear people's opinions as to what I should do; the two options I'm
considering at this point are to stick it out or to try to transfer to
another school.  Transferring would most likely involve moving, there's no
guarantee things would be any better, and unfortunately, at this time of
year, most schools are at the end of an admissions cycle and it might be
that I'd have to wait a year to apply.  However, I'm afraid to invest much
more time in this program, just to get through another year and find it's
absolutely impossible to deal with my advisor.  In addition, it's likely
that the research professor, who is absolutely crucial to the success of my
project and has provided moral support, may have to leave within a year or two.

Would it be ethical to try to transfer now that I have informally agreed to
work on this project funded by the government agency (although I have not
signed any sort of contract nor have I received any money)?  If it is a good
idea to transfer, what would be the best way to approach prospective new
advisors?

Thanks for your advice,
Laura Pyle




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