This is going to register so close to home for some of you since you may be in this situation right now.
Your adviser is a wanderer. Brilliant, full of ideas but never focused to stay on completing tasks. Let me make the assumption that you are a PhD student on a research assistantship that your adviser has worked hard to secure for you. Here’s what your life might look like: Your adviser assigned you a project of some sort and then two weeks later she walks in with another great idea and every few months or so, another idea emerges. You are so caught up in the fun of trying new things, 3 years go by quickly. You have very little to show for in terms of progress. You have moved from one project to another. Don’t get me wrong here: You are probably learning a lot on this journey! But, you have not written any of these projects into a paper for submission to a peer reviewed journal because you’ve been busy trying new things. Neither you or your adviser have paid close attention to the courses that you should be taking. You are merely taking research credits or the odd class here and there because every day is an endless ream of ideas. Can you relate to this? As I travel the country and provide Professional Development seminars, students explain such a scenario (in private of course!).
How do you navigate such an adviser. Enter grit, determination and sheer persistence.
First, make sure that you pay close attention to the courses. Fill out our program of study (POS), pick your committee members after discussing with your adviser and get the POS signed. Make sure that you complete these courses on time based on departmental guidelines.
Next, write your research proposal and get your adviser to review it and provide comments. Let your committee review this and finalize the research proposal. Now regardless of all the ‘side’ projects you are working on, you can focus on the main research project. You have to persist through this stage since your adviser will continue to veer into new ideas.
Next, make sure that if your department requires a comprehensive/qualifying/preliminary exam, you set up the time line and then proactively work towards completing the exam.
Here is the important part. Realize that your adviser is never going to stop being a firehose of information and ideas. Receive the ideas but prioritize them. If you show good progress on your main research project then you can continue to place the new projects as a lower priority.
This is also important. It is your turn to become creative and move towards your end goal. Write that first paper since nothing excites an adviser to see new results. Write your results section for the new paper and then wrap the rest of the paper around it. You’ll be surprised how quickly you’ll get on track. I’ve had to use some of these tactics in my graduate school days.
In this endless stream of ideas, chaos and research, your priorities for your research and career must come shining through. If you are not proactive you will end up staying too long for your PhD, worse still get disillusioned and may be tempted to quit the program.