Academia Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for academics and those enrolled in higher education. It's 100% free, no registration required.

Sign up
Here's how it works:
  1. Anybody can ask a question
  2. Anybody can answer
  3. The best answers are voted up and rise to the top

My advisor is a brilliant new professor and my efforts don't seem to impress him.

When I show him something in person, we always have a very careful intensive discussion for hours. But he does make comments which seem to indicate that he doesn't think much of my abilities. Or he says that I am being very slow and that this stuff shouldn't have been taking months.

I think I work as hard as I can.

What can I do about this situation?

share|improve this question
Would you give a little more details about my efforts don't seem to impress him? The current question is too vague to answer. – scaaahu Apr 2 '14 at 2:42
For example, after you told him some research results you obtained recently, what did he say? Did he give you constructive critisms? Or just say this is no good, go back and redo it. That kind of thing. – scaaahu Apr 2 '14 at 3:07
I'd recommend changing the title btw. You're jumping to what I think is an unfounded conclusion (based on what you've told us). A more accurate title would be "How do deal with the fear that my advisor thinks I'm not smart" – Suresh Apr 2 '14 at 6:14
How new is your "brilliant new prof"? If you're one of his first grad students he might not have learned yet what is reasonable to expect from a student. Brilliance in an academic field doesn't necessarily make him a brilliant manager. – The Photon Apr 3 '14 at 5:32
You're being emotional, that's not a good tack, you're in this for the long haul, just stay focused and thick-skinned, your "brilliant" guy is most likely average with no social skills. – PatrickT Apr 3 '14 at 8:33

It sounds like you are interpreting your advisor's comments about how your work is going as an indication that your advisor doesn't think you're smart or capable.

However, that's not necessarily what it means at all. It's only human for an advisor to express some occasional disappointment about how the work is going. (Every advisor thinks the work should be going faster!!! It's practically in the advisor rulebook.)

And some people (unfortunately) express criticism more often than they express praise. This could just be your advisor's style.

It's not necessarily an indication of what your advisor thinks about you as a student and researcher.

So in answer to your question of "How to deal with this?":

Instead of inferring what your advisor thinks of your abilities from his comments about your work, ask him directly what he thinks of your abilities!

Ask your advisor: "How am I doing, in general? What areas do I need to improve in? What strengths do I have that I can play up?"

This is your chance to find out what your advisor sees in you, get some constructive criticism about your research skills in general (not about your current project). It's also a chance for you to tell your advisor how you think you're doing, and correct any misperceptions he may have about how hard you are working or how long the work should take.

share|improve this answer
+1. This is excellent advice in any situation where you're working with a supervisor. – keshlam Apr 3 '14 at 12:32

You said:

brilliant new prof

A new professor is under pressure to produce results quickly. It's entirely possible that some of what you're sensing is a consequence of this.

But you also say:

he does make comments which seem to indicate that he doesn't think much of my abilities.

Without more specifics, it's hard to know whether (as @ff524 says) you're interpreting criticism of work as criticism of you.

And finally, you say:

he says that I am being very slow and that this stuff shouldn't have been taking months

Should it ? We have no idea what kind of work you're doing, and how long it should take. Maybe your advisor is right. Maybe he's completely wrong because he doesn't understand how much effort it actually takes.

At any rate, your first step has to be to talk to your advisor to understand what he wants from you. It sounds like he's willing to spend time talking to you, so make use of it.

Any advisor-advisee relationship has an adjustment period where both individuals get used to the other's habits, rhythms and style of operation, and a level of trust starts to build. It sounds like you're in that phase, so keep lines of communication open and try not to interpret comments as personal criticism without clarification.

share|improve this answer
"subjects that excite me and don't excite him" is how it is expected to be. "he thought I was being overambitious" - he might very well be right. "many of my close friends work on.." - that's not a terrible reason to find something interesting, but it's not a great one either. – Suresh Apr 2 '14 at 6:13
@user6818 "when even this takes you so much time why do you even think of that" - it sounds to me like he doesn't want you to be distracted by going off in new directions instead of making progress on your current work. – ff524 Apr 2 '14 at 6:16
A new professor is under pressure to produce results quickly. — Also, many new profs, especially "brilliant new profs", have a hard time realising that they were not typical students. The high standards that they set for themselves now may be unrealistic for most students. In short: Even if he does think that you aren't very smart (which is not at all clear), your advisor may simply be wrong. – JeffE Apr 2 '14 at 14:12
I believe the further you get, the less in touch you are with how long something should take. My advisor complained often about how long some things took for me to do, but when I had everything done and it was time for job market, he exclaimed that I had done a ton of work during my PhD. Don't project him not thinking you're smart, as after this I think I ended up with the respect of my advisor. It might just be some advisor tricks which help flesh out better speed and results. My advisor has put some pressure on me somewhat artificially at times and I had some better results to show for it! – T K Apr 2 '14 at 16:00
I also suggest talking to your professor face-to-face instead of just e-mailing him. When you e-mail him, he only has one chance to respond to everything you said, and it's more difficult for you to say what you think about his responses. When you're talking to him face-to-face, if he answers any of your questions in a way that doesn't make sense or that you disagree with, you can continue the conversation immediately. – Kevin Apr 3 '14 at 1:09

I'm going to suggest something harder than anyone else has suggested, but which will pay off bigger dividends for the rest of your life. Start working now on disconnecting your opinion of yourself from (your perception of) others' opinions of you.

Right now, you have someone you really respect, who, you think, doesn't have a great deal of respect for you. The best reaction you could have, which is in no way easy, is to completely objectify that observation. Pretend you are someone else, observing the two of you. The prof might be a brilliant jerk. You might actually not be nearly as smart as the prof. People are different, after all. This could just be a fact. But when you are looking at it emotionally it brings up fear of inadequacy, etc, etc, etc. If you objectify it, however--pretend you are a Vulcan for a minute--you can see practical paths forward.

What are the practical things you can do? It sounds like you are already working as hard as you know how to. There might be ways you can work smarter. If you were someone else looking in, you might suggest to yourself that you ask your prof "I interpreted this comment you made--'when this takes you so long, why would you even think of that'--to mean that you don't think I'm making rapid enough progress. Is that interpretation correct? I think I'm working as hard as I can. Do you think there might be strategies I could use that would improve my productivity?" Just one example. The idea is to extract yourself from the emotional tangle and just say "well, if this is the case, how can I use the prof as a resource to improve the situation?".

Your life is going to be full of people who you will perceive to either respect or not respect you. Spending effort on figuring out who does or doesn't respect you, and trying to do things specifically to make people respect you, is a huge, frustrating, waste of time. I know, I know, I know, that it is very hard to stop doing. But when you find yourself in this situation, maybe you can think "this is an opportunity to work on caring less about peoples' impression of me, and just focusing on doing the best work I can."

The payoff for this is immense. Personal relationships will improve. You interactions with other people will be more genuine. Ironically, in the end, people will respect you a lot more.

The body of work you do while working under this advisor is going to be your work. If you're doing good work, there will be someone at some point that recognizes that and you will get the practical results out of that which you need to further your career, even if your advisor never thinks you were that good. Therefore, the more you are able to focus on making your work the best it can be, the better it will be for your career.

Try as hard as you can to not care about his opinion of you, and focus on making your work the best that it can be. In the end, after all, that's the best way to make his opinion improve--but that is not guaranteed. Your prof, as I suggested earlier, may be a brilliant jerk. You may possibly just not be as smart as him, period. He might never even be impressed that you worked hard even though you were not as naturally talented [btw--this is a very viable path to tremendous success. Hard work with a little talent will very, very often beat little work with a lot of talent.].

There is some sense in which his opinion of you is completely out of your control. Try to get yourself in the mindset that it is completely out of your control, and that you need to focus on doing your work the best you possibly can.

When you are sure you are doing that, your prof will make his decision--maybe a fair one, maybe not--about whether to respect you or not. But the important thing is that you will respect yourself. And if you have learned to work as hard as you can and not worry about what other people think of you, you will have learned something of inestimable value. It's a hard thing to learn, but you've got a great opportunity to do so, right in front of you. So get to work :).

share|improve this answer
+1 Although I liked this answer very much (and upvoted it) the Vulcan reference gives a nerdy tone, which is unfair to the the answer's quality. – Alexandros Apr 2 '14 at 14:50
Separation of self from work is good advice. An anecdote from a completely unrelated field comes from Tom Kite, the American professional golfer, who said he got great advice from his teacher:"Golf is what you do, not who you are." – Chris Leary Apr 2 '14 at 21:34
+1 Upvoted specifically for having a reference to Vulcans. Archetypes are useful. – Gustav Bertram Apr 3 '14 at 8:58
+1 and @Alexandros: the reference does not undermine the post's quality, and was not heavily insisted upon. One would have to really specifically hate nerdy references for it to (subjectively) impair one's ability to judge the rest of the post's content. – biohazard Apr 4 '14 at 7:10

We need more context, but perhaps your adviser actually thinks highly of your abilities.

he says that I am being very slow and that this stuff shouldn't have been taking months.

If I think your IQ is 150, and you are showing 130 level on a given problem, I would show disappointment in your performance: "Are you trying hard enough? This is taking too long". However, if I thought your IQ level was 100, I would be praising you: "You are doing great!".

The above might not be the case of course, but I it is something to keep in mind.

share|improve this answer
My eye rolled for just a second when I saw IQ points, but this is actually a very useful, insightful answer. In academia, the amount of criticism you get depends on others' perceptions of your abilities in a very complicated way. Many people reserve their sharpest criticism for students whom they believe to be very talented but not living up to their potential (or not as much as previously, even). Criticizing very weak students often just seems cruel. On the other hand, dropping a student sends a different message. – Pete L. Clark Jun 14 '14 at 18:03
@Pete L. Clark Thanks, yeah I know the IQ point might've been too simplistic, as IQ does not correlate with research that much. E.g Richard Feynman had an estimated IQ of 125 and had no problems with his research. – Akavall Jun 17 '14 at 3:46

First I would try and push more communication. If you're not telling him what you're actually doing everyday then maybe he's just underestimating you. If you are communicating exactly what you're doing: (experiment X got messed up because of this, or I can't figure out why experiment B is showing this result, it took me 3 months to clarify this so that I could move forward...etc) then it's both really hard for you and your professor to gauge whether you're actually spending too much time on these topics.

Some Suggestions:

  • Maybe he can follow you in the lab for a day and see what you're doing? He could potentially offer advice on how to speed up your work day.
  • Provide weekly updates of what you've achieved that week. This can be helpful not only for him, but also for you. It helps to keep a kind of diary.

However, if more communication does not help to strengthen your relationship with your PI and you've been there for less than a year, I'd consider jumping boat. Try looking for another professor that you connect better with. This can be a very tricky situation.

Lastly, since you sound kind of new and like you may not have a lot of other graduate friends, I'd consider suggesting buying a book on getting your PhD and the process of getting it. There are some good books out there on the topic...

share|improve this answer
I agree with "get a book," strongly disagree with the specific book you suggest. I recommend – ff524 Apr 2 '14 at 6:34
I agree.... I couldn't think of a better one off hand. Yours is by far better! – Sean Apr 3 '14 at 7:04

With so little information there is no way to know what does (s)he mean and what is the problem or solution, e.g. maybe the point is that you could use some help to work faster, maybe from an undergrad student.

You have to divide the task that is taking months into smaller tasks to clearly see:

  • where your supervisor and you don't agree on the times that it takes.
  • where you could use some help or the task could be divided into different tasks, with more specialized people.
  • where you could use a different approach.
  • what is the cause of the disagreement in the time that is required for that thing.

You may be even working on something that you should not, investing too much time in something that is not important enough to invest that time. Maybe that time should be invested in a different set of activities if it is going to take so long. You want to produce results and impact, and your supervisor probably wants that as well, it should be easy to agree.

Without more details about the kind of work that you are doing I don't think a better answer is possible.

I'd suggest something different to what everybody is suggesting. Try to be as fast and efficient as you can, try to get feedback from your supervisor about how to achieve that and what is exactly the problem, that will probably be the best for your career.

If your supervisor cannot be specific on the problems that (s)he vaguely points out and cannot advise on how to overcome them, then your supervisor is not competent at supervising/advising and you will have a good reason to try to switch to a different supervisor or finish asap or whatever is your best chance to get rid of your (incompetent) supervisor.

Remember, don't assume your supervisor doesn't like you and don't assume any incompetence on either side. Try to find the cause of the problem and discrepancy in time estimations and try to find a solution. I can't think of a more constructive approach.

share|improve this answer

Your advisor is probably smarter than 95% of grad students in your department, so it's normal for him to think you are stupid. He's probably comparing your performance to how he would perform on similar tasks, so if he could do something in a week, he expects you to be able to do it in a week. Eventually he will supervise more students and lower his expectations, but since he is new it is natural for him to have higher standards.

If you're already working as hard as you can, the best you can do is keep doing what you're doing, and be glad that you've found a professor who's so smart.

share|improve this answer

I once apologized to my advisor. He replied, "Don't apologize to me - I don't care whether you do what you say you will do. Apologize to yourself. It's your own goals you aren't achieving, not mine. I am only here to help you achieve them."

I start with this because I don't believe you should be trying to impress your advisor. You should be trying to impress yourself. Find a problem you want to solve, something that is difficult, but you are wildly interested in, and prove to yourself that you are one of the best in the world in your field. Strive for truth. Seek the hidden solution. Uncover mysteries. And in doing so, build up the skills relevant to your field.

It is an old wisdom that someone will start to respect you on the day when you have proven to yourself that you no longer require their respect. Your advisor can be a great asset, but they are not a crutch for you to feel good about yourself... true self-worth comes from within, not externally.

At the same time, I agree that it certainly brightens our day to be told a "great job" every now and then by the certain people in your life. I found a new level of scrutiny at MIT, where best is normal, excellence is mediocre, and good is frowned upon. A compliment can be hard to come by. "Oh, you've just invented a new algorithm to solve an unsolved problem in Massive Open Online Courses? Nice. But did you hear about so-and-so right down the hall who just invented a robotic microchip that resides in your blood stream and is the next big thing in curing cancer?"

When you hear stuff like this, or when you feel like you aren't smart enough, or you feel like your advisor doesn't believe in you... you know what? Who cares!? You do you, but don't cheat yourself. If you know you can do better, be better. If you know you the problem is deeper, think harder.

Learn to heed your advisor's advice. Glean everything you can from him/her. Watch how they work, and how they manipulate their environment to their advantage. Emulate them, iteratively improve on their methods, and then create a better version for yourself.

If however, your advisor is actively affecting your career, by giving bad recommendations or not supporting you in collaborations or future jobs, you need to have a discussion with them. Your advisor should help promote your future, and if your relationship is parasitism or commensalism, you are both losing.

Hopefully, that's not the case and assuming it is not, full steam ahead regardless of what your advisor thinks. Remind yourself that you chose to do this; and although you have to meet some criteria for achievement, grad school is very much for you. So use this time for yourself. Become the researcher you've dreamed of becoming. Don't lose the big picture of the leader you want to become. And above all, "earn the right to be proud of yourself, first for yourself, then the world will follow" - a quote from my advisor, Isaac L. Chuang.

share|improve this answer

Your Answer


By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.