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I am at the final point of my pretty satisfying PhD. I like working alone and I did not need constant supervision, and I had a pretty good relationship with my supervisor until now. I noticed in the past that when it was time to proof-read papers, it took EXTREMELY LONG TIME to do it, and almost always waited until the day of the deadline (however, it was always corrected at the end).

Now that it is time for my thesis, though, things are getting difficult. I sent the first experimental chapter more than one month ago, and it still hasn't been read, every time saying that there has some other deadline. I have been asking three times a week, and every time the the same thing is said. Of course, I don't find any pleasure in keep pressuring my supervisor, and I wish it was understood that it HAS to be done. I am afraid that it he takes 1+ month to check a chapter, it will take a year to read the whole stuff! In the meantime I have kept working on the thesis and I will finish writing the first draft soon, but it hasn't been corrected yet. I am not sure about the course of action here. How to deal with this situation?

Should I talk with the director of studies? Should I keep pressuring my supervisor? Should I give a deadline? If I decide to talk with the director of studies, should I tell my supervisor first?

The main point is that until now I have had a good relationship and I don't want to ruin it just now. However, I need to find a way to push to get the supervisor to complete the job.


Edit to add some related details from the comments:

  • I'm in the UK, and my research is in a field related to psychology.
  • My second supervisor is not involved in my project, and it wouldn't be appropriate for me to contact them for this question.
  • My scholarship ended a few months back, and I'm now being paid as a research assistant with my supervisor for a few more months.
  • All research work has been completed, the analysis are done, and I'm almost finished with writing. Changing departments is not an option.

EDIT: Thank you to everybody for your help. This is the way I proceeded: without mentioning to my supervisor about this chapter again, I just discussed about the timing to complete my PhD, mentioning that I plan to finish writing in around one month. This requires me to complete some bureaucratic paperwork soon, which means that we have to set up some deadlines, find examiners etc., which also means that my thesis will be corrected before a deadline. Since my supervisor works better with deadlines, I think that this method will work. Therefore, I ignored the particular problem about correcting the single chapter, and I used the main topic (finishing my PhD) as a way to get things rolling. Not sure if this is the best solution, but I think it may work for me. Thank you again, your support has been very appreciated.

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What did your supervisor say about the impact on your completion date when you discussed this with him? Is there any reason why you need him to read chapters separately, rather than just reading the whole thing? And is it normal in your department to only have one supervisor? – EnergyNumbers Mar 21 at 15:38
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I have a second supervisor which however I never interacted with. This is normal in my department. We never really discussed a completion date, but I wish to finish this year as I would like to move on with my life, and I expressed this to him many times. Finally, sending the Chapter separately is the way he asked me to proceed. – Vaaal Mar 21 at 15:40
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In that case, consider transfering departments: your department is failing you. Where is it? – EnergyNumbers Mar 21 at 16:12
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I am sure that @EnergyNumbers didn't mean to ask for that. They are probably asking about U.S. vs Italy, say, which impacts administrative structure, hierarchy, and possible actions taken; or maybe raise the possibility to have a math department person read a CS thesis, or some such. In any case, I find "none of your business" a bit sharp towards someone volunteering to help. – gnometorule Mar 21 at 17:08
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This is a surprisingly common problem. – Anonymous Physicist Mar 21 at 22:30
up vote 16 down vote accepted

A good starting assumption is that your supervisor has good intentions, but like many of us, has trouble getting things done because of workload and/or procrastination.

Artificial deadlines are one thing that can help in this situation. Perhaps your supervisor is too busy right now, but would be able to agree on a date several weeks in the future by which he can read the chapter. Or even better, perhaps you could have a discussion and agree an overall schedule for completing your thesis, including deadlines by which you will send each chapter, he will review it, and so on. This could help prevent the problem from recurring in the future.

If this doesn't work, I would try to have a chat and share your concerns with him about how you feel this is needed for your own successful completion of your thesis.

If all of this still doesn't have any impact, you are in a tough position. You are dependent on your supervisor, but outside of extreme situations, there is no real formal mechanism requiring his action. You could try getting your second supervisor involved. Even if you have had no contact so far, you do have a formal relationship with this person, and that is a good enough basis to do so.

Talking to the director of studies would be a last resort. It probably isn't worthwhile until the continued inaction is clearly going to delay your PhD completion. If you want to maintain a good relationship, I would discuss this with your supervisor first, making it clear that the delays are about to have a big impact on your life, and you feel you have no other choice.

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Thank you, having artificial deadline may actually help. I'll try to talk with him about it... – Vaaal Mar 21 at 15:58
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Do you have a postdoc fellowship coming up? A constructive superviser will typically react to that, as it is clear that there would be a real cost to missing deadlines. – Captain Emacs Mar 21 at 16:06
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It almost seems like the secondary supervisor is intended entirely for situations like this. – Mehrdad Mar 21 at 22:41

While dan1111's answer is good, I have a different perspective.

  • First, calm down. Asking him 3 times a week about something is way too often. To calm down, see the points below.

  • Second, it sounds like you didn't agree on any timeline for the thesis writing process and feedback, but you're concerned about it so you should have this discussion.

  • Third, it's perhaps not a big deal if your advisor doesn't give you critical feedback during the initial writing process, and I don't know that this is so common. Possibly when you write later chapters that you will realize some ways you want to revise your earlier chapters anyway. Your advisor and committee will give feedback before or at your defense, and maybe your advisor should provide feedback once or twice before you arrange the defense just to make sure the thesis is reasonable (this should be discussed in your conversation about the timeline). I don't think I gave my advisor drafts of my thesis chapter by chapter, but just a full draft when I was done (though he had given me feedback on paper write-ups beforehand).

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"3 times a week about something is way too often." It depends on the person. Some faculty do not remember yesterday. Others may have gotten fifty other requests since yesterday. – Anonymous Physicist Mar 21 at 22:29
    
Asking the same thing 3 times a week is probably not the most productive approach, agreed. As for your last point though, per comments on the question, the supervisor requested individual chapters at once. – dan1111 Mar 22 at 8:21
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The point is that my supervisor office is two steps from my office, so we meet continuosly during the day, and I do not miss chance to remind him about my work. I know that if I don't do it, he will completely forget about this. Apparently, even if I remind him, he still doesn't care. For now, my plan is to keep writing my thesis and when it'll be more or less finished I'll have a more serious talk with him about deadlines. – Vaaal Mar 22 at 10:31
    
@dan1111 Ah, I missed that comment. (I think it wasn't there when I originally read the question.) – Kimball Mar 22 at 15:22
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@Vaaal Does he really forget and not care or is he just really busy? I would not be happy to get constant reminders---it shows a lack of trust and patience and it's unclear to me if this is warranted. (I would also hope to make the timeline clear to the student as an advisor, and perhaps your advisor is not doing that. OTOH, many times I think I explain something to students very clearly, they come away with a rather different impression than I do.) – Kimball Mar 22 at 15:27

I concur with Kimball's first suggestion: calm down. My second observation is that it appears you feel entitled to have your supervisor help you: "I wish he just understood that he HAS to do it" and "I need to find a way to push him to do his job." These statements have a very egotistical tone to them. Your supervisor doesn't have to do anything. His taking you on as a student is adding more to his workload so you should be gracious he took you on in the first place. I think a lot of PhD students misunderstand this (I know I did). Editing your drafts is a small part of his job, just remember that.

My suggestion, go and meet with your supervisor and explain your concerns. If you want to be done by a certain date, let him know. I met with my advisor once and we had this exact conversation about when I was going to graduate and we set some tentative deadlines. My advisor was ridiculously slow at getting back to me with written feedback but he eventually did and all was fine. Now that I'm on the other side, I know why he was slow and I have no problem with it.

The bottom line, talk with him and do not go above his head. If you go above him without telling him first, depending on how spiteful (and tenured) he is, you may have to find yourself another supervisor. He may have a lot of work just pop up and might not have time to have you as a student anymore or the work you are doing is no longer good enough to earn a PhD. Probably won't happen but why take the chance of potentially angering your supervisor.

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"Editing your drafts is a small part of his job" - but it IS part of his job. I think your answer is a bit too kind on the supervisor. Of course, diplomacy is key, and it's rarely good to act all entitled. But taking on a PhD student is a commitment, not just doing a favour. – user2390246 Mar 22 at 7:57
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The supervisor does have an obligation to provide direction to a student he is supervising. The student has given a large chunk of their life to this work, work which is typically beneficial to the supervisor, and may be paying a lot of money as well. They have a right to expect a significant time commitment to their project in return. It is true that many supervisors give their students little time and input, but IMO that is not ok, even if it is the norm in some places. – dan1111 Mar 22 at 8:18
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"His taking you on as a student is" ... a formal agreement, and yes, he does have an obligation to hold up his end of the bargain. – TRiG Mar 22 at 9:51
    
As other people said, I do not agree with this answer. I do think that my supervisor has some obligation towards me. I am sorry if I seemed like a annoying student continuosly sending mails to my supervisor, but this is not the case, as I have been really independent throught my PhD. However, I know that if I don't pressure him he is not going to give me feedback. And he has to give me some feedback, as this is also part of his job. – Vaaal Mar 22 at 10:30
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Your story is from your perspective... what about the supervisor's perspective? I'm looking at this from a tenure-track professors perspective in the US. Other institutions/locations may differ. What is your supervisors workload now? Does he have an extra class this semester? Does he have several other students to supervise? Is he on several committees? Is he writing a grant to pay for research assistantships? Was funding recently cut and he no longer has as many teaching assistants? He is also a person with a life outside of academia. Tell the whole story, then maybe I'll be more sympathic. – CalmDown Mar 22 at 20:20

Do you feel satisfied with your work and your writeup? If the advisor doesn't want to read it (yet?), you might try bouncing individual chapters off other students in the group (in exchange for looking over their work, obviously). If it is an almost finished version, you could try the second advisor instead.

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I recommend this approach but only as a first pass before the supervisor. You will get feedback on writing quality and crucially on things like clarity; your supervisor will avoid having to get bogged down in typos and be able to turn chapters round quickly. – Chris H Mar 22 at 9:13

If I decide to talk with the director of studies, should I tell him first?

Never do this with PhD supervisors unless you want to change the supervisor. I don't think you want to change the supervisor at this stage.

You can take a different route to pressure him. Ask him about requesting an extension for the PhD as it takes a long time for him to review. You can say, it will take you X number of weeks/months to refine once you get his comments. Usually this will pressure him to priorities your review.

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I don't like the idea of suggesting an extension, because the OP does not want this. It amounts to a bluff, and the supervisor could just say "ok, apply for an extension". What then? – dan1111 Mar 22 at 8:20
    
exactly, I think that my work is really mature for finishing it in a few month, and I don't wish to an extension. As my supervisor is slightly lazy and take things slowly, he may actually accept my suggestion. – Vaaal Mar 22 at 10:28
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I didn't mean to get an extension, just to pressure your supervisor indirectly. Usually they have to provide a reason for the extension, so he has not real reason for the extension. So, he may prioritised your review. – CharithJ Mar 22 at 11:23

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