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I often hear from PhD students that they see their supervisor only 30 minutes per month, or 30 minutes per semester even. According to my calculations, this adds up to a whopping 13 hours and 6 hours respectively over a three year period (if there's no contact during the holidays). This is less than the typical amount of contact hours during an undergraduate week of lectures.

This made me wonder: To what extent does such a PhD supervisor really help you? Even if this supervisor is a star professor, does 6 to 13 hours over a period of 3 years, really help you that much with your PhD?

To formulate the question differently, let's say you're getting 10,000 education/career points out of your PhD. How many would you get if you got rid of the supervisor and basically had to do it without official guidance?

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    Some PI's offload the advising part onto a postdoc and save their time for writing the big grants and making the overall strategies for the group. – lemontwist Dec 29 '17 at 11:37
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    Just because face-to-face meetings are infrequent and brief doesn't mean there no other interaction or guidance is happening. I'd be curious to know how much email traffic goes back-and-forth during those 30 days between meetings. – J.R. Dec 29 '17 at 15:41
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    Wow, I am very surprised by the overall sense that meeting for 30 minutes a month should be sufficient. I would certainly not agree to be advised by someone who has so little time to "spare", nor would I agree to advise anyone if I had so little time to offer. 30 minutes is not even the length of a proper meal and certainly not enough time, at least for me, to discuss the results of a paper or of an experiment. – FBolst Dec 29 '17 at 15:55
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    What's your actual question here? My experience is that most supervisors in STEM subjects meet with their students for vastly more than half an hour a month/term (an hour or two a week is more normal with the people I've worked with). Is your question "PhD advisors barely meet with their students, so what's the point?" If so, I dispute your premise. Or is it "If your advisor barely meets with you, what's the point of that?" – David Richerby Dec 29 '17 at 17:32
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    @Programmer2134 there may be something wrong with the university. Or a particular definition of advisor, and offloading the actual supervision to postdocs. – Davidmh Dec 30 '17 at 20:30
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Your supervisor's job is to be sure you're on the right track, not to do any of the work. Thirty minutes a month ought to be more than sufficient for that. Also, the supervisor either takes care of the administrative details or is responsible that someone else does that. Finally, you appear to have omitted the amount of reading required of the supervisor.

I'm absolutely sure I didn't see my supervisor for 13 hours over the course of my degree, but he read every word I wrote and provided feedback without which I probably could not have finished.

  • Thank you. The same I said to Solar Maike: It's very helpful to hear from people who already went through the process. Would you mind elaborating on how his feedback was so critical? It's helpful for me to know what to expect. – user56834 Dec 29 '17 at 13:29
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    @Programmer2134 I'm not sure I can elaborate very much within the constraints of Stack Exchange, but your supervisor is presumably an expert on your topic and also on how things get done at your institution. As such, he or she can keep you on track. Without that help, you could be drifting and not even know it. – Bob Brown Dec 29 '17 at 13:32
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When I did my project my supervisor could look at my work for 5 minutes, and ask me 3 questions that would give me 3 weeks work to do.

So, depending on the topic etc that may well be possible in terms of time and can be more than sufficient help.

To do a phd with no supervision will require someone to support it and organise the viva etc - which means they have to be happy with the contents / direction of the material.

  • Thank you for the response! It's very helpful to hear from people who already went through the process. Would you mind elaborating on how its possible for your supervisor to know in 5 minutes what questions to ask that you couldn't come up with yourself? – user56834 Dec 29 '17 at 13:27
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    @Programmer2134 "experience" – paul garrett Dec 29 '17 at 20:24
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    Legend of experience: snopes.com/business/genius/where.asp – Daniel R. Collins Dec 29 '17 at 22:45
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    if you can come up with all the questions with no experience in the field then you are a genius - most people find the depth and breadth of knowledge and understanding based on experience is profound... – Solar Mike Dec 30 '17 at 11:17
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    @Programmer2134, the details are very field-dependent, but a general pattern is that for an experienced person there will be a huge repertoire of "the usual/standard..." stuff that a novice might not have heard of at all. So it's not about "coming up with a question" in real time, but just remembering the standard-operating-procedure templates and applying them to the situation at hand. – paul garrett Dec 30 '17 at 18:34
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OK, as a retired professor, I am surprised that someone would spend as little as 30 min/month to advise a PhD student. Still, that can be valuable. In my experience, it was sometimes possible to determine in 5 minutes where a student had gone off-track and get them moving along again. OTOH, problems they faced were often much more complicated, so more time would be necessary. However, within 30 minutes, it is generally possible to decide what the next steps should be, e.g., what experiments to try, calculations to do, or resources to access, in order for the project to get past the current dilemma. However, I would expect the advisor to wish to know how that worked out in the next several days or so.

10

It depends on what your expectations are

As with most things our expectations are the driver of how satisfied we are with a relationship and the outcomes.

The best known method that I am aware of to set proper expectations in a professional relationship is ask the individual you are engaging with what their goals are for their own interaction. You may find that by asking questions of your PhD supervisor regarding their goals for student interaction that you will set proper expectations for the results and allow you to see a strategy for the interaction that can be very beneficial to yourself.

I can almost guarantee you that by asking questions about their goals for students the answers will allow you to make those 30 minutes very valuable and allow you to formulate a strategy to use those 30 minutes in a very productive way.

Rather than seeing the minimal time available perhaps you can reframe the discussion with yourself to see the benefits of the interaction and how you can leverage that time for very strategic questions rather than tactical ones.

Asking them how you can improve your grade may be considered tactical and asking them how you can improve your overall knowledge footprint for long term benefit would be an example. Try to discover the benefits of the relationship by asking questions in order to see the true value for yourself.

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I've never met a PI that didn't love to talk about how great their work is. The onus, I'm afraid, is on you, to schedule more time, express your desire to interact more, and to be persistent. Outside of your influence, he/she is going to do the minimum required. Make it fun for them and watch as their schedule seems to clear.

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