I started working on my master thesis a few weeks ago. When I talk to my supervisor and try to discuss new ideas she always starts to explain very basic material that is only tangentially related. Sometimes even repeating what she said in our last meeting.

This leads me to believe my supervisor assumes I do not know what I am talking about when presenting my ideas. And even worse not knowing some very fundamental stuff even after she explained it to me.

I know it is hard to judge what other people know, but this makes it very hard to discuss my thesis with her.

How can I politely let my supervisor know of the level of my knowledge to have more interesting discussions about my work?

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    +1 Agree this is difficult to navigate. Hard to know whether they're building up to some novel observation or not (but usually not). Commented Feb 5, 2018 at 15:32
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    Whenever I am talking with someone and they start explaining something I already know about, I tend to say "Yes, I know about that.", or simply "Yes, yes." in the most respectful way I can. It usually does transmit the message that I'm OK with them skipping that. I don't think this necessarily means your advisor thinks that you don't know certain material, but just that she is careful not to assume too much of you. Only by being explicit about what you know, you will be able to circumvent such explanations. (...)
    – Pedro
    Commented Feb 6, 2018 at 3:10
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    (...) Even when experts talk about advanced topics, they tend to explain things most of people might agree are very basic. It's a rather mysterious practice! Regarding repetitions: why should that be worrisome? It is very natural to do a short (or not so short) recap of what you have discussed last time (which may be a week back in time) just to be sure both of your are standing on the same ground.
    – Pedro
    Commented Feb 6, 2018 at 3:11
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    You might find this perspective helpful towards interpreting such behavior from your supervisor: When I discuss something, I like to ensure all "dependencies" (ideas/knowledge/thoughts/feelings and connections between them relevant to the final point) are in conscious focus before I make my final point. Note that just being certain that you know something is not enough - but until I have enough data points about how you think, I have to re-state things common or known to you as part of establishing the full pyramid of reasoning for my more nuanced or advanced point.
    – mtraceur
    Commented Feb 7, 2018 at 17:36
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    (cont.) If your supervisor is like me, then it's not about having a lower assessment of you as a mind, it's about being really careful about making sure her entire idea, including the reasoning it's based on, has been exposed to you (for me at least, this is not only to ensure full understanding, but also to increase the surface area of my thinking other minds can critically review). People like me do gradually reduce this verbosity as we start to feel a high likelihood that both our knowledge and cognition on a given topic is shared enough for mutual unspoken understanding.
    – mtraceur
    Commented Feb 7, 2018 at 17:48

5 Answers 5


I've had similar worries. Rushing too far ahead too quickly can be seen as showing off, which some will not digest well and will react with throwing basics at you back.

Having blasted my way through a similar period (I was rushing ahead) in the not too distant past, for me it slowly worked out for the best. Once I've proven that I "master" the basics, the discussion progressed to a really good intellectual level, in which both supervisor and me would freely admit what we know and what we don't.

Looped advice across meetings can be politely solved by taking meeting notes. At the next one, you can always pop up and say, "Based on the previous discussion, I have already looked at X and ... [invalidate politely] or [validate]". This will show that you've done your homework, and can move on.

Obviously this depends a lot on the person. Disclaimer: this was also during the course of a PhD degree, not a master's. I know it's not an easy advice to follow -I almost failed at it - but patience, if you can afford it, works well in this scenario, especially if your supervisor is relevant for your subject.

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    +1 for the great idea of having some meeting notes and perhaps summarizing from them at beginning of meeting. Sometimes faculty (even with small groups) don't actually remember the details of what they covered before. Conversations, particularly if they are tutorial-like covering basic topics, will cover material that has been covered many times with other students over time, and it can be a bit hard to remember how far one has gotten this time.
    – Carol
    Commented Feb 5, 2018 at 17:32
  • "Some will not digest well..." Yes it is important to learn to avoid doing that in circumstances where others are likely to react that way. But having such easily pressed buttons in a research supervisor is just... not optimal. Commented Feb 7, 2018 at 11:27

More years ago than I care to remember, I changed departments and started working for a new manager (NM). At the same time, another person (AP) also joined the department. My new manager put a weekly meeting on our calendars for the three of us. We would go into the meeting, and NM would start asking us what seemed to me to be really simple questions - what are we working on, issues with deliverables, who are we talking to about whatnot. Really simple questions. Almost insultingly simple questions, or so it seemed to me. Hey, I'm experienced and know what I'm talking about!

I started getting irritated by this meeting wasting my time. I could have had a meeting with NM to say it was wasting my time and why am I invited. Or, as I did, I took note of what was asked and what the answers were expected to look like (yes, there is problem A, we are trying fix B, and I'm working with so-and-so on alternative path, will know next week how to resolve). Then, I went 100% prepared to perform the data dump that NM seemed to want, whether or not I felt it was appropriate.

Fast forward 2 weeks, where I had started off the meetings presenting the necessary information (and only the necessary information) to NM at the beginning of the meeting in ~ 5 minutes. No questions addressed to me. Then, AP would get questioned, and generally fumble through the answers and need direction on what to do next.

Next week, I was removed from the calendar invite. AP was not.

Several months later, NM and I had a nice conversation over lunch about the purpose of the meeting. Basically, it was to establish that (1) I knew what I was supposed to do, (2) who I was supposed to work with, (3) I could rapidly summarize progress/goals/deliverables/budget stuff, and (4) I indeed could think for my self and be proactive in getting the right things done. In essence, I had passed the test and shown that I was, indeed, and as expected, an independent contributor and good team player. And, NM remained a good manager and mentor for me, just much more hands off (unless needed!).

What does this mean for you? You started a few weeks ago. You and your work style are a complete unknown to your advisor. What do they really want? What questions do they ask? Can you anticipate what they are and how to answer them correctly? If you need help, do you ask for it? Can you describe what you are working on in 60 seconds or less?

Be proactive. Show that you do indeed know the right things and are applying them properly. Do not go there to passively answer questions. Ask for help when you need it. And, learn to deal with people whose social interaction style is that way - you will meet many more in the course of your career.

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    While the story is neat, I believe that everything but the last two paragraphs can be removed and the answer would not diminish in value.
    – FooBar
    Commented Feb 6, 2018 at 8:39
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    @foobar - I disagree, if you are going to make a claim then backing that claim with evidence, even anecdotal, strengthens the claim. Removing that would hence weaken it and make for less of an answer. Commented Feb 6, 2018 at 9:21

As a supervisor, I gain confidence in my students' skills when they start producing results. "Discussing new ideas" may or may not be an indicator of understanding. A piece of working scientific code (even a short one), a fully worked out problem (even simple one), a nicely produced graph/visualisation (even a simple one) often say more than thousand words.

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    While this is generally true by common sense, one must notice that it strongly depends on the area: producing a short piece of more-or-less scientific code may only just require 10 minutes of googling StackOverflow, whereas proving a small piece of a corollary of a theorem may require 3+ years of hard mathematics. Especially in Academia, results and knowledge do not always go hand in hand.
    – gented
    Commented Feb 6, 2018 at 16:45
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    While this is generally true by common sense, one must notice that to produce a short piece of scientific code, student should do much more than googling StackOverflow: install compilers / software, find right buttons to click, understand the syntax. This demonstrates commitment that goes beyond "discussing new ideas". Commented Feb 6, 2018 at 17:44
  • @DmitrySavostyanov You missed "understand the problem", which seems to be part of what OP's advisor is expecting.
    – JiK
    Commented Feb 6, 2018 at 20:07
  • @gented I guess, "proving a lemma" or "making a piece of code" (or "writing some definitions in latex") are all similar things: concrete steps in some direction.
    – Alexey B.
    Commented Feb 9, 2018 at 17:56
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    @DmitrySavostyanov "an attempt of passive-aggressive dismissal." woow, that's a whole lot of assumptions here. As for your first sentence "I am not sure what you offered for this discussion" re-read my comments again (some users did find them useful as they up-voted them, apparently). To use your own words: "Forgive me for not apologizing for believing in things I believe in".
    – gented
    Commented Feb 11, 2018 at 20:14

Did you think about the possibility that when you're presenting your ideas, some things you say gives her the impression that you have knowledge flaws in basics of the topic?

Everybody makes blunders, and they are usually overlooked during casual research discussions. However, in your case, your supervisor is about to commit some considerable amount of time to your thesis. Therefore, she has to be careful because one cannot tell if a blunder is caused by some carelessness or lack of knowledge. In the former case, going over some basics never hurts anyone. In the latter case, it is a must.

Also note that without covering the tangents, you cannot go deeper into the center.

Next time, when you're explaining something, do it as if you're teaching some freshman. Picking every word very carefully and leave no missing thing. Then you will already say what she has to say in the first place.

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    It is not always that research students go into "the center", but that they try the tangents and then realize another orange next to the first one is likely to be more fruitful to aim digging in. Then the supervisor is paying too much attention to the scales of the wrong orange. :) Commented Feb 7, 2018 at 11:39

When one is having unproductive or somehow frustrating weekly meetings with someone, it is often helpful to send a short to medium-short preparatory email. You have to time it just right. Say your meeting is Thursdays at 11 am. Perhaps the ideal time to send this email is Wednesday dinnertime, to make sure that your advisor reads it either Wednesday evening or Thursday morning. You want your email to be fresh in your advisor's mind when the meeting starts. But you want to send it close enough to your meeting time that your advisor will not be tempted to respond via email. It may help to state explicitly that you're not expecting a response via email. You could even put something like "Prep for meeting (date)" in the subject line.

When you show up for your meeting, explicitly ask your advisor if s/he had a chance to read the message. If the answer is yes, great. (If the answer is no, hand over a print copy and excuse yourself briefly, e.g. you need to get some water. Make sure to be neutral in your tone so that your advisor doesn't get the idea you're disappointed. For example: "Oh, that's okay, I'm sorry, I should have sent it yesterday morning. I also printed out my outline, do you want to take a look?" Note, the purpose of stepping out of the room briefly is to give your advisor a chance to have good inward focus, so as to be able to take in your outline properly. Stepping out isn't necessary with some people but it can be quite helpful with others.)

The email can be an outline of what you would like to address in your next meeting. It can include a brief summary of what was covered last time. It can be a suggestion for next steps. Basically, this email pre-loads some information in your advisor's mind so that you can jump straight into productive work.

Experiment a bit with the format of this preparatory email. Once you find one that works well, use it as a template each week. However, once your collaborative relationship is going more smoothly, you can start experimenting again with varying the format.

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