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At our institute, PhD students carry out presentations on the advance of their projects once a year. The presentations are "internal" in the sense that only undergrads, PhD students and professors of our institute may attend.

I am about to carry out my second such presentation corresponding to my second year progress. For my first presentation (one year ago), my advisor asked for my presentation and called me into his office one day before the presentation and went over it, changing it in a non-trivial way, i.e. deleting slides, changing titles, content, etc. I found most corrections counterproductive or superficial at best. In the end I did not include all corrections, just enough to keep him/her happy. I was quite frustrated and stressed since the overall tone was "this is terrible", "we are way behind in our project", "this is bad". After the presentation I got very good feedback from professors and colleagues (my advisor is not a professor). Once he saw the feedback, he changed his mind from "this is bad" to "good work, good presentation".

This has also happened a couple of times with other internal presentations at our institute. I am pretty sure this will happen again in the next days.

My questions are:

  • Is it common for advisors to carry out extensive and minute corrections on the presentation structure and slides of its PhD students?

  • What is the best way to communicate that I will not follow corrections with which I do not agree?

  • Or, are PhD students obligated to follow the commands of the advisor?

  • 1
    my advisor is not a professor Would you please explain what's his job title? Research Scientist? Or something else? – scaaahu Feb 6 '18 at 10:43
  • @scaaahu I guess he could be called a Research Scientist. I do not know the details, but he has a permanent position. If you are familiar with the German system, he/she is habilitiert, but has no Professorship. – Keine Feb 6 '18 at 11:28
  • I just changed non-trivially the slides of my student for a seminar that is due in three days. Bad things happen, it's mostly bad timing. – Oleg Lobachev Feb 6 '18 at 13:54
  • @Keine: You’re referring to a Privat-Dozent? In any case, this has no bearing on the nature of the answer. – aeismail Feb 6 '18 at 14:50
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    @scaaahu in the UK, Lecturers teach and supervise projects, but they are not called Professors. – Dmitry Savostyanov Feb 6 '18 at 17:46
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There are simple technical solutions that allow you to avoid unpleasant discussions if you want. Prepare your presentations in LaTeX or export them to pdf format, but do not give your supervisor the source code or editable ppt version. Or simply print the handout for your supervisor and present the talk orally. Collect feedback in a form of comments written over the text. Then go through suggestions and decide, which to take on board and implement, and which not.

  • I have done that. He/she just asks for the editable version. – Keine Feb 7 '18 at 7:07
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The best way to affect change is to provide a logical reason for your advisor not to make changes directly:

I have to deliver the talk based on these slides. If I don’t know what changes you’ve made, it will be very difficult for me to adjust my talk, particularly if you delete or rearrange slides. Would it be possible for you to give me some suggestions for improvements instead of making the changes yourself?

It’s exactly for that reason that I don’t mess with my students’ slides unless they ask me to edit them, and even then I prefer to provide suggestions except for trivial edits like misspellings and formatting.

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Short version: take control, don't give work to be corrected if you do not want it to, but this depends on your advisor so you can try and involve someone else and get a feel for your group.

Long version: I'm afraid the answers depend on your group and its politics. However...

Is it common for advisors to carry out extensive and minute corrections on the presentation structure and slides of its PhD students?

It is common for - some - advisors to do this. Often, but neither exclusively nor universally, newer advisors (from my observations) take a more micromanaging approach and may even correct their own corrections.

What is the best way to communicate that I will not follow corrections with which I do not agree?

Whatever you say runs the risk of your advisor being difficult, but sometimes difficulties have to be overcome.

Your options are, depending on the context,

1) To not give them the presentation in the first place, stating you want to become more independent, this would be the option I would take and then if they disagree you can discuss why.

2) If you want feedback, then you need to get to the point where you are telling your advisor what to do, what is it that they could help clarify? Instead of handing over the presentation to them, you could have a meeting and point out "is this right? How should I say this?" etcetera. This is just as relevant for writing papers.

3) If they demand you give the presentation and make many changes, then you can ignore them or explain you will "take them into account", this will likely annoy them, but again, if your advisor is difficult you may have no choice.

In general, I think you need your advisor to step back...

Or, are PhD students obligated to follow the commands of the advisor?

In principle, it is your PhD. In practice, some advisors are too involved and others are not involved enough. If your advisor is, as it sounds, overly aggressive then one thing you can do is try and involve a coadvisor, someone older who may even be your advisor's mentor. If they are involved in meetings then they may guide your advisor and calm them down. In terms of what is "obligated", technically nothing, but your group might have particularly authoritarian norms, you should discuss with others in your group and get someone else involved if it is an ongoing problem.

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Concerning your first question, "Is it common for advisers to carry out extensive and minute corrections ...?": I believe what I do with my students is rather common, at least in mathematics. I don't directly correct anything in their TeX files, but I make comments, either orally during a discussion or in writing on a printout of their document. The comments are of three general sorts. First and most important, correcting any factual errors in what they've written. Second, expository suggestions (e.g., you should define this term because some of the audience might not know it, or you should reverse the order of these two items). Third, correcting typos. I expect (and I believe this expectation has always been met) that the first and third sorts of comments, the corrections, will be incorporated in the document. Comments of the second sort are for the student to think about; some students will do whatever I suggested, and others will do something else (or do nothing) with these comments.

As for "extensive", that depends on what the student wrote; some students need a lot more corrections than others. As for "minute", I do correct whatever typos I notice, and those corrections would usually be minute. Sometimes, though not often, corrections of the first sort might also be minute (e.g., the student wrote "for every real number" where it should be "for every non-zero real number).

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I had a PI who did this. I just stopped telling them when I had a presentation and removed the opportunity for them to meddle. I guess this isn't possible for you as they know this talk is coming up!

If they insist on going through it again, you can calmly point out that: you got good feedback from your peers and senior scientists last time; and that, while you appreciate your supervisor helping you, you don't agree with all of their suggestions and will be guided by your own judgement (as that worked well last time).

  • This is potentially problematic. The relationship, that seems OK for now, could become toxic if the advisor wants to be told about presentation. Moreover, in some fields, like mine, presentations outside the department are coauthored, so you need to show them to your coauthor. – Emilie Feb 6 '18 at 14:15

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