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I am a PhD student who works in a theoretical field. Often times, I have discussions with my research supervisor, and I try to do as much work as possible.

It seems that many times these days my research supervisor does not seem happy with my performance. He often doesn't seem satisfied, judging from his facial expression and body language, but when I ask him, he just says ok. Most times, I leave the meetings in illusion (meeting was good or bad). I feel pressure due to these things. I don't know if it is a common thing in academia or not.

Question: How to deal with the (hidden) feedback from a research supervisor? This is constantly creating pressure on me.

There is a difference between feedback and hidden feedback. For explicit feedback, we can ask the supervisor once in a month or something like this.

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    Do you have meetings in English? Could he have a hard time understanding you and therefore look puzzled from time to time? – Mark Apr 16 '18 at 16:38
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    @Mark In english and in native language also – abaa Apr 16 '18 at 16:45
  • Just to make sure: are you sure there is no culturally triggered misunderstanding behind this? – cbeleites supports Monica Apr 17 '18 at 13:11
  • Is there a gender difference that may hide a difference in generic conversation style, which is now becoming apparent. Maybe not quite 'on message' but there are suggestions that some of that could be ancestral cup.linguistlist.org/academic-books/discourse-analysis/… – Philip Oakley Apr 17 '18 at 14:19
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    Nitpick, but I don't think that something so obvious should be called "hidden". Perhaps "unspoken" or "implicit" would be a better word? – Mad Physicist Apr 18 '18 at 3:42
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Actively ask for actual feedback. Of course, you need to be prepared for any feedback that is to come.

I am reading things into this... but I suspect you are reading feedback into their facial expressions and body language because you in fact need more feedback.

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    @abaa you can never know its because of you. Maybe your supervisor is under stress for unrelated stuff and gets the "upset face" easier due to this, gets tired easier, etc. The only real feedback is actual feedback, any interpretation of gestures can be just because you are too worried – Ander Biguri Apr 16 '18 at 18:27
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    @abaa Once every one/two months should be sufficient to gauge whether this is an actual issue versus just a supervisor quirk. If he's been making faces publicly for the past month or two, but in private 1-on-1 meetings says you're doing fine, either his facial expressions don't correlate with his opinion (in which case just ignore the expressions in the future), or you have an extremely passive-agressive supervisor. -- (Also, if you feel like once every two months is too infrequent, you should actively approach your supervisor about possibly increasing that frequency.) – R.M. Apr 16 '18 at 21:27
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    Also be specific when asking for actual feedback, e.g. "I'm struggling with the approach I am using for this problem, could you take a look and perhaps suggest some alternative methods?" or "I wrote this piece for my paper but it doesn't sound right, could you give me some pointers on how to improve it?". This gives your supervisor some idea of what you want to know. If you want to discuss your whole project then plan a meeting and go over all the details one by one. – Deruijter Apr 17 '18 at 11:43
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I had a supervisor who made an "upset face" whenever I talked to her, especially during my presentations.

I told her my observation and asked her (politely) whether my interpretation was correct.

You seem to be frowning. Is it because you disagree with what I am saying?

It turned out her "upset face" was actually her "focused face".

No, I'm just a little tired and trying to concentrate. Please go on, it's interesting.

In short, "hidden feedback" is an interpretation you're making. It may or may not be true, so make sure to double-check.

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    A somewhat similar experience I have: some dialects in my native tongue often sound rather accusing or complaining to me. Turns out the "normal melody" in those dialects is rather close to the intonation the dialects I'm "at home with" uses to mark accusations and complaints... – cbeleites supports Monica Apr 17 '18 at 13:09
  • This. Even if I have a disapproving frown, it may be aimed at the math problem that refuses to be solved, not at whoever happens to be there ;-) – Marc Glisse Apr 17 '18 at 14:28
  • I agree with henning. My students think I am mad at them, but I'm actually concentrating on what they are saying. Try to find out what "ok" means, and what the Profs expectations are. – Joshua I. James Apr 18 '18 at 11:21
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A short supplement to skymningen's answer: I have made the experience that when actively asking for feedback it helps to emphasize that you welcome criticism. That way an "Everything is ok." answer is less likely.

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You can get more meaningful verbal feedback when you ask specific questions rather than really broad questions.

Consider broad questions like:

  • Am I good PhD student?
  • Is my dissertation good enough?
  • Does my research make sense?

vs questions like:

  • Do you feel I am on pace to complete enough work to graduate within X years?
  • Does the organization of my dissertation make sense?
  • Are the central premises of my research making sense to pursue further or should I be investigating?

So, start by asking better questions. Then you will have a lot more context surrounding the feedback you think you are getting. Likely this will resolve all your assumptions around the subject.

  • I cannot see the difference between the two sets of questions you propose. How are the broader questions better? They all seem to be very relative questions. In what way are you expecting the advisor to answer them? – Pedro Tamaroff Apr 17 '18 at 15:54
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    @PedroTamaroff the claim is (in the first line) that specific questions are better, not that broader ones are better. I would agree and stress "questions with answers based on objective, specific measures" - to which the first one is a good example. – kfx Apr 17 '18 at 17:59
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Maybe your supervisor sees a problem and wants you to figure out what the problem is? From your question, it is hard to evaluate whether this is the situation, but since no other question mentioned it, I will.

There is no greater success when mentoring to get the "mentee" to realize the problem and find his/her own solution. That is true learning. Just handing out the answer is extremely dissatisfying for any supervisor - unless said supervisor is acting more as a QA checkpoint than an actual supervisor.

Keep working on it. As an aside, if you feel he "ok's" too much, well bring him two alternatives and ask him which is better. That will help you as well, attacking the same problem from different angles often yield fruit.

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