I'm a westerner doing my PhD in an Asian country. While writing this I've just finished my first year, but I'm getting so fed up with my academical environment that I decided to move my PhD.

One of the reasons why I went to Asia is that I'm in a technological field. Now a days with all these Asian countries up-and-coming, developing innovative products, it felt like a good moment to ride along on their train.

In the last year I'm experiencing major difficulties with my advisor and I'm not sure whether it's because of cultural differences or just me. Let me highlight some of the major issues:

  • When I did my masters, my advisors were actually people who gave me advice. My current professor is somebody who gives orders instead of advice. The big problem with that is that there's usually no room for persuading him with counter arguments. As stubborn as I'm, it usually ends up in me ignoring what he says.
  • There seems to be a big difference in how I approach weekly meetings. I make a selection of what I investigated during the week and decide myself which direction I go into and thus what I eventually present to him. It seems that he wants every direction thoroughly investigated and presented to him so that he can make a decision about the direction eventually.

These and other reasons, I don't think it makes people better. It won't let people think for themselves when they are just following. I got the comment last week that he thinks that my output is too low, but in fact I'm making the most progress, I'm just not presenting as much as everybody else because I make my own decisions upfront. I noticed that I intentionally not share everything with him anymore, because he always manage to turn everything upside down in one hour per week and ends with "just do it." Like he always creates the strangest and most complicated experimental designs (e.g., 3x3x3) with factors that I don't think are related. I just want to perform a simple 2x2 design and deepening it more and more based on the results. It just feels very odd that somebody who only gets involved into a project an hour per week gives orders about the direction.

Well the thing is that I seems to be the only one who thinks this is not normal. Since I always hear those stories that doing a PhD is always tough and sometimes makes you hate your advisor, I'd like to know where the problem is. I don't mind toughness, but it needs to serve a goal. Before I'm accepted to a different PhD in another country, I'd like to know if I'm getting in the same situation. If so, I don't think a PhD is the right thing for me then.

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    Have you ever tried to talk to your advisor about the kind of advising you are looking for? Advising styles differ a lot from person to person - it seems your advisor prefers to micro-manage, which is not what you're comfortable with. Maybe a honest, non-accusatory chat may help?
    – TCSGrad
    Commented Jul 21, 2013 at 3:20
  • Yes I've tried, but he just says this is just the way it goes. I think even though with this micro-manage strategy there still should be room for negotiation and not just expecting to blindly follow because he has authority. I'm just afraid that I'll find the same thing somewhere else. For me advisor means as the word implies; giving advice. Commented Jul 21, 2013 at 3:27
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    Asia is huge, but if this is China, cultural differences might contribute. I've read that Chinese academia is actually suffering from a culture where speaking against someone ranked higher / someone older is frowned upon. This may be related to what you're experiencing.
    – gerrit
    Commented Jul 21, 2013 at 19:02
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    In some cultures more than others, gender can complicate things even more; one scientist I knew felt that when she was working in Japan as a young woman, when she would say something senior men didn't pay much attention, but when a male scientist would say the same thing, they did. This in addition to age can make a difficult relationship in some cultural settings. Now I don't know if you're male or female, but if you're female, it could be relevant in this case.
    – gerrit
    Commented Jul 21, 2013 at 19:12
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    I wrote this post two years ago, didn't expect it to be active still. I moved in the meanwhile and started my PhD all over again, but it's worth it. My advisor at the moment is the opposite of what I experience back then. This one cares too little, but fortunately I have good people around me to learn from. Whereas in the other environment the professor was the only person. So, I can relate and agree with aparente001: you don't necessarily need to learn from your direct advisor. Commented May 8, 2015 at 9:22

5 Answers 5


The quality of your relationship with your PhD adviser is one of the biggest factors in determining your quality of life during grad school. I strongly encourage anyone in your position to consider switching advisers (which it sounds like you're doing). I don't know what field you're in, so I can't authoritatively speak to "the way it goes" in that field. However, speaking as a mathematician, there are a wide range of management styles. Often, even the same PhD adviser will manage different students differently, depending on their abilities and desires.

Some schedule a weekly hour meeting without fail; others say "come see me when you have something". Some coauthor most of their students' papers, some rarely do. Some students, like you, feel micro-managed. Others wish their adviser gave them more attention and cared more about their research. My adviser essentially let me pick all of my own research problems, which was what I wanted. It took me longer to start publishing than some other students, but I also felt well-prepared for life on my own after grad school.

So in short, stubborn micro-management is not "just the way it goes"; rather it's just the way it goes when you're working for a power hungry egomaniac. Run, don't walk, to find another adviser!

  • Thanks for your answer and advice. I guess we've the same opinion in what is best for us; making own decisions and faults makes you better prepared for later. I think a healthy discussion and persuasion is key to make a project better. Listening to each other and accept different opinions. Finding a new place is just not so easy. Let's hope a new opportunity will reveal to me soon :-) Commented Jul 21, 2013 at 5:18

Since you are a westerner in Asia, I'll add my thoughts.

There are all types of advisers in Asia but there are a greater percentage who expect you to shut up and do as you are told, and just say 'yes Teacher' and get the job done as instructed. In the west, this is not as common. This issue is part of the Asian culture. Of course, you can find exceptions everywhere and if you dig, I suspect you will be able to find an adviser in Asia whose style matches yours.

My advice would be to be careful before choosing an adviser and try to find someone who you can 'sync' with well. As Dan C said, that relationship is a very important one for you. If you cannot find an adviser with a suitable style in Asia, then you should consider returning to the west where you will not have the underlying cultural conflict.

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    Thanks for your advice. I think the safest option would be to go back to Europe. This year ended like a little waste of my time, but maybe I should take it as an once in a lifetime experience. Anyhow, let's hope for some positive submission responses Commented Jul 21, 2013 at 13:54
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    Asia stretches from the Bosporus to Japan and from Russia to Sri Lanka and Singapore. In my experience, your description fits for e.g. China, but I'm not so sure if it fits India, Turkey, or Russia. Do you really mean all of Asia, or a specific area?
    – gerrit
    Commented Jul 21, 2013 at 19:05
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    I'm in the north east Asia part and for that I can say that this may be very applicable for this part of Asia Commented Jul 21, 2013 at 21:43

In addition to other good points made, and seconding the idea that one's relationship with one's advisor is very important, and agreeing that one must learn to think independently ... :

It is also important to have an advisor in whom one has confidence, and who is not merely a sounding-board or yes-man for your own ideas. Of course, some people are jerks, but hopefully when a senior person disagrees with a beginner, the beginner can see good reason to take this as profoundly good advice in itself.

That is, for example, good advice from a more experienced person can help a beginner avoid pitfalls, avoid re-inventing the wheel, ... even better, avoid well-known failures-to-invent-the-wheel. Good advice can save a lot of time and energy.

True, in some regards it's best to experience various failures, to relive them, first-hand, as a process to better understand what does succeed. But there is a cost, which can be high, including professional embarrassment. Ideally, a good advisor helps avoid this.

In my own direct experience, I have had a few PhD students who were convinced (or hoped?) that I was seeing or making things more complicated than necessary in their projects, ignored my cautionary advice, and publicly-professionally embarrassed themselves considerably. I would say this was unfortunate and completely un-necessary, and certainly represents a big waste of time and opportunity. (To have the opportunity to give a presentation and inadvertently use it to embarrass oneself is a sad irony.)

So, ideally, one's advisor is not merely "older", but also "wiser" about not only specific technical details, but perhaps methodology, and about folklore, especially dangers and traps.

Also, sometimes, if one fails to convince someone else, one should consider the possibility that one's argument is in fact unpersuasive, rather than that the audience is stupid. :)

No, I don't think "obedience" or "compliance" are high virtues, and I do not recommend obedience for its own sake. Rather, a subtler relationship with "advisor", that may superficially resemble "obedience", but in reality is more reason-based, is seeing/believing that the advisor's experience gives them wisdom which will help you. If you can't see that in an advisor, then they won't be able to help you, either in "objective reality", or else in your perception, and it hardly matters which.

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    Yes I totally agree with you. I think you can distinguish foolish stubbornness and reasoned stubbornness. Eventually foolish stubbornness makes you learn too, but as you said you may need to undergo unnecessary embarrassment. The thing with my current adviser is that I have good reasons to go into a certain direction (e.g., I did a preliminary study), but still he argues otherwise without any foundation. E.g. because he experienced a situation differently privately (implying that everybody is the same as him) or just because he said so. These kind of situations make me loose confidence in him Commented Jul 21, 2013 at 23:52
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    "Just because he said so" is not a good reason. A person who has good reasons should be able to give them, otherwise why be believed? Some older people do behave childishly. Commented Jul 22, 2013 at 1:57
  • Because these kind of situations happen a lot, I am having difficulties in drawing the line between: something to preventing me from the kind of embarrassment you talked about, or because he is just talking rubbish. It just results in that I'm ignoring him completely. Most of the times I do want to have advice and directions, but I'm just not sharing anymore because he just turns everything upside down instead of given insightful feedback. That's not even the worse part, the thing is that he doesn't let go when I'm not doing what he wants. I need hear it for months why I didn't do what he said Commented Jul 22, 2013 at 3:57
  • what you said is all true but can you put in the context of OP? His advisor obviously had micromanagement style which only caused anger to himself and everyone else.
    – user10694
    Commented Jan 25, 2014 at 2:20
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    @user10694, it is not clear at all to me that, perhaps from an abrasive personal style, the advisor was being unreasonable, given the disparity of roles, in the sense of "wanting to make the final decisions". Conceivably there is a cultural issue as well, but my own preferred style would be to explain my reasons, at length, as advisor. I do suspect that occasionally my students think that I should have been persuaded by their arguments, away from "my opinion", and they may be annoyed that I'm not... and would say they think I have insufficient reasons. But... Commented Jan 25, 2014 at 15:42

After finishing my PhD and getting a tenure track job, in my opinion, the following are necessary criteria for selecting an advisor as you transition from your masters into your research phase:

  1. They are invested in your success and "care" about you. This is numero uno.

  2. They have time and are willing to spend it with you and to do some of the real work. It is your job to do most of the real work.

  3. They are generally available for you to "pop in" to their office to resolve a small or large roadblock.

  4. They are still publishing papers in / close to the field you are doing your thesis / 3-papers in.

  5. If you care about getting an academic job, they have placements under their belt and know some people in the community who are hiring new assistant professors. Placements demonstrate they understand the game. Knowing people means the hiring committees will listen to your advisor's letters and phone calls.


It is better if an advisor can give you useful advice and guide you towards both interesting and promising research topics. Ideally, your advisor would understand how to make you release all your work potential, but you cannot expect that from him/her. There are a lot of different situations, nonetheless there are a few universals that do not vary a lot:

  1. First, you can be sure that your advisor will be somewhere between 'simply not there' and overactive. There are students who cope well with an advisor who is completely absent, because it gives them absolute freedom. They are probably a minority. Indeed, others feel good when their advisor greets them each morning with a few kind words. In order to find a good match, you need to determine how much time you want your advisor to spend on your case. So you need to find out how busy he/she actually is.
  2. Then, one can generally expect from an advisor to be firm and polite at the same time. You might change your mind about your work, about your discipline, and even about him/her, so that steadiness is required as he/she is your reference point. For that reason, you may (temporarily) hate your advisor and/or overreact to comments and criticism made to your thesis.
  3. I would say that another factor is about your feelings and your instinct, as your advisor will more or less be your mental punching bag because the major part of what you think about the work you do together and will/should be left unsaid. Most students forget that their advisor is just a person who is exterior to nearly everything they do, because one cannot generally help building an interior (mental) representation of this person as time goes by. So you have to ask yourself if you can imagine live with this person in your head during 3+ years.

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