I recognize my advisor is busier than I am. But, nonetheless, I feel the need to tell her sometimes that I am overloaded with too many tasks and I need to push a deadline back or pass on some request.

How do other people handle this tactfully?


I have had this discussion with my supervisors/advisors many times, all with positive outcomes. This is what I do:

  • Be direct and to the point, it sounds like neither of you have time to dance around the issue.
  • Offer alternative ideas/timelines/strategies, I found that coming up with a solution is appreciated as in the long term, it is going to save time.
  • Be honest and truthful, state that you are overloaded - show how this is so, and either defer or decline the request.

Remember, your time and well being is just as valuable, and any good advisor already recognises that fact.


"I'm not sure I have time to do X in addition to Y and Z. If I take X on, it might push me back three or four weeks in finishing Y. Is it that important?"

There is, of course, the off-chance that X is more important than you realize and your advisor might say yes.


I don't look up my advisor or other faculty members. I always behave like they were my peers. This way, there's never any kind of social problems, since the relationships are completely professional right from the start (and, if someone is not okay with this, one gets to know who to avoid). Usually, about after a month, people in higher positions than me stop introducing me as a student for other people, and start talking about their new collaborator/workmate instead.

Really, I just don't get this kind of questions, most people doing their PhDs are 20-30 years old, and find it difficult to say what they think, want to do, not want to do, or tell if they are angry, happy, sad, etc.

You are in no need to explain yourself. Just be professional. Either it works out, or doesn't. Get rid of unhealthy social relationships.


Improve your work efficiency first.

For example, prioritize your assignments. What should be done first? what next? What can wait? If you're not sure about the priorities, ask your advisor. She is the one who advises you. Use her.

Then, work hard. Do your best. Manage your time wisely.

If you still cannot handle them, then tell her that you need to push a deadline back or pass on some request, etc.


I think that the first thing to do is to organize ourselves and to see what we can do on our own. Then, the next thing is to inform our supervisors of any “deadline issues” or “work overload issues” and to fix them. Our work is important. Our health is even more important.

Yes, it is really important to keep our supervisors informed of our obstacles; especially the research (and deadlines) related ones. He/she can help us to anticipate research pitfalls such as hard problems (to avoid or to dig in by priority), or exception cases (to exploit as shortcuts). It’s also better to inform our supervisor that there is an obstacle on the way than to miss a deadline. Still, we need to be prepared to work harder and to propose solutions of our own.

In the end, there is no single best answer to “how to tell our supervisor that we’re overloaded tactfully”: It depends upon our relationship with our supervisor.

I would prepare myself from the start. This may mean to refuse some tasks or to propose alternative deadlines instead of simply “missing the boat”, but it also means to know my priorities. Regarding work overload, I usually prioritize things by deadlines. When I’m overwhelmed, I do a list to see if something can be postponed, then I focus on my academic or research-related work. Strong deadlines, like call for papers, are sometimes hard to meet, but they’re worth the time! As soon as I see a problem coming I identify it. I try to find a solution. Before it overwhelms me I inform my supervisor. The answer is often as simple as “Have you tried this instead of that?”, or simply “Leave it for later.”

Once, I attended a talk titled “how to manage your supervisor” (with humor) [1]. I think that these slides are valuable material. They may provide some answers to the question of “how to tell our supervisor that we’re overloaded tactfully”.

[1] http://www.cse.unsw.edu.au/~tw/manage.pdf

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