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I have recently completed my undergraduate degree, in mathematics. As part of the final year, we had to complete a "project", which was effectively a 40-page (ish) dissertation on a topic of our choosing. This was done with the aid of a supervisor, one of the researchers in the department, for the duration of the year.

During the undertaking of this project, I felt like I developed a good relationship with my supervisor (who I met once a week, and who provided a reference for me for PhD applications).

At times, particularly when knee deep in PhD application stuff, I started to get a little negative/worried about my long-term prospects. This seems to be a fairly common problem, from what I read here. On more than one occasion, I was seriously tempted to ask my supervisor whether he honestly thought I was any good, had any reasonable prospects doing maths/a PhD/research, whether I should do something else, etc.

I never actually ended up doing that, because I always decided that it was a bit of an unfair question, and that I my supervisor quite possibly wouldn't know anyway.

My question is: In a scenario like the above, is that ever a question that one could expect a supervisor to answer/answer well? Is it easy to tell, from a supervisor's point of view, what a students prospects are in that field?

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    They will have a more well-informed opinion than yours, but it will also be influenced by their own particular background and particular experience with you (which is only a slice of your overall life).
    – Dawn
    Aug 2 '18 at 15:11
  • A better question to ask would be, compared to other students he advised, win which upper percentile would he place you. That eliminates a potential unrealistically high expectations (e.g. in his opinion you did just ok, but he would not say say you did great to any of his students)
    – 50k4
    Aug 2 '18 at 15:23
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    @50k4 which upper percentile would he place you — I'm sorry, but that is a really stupid question. Every student has their own set of strengths and weaknesses; different students are good fits for different subfields, different working styles, and different career choices. There is no global ground-truth total order of students (or researchers, or departments).
    – JeffE
    Aug 2 '18 at 23:11
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I would welcome such a question from a student I'd worked closely with, but I'd also like a bit of time to consider before answering.

But even better, is to ask - also - what you can be doing in the short term to get even better. Make sure the advisor understands something about your long term goals so he/she can best assist.

However, this implies that you have more than a transactional relationship with the advisor and each of you recognizes and respects the advice of one another. Some people are "brutally honest" and will say things you really don't like to hear. Others are too "conflict adverse" and will tell you things that sound nice but aren't helpful. You will need to judge for yourself the quality of the advice.

But that is the reason for asking how to improve. It helps you directly, avoids personality issues to some extent, and helps you better judge the "raw" assessment.

In any case, if you are good enough to ask the question, you are probably pretty good anyway, even without knowing much more. I had professors in my background of whom I would gladly ask the question, others of whom I certainly would not, and still others for whom I'd think long and deeply before asking. But that was more personality than anything. If trust is there, it should be fine.

My own background somewhat influences my response here. When I was in secondary school I was told, on the basis of some standardized test, that I didn't have very good prospects and shouldn't set my goals too high or I'd be disappointed. This was largely based on mathematics. It wasn't a request to an advisor for guidance, however. The episode made me so angry that I decided to prove them wrong and later earned a doctorate (among other degrees) in math.

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Yes, this is a reasonable question to ask any supervisor and it's reasonable to expect a thoughtful answer. But to ensure a fruitful and helpful discussion, it's helpful to add a little more structure, explaining the kind of feedback you're seeking. For example:

You've had a chance to observe my work up close and over a longer period than my other professors, so I'm hopeful you might be willing help me take inventory of my strengths and weaknesses, what I do well or not so well and, considering all that, the academic and career options and strategies you'd suggest.

I really value your advice. Could we find a time to meet in your office?

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With agreeing the answer of Buffy, I wanted to add another point.

Think as a 3rd person and look at the expectations of others and your advisor from you and your performance, not your expectations from yourself. Also consider only solid and formal expectations. If you met them and have room for development, than just remove your worry, if not then you already see what is to be done.

Asking such questions to the advisor may very well backfire. S/he may think that you want to hear some good words and flatters and either shut their mouth and ignore the question or just pity and say whatever comes to her/his mouth, worthless in both situations.

I, even if it seems a personal opinion, consider academy as a place to learn to stand by yourself whenever you fall, instead of trying to get as many people as possible to support you all the time. Latter also works, but you will always be bounded by their permission. There is nothing one can not see when they put their hand to their heart and contemplate honestly about their situation.

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