My research supervisor is a quite strict person who constantly criticizes me for my faults (such as slow progress, or always asking others for help on programming issues).

I don't blame him being a bit too strict with me, because anyway supervisor is here to supervise and give constructive suggestion. I really learn from his lessons for me. In fact, I am very grateful for him being willing to teach me some lessons. His comments are always very helpful.

During the last meeting, he seemed not very satisfied and happy with my progress. I have previously told him about my plan of submitting a paper in November. It seems that he thought this kind of slow progress would fail the aim in the end.

At the end of meeting, after criticizing me for asking others for help too much instead of solving the problems myself, he decided to schedule the originally weekly meeting to two weeks later.

Obviously, I am quite worried as the submission deadline is just in November. Given my poor performance, I have no right to suggest getting the meeting every week.

It seems that my research indeed gets stuck here. I kinda need the supervisors' advice to move on. What may I do to save this situation?

  • 1
    It sounds like your advisor wants you to figure stuff out on your own. So, maybe you don't need his advice to move on!
    – JeffE
    Aug 16, 2013 at 4:32
  • @JeffE yeah, exactly! He really wants me to do everything on my own. It is a really training challenge, but sometimes I am really directionless. FYI, I am only an undergraduate who aims to apply for a PhD program in the future. Aug 16, 2013 at 4:34
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    @perfectionm1ng It might be worth asking yourself if you are satisfied with such a relation with your supervisor and why. You do not need to submit to a dictator to become a scientist. Better open your eyes while you have space to manouver.
    – user7116
    Aug 16, 2013 at 6:12
  • 1
    You are lucky that at least he has scheduled bi-weekly meetings with you. I know some other unlucky folks who meet with their advisers once a month !
    – Shion
    Aug 18, 2013 at 16:17
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    Wait, he's criticizing an undergrad for asking help with programming issues? I hope he realizes you're an undergrad and not some seasoned researcher. IMO, it's great you're seeking help. Part of research is know how to get out of a tough spot fast. Kudos to you!
    – gokul_uf
    Aug 16, 2017 at 21:01

3 Answers 3


"Once every two weeks" is actually "quite frequently" for an individual research project. Your supervisor, probably, just noticed that more often than not you could not tell him much after just one week of work (very few students can, actually) and decided to listen to your "progress report" once in two weeks. If you are really doing your work and aren't just dragged by him through it, this shouldn't slow you down in any way and I bet 10 against 1 that if you get something interesting to tell him tomorrow, he will listen to you the day after tomorrow no matter how far the scheduled meeting date is.

The idea of operating from a "submission deadline" in an unfinished research project looks totally ridiculous to me. The whole difference between a research project and house cleaning is that you never know how much time you'll need for the former and whether you'll be able to pull it through at all. In my own work, the failure to success ratio is 9 to 1 and that is generally considered quite good. You have to learn that things take time and that you may fail completely when doing research. It is normal and there is no reason to freak out about that. Even in the case when you see the general way to do things and are certain that it must work, the "little details" may take forever.

You can request direct help now and then but the request should be not in the form "I just don't know what to do next..." but in the form "I've done this. Now, for the next step I would need something like this. Unfortunately there is this particular obstacle in the approach I am currently pursuing. Do you have an idea of how I can overcome it or I should try a different route altogether?". You supervisor may share the "bird's view" of the road with you (and it is sort of his duty) but to go around trees, to jump over brooks and to climb hills is your job unless you really face an impenetrable thicket, a fast deep river, or a steep mountain on your way). Telling you how to do every little thing every time is no fun for him and takes the most important part of the research experience away from you. Passing the routine work (like programming of a known algorithm) to others is a no-no at your current level. You may "outsource" your own work only when you can do it faster and better yourself, but there is yet another task at hand that nobody else can do at all. You may (and should) seek general information, but not ready solutions to your particular problems even if the latter are as trite as "Why does this stupid while loop stop one step earlier than it should?".

So, my general advice is to relax, to forget about all deadlines, and to proceed on your own and at your own pace however slow it may seem to you. Just don't stop altogether and give up unless you are ready to declare an official failure and quit completely.

  • 4
    That's a good summary of the research experience. However, research related deadlines of various kinds do exist, however unfair and unreasonable they may be. Though an undergraduate researcher shouldn't have to deal with such things when he is just learning the craft. Aug 16, 2013 at 17:09
  • Great experience shared! Aug 18, 2013 at 13:20

There may be several factors at work here:

  • First, the advisor may simply have other commitments that prevent meeting on a weekly basis. I know that as my group has gotten larger, I tend to meet only with new members of the group weekly; older members are on an every-two-weeks or as-needed basis (per mutual agreement).

  • Second, the advisor may be cutting back on the frequency of meetings so that you learn to become more independent. I know that the big breakthrough in my own graduate research came at a time when my co-advisors were both completely out of the picture for a while (one was on sabbatical and the other was on a temporary leave of absence). This might not work for everybody, but it can make a big difference if you "take off the training wheels" and start working things out for yourself.

  • Thank you very much! I am wondering whether this "independence training" works for an undergraduate whose knowledge and skills on research are really limited? It seems difficult for one single undergraduate to get the work published all by himself... Aug 16, 2013 at 6:31
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    @perfectionm1ng: you seem to be fixated (here and in other questions) on publishing. I would suggest that you don't worry about publication and focus instead on doing an excellent job on the research tasks you're working on. Publication follows good research, not the other way around -- or, to put it another way: good research is necessary, but not sufficient, for publication.
    – debray
    Aug 16, 2013 at 11:59
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    @perfectionm1ng: There's never really a bad time to begin such training—especially with better students and budding researchers. It's a skill you really have to develop before you've finished your PhD, so the earlier you've mastered how to learn, the better off you will be, no matter what area you choose as a graduate student!
    – aeismail
    Aug 16, 2013 at 14:02
  • Thanks for the tips! Yea, as you said, I have to learn all this sooner or later. Aug 18, 2013 at 13:20

Your supervisor is treating you like a grad student. This is very likely a good sign, but it can also be quite hard. Many of the problems you listed are very similar to my own early grad school experiences.

My research supervisor is a quite strict person who constantly criticizes me for my faults (such as slow progress, or always asking others for help on programming issues).

I also tend to receive mostly negative feedback from my very amiable supervisor. In the early days he would start out by saying something positive first. As time went by, the positives got mentioned less and less, until they essentially stopped. Now that I am almost done, the negatives have slowed down to a trickle as well, AND I MISS THEM. I learned to appreciate the importance of someone taking a close look at my work and giving feedback which helps improve the end result. Because it's not about me - it's about doing high quality work. Dealing with mostly negative feedback is a typical experience for a researcher, and it takes some time to get through the soul-crushing part of it and start valuing the informational part. The way around it is to have a passion for the truth which overrides the need to feel valued for being right. It takes a while to get there.

I have previously told him about my plan of submitting a paper in November. It seems that he thought this kind of slow progress would fail the aim in the end.

It sounds like you set yourself an unreasonable deadline, and that your supervisor could see that you're not yet quite at the level where you can write a paper. But that's OK. It just takes time. Imagine that you're to work on your next paper all alone. Which are the things that would be terribly difficult to do without others? Those may just be the things you need to work on right now. Programming is often a crucial skill for researchers, but it can be really difficult to get through that first period where you get stuck for hours over trivial things such as proper syntax. But that's simply what the learning process looks like. It truly gets easier with time.

All that being said, I am not saying that you're wrong to feel bad in this situation. It could be that your supervisor isn't particularly good at giving feedback and that he has a bad intuition on how difficult it is for a newbie to get into programming. But you're not alone, and you're getting a potentially valuable glimpse of the grad school experience right now.

  • So how did you get over this hard period during your starting grad study? Aug 18, 2013 at 13:21
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    I wouldn't say it's a hard period, but rather the typical life of a researcher. You're always doing things you don't know enough about (yet), you're always mainly hearing how your work could be improved rather than what's good about it. It takes a while to get used to, but for me, it was always balanced with the excitement of being at a great institute, finally researching what I passionately cared about. But it really helps if you can find a way to not take it personally. It's not about evaluating your intrinsic ability, it's about judging whether you attacked a problem successfully.
    – Ana
    Aug 18, 2013 at 16:25

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