My friend is completing her PhD comprehensive test and is going to start research.

Her supervisor is emphasising the importance of self-learning. He is saying that "I will provide the necessary resources, books, etc., I am not going to teach you anything, it is your responsibility to complete prerequisites. There are several resources over the internet to accomplish all your required tasks".

My doubt is that why can't the supervisor teach at least the prerequisites and the subject of research to some extent?

Anyway, the literature survey and the publishing will be done by the student only. In this context, my doubt is to know whether the supervisor is bound to teach or not?

  • 8
    You can have doubts, as you are probably not party to the full discourse between supervisor and student...
    – Solar Mike
    Dec 11, 2018 at 9:09
  • 15
    Whose time would this save? Dec 12, 2018 at 1:07
  • @Azor Ahai student time... Because supervisor can give narrowed down subject required for the student..
    – hanugm
    Dec 12, 2018 at 5:10
  • 13
    @hanugm Student time isn't a priority, supervisor time is.
    – user2768
    Dec 12, 2018 at 7:11

5 Answers 5


Supervisors train; they don't teach. (Albeit the distinction between terms is rather subtle.)

why can't the supervisor teach at least the prerequisites and the subject of research to some extent?

A PhD is like an apprenticeship, rather than a taught degree (such as an undergraduate degree). Hence, supervisors are expected to train, not teach.

the literature survey and the publishing will be done by the student only.

Actually, the supervisor will guide the student in both activities and will (likely) be a co-author of any publications.

is...the supervisor [likely] to teach or not?

No: The supervisor has said they won't teach nor is it their job to do so.

The supervisor is quoted as saying, "I am not going to teach...it is your responsibility to complete prerequisites," which might reference (especially in the US) taught courses that PhD students are required to take. Given such context, the supervisor may merely be explaining that it isn't their responsibility to provide any help for taught courses.

  • I mean likely, as per recommemded norms...
    – hanugm
    Dec 11, 2018 at 12:12
  • 4
    Even "training" seems going an extra mile. At the most basic level, supervisors are expected only to supervise (duh).
    – BartoszKP
    Dec 12, 2018 at 8:50
  • 1
    @BartoszKP Bad supervisors maybe, good supervisors I disagree. (Similarly, bad managers manage, good managers advance.)
    – user2768
    Dec 12, 2018 at 8:54
  • 3
    @hanugm Yes, the "recommended norm" pretty much everywhere in the world is that in a PhD you figure stuff out on your own. You get some amount of "on the job" training, especially related to reading and writing papers, operating special software and infrastructure, etc., and maybe a more senior PhD student or postdoc gives you some hands-on training on the necessary scientific methods, but if you hope that your supervisor delivers you dedicated classes and lectures in your subject matter, then your PhD will be an extremely disappointing experience.
    – xLeitix
    Dec 12, 2018 at 10:42
  • 1
    @BartoszKP: It depends on which scientific field we're talking about. In some cases, training by a laboratory's lead researcher is significant (and may not even have alternatives) - and also necessary for him/her to make you productive sooner.
    – einpoklum
    Dec 12, 2018 at 10:57

Actually, the supervisor is teaching you, or trying to, at least. No, she is not required to teach you as you want to be taught, telling you explicitly what is needed. She has another method in mind that she expects to be very effective if you are willing to go along with it.

When you finish your degree you won't have any "teacher" available to you anymore except yourself. She is teaching you that now and teaching you to be effective in those circumstances. A lot of recent graduates learn that lesson too late.

Too many professors depend too much on lecturing, confusing that with teaching. Teaching is providing the circumstances for learning and for that the student needs to work, not just watch and listen.

She is doing you a favor, not being lazy. Accept that and you can have a glorious future.

  • 5
    Even in a class, simply lecturing is (for me, anyway) an inefficient use of time. Far better to learn the material from the text, and use class time to address problems. This is even more true in a one-on-one situation. The supervisor should direct you to what you need to learn, and be there to help with problems.
    – jamesqf
    Dec 11, 2018 at 18:18
  • ... well, this is sort of true, but sometimes this is an excuse for careless supervisors with too many students to just not supervise their PhD/MS candidates seriously.
    – einpoklum
    Dec 12, 2018 at 10:58

(Under the implicit assumption that the supervisor is a (full) professor or some other similarly high-level person)

PhD supervisors typically already have a lot of duties: teaching classes, marking exams, conducting oral exams, supervise the projects of the other PhD and grad/undergrad students, proofread papers, theses and reports, grade theses and reporst, manage administrative duties, prepare presentations for conferences/visits to other institutes, be a host to guests from other institutes, attend department meetings, and many, many more.

At the same time, the group has experienced PhD students and postdocs that are right on the cutting edge of the research but who have much more time for side activities because they only have a small fraction of the rat’s tail of duties the (full) professor has.

Having the full professor, i.e. the official supervisor, be the person teaching the new PhD student would be very inefficient. It is, by definition, a one on one situation meaning a high time cost with a necessarily low gain. Something that really doesn’t fit well with tight schedules. On the other hand, experienced PhD students and postdocs also have the knowledge and much more time on their hands. Therefore, if there is any actual teaching of methods or skills to be done, it will be the PhD students’ or postdocs’ job.

Naturally, the supervisor will still be there for the core part of their job: answer questions, provide guidance and point to helpful references if they are hard to find. I believe the quote states your friend’s supervisor is planning on doing exactly that.


A PhD supervisor's job is to prepare and train the student for research.

In order to carry out research, a person very often needs to learn new material, and to learn it very quickly and very efficiently, much more efficiently than the average undergraduate learns material.

The trouble is, once a researcher has left the womb of PhD training, there won't be anyone around to coddle them and guide them through learning new material. They've got to do it themselves.

So, part of the PhD supervisor's job is to require their supervisee to learn to learn quickly and efficiently, without coddling.

So no, it is not the PhD supervisor's job to teach their students the prerequisites. A good supervisor can decide for themselves when it might be useful to accelerate the process by presenting, let's say, a well-timed example or case study. A good supervisor might also lay out a course of study. But to walk the student through that course, step-by-step, as in an undergraduate course, would be counterproductive.


It usually recommended PhD students take courses or at least one course in the area they are doing their comprehensive exam in. This allows the student time to read and evaluate critical readings - but the supervisor is under no obligation to hand hold students through this process.

Our comps were entirely self directed. We got a reading list and took about 4 months independently to study and make notes for the exam. Taking a course allows you to unpack some of the critical trends in the literature - so they could ask their advisor if they would do a reading course with them, otherwise, nope.

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