I am currently in the first 4 months of my PHD in Physics, but I already did a 5 months internship before. I have some relationship+work problems with my phd advisor.

I am here to have feedback from other phd students or phd advisor to understand if what I am facing can indeed be a big problem and would compromise my pursuit of the phd. Or if things like this can actually happen and it can just be what a normal phd is.

My questions are around miscommunication problem which strongly impact the quality of the work to make.

In the end of my internship I started to have some troubles with my phd advisor, in summary it was a mix between miscommunication (like I didn't do what he expected me to do, but for me it was what he asked me to do). And some "rude" remarks related to this : when I didn't do what he expected, and when I told him that for me it wasn't what he asked, he got annoyed quite fast and made "not cool" remarks related to this.

But in the end of the internship we both decided that it would be nice to write workplan to be sure we have the same goals in mind.

Allright, so after this I was thinking that things will get better thanks to the workplans.

Then I had vacations, the phd started, and after learning new things at the beginning of the phd we both agreed that I needed to study a given thing. We made a workplan for this.

So, I studied it for 3 weeks, and I had really put a lot of motivation in it. Then, we met, I presented him my work. And he told me that I shouldn't have used a given definition in my work because it is not how people work with today. So basically all what I did was not usable.

I was annoyed with it because he told me to use this definition in the beginning, and I had the feeling to have almost lost 3 weeks of work for a miscomunication problem. I was very worried that this thing would happen again and again. So I sent him an email telling him I was worried with this and that for me it would be a big problem if we lose a lot of time during my phd for miscommunication problems.

He took quite badly my email, but as we had the workplan he somehow agreed that he made a mistake and that he can make mistakes sometimes. And I understand that, everybody can make mistake and it is not that much of a big deal (if it doesn't come too frequently of course). And then he asked me to show him more in details what I did (which I appreciated because it changed from the basic "you took the wrong definition, it will not be usable"). But then at some point he wondered if the whole question I studied was basically a good question to ask on the topic we are researching on.

And here I was really more disappointed because for me it was like he told me to work on something he didn't really wondered if it was worth it. What if this happens again ? Will I lose months of work ?

What's more is that we had a meeting 10 days after I started to work on this and he told me to continue on it.

So, in the end I am very worried about my phd. I am afraid that I will be misguided in what I am doing and that I would lose a lot of time because of it. Also it is very hard to discuss those problem with my phd advisor because he takes it personnally. All the discussions around it happened in a quite bad way (even if at least we ended up with conclusions and things to try).

My main goal is to pursue in academia and as it is very competitive it makes me even more worried.

What do you think about this situation ? Don't hesitate to say if you think I am probably overthinking the problem or whatever, I just need an external point of view, either from professors or phd students.

  • 1
    Complaining will not resolve anything! Well, you must have enough perception to figure out whether this PI can commit for you for X years! Don't ignore real red flags! My advice, if you noticed something serious, you have to rethink again from the beginning.
    – user39171
    Jan 13 '19 at 13:11
  • 4
    Are you both Freemp3 and freemp3 ? multiple accounts are not a good idea...
    – Solar Mike
    Jan 13 '19 at 14:24
  • @SolarMike indeed I am the same person, I made a mistake that was very frustrating because I couldn't comment my own post. It is now solved
    – Freemp3
    Jan 14 '19 at 22:10

From wherever you start, the road to a PhD is never straight. Expect many turns - even dead-ends. Four months is just getting started. Three works of "wasted" effort is, in the greater scheme of things, nearly nothing. Perhaps you learned something in any case.

You are still in learning mode in working with this advisor (and he is in working with you). Don't expect everything to be easy, but it is a poor idea to start out by complaining. What you need is to work out a better communication regime with him so that misunderstandings don't explode, though they may still occur.

In some fields it is common to spend months working on a problem, only to find that it isn't going to result in a dissertation. In my case, I worked on two problems in mathematics that proved to be dead ends. One was too easy so the results were many but trivial. One was too hard and nothing could be learned. The third one was golden. But it took the other two to get settled.

You don't say it, but I wonder whether you are communicating with your advisor frequently enough and effectively enough. An email every few weeks doesn't sound optimal to me. A personal visit every week or so would avoid much of what you fear, I think.

Also, try not to get too discouraged by the (inevitable) setbacks. Scientific progress isn't easy and the path to it is long and difficult. That is in its very nature.

  • Thank you for your answer. I see what you mean, I know for sure I will do mistakes and my supervisor will probably do other ones as well. But the thing that frustrated me is that I feel like he didn't really took the time to think about the problem. I felt like that at the beginning he had let me start to study this problem without really thinking about if it is important, if I had the good tools or not. Because (another thing here) is that after we feedbacked on this miscommunication thing he actually wondered if the whole question I studied on this was actually worth it
    – Freemp3
    Jan 14 '19 at 22:15
  • So, what I'm worried about is that he doesn't really takes the time to think if the objectives he gives me are good or not. But the thing is I will put a lot of effort into trying to solve them. I should indeed probably see him more often to present what I did so that we think more frequently about the question asked.
    – Freemp3
    Jan 14 '19 at 22:17
  • To be more accurate : it is like if he just thinks fastly, on the moment about the question and then give me 4 weeks worth of work related to it. Which is not the same as really having thought about the question and sometimes making a mistake on it.
    – Freemp3
    Jan 14 '19 at 22:21

Let me address one point in particular:

And here I was really more disappointed because for me it was like he told me to work on something he didn't really wondered if it was worth it. What if this happens again? Will I lose months of work?

Yes, he probably asked you to do something that now, in hindsight, informed by your weeks of work, he realizes may not be worthwhile. Yes, this will happen again. Yes, you will "lose" months of work. Welcome to research.

You are attacking problems that nobody knows how to solve. Mistakes are inevitable. Occasional failure is inevitable. Confusion and frustration are inevitable. If it is possible to know in advance that a particular approach will work out, you're not doing research.

Fortunately, this is true for everyone, not just you. Also fortunately, the months of effort that you "waste" on one problem often turn out to be useful for other problems (if only in steering you away from dead ends).

  • Thank you for your answer. See my comment on the above post that are linked also to what you say.
    – Freemp3
    Jan 14 '19 at 22:19

My gut feel and best advice is to move on and get a different advisor. You are early into this thing and the guy has two strikes. Life is a one way journey. Cut the guy off and move on.

Grad school is hard enough and for low enough pay that you don't want to deal with conflicts with an advisor. The ideal one is one who just leaves you alone. "Apprenticeship" is an ideal but not a reality. Just do your own thing. Get some kinder, gentler soul near retirement or preoccupied with administration or the like. Not a young Turk.

I would also advise picking a problem/area that is tractable and interesting to you. One likely to succeed.

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