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I am a second year PhD student in math. I recently feel miserable working with my current advisor so I am considering switching advisor or adding a second advisor.

A few problems I can think of at this moment which make me want another advisor include:

  • He constantly forgets meeting. For example, I schedule it with him on Wednesday. He would probably forget it on Friday. Of course this is minor if I send out a reminder in the morning on the day...
  • I feel he is not able to suggest me good references or offer help. I am surely not an independent enough student that can work on my own yet. I kept desperately seeking answers online, asking everywhere, and probably spamming the authors who wrote the papers... This is probably the right way of doing research, but I doubt whether I could speed up my progress a bit if I could get more help from my advisor.
  • I guess one reason also for the last paragraph is he is giving me something that he is not very familiar with. I believe this is probably the case with most advisors. But once I tried to search for a long time and just could not find an object in the problem that he suggested me, and it turned out he remembered it wrong... I just wish he could be less careless.

I actually kind of transferred following my advisor to this university, so I tried to work with him since I came here, though I actually did not really start working with him in my previous school and came here as a first year student. I always thought seeking for another advisor would again take effort, and the miseries come and go, so I just did not do anything with it.

What I am thinking now is, if everything like the above is normal for a math advisor, then I would like to convince myself and go along with it. My miseries are probably just what I need to bare to do math, but If it is not, I really hope to get more help and support from my advisor for my next a few years in grad school. I guess one direct reason why I am posting this is I have not made any progress reading one paper (not even doing a problem) since 3 or 4 months ago. I could not answer my advisor's questions about the paper perfectly as he wants and he would not let me move on. I do not really see the meaning of doing it and he could not give any suggestions, and I started to hate the math and lost motivations, so I think I definitely want some adjustment, either real or mental.

Thanks in advance for any advice.

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He constantly forgets meeting.

That's normal (and perhaps a good sign). You need to take control and establish a procedure to ensure meetings take place. (It's perhaps a good sign, since it suggests your supervisor is busy.

I feel he is not able to suggest me good references or offer help.

For good references, that's probably normal: You've been conducting research for over one year and your knowledge of the research domain now exceeds your supervisor's, hence, you are more familiar with the good references. An exception arises if the good references are unspecialised, but that doesn't seem to be the case, since "he is giving me something that he is not very familiar with."

For offer help, you'll need to provide more context. As it stands, I cannot judge whether the degree of help is normal.

once I...could not find [what] he suggested me, and it turned out he remembered it wrong

That's normal, he's human.

I guess one direct reason why I am posting this is I have not made any progress reading one paper (not even doing a problem) since 3 or 4 months ago.

This is perhaps your real problem.

I could not answer my advisor's questions about the paper perfectly as he wants and he would not let me move on.

That's good; you probably need to understand the material before you move on.

I do not really see the meaning of doing it

Why not?

and he could not give any suggestions,

What suggestions do you expect?

and lost motivations,

See elsewhere on this forum for questions regarding lost motivation.

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  • Thanks. I expect at least one or two readings on topics that he suggested if I ask. I expect the problem that he gives me to solve at least is, to some extent, carefully chosen with probably a second thought. I know things differ between advisors. I can adjust my expectations if these are not reasonable for an average advisor, though I really admire my friends' excessively nice ones, or my undergrad advisor who is still sending me good papers & books to look at until now... still learning to be a grad student. – chikurin Jan 25 '19 at 4:20
  • About meaning of doing something, I guess I just didn't see the significance of the thing that I am looking at... – chikurin Jan 25 '19 at 5:02
  • What does I expect at least one or two readings on topics that he suggested if I ask mean? I expect the problem that he gives me to solve at least is, to some extent, carefully chosen with probably a second thought That's unrealistic, your supervisor will make mistakes (hence, "solvable as-is" won't always hold) and the degree to which anything can be carefully chosen during a meeting is restricted (due to time constraints). – user2768 Jan 25 '19 at 8:04
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As suggested in other answers here, none of the things you describe are necessarily deal breakers.

But you don't give any positive aspects of the relationship. A lot of relatively small negatives can add up.

I'm going to guess that you've made up your mind already, even if you haven't noticed it, and simply want confirmation that it is ok to go. Yes, it is ok to go. There is little worse in a doctoral program than having an advisor who isn't right for you. If you don't have some big positive sense that makes the negatives less important, then you should start looking for a different advisor. You don't have to break ties before you start to search, of course. But explore the options, at least.

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  • Thanks. I posted this because everything just kind of burst out at 2 or 3 am when I couldn't sleep. The day after when I re-read this post I felt as lazy as usual to take any action. I've actually been thinking about it for half a year. As pointed out from other answer I also heard from my therapy group members, not making any progress might be the main stressor for me right now, which I didn't notice. Just going to try longer to see if the math could work out, though I literally need to cry several times a day looking at it. I'll also try to talk to other faculties more at the same time. – chikurin Jan 25 '19 at 4:51
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  1. The meeting forgetting is minor. There can be way worse aspects of an advisor (competition, power struggles, etc.)

  2. Giving good references: in an ideal world, "apprenticeship" would be more normal. However the reality is that many grad students forge their own path and are even expected to do so. Definitely this is the case in experimental sciences with large groups and advisors who have teaching responsibilities and spend a lot of time grubbing for money, etc. Perhaps this is a bit different in math because the groups are smaller and the work is harder. But still, perhaps it is somewhat the case in math also. I would lean to assuming you need to do your own work.

  3. Project selection: this is a big issue. It's probably the most important part of a Ph.D. to pick a problem that is tractable. Advisors are not the ones doing the work. It is easy for them to assign "nice to know" projects that are too difficult or have low likelihood of success. And then the risk/reward is dramatically different and the pain of failure much harder on you.


Based on what you say so far, I would try to pivot to some easier project that is more tractable. Probably with a different advisor, perhaps with yours. Would be open to some field of math that is not as challenging as what you are in (stats or OR versus Andrew Wiles stuff) if such a change is still feasible. You seem to need something easier.

Note, I'm not sure if the issue is you were given an unreasonable problem or if you don't have the traits to deal with what was assigned. But it sort of doesn't matter. Find a better match. You've been doing this a little while and some parts of your question text make me think it unlikely you will succeed with challenging material. (It's OK. Michael Jordan was bad at baseball.

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It is worth noting here that you could choose to keep your advisor and add additional “mentors” to your team. This may mean increasing your relationship with committee members or forming mentorship relationships with other faculty or perhaps more advanced grad students. In this way, your advisor can be appreciated for his good points and you can go to him when you have problems or questions that relate to his strengths.

Ideally you will have a team of mentors across many sub-fields and universities by the time your graduate. You will tap each person when they can be the most helpful resource rather than relying on one person (and thank them appropriately in your publications, of course).

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  • Thanks. That's one thing that I think I indeed need to do, to get a supporting team... it's hard, but trying. – chikurin Jan 24 '19 at 18:26

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