I shall try to make my former question more on-topic and less personal.

When I started my PhD (maths) a year ago, I was having the following (mostly implicit, though) expectations about how working on a PhD project and the supervision by my professor would be:

guidance-oriented expectations

  • In the few weeks or months, I'd be given articles and other material to work through and to learn new theory from.
  • In regular meetings, we'd make sure that I properly understand what I'd have read.
  • We'd agree on a concrete research topic which the material I'd be given partially enables me to work on.
  • As time passes, I develop a better judgement which literature might help me and what would be interesting questions to work on, so I need less guidance.
  • In first principle, the PhD is an opportunity for me to learn advanced contents.

As it has turned out, none of these expectations have been met; instead, the (implicit) expectations of my supervisor (who supervises a master's or PhD thesis for the 1st time) were:

independence-oriented expectations

  • I'd know which problems I want to work on. Why else should I apply for a PhD position?
  • I'd be able to find literature, articles, conferences etc. on my own; I am a grown-up, aren't I?
  • In the occasional meetings, I'd report on my progress. I should not expect help with scientific questions, because
    • the questions arising from the work we agreed I'd be working on do not match my supervisor's expertise
    • as a researcher, I have to know by myself how to answer my questions.
  • I have been hired to complement the knowledge in the group, so if I want to extend my knowledge, I am free to read any textbook or paper I want.

I am aware that at the end of a PhD, I should better match the latter. However, I was irritated that this is what is expected from me right from the beginning. Of course, this led to some conflict.

Question: Did I have unrealistic expectations?

  • A couple phrases are a bit unclear to me: what do you mean by "1st supervision of any thesis" and "match the letter"?
    – user108403
    May 23, 2019 at 8:49
  • @artificial_moonlet I'm sorry for the (really distorting!) typo. Of course, I should match the latter expectations when finishing. Clarified the other sentence.
    – Anton_P
    May 23, 2019 at 8:57
  • 2
    Did you have any discussions about mentorship style with your supervisor before taking them on as a supervisor?
    – Bryan Krause
    May 23, 2019 at 14:53
  • To me, your ‘guidance’ path is what I would expect for mentoring an upperclass undergraduate (or student intern). I would expect a PhD student to wrestle more with the material themselves.
    – Jon Custer
    May 24, 2019 at 1:11
  • @BryanKrause No, unfortunately not. Before accepting the offer, I was not aware that this is a matter that one might disagree upon.
    – Anton_P
    May 24, 2019 at 9:19

2 Answers 2


From my own experience with different PhD supervisors (I quit working with one, picked up two more) and postdoc supervisors, I think it really comes down to personality differences and communication style. It's not that your expectations were unrealistic or not. It's that you ended up with someone who just works differently and expects different things than you do. For some people, this "independence-oriented" regime is perfect, because they have a specific goal in mind or narrowed down a PhD topic prior to starting the program. Others need a bit more guidance. That's not bad or unrealistic; it's just where you are in your academic journey. If possible, try to find a supervisor whose expectations and personality match yours. Or try to figure out exactly what you want from your relationship with your current supervisor, be as respectful and open as possible about it with him/her/them, and try to work out a plan to make that happen. If your supervisor isn't keen on this approach, then you have two options. 1) Stay in the relationship, accept it will suck until it's over, and focus on getting what you want out of the experience (presumably a Ph.D., papers, etc.). You can seek out other mentors in the meantime. 2) Find a new supervisor.

Edit: now that I understand your supervisor is a first-timer, I think this is further an issue of lack of experience on their part and perhaps a reflection of how they were supervised throughout their career. If presented in calm, reasonable fashion, your supervisor might benefit from hearing what a student's expectations are, at least for when they supervise future students. It's unlikely their overall modus operandi will change, though; these things take lots of time and mistakes. And I would reiterate again that calm, straightforward communication is important. Passive aggression or hoping that your supervisor picks up on subtle cues is counter-productive.


I think this is a good question, because many others here point to basically the same underlying problem, different incentives and expectations of the PhD student and the supervisor, and you outlined the two philosophies pretty much.

And while one intuitively might think the guidance-oriented way is the better and more productive one for student and supervisor, I think it is mostly and only practiced in the first 1-2 years of a PhD odysssey, thereafter a switch to independency-oriented has to happen, otherwise it is questionable what distinguishes your PhD work really from a master/bachelor work.

At the middle and at least at the end of your PhD journey you should know more about the methods, details and open questions in your special niche than your supervisor. And as much PhD graduates are produced nowadays, finishing in fast-track programmes etc., important goals of a PhD like independency and autonomy become more and more diluted in my opinion. But this is just a side note.

Of course, the best mixture or time of transition from guidance to independence-oriented will depend a lot on both your experiences, personalities and work load of your supervisor. But I would always choose a supervisor which offers me more freedom and patience to select and work on my own questions and topics rather than outlining the full path of the PhD or guiding me every month.

Research is often pure chance, luck, the right question hitting the right researcher. Too much guidance can undermine the possibililty a PhD student develops a strong interest and ambition to work on a important problem for many years or spots such a problem at all, and solves it finally. Such risks have to be offered and taken in academia and especially in fundamental research. There is a reason engineering PhD's are often much better paid and last shorter than in fundamental sciences, it's this risk or possibility of insignificant or no outcome of years of research.

So my advise is to see this as a gift, if your supervisor doesn't pressure you to submit every year a paper. This kind of supervisor can have a higher personal interest to easen his way to tenure or fame than fostering your autonomy and independence, which is absolutely necessary to have any chance of getting tenure yourself. And after PhD in my opinion it is too late to develop such traits.

  • 2
    I sort of agree. There are many ways supervision can work, and it can be a shock if the two people involved have different expectations. If you have a supervisor who is willing to let you explore what you want, then take advantage of this for the first ~year and use the time to develop your own interests. Better to end up working on something that has grabbed you as important rather than what a supervisor has told you to work on. You should be able to request guidance, but it sounds like you will need to be leader in the relationship.
    – Flyto
    May 23, 2019 at 17:10

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