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I just wanted to get some input from the community about an issue I have run into with my main PhD supervisor.

I started my PhD about two years ago (hard science field), and about six months ago I finished a preliminary draft for most my first article. The draft is about 70 % complete, but I can't write the last part yet because I am still waiting on some final results.

I sent the draft to my main supervisor as I wanted to get some feedback on the parts I had written so far. Just before summer I had a meeting with my supervisor, and it turned out that my supervisor had not read anything in the draft even though I had sent it several weeks before. As such, I felt that the meeting was rather unproductive as I basically had to spend the short time I had allocated explaining what I had actually done research-wise instead of getting feedback on my draft. This also disappointed me a little bit as my supervisor had specifically informed me before that it was preferable that I summarized my findings in article-form instead of just sending random updates whenever I had some progress.

Fast forward until now. This semester I have spent working at another institution, and my supervisor recently came to visit me. Several weeks before this I had informed my supervisor that I would like to discuss my paper draft, and was told that this should not be a problem. However, it turned out yet again that my supervisor had not read antyhing. Instead I was told that as some of my co-supervisors had taken a look at the draft and said it needed a better focus and a thorough rewrite (which I fully expected anyways), there was no need for my main supervisor to read it. However, although my co-advisors have given me good tips on some of the issues in the draft, I still feel like I have not received proper guidance in how I can restructure the entire focus of the article based on my current findings.

As I have spent a lot of time writing this draft, and would like to receive feedback from my main supervisor on how to improve the paper, I find it disappointing that my supervisor has shown so little interest in reading my draft. It is my understanding that reading drafts is one of the main duties of a supervisor. I am now at the stage of my PhD where I can do most of the research independently, but I still feel I need input on my writing.

Is this something I should be more firm about with my supervisor? We have had a very good working relationship so far, but this issue is really starting to bother me. If anyone has any tips on how I can deal with this, then i would greatly appreciate it!

  • 4
    From my own experience, I often have to print off a copy of whatever I've written and sit with my supervisor while he reads it then and there. Use this tactic as a last resort if nothing else works! – astronat Nov 23 '19 at 21:54
  • 5
    70% might be part of the problem. Professors are busy and anything less than a 100% complete draft might get low priority. – wimi Nov 23 '19 at 22:02
  • Thanks both of you for input! I would actually like to read through the manuscript together with my supervisor - maybe I will suggest that. Regarding the 70% issue, I have also thought about this. However, the way I approach my analysis of the final modeling run will depend on how strong my arguments are leading up to this. Which is exactly why I want input on the work I have done so far. And when my supervisor also encourages me to send summaries of my work in written form, only to neglect to look at it when I do so, then I feel a bit bummed out about the whole thing. – Khan0796 Nov 24 '19 at 0:22
  • Supervisors? Plural? OK. That could be a source of frictional losses. – puppetsock Jan 13 at 19:47
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This sounds like a case of your supervisor being too busy and pushing work they consider less essential to the background. I'd suggest that, since you have alternate sources of feedback here, that you explore those and just push on toward the end.

I think it would be harder to avoid something you represent as a "complete" draft or a "final" draft. At that point I hope the supervisor moves your work up to the first level of importance.

Even feedback from a third party might be valuable if you can find a way to get it.

But there is no reason for you to stall your own progress. But trying to force someone to do something they don't see as essential in the moment doesn't sound like a plan for success. Especially when they have the power.

  • Thank you so much. I know my supervisor is very busy. However, as I am now quite independent in my research, I do not really need too much of my supervisor's time anymore. Except that I really wish to get some feedback on my written work. The theoretical foundations I have derived so far will directly influence how I analyze my modeling work, and now I feel I have to rush through everything orally on those few occasions where I meet my supervisor. I do appreciate the third party feedback, and take it into account. And while waiting for my main supervisor, I keep busy on my other proejcts. – Khan0796 Nov 24 '19 at 0:25
  • Feedback from a third party is good, but it doesn't solve the problem. The supervisor must contribute or the relationship is seriously harmed. – Anonymous Physicist Jan 13 at 23:53
  • @AnonymousPhysicist, I don't disagree with that, but the OP can't control it. And they still need feedback from somewhere. Hoping the advisor does a better job may not be effective. Complaining about it may make it worse. Sometimes you just need to solve your own problems. – Buffy Jan 14 at 0:30
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This is a common problem which is very hard to solve.

I suggest telling your supervisor that they need to set a timeline for completion of the project. If the supervisor sets the deadlines for themselves, they might be more likely to stick to the deadlines. If you do this, be sure you meet the deadlines set for you.

1

Unfortunately, your description sounds familiar and is not umcommon. PhD advisors often have more tasks they can manage in their limited time, so they have to set priorities which means that some things are done and others more or less forgotten (new things keep pouring in...). So if you desperately want or need the feedback you have to make sure to rise in the list of priorities.

From an advisor's perspective, it is rather common that your students tend to leave you alone for too long with things they imagine you do not have time for. That can be a big mistake because you effectively take away the decision if it is worth looking at your text away from the advisor (who has probably forgotten about it). It only makes sure to drop in priority until forgotten.

It depends a bit on the character of your advisor and your relationship, but one possible strategy could be to ask in shorter intervals. The idea is to literally get on the advisor's nerves and make it impossible to be forgotten. Some people are grateful for the reminders (I would be), and they still can ignore them (especially when they come as emails). But this way you shift the decision making to your advisor. And a reasonable person would understand that after the 5th (or so) reminder in a short time you really need the feedback - and the advisor will eventually find the time. But keep in mind: For that, the advisor has to postpone something else which is equally pressing. And there always are enough really pressing issues, so yours has to be one, too.

Finally, I would like to highlight one aspect: The feedback you got is valuable already. If your text lacks focus and needs to be rewritten it sounds as if you do not really have a 70% version of the text. In such circumstances it might be unreasonable to push the advisor for some feedback on basic things other people can help you with. Given the limited time of your advisor, I would recommend to use her/his abilities in the last 10% to 20%. If done properly, your text will then make a really big step forward and you get from your advisor what most others could not teach you. I promise that the last 20% will take at least as much time and work as the first 80% (Pareto principle), so you will still have the chance to test the right strategy to activate your advisor.

0

You might have done something to cheese-off your supervisor or co-supervisors. Tara Brabazon has a great guide on how to do just that, and I highly recommend you watch it if you haven't already: https://youtu.be/ROLwP09Ar-0?t=182

If you have not done anything to cheese-off your supervisor/co-supervisors, then maybe look into changing your supervisor. You could also try confronting your supervisor directly and asking them in a civilised and polite tone to explain what is going on. Go in with an open mind, as they may be having personal trouble of their own. Good communication can solve a lot of these problems. Ask your supervisor how you can help them help you.

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Write to your supervisor asking for clarifications on the writing process and how is the supervisor input supposed to be. Suggest to your supervisor that the authorship is under risk if you are the only contributor, that you are not going to waste your time with the paper (which can have an effect in the future) or that you might get interested in your own research topics if this one does not go forward. It's important that you have everything in writing.

  • Too threatening. – Anonymous Physicist Jan 13 at 23:52
  • Those points that I mention are too threatening if written in a direct or improper way in one and only one email, I agree. I think the points can be subtly communicated with diplomatic language or implied intentions. Then a PhD candidate can decide what to do either if the response is clear or ambiguous. Otherwise, if the supervisor's role is ambiguous at some point, this creates uncertainty-stress and can have dire consequences in year 2 and 3 when it's too late. I think asking about clarifications on methodology should not be considered as confrontational. – George Jan 16 at 12:29

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