I am creating a mathematical model in R (programming language) as part of my thesis. I created the first part of the model no problem and sent it to my advisor. She said I did a fantastic job on it. For the second part, I need to look over some class notes as we did it in class last year. This part is very challenging and I even remember in class that I didn't fully understand it. I have been working for 3 days trying to create this model, but I am not even close. I just can't figure out the code to use. I am trying to use the same code as we did in class, but my model is quite a bit different than the class examples so I can't figure it out. I tried looking online as well, but this type of model analysis is not very common so there are not many resources available.

I need to get going on the project so it may be better to meet with my advisor so she can show me how to do it. But I am afraid to ask as this is something I should know how to do. I would like your help with drafting up an email to ask her for help.

  • Don't worry too much that you don't know everything. Don't worry too much that you might have missed something. Meeting and asking for guidance is an excellent way to handle it. You may have some minor misconception that is blocking you from moving forward. Many students do, actually.
    – Buffy
    Commented Jan 15, 2020 at 18:40
  • 1
    Is this a PhD thesis? It would give a better idea of the level of complexity you are likely to be dealing with.
    – LnZ
    Commented Jan 16, 2020 at 9:22
  • There are good answers already, but try to think that you may have been trying to work with poor/incomplete references, whereas, if your advisor is an expert in the field (and especially if he knows how to code in R) he should know good references and gladly send them to you on request.
    – Mefitico
    Commented Jan 16, 2020 at 12:13
  • Often, academic materials handed out for students are oversimplified, because they're being taught how to use tools rather than how to develop them. When working with research, you'll need to do both. And references to understand how to develop a tool may be hard to come by in some specific fields.
    – Mefitico
    Commented Jan 16, 2020 at 12:38

4 Answers 4


The way to frame your question can have a huge impact. If you did your due diligence and researched some material on this (books, lectures, papers, StackExchange!), and are still stuck, then there is a chance that your questions are more than valid.

If you start your email or personal question by: "I have tried three ways to do this.." and then show/tell them that you have honestly tried your best, your supervisor should help you out. That's what they are for.

Also, feeling like a fool today may accelerate your advance in the future. Postponing communication like this is not always wise (given that you've done your part).


I have been working for 3 days...but I am not even close

Research takes time, three days isn't very long. (Albeit, I'm unfamiliar with the specifics.)

I am trying to use the same code as we did in class, but my model is quite a bit different than the class examples so I can't figure it out.

Ask your peers, a teaching assistant, whoever taught the class, ..., how to apply what you learnt to your model.

it may be better to meet with my advisor so she can show me how to do it

During your regular meeting (if you don't have them, start), explain what you've done and the problems you've encountered, your advisor should be able to offer guidance. But, you can ask others too.

I would like your help with drafting up an email to ask her for help.

Ask in person.

  • Actually, no. The advisor is the best person to ask. That is because, if they are wise, they won't just "answer" your query but help you reach it yourself, deepening your learning. Others will just give you an answer that may be correct, but still contributes very little to your learning. Good advisors give hints, not answers.
    – Buffy
    Commented Jan 15, 2020 at 18:24
  • @Buffy If someone "just give[s] you an answer that may be correct," then you've asked the wrong person. Assuming "[t]he advisor is the best person to ask," limits the student's network of knowledge. An advisor is a resource, use them sparingly, for the hardest of problems.
    – user2768
    Commented Jan 16, 2020 at 8:32

Your supervisor is there to guide and mentor you during this process. As long as you have done your due diligence and can show the avenues you have tried and why those avenues didn't work, your supervisor will most likely be perfectly happy to help you with what your next step might be to solve the problem.

I work in a research environment, have supervised students and work closely with colleagues who do the same. Postponing communication, as @MPIchael says, is not always wise, especially if you have made a genuine attempt to solve the problem. Waiting too long wastes precious time. Both yours and your supervisor's. If one of my students can show me their thought process and give me something to work with, I am very happy to point out where they might have taken a wrong turn. I am not thrilled when someone comes to me and just says "I don't know what to do" without giving me anything to build on.

From the sounds of it, it is not for lack of trying that you are struggling. You even said that she was very happy with the first part of the model so she clearly sees that you are working hard. If this is a PhD thesis... the work is meant to be complex and original. It would be odd if you weren't struggling at some points.

I would suggest using email to set up an appointment to discuss your progress. It is a good idea to have face-to-face meetings when you are trying to understand and convey more complex topics. When you meet with her, explain your thinking behind your approach, what you have tried and why it hasn't worked and then ask her if she can see anything wrong with what you have attempted and whether she could point you in the right direction :)


I agree with MPIchael but want to present it from a somewhat different angle.

You're feeling embarrassed that you don't know how to do something, that your supervisor previously taught you. This isn't needed. Science isn't easy. If it was, anyone could do it and we wouldn't need to go to university to learn.

Consider it a matter of professionalism. Suppose you're working at a company and you're tasked with a project. You get to work but then you run into a problem that needs to be solved before the project can go forward.

  • You could go to your team lead for help. Your team lead probably knows how to do it, but they're also busy with other responsibilities. Your team lead thought you could do this yourself.
  • You could try to solve it yourself. You don't know if this is going to take a few hours extra or a few weeks extra.

What should you do? If you go cry for help immediately, you'll look bad. If after a few weeks you have to admit that you still haven't gotten close to a solution, you also look bad, because now the project is badly behind schedule. So the most professional solution is to try yourself for a reasonable amount of time, but go to your team lead if it starts taking too long.

Your situation is the same. You're not in high school anymore. In high school you should never have gotten any assignment that you weren't able to handle. But in university (and the rest of the "real world") it's entirely possible to run into a problem that you won't be able to handle without help.

So after doing your due diligence, seeking help is the most rational thing to do. And in university you should never be ashamed of being rational.

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