I am a doctoral student in economics and have problems with the progress of my doctoral thesis because my supervisor hardly cares about my work. I currently need some feedback and comments from him, as I cannot publish my results before. This problem is not a current problem, but has existed since the beginning of my PhD. It seems that this is not only the case for me, but also for other doctoral candidates and students who are supervised by him. During the semester I can go to his office if I have a question. However, even at these meetings he almost never read my work before and told me that he had no time or had forgotten about it. Currently, these personal meetings are also not possible due to the coronavirus. Therefore I have already sent him e-mails several times, but he hardly answers my messages.

So I would like to ask how I can politely express that I would like to see more commitment from him? Otherwise he is very friendly and can also help me with technical problems (if he does this once). I therefore do not want to burden the relationship with too negative criticism.

How can I get him to 1) read my current work in the near future and 2) generally pay more attention to my thesis.

Can anyone give me any recommendations on this?

  • 2
    "I currently need some feedback and comments from him, as I cannot publish my results before."—Can you elaborate on this? Is there a formal reason why you cannot publish before getting feedback from your supervisor? Apr 17, 2020 at 4:32
  • 1
    @GregMartin probably the supervisor is a coauthor?
    – benxyzzy
    Apr 17, 2020 at 20:01
  • Things are different between fields. In many fields, you do not need your supervisor's approval to submit papers and get feed back from other professors.
    – Wang
    Apr 17, 2020 at 22:42
  • 1
    Ask students who worked with him successfully for advice. Each supervisor has their own quirks, and quirks often explain bad behaviors. Apr 18, 2020 at 1:54
  • Maybe try to change supervisor if possible if he is genuinely bad, some PhD supervisors are poor and only take on students because they are required to.
    – Tom
    Apr 18, 2020 at 22:53

7 Answers 7

  1. Realise your own commitment first. As a PhD candidate, you are training to become an independent researcher. Ideally, you aim to reach the stage when you are able to tell good results from bad, proofread and edit your own writing, prepare the PhD thesis for publication and defence. Many PhD candidates struggle because their advisers are over-protective and micromanage every step, leaving them little chance for self-reflection and self-improvement. Embrace the freedom to do your research your way and to learn from your own mistakes in the process. Own your work and own responsibility for making it better.
  2. Use others. Many questions can be answered by people other than your PhD supervisor. Use online resources, such as Stack Exchange, use other peers and colleagues, use support systems in your department. Ask questions, try to understand answers, find and use the relevant literature. Do not sit and passively wait for your adviser to come back to you with suggestions - use this time to find the answer yourself.
  3. Do not wait for your supervisor's approval of your work. Assume that silence is a sign of approval and move on. If in doubt, show your work to someone else and ask for their advice. Politely cc your supervisor in the email. It may work wonders.
  4. Understand the process of submission and clearly distinguish the points when your supervisor is essential to move forward, from those when their advice is only desirable. Politely ask your supervisor to give you feedback by a particular date, but be prepared to move forward regardless of whether or not you receive the response. Depending on your University structure, you may even be able to submit your thesis without your PhD supervisor's approval. Know the people who are in charge of the PG education in your University - such as Research Office of Head of Department - and cc them in all really important emails (but only in really important ones). They may help to encourage your supervisor to find time to give you feedback or approval when it's critical.
  • 4
    I definitely agree with this. Understand and adapt to the format of the meeting. Assume nothing has been read before your meeting. Come with a verbal summary and a few key tables or equations for the supervisor to react to. Use external deadlines to get their attention. Arrange to present to the department and do a mock presentation to your advisor first. Ask for a “friendly review” in advance of submission or ask who among the department would be best to get a friendly review from (usually will be someone more junior but that is fine).
    – Dawn
    Apr 16, 2020 at 14:38
  • @Dmitry Savostyanov In fact, these are all valid points. However, I am still at the beginning of my doctorate and therefore have relatively many questions. The questions are also of a more technical nature, such as questions about the publication of my article. He even offered me to publish it together. So I can demand that he read my very first article and answer my questions.
    – TobKel
    Apr 16, 2020 at 15:01
  • 2
    “Assume that silence is a sign of approval and move on.” This suggestion is super useful and awesome:D +1 Apr 16, 2020 at 16:05
  • 27
    Re: "Assume that silence is a sign of approval and move on.” -- I've found it helpful to make this explicit in communications; "Here's the abstract I intend to submit to the conference; let me know by Wednesday if there's any changes you want made" / "Here's the final draft of the paper; if I haven't heard by you by next Tuesday, I'll submit it".
    – user73076
    Apr 16, 2020 at 20:56
  • 3
    This does not answer the question at all and some of the advice is dangerous. Apr 18, 2020 at 1:49

You seem to be saying that this professor doesn't spend a lot of time with his students generally. There could be a lot of reasons (valid ones as well as invalid) for that. With a lot of students and his own research program he just may be too busy and expects students to be self motivated. Maybe it is an institutional problem, with too many students and too few professors. Maybe he is just lazy.

But, if you send me 40 pages or so and set up a meeting then I'm probably not going to be able to find the time to read them before the meeting, even if I have good intentions. And with five other students doing the same, it just doesn't work.

My suggestion, then, is to avoid flooding him with stuff to prepare for prior to any meeting. One way is to send only what is completely essential to read prior to the meeting and on which you will have question. An abstract of recent work.

But there is a way to make such things easy to communicate. Suppose you send me a 40 page pdf to review, but you have used some simple tech tool to highlight (just as with a highlighter pen) those few passages that have recently changed and, perhaps in a different color, those for which you need advice. Now I can quickly scan your document and the recent things and the important things jump out at me. I can review it in five minutes, perhaps even with the meeting in progress. And having the rest of the stuff without highlighting gives me context if needed.

Note that I used to do this with students who were developing large computer programs incrementally. They highlighted the changes for my review. And so I could give advice (by commenting on the typed pages) to the entire class in about an hour.

Another way to think of this is that you probably can't change his behavior, but you can make your interactions efficient enough that you get what you need.

  • 4
    Yes! Adapt your interactions and your presentation of info. Don’t expect them to change their behavior.
    – Dawn
    Apr 16, 2020 at 14:39
  • @Buffy I think he supervises relatively few students. Nor is he currently working on any major research project. I think he's just very disorganized. The point is that we publish my article together and he offered me to read it. But I've been waiting more than four months for it. I can't publish before then. But I also think that I can at least make the interaction more efficient.
    – TobKel
    Apr 16, 2020 at 15:22

You're going to have to let go of the idea that anything you do is going to change how your advisor acts. Concentrate on the things you can control. It's ok to feel frustrated, it's ok to think poorly of your advisor for this behavior, it's ok to decide to switch advisors or leave the PhD program if you'd prefer that to working with your advisor, but trying to change your advisor is just going to make you miserable and not accomplish anything.

  • That he cares little for my doctoral thesis is one thing. I think the main problem is that he doesn't keep the promises he makes to me.
    – TobKel
    Apr 17, 2020 at 6:44
  • "trying to change your advisor is just going to make you miserable and not accomplish anything." Maybe, maybe not. Sometimes these problems are caused by misunderstanding. Apr 18, 2020 at 1:55

I strongly disagree with all the answers suggesting that it's your job to work around the problem. When you are a PhD student, and doing a PhD with a supervisor who agreed to serve that role for you, then you should be entitled to sufficient attention from the supervisor to do your job properly, and certainly to timely responses by email, especially in a situation like the current pandemic. To me what you say does not reflect well on your advisor at all. Here are some ideas:

  • Ask to set up regularly scheduled meetings with the advisor, like once every week, or every two weeks at most. (Of course, now these meetings would be remote.) This is an entirely reasonable thing to have during a PhD. Make sure that the time slot is either regular, or fixed from one meeting to the next. Of course, if the advisor starts postponing these meetings or forgets about them, that's more proof that they are failing at their job.

  • Try getting it touch with other PhD students of your advisor to understand better whether they are having similar problems or if it's just with you. This can be helpful to understand the situation, what works (e.g., your fellow PhD students know the advisor is unreliable by email but more reliable by phone, etc.), and if you are all having the same problem it makes your case stronger.

  • If your institution has some kind of doctoral school, support system for PhD students, ombudsperson, or evaluation for PhDs independent from the supervisor (which is common in Europe), try raising the issue with them. They can advise you better than we can, and then can get in touch with your advisor in the right way to make them understand, and in the most dire cases they can try to help you find another advisor.

  • Alternatively, raise your concerns with your advisor directly. Don't ask for vague things like attention, but for specifics (e.g., answers to your emails within some delay), using factual evidence (e.g., you didn't reply to emails X, Y and Z), and without being confrontational (framing this as "let's find a way to work together which works for us both"). But this is challenging because of the power dynamic, so I won't blame you if you prefer raising the point with some independent party (see previous point) -- this is the reason why these structures exist.

  • He gets extra money for supervising my PhD. Therefore I also think that more commitment on his part is necessary. But all of these are very good points!
    – TobKel
    Apr 18, 2020 at 12:27
  • I'm not sure what "entitled" means here. On the one hand, OP deserves better treatment, but on the other hand there's no way to actually force the advisor to change. Apr 20, 2020 at 23:37
  • Well, there are ways. If you go to the doctoral school or these kinds of structures with clear evidence that the supervisor is negligent in their duties, they can nudge the supervisor and pressure them to do their job. They can help sidestep the problem by finding another advisor. This has consequences for the negligent advisor's reputation (with their colleagues and collaborators), and can impact their career (e.g., the doctoral school or department no longer approving PhD theses with them). So yes, you can't force other people to change, but they may have to face the consequences.
    – a3nm
    Apr 21, 2020 at 6:57

This is not a full response, but just some suggestions. I had a supervisor who was very busy/disorganized and these tips helped:

  • More frequent, shorter meetings. Before each, I would email part of the paper a week in advance of the meeting (e.g., introduction). If they had not read it by the meeting, I would provide a paper copy that they could read in front of me (a bit awkward, but it worked - and provided incentive to read the next piece via email).
  • Giving "polite" deadlines with long periods of time for supervisor to plan to read your paper. For example, if it is April 1: "Hello all/supervisor; I've attached the recent draft of our paper. I plan to submit this to Journal XYZ on April 30. If you have any comments or suggested revisions, please provide them by that date. I'll send a reminder on April 20." This is a really reasonable amount of time for someone to get back to you. On April 20, you can send another email, "Hi ___, just a reminder that I'll be submitting the draft ms on April 30. If I don't hear back I'll assume you're ok to go ahead with the draft as-is". This may seem pushy, but 30 days is more than enough time to read a paper and get back to you (unless it's over a holiday/supervisor has emergency family thing etc). Be clear and unapologetic.
  • Yes these are helpful points. It will be a good orientation!
    – TobKel
    Apr 18, 2020 at 18:34

This is making a big leap, but: Consider if your advisor has attention deficit disorder.

In the comments, you said your advisor is very disorganized and does not keep his commitments. These are common symptoms of attention deficit disorder. The stereotype that only children get it is wrong. Plenty of senior faculty have it. Plenty of people of all types have it.

  • Avoid asking the supervisor to multitask
  • Request small blocks of the supervisor's time
  • Break the supervisor's work into small peices - give them one at a time
  • Use visuals
  • Structure your requests

Consider switching advisors, or if you have more than one, choose another to be the supervisor. This puts pressure on him. Number of theses chaired is one of the metrics that departments look at (a measure of 'service'). If he's tenured it won't have a job impact on him but most professors don't want to look bad among their peers. If you and other students limp along with a lack of guidance the problem likely won't get addressed. Of course that's dependent on finding another willing and able research sponsor.

You might also consider an anonymous and anonymized letter to the department chair, that summarizes the views of multiple students. Offer to give specific examples, metrics or stories, though that's higher risk. Create a separate gmail account for that so you can respond to questions.

  • 1
    anonymized letter ... that summarizes the views of multiple students -- Is not it an oxymoron? Apr 16, 2020 at 21:34
  • Unfortunately, I only have one supervisor. My faculty is very small. So there's no one else in the same field. I think an anonymous letter is a last resort. I've already thought about talking to his secretary. She's been much more cooperative in that regard.
    – TobKel
    Apr 17, 2020 at 6:51
  • First paragraph might be good advice; second paragraph doesn't sound constructive. Apr 18, 2020 at 1:51
  • 1
    Talking with the secretary is a good idea. You can speak in generalities. Take the questions and answers and get feed back from secretary. Start with one and see how that goes. The secretary's unwritten job is to provide liaison between the students and the prof. An experienced secretary should be able to answer all these questions. Apr 18, 2020 at 20:13

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