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I just started my PhD. I work in an interdisciplinary field so I have 3 supervisors from different fields.

Up until now, we had 4 research meetings together and the weird thing was everytime I came up with an idea, it was immediately rejected. Although, they gave me reasons why they rejected it, it always feels like they didn't really understand what I was trying to say exactly. I did not want to push on because I fear it may make them feel dumb in front of others because they don't understand what I am saying.

But yesterday, we had another meeting and I got really annoyed. One of the supervisors came up with an idea and the others all thought it was a great idea. But I actually mentioned the idea a long time ago, but it was immediately rejected back then.

This makes me feel really depressing since it feels like it's mainly my fault for not communicating properly but at the same time it somehow feels like my supervisors are willfully rejecting my ideas because of my status as a fresh PhD student.

How do I deal with this?

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    If the old idea is now accepted, why can't you use the same reasoning presented initially to reject the idea now? In general, my advice is to learn to come up with better ideas and defend your ideas; all part of the research process. When you submit a paper for review, you are essentially asking reviewers -- what do you think of my idea? reviewers are more ruthless than your supervisors. The worst part: you may have spent months or years on it, and it could go down the drain if it turns out to be a bad idea. So think of your current situation as identifying the best idea going forward. – Prof. Santa Claus Jul 22 at 22:27
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    If this 'filtering stage' is done well, especially by experienced people and with proper due diligence, you will save yourself lots of time later on. Also, you will find it easier to publish if the idea is interesting or fresh; this requires experience and maturity in a given area. Otherwise, your ideas will be trivial to the experts. – Prof. Santa Claus Jul 22 at 22:32
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    Just a personal anecdote: when I started my PhD, I went to my advisor with many half-baked research ideas that he (politely) rejected. Eventually we settled on a topic that he suggested; looking back after gaining a few years of experience, I can now see that most of the ideas I presented were at best uninteresting, and at worst deeply and obviously flawed. Not saying that your ideas are bad, just that sometimes the feedback of the supervisor can be very valuable to a new student (it was in my case) – Superbee Jul 23 at 0:56
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    If you feel depressed, you should speak to a mental health professional about it. If your supervisors are consistently negative over a substantial period of time, you should get new supervisors. Four meetings is not many. – Anonymous Physicist Jul 23 at 2:21
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    Mandatory phdcomics : phdcomics.com/comics.php?f=2006 – Soltius Jul 23 at 8:30
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When I was in medical devices we had lab books to support potential patent claims etc..

Write your ideas in a lab book.

If it happens again, you could try to say something like, 'I think I may have a communication issue. I suggested this idea on xxx but it appears I may not have communicated the concept very well. Perhaps I'm letting myself down in communicating my ideas very well. If it happens again could you let me know so that I can better express myself.'

You've taken it on the chin, asked them for help in a non academic way and brought to attention your original idea. Everytime they do it, you can remind them in this manner, they'll have to take you seriously eventually; if they continue to dismiss your ideas and then suggest them later, you'll have a strong record for challenging that behaviour etc..

Very importantly be respectful, they may just find it hard to understand you.

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    This is passive-agressive. Don't do it. – Anonymous Physicist Jul 23 at 2:16
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    @AnonymousPhysicist I don't feel it is passive aggressive. It's the standard "don't blame them, propose a working solution". Why do you think so? – justhalf Jul 23 at 3:05
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    "I think I may have a communication issue" when it's pretty clear what you communicated and they rejected it defs seems passive aggressive to me, but it may depend on whose ears it falls on. – user541686 Jul 23 at 10:45
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    @user541686 The real question there is did OP clearly communicate the same thing? It may have been explained badly, or key information that OP though was "obvious" may have been left out - in which case, there is a communication issue. It might even be down to the way the information is presented making the subject sound boring or not worthwhile from one person, but really interesting from how the other talks about it. A comparison between the two presentations would be useful for OP – Chronocidal Jul 23 at 12:28
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    Given the information from OP there are three possibilities: The ideas are indeed different but not distinguishable by the student (in which this approach helps to spark a discussion how exactly the ideas are different), there is an communication problem (in which this approach would give OP the chance to learn how to communicate the idea better) or the supervisors act in bad faith rejecting an idea just because it comes from a student (in which case this approach might backfire). In any case writing down your ideas to later evaluate them again is not aggressive, given good faith. – syntonym Jul 23 at 12:55
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There are several possible explanations for this. First, maybe your advisors couldn't fully understand your ideas because you are still not fluent in the jargons of the field. Second, (as suggested by Steven Gubkin in the comment), it is possible that your idea and your advisor's idea are actually different, but the difference is perhaps too subtle for you to tell. Third, there could be a status issue going on, where new students' ideas tend to not be taken seriously. Fourth, your advisors could simply be forgetful, and did not realize that the ideas they are proposing were once suggested by you.

All of these explanations are, unfortunately, quite common. Regardless, it is important for you as a student to learn to articulate clearly your ideas and to defend your ideas. It may also help to talk with other students who have worked with your advisors to see if what you are experiencing is a more persistent/serious problem; if so, it may be a good time to find some less abusive advisors.

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    Good answer. I think that "forgetful" is the most probable explanation. – Anonymous Physicist Jul 23 at 2:19
  • "Forgetful" can't be the sole explanation here. It could have been if supervisors originally approved the idea, and later presented it as their own, but since the idea was originally rejected first or/and second (or other) explanations had to happen. – Akavall Jul 23 at 20:51
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    There is a 4th option, which is that OP doesn't know enough to tell the difference between his idea and the advisor's idea, but these ideas are actually totally different. – Steven Gubkin Jul 24 at 14:21
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Yes, you might have a communication problem. Hopefully that will improve over time as you are still new at this.

But, if the "new" idea appeals to you, I suggest that you swallow your pride and run with it. Never mind that someone else thinks they thought of it first. It is possible that your earlier suggestion is what put that thought into their head.

I had a somewhat similar situation when writing a book and reviewers kept asking for changes. Eventually we went around a circle and wound up where I started. I was happy, they were happy. (Well, I complained to the editor, but the pride was strong in me, then.) Anyway that is where it was left and the book got published.

If the "new" idea doesn't appeal to you then you are in the same situation. I'd suggest that, instead of presenting your ideas orally, you write them up as best you can and use that writeup as the basis of any meeting. Perhaps it will make things clearer to the supervisors. And, having those notes can also be the basis of future work when you are more independent.

But remember, for now, that the main task is to get to graduation by an acceptable path in reasonable time. Don't fight when you don't need to.

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    +1 Ideas are a dime a dozen. It sure isn't easy to let it go, but this situation is just normal. I know a few people who said they had to present their ideas for >6 months to their PI, until he surprisingly "came up with the same idea". Coincidentally, by that time they had already started working on the implementation. In the end, not all ideas work, and what really matters is successful execution. Just be happy you can work on something you enjoy. – cheersmate Jul 24 at 7:57
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Interdisciplinary!

There is your problem right there. It's a recipe for problems. Too many cooks ...

Any project with more than one manager is tough. I had this problem in a job once. On appointment I had a single manager, we got on famously and everyone was happy. After restructuring imposed from above, my manager's job turned into something else and his original post wasn't renewed. This left me with three different managers in three different departments. It was hell. Each inevitably thinks their part is the most important and believes that you are working full-time for them.

Solution

Agree on the idea they agreed on. Forget your pride. In fact congratulate them on coming up with such a great idea. Instead of getting off to a bad start with all three, they will see you as having sound judgement in accepting "their" idea. This means they will be more disposed to let you get on with it rather than constantly interfering.

This will be a great lesson for you in practical psychology and in managing people - in this case you will be managing your own managers!

Being positive about others is a vital skill. If you criticise one supervisor behind their back, word will get around and no-one will trust you in the end. Praise people behind their backs and you will become someone that everyone wants to work with.

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Take it as a learning experience.

You can't change what happened, but you can be at least partially happy if you still think that your idea was good and if you want to work on it in the future.

There are several things you can learn from it, two of which I think are especially useful, not only in academia:

  • Learn that selling an idea is important and necessary even if the idea should ideally speak for itself. Present your reasoning behind your idea, why it is worth examining, give advantages over different ways to come to a similar result.
  • Learn that there is a step between having an idea and being able to sell it. You may be convinced by your thought, but others may want to have some sort of proof before they accept your reasoning. Always assume that your opponent asks for some sort of back-up to your plain claim. Be ready to have an explanation when they ask for it. Often this means that you need to invest a small amount of work into your idea even before it is clear that it will be accepted. This makes sure that some of the most basic mistakes in your argumentation can theoretically be ruled out before you even present your idea.

If your field is in natural sciences, make some basic assumptions and estimate what you could achieve when you follow this idea. Maybe you find a mistake in your idea, then you saved yourself and your colleagues time while learning simething. Maybe you realise that it is just what you expect, then, great, you can go to your supervisors with confidence and discuss it on a scientific base, with more than beliefs.

I think most of us have made similar experiences throughout their (academical) career. Although it is frustrating at first, it changes to the positive as soon as you understand how to discuss your thoughts with your colleagues and supervisors. In hindsight, this is the most important part of my time in academia.

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But yesterday, we had another meeting and I got really annoyed. One of the supervisors came up with an idea and the others all thought it was a great idea. But I actually mentioned the idea a long time ago, but it was immediately rejected back then.

Here is everything which could have happened:

  1. Your supervisors have some malicious/negative attitude towards you which motivated them to reject your idea.
  2. Your supervisors are unconsciously biased against ideas coming from you, but don't have that bias against ideas by their peers.
  3. You did not communicate your idea as well as your supervisor: It wasn't clear what you were suggesting; or the context/motivation wasn't clear.
  4. They didn't really reject that idea last time, but you misconstrued their response. Perhaps they were voicing potential criticism, to see how committed you are or whether you've thought it through, and you just let it silence you.
  5. It isn't really the same idea - it's different in a subtle way which makes it better or more acceptable to your other supervisors.

Now, I would like to take option 1 off the table right away - since I find it unlikely that people will take on junior researchers when they harbor animosity towards them. But I guess it's not impossible, even if unlikely. If you have evidence of that - you might need to be asking a different question altogether. So I'll assume that this is not the case.

So, putting that aside - I'd try to invest some effort in figuring out which of the other four options it was. This needs to be done carefully and delicately because of the possibility that it was option 2; but you also have to be open to the possibility that it's 3 or 5.

Consider talking, in private, to the supervisor or colleague you trust the most, describing the situation in a non-accusative, non-assertive way ("I think that X" instead of "X"; "I felt that Y" instead of "Obviously Y" etc.) - and trying, delicately, to understand which of the four latter options is actually the case. Also make it clear that you are trying to understand what happened rather than make accusations or demand action.

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    @JeffE: Hmm. You know what? Ok, I guess I'm over-generalizing. Let me edit accordingly. – einpoklum Jul 24 at 19:51
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There may be some kind of political turf war going on that you're not aware of. It is easy for a newbie to stumble into a political minefield without realizing it, and sometimes the results can be quite nasty. If they found an idea that they all thought was great, it might have been because it was something that didn't step on anybody's toes, so they could all agree to it. The idea wasn't interesting when YOU proposed it: you weren't one of the power players so you don't need to be taken seriously. (I'm not saying that this is what's happening in your case. Only that I've seen it happen often enough to consider it a reasonable possibility.) In any event, your coping strategy is to keep quiet and watch while the elephants dance. With luck you may eventually be able to figure out what's going on. Good luck!

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Most of the answers are sharing their perspective and it is highly likely that it might aptly suit you.

I have another perspective and some insight into how supervisors work. Of course, every supervisor is different.

Supervisors generally do not prepare before a meeting. Especially if they have high number of students to supervise. Supervisors are usually driven by their own agenda and more often than not, their goal is to have a successful PhD student who does research in the area of supervisor's strict choice.

So if your ideas are not in sync with this objective(s) it is very unlikely that they will support you or even take the effort to understand what you are trying to say. So try to be in sync with their goals. It will provide you with a pleasant experience.

Supervisors read papers, review manuscripts and thesis and also talk to other students and colleagues. They get ideas through these interactions. So, many a time your idea if happens to be similar to the ones in those interaction then it will immediately click with them.

Supervisors are human beings who are less interested in your PhD than yourself - which is fine. So you cannot expect their 100% attention or devotion.

What you should do is try to read similar papers, attend similar talks and try to understand the psychology of the people in the group to which your supervisors belong to. In time, you will understand the language which suits them and you will figure out the method of communication.

Some supervisors have a rule that unless the student tries explaining 7-8 times, it is unlikely that he could come up with good ideas. So no matter how good the idea is in the initial try it will fall to deaf ears.

Do not worry, these are early days and in time you will do great.

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