I work in a very cross-disciplinary field, which has caused me some headache* over the past couple of years, partly due to the fact that my supervisor isn't very knowledgeable regarding the day to day (technical) details of my projects. He typically leaves any mathematical, or CS, aspect of the projects to me to figure out, and provides guidance when I have questions regarding the biology or biochemistry, as those are his fields of expertise.

From what I hear, he's similarly loose in supervision even with the other grad students who are less cross-disciplinary and more aligned with his expertise. While I see the point in the supervisor providing the freedom to the grad student to develop as he/she likes, in my experience it can be troubling at times, allow me to explain:

I often have extensive periods where I don't have concrete goals to work with, but only vague ideas. Similarly, since I don't get a lot of technical guidance there are often weeks-long periods where I don't "produce" anything but instead trying to dig information out on publications, CS blogs or StackOverflow, in order to solve a problem I encounter.

It's at times like these my daily concerns (stuff usually unrelated to work) take precedence over what I am actually trying to figure out. I find myself browsing for gadgets, or looking over my savings or reading the news etc. I have no illusions that this amounts to procrastination no matter how you look at it. Since I don't really need to report anything to my supervisor on a regular basis, these periods can be extensive which often leads to frustration. And having realised this, I would like to be more productive even when I am stuck at my project, hopefully minimise the time it takes until I come up with a solution to whatever it is that's hindering progress.

So my question boils down to: how can I make sure I work efficiently, i.e. I don't get distracted or succumb to procrastination, when I am stuck and only get very loose supervision?

* See relevant questions:

  • 6
    Hehe, same here. Sometimes it's nice to have a lot of rope (at least for me), but it is also easy to hang your self;)
    – Ajasja
    Jan 8, 2014 at 17:10
  • in this very battle, i lost ... ;)
    – kmonsoor
    Jan 8, 2014 at 22:35
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    This is a pithy refrain, but you always need to report something to your supervisor regularly! Even if it's 'I haven't anything to report'. See what he says to that :) Keep communicating. These folk have lots of experience. Jan 9, 2014 at 8:14

10 Answers 10


I think the more general form of the question is: (a) what do I need from my supervisor and (b) if my supervisor cannot/will not provide this, then what can I do?

Here's a few things I think supervisors are most important for early on in graduate studies:

Discipline and Motivation

So you need to put in long hours to succeed in graduate studies and oftentimes you need to work "blind": you need to work on things you don't know will succeed or not, or where you have no fixed goal in mind. Discipline can thus be a major issue for any relatively normal human being. Supervisors are supposed to track your progress on a regular basis and ensure you are putting in the required levels of effort, to encourage with a carrot and to use the stick if necessary.

If your supervisor is not tracking your progress and setting goals for you, then you need to take your own discipline into your own hands. The simplest method is to set your own goals with deadlines, focusing on achieving one thing at a time. Make TODO lists that follow a rough plan you have in mind. If a task is too broad, it will never get done: each task should be small enough and phrased in such a way that you know how it can be achieved (even if the task is just "problem solve X for one hour").

Assign yourself regular hours to work. If procrastination is a problem, just start. Starting is the hardest part so unplug yourself from whatever you were doing, minimise the potential for distraction as much as possible, take a deep breath and start. It's that simple.


It is not enough to work hard, but you need to work smart. Inexperienced students often tend to invest more effort into unimportant minor details that they feel they can control, rather than important details where the outcome or process is uncertain. The job of the supervisor should be to provide context on the relative importance of various tasks, to stop students from getting bogged down in minor details and to keep the bigger picture in mind.

Experience comes into play in other areas. For example, if you're starting out in publishing, or trying to publish to a venue you haven't before, experience is crucial so as to know what form the paper should take, what sort of narrative is accepted, what sort of "boxes" have to be ticked.

There is no replacement for experience. However, you can find experience elsewhere than your supervisor. Are there more senior students or PostDocs you can collaborate with? Maybe there's a group outside of your institute you can collaborate with remotely? Working with other people (i.e., not having a monogamous relationship with your supervisor) is an excellent way to quickly level up your own experience and gain new perspectives!

Technical Expertise

Your supervisor is also supposed to apply his/her technical expertise to your supervision, particularly in the early days. But if they do not provide you sufficient time and effort in this regard, or if their own technical expertise does not cover your interests, or as you progress into more detail on your PhD, you will need to find sources of expertise elsewhere.

Again, talk with other people. Try to seek out people with the skills that you require and try to develop a mutually beneficial working relationship with them (i.e., don't expect them to help you out of the goodness of their hearts). Perhaps you could even find a co-supervisor or a "mentor" who can be credited on a thesis?

The Web is also your friend. When I was a graduate student, I learned far more from playing around and trying things and from reading (on the Web) than from anything my supervisors (or lecturers) taught me. One of the most important lessons from graduate studies is "independent study" ... learning how to learn. When you do a PhD you are supposed to be the world's leading expert on your chosen topic. The only way this can happen is if you develop your own technical expertise in your area beyond that of your supervisor and your other colleagues.


Presumably if you already have a supervisor then you have a fixed source of funding. However, you may need additional funding if you go over length or funding for conference travel, etc. This can be very difficult for graduate students to get involved in.

However, there are often calls that are aimed at students and require minimal input from a supervisor. These include student travel grants for conferences, governmental scholarships, prizes for submitted work, etc. Furthermore, other senior researchers will often have funds they can provide for part-time contributions; talk to people if you are stuck.


I think some of the most important lessons that have to be learned during graduate studies are:

  • How to discipline and motivate yourself and organise your own work

  • Understand the nature of research itself, the broader research community and how your work will be viewed by them

  • How to find, initiate and follow through on fruitful collaborations with other researchers and research groups

  • How to find your own sources of funding

The main goal of graduate studies is to gradually reduce your dependence on your supervisor until, by the end of your PhD, you don't need them any more. A good supervisor should understand and support you in this, particularly early on, but if this isn't working out, then you need to learn how to rely on yourself more (or find another (co-)supervisor).


I can't provide a definitive solution, but I can offer an example that works for me in periods when I'm feeling distracted but need to get things done. During such periods, I take advantage of what's known as the Pomodoro technique. The basic idea of this technique is that you should work in blocks of 20- to 25-minutes that are devoted to a single task: reading a paper, or writing a piece of code, or whatever else the task is to be. At the end of one such block (called a "Pomodoro"), you take a short 5-minute break, then begin a new unit. After four units, you take a longer break.

Other ways to help do this are to "block out" other distractions: use full-screen modes that avoid distractions, warning messages, and so on. Turn off the beeps and signals on your mobile phone (except for appointment alerts!). Suppress the "new mail" sounds and other warnings on your computer.

The other challenge is of course figuring out what to do in the blocks. That of course is a little trickier, but requires planning on your part. You should be thinking about this on a fairly regular basis (the frequency can vary, but at least every few weeks). Figure out what you've done recently, and what you need to work on next. Then, get it done!

For the specific case of being stuck on a particular bit, it depends a lot on the nature of the problem. If the block is a structural problem (equipment not working, etc.), then you have to wait for it to be resolved and work on other parts of your project in the meanwhile. However, if the issue is that you need to figure something out, then that really depends on how you solve problems best. Some people do so by working on completely different topics for a while, letting the problem "work itself out" in the subconscious. Other people attack it head on. Sometimes it's helpful to think about the problem in a different way: what happens if you start at the "solution" you want to reach, and work your way backwards? What are the consequences of continuing your current method of solution? Does it get you somewhere you can work from? Are there related problems in other parts of your discipline, or in other disciplines? How did other people try to resolve them? Will that work in your circumstances?

  • Thanks for a nice answer, I will try out the Pomodoro concept. I do think, however, that this answer focuses on general distractions, do you have any additions specifically considering a situation where one is stuck with a conceptual bit of the project and does not get helpful guidance?
    – posdef
    Jan 8, 2014 at 14:11

I signed up just so I could answer this question ;-)

I recently found myself in a similar position at a new job. Not research, but still goal oriented with lots of investigation needing to be done.

It sounds like you're running into a problem that I still have to deal with: mistaking goals for "that other thing I need to do." For me, it was easy to forget that investigating how a particular thing worked, including research on StackExchange etc. WAS progress. That WAS a thing that needed to be done, and as such it should be on your to-do list. It's easy to (as an over simplification) have a to-do list that reads "finish research project." And then be overwhelmed by all the "other" things that have to be done in order to accomplish that goal. For me, my to-do list at one point consisted of "automate all 37 regression tests," and then I got frustrated with how much time I was wasting just figuring out how the automation process worked.

The reality was, I needed a line item for "figure out how to RUN automatic regression tests," followed by a line item for "figure out what components are needed to fully define a regression test," etc. Each of those things ended up needing to be broken down further, as well.

It's easy to think that you're not making progress, but that's probably just because it's not on your to-do list, when it should be.

EDIT: Then, if your to-do list is sufficiently granular, it will tell you "you're goofing off, not getting stuff done" ...and then you have to listen to it ;-)

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    +1 for the concrete example on how to subdivide tasks :)
    – waldyrious
    Jan 30, 2014 at 1:49
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    And I signed up to start upvoting (including this one). Apr 12, 2014 at 0:32

Congratulations, you have just been promoted to supervisor, you have to supervise a PhD student, set him some goals, check he doesn't procrastinate, push him to do his best, find venues to publish, topics to research, write papers to publish, etc.

This PhD student is you, and since you are not very experienced on research I can guess you both will have a somewhat hard time and probably the results will not be very astounding (having a good background helps to choose topics better). But if you both work hard I'm sure you both will learn a lot, and that's what students are for, aren't they?

On the good side of things, your new supervisor is 100% devoted to you, he watches you procrastinate, eat, sleep (kind of) and in every situation, even while in the shower. Very few people get that kind of attention.

Good luck.

  • 1
    Your sarcasm is duly noted, and even if I do deserve that, how exactly does this answer the question?
    – posdef
    Jan 8, 2014 at 14:49
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    Who says this is sarcasm? This is what I did, my experience, worded in a fancy way. You procrastinate because you feel you need help and you wait for that help when, however (IMHO) it would be much better for you to simply keep moving even if it is at random. If you do something right then good for you, if it is wrong then you got a bunch of lessons there. Doing anything is always better than doing nothing.
    – Trylks
    Jan 8, 2014 at 18:57
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    There is no sarcasm in this answer.
    – JeffE
    Jan 9, 2014 at 5:59
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    as it stands I read this text as it's implying that I should stop whining about supervision and that it is somehow my own problem. If this answer does not have any sarcasm in it (as @JeffE suggests), then I suppose a clarification is in order, cus I am not sure what the point is. Following a clarification I am more than happy to change my vote on this answer.
    – posdef
    Jan 9, 2014 at 7:08
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    It's not about whether it is your problem or someone else's problem. That kind of thinking is not constructive nor helpful. You can see a car that is running too fast coming towards you, the driver may not be paying attention to the road. You can decide to cross the road anyway, and you may die. Obviously it is the problem of the driver, he is who was driving in a wrong way, he may go to prison, but you may go to the graveyard. I would avoid that kind of thoughts, I would not label the situation as "someone's problem", it's a situation that you don't like, what can you do about it?
    – Trylks
    Jan 9, 2014 at 9:09

Here is what I did to get through my research.

  1. First you need to set a complete project time line, even if you feel it is not accurate, from the first day you start to the last day you finish. You list all the major parts of your research, when you plan to begin working on each section, and when you plan to complete them.

  2. Find people (other faculty) that can help you on the predominant topics of your research. Seems like you may have two: Tech, and Biology. I had three on my research: Math, Distributed Computing, and Literature/General CS. I told each professor what area of my research I wanted focus from them on. They did not touch any parts of my research I did not ask them to focus on... it worked out rather well I am happy to say.

  3. Meet with each of them. When you meet with them to discuss your research, ask them either (1) what needs improvement, or (2) how to solve your current issue.

  4. Don't leave their office until you set a time up to meet with them again about what you just discussed, to present your results or status. No more than two weeks ahead! And follow up with them in one week via e-mail to tell them your status... this also keeps them on the ball in helping you if they have some things to look at (like reading your research).

  5. Put the data from #3 and #4 into a diary, and include how it meets your time line from #1. Modify your time line as necessary. Send out a regular update report to your committee and other contributing professors with all this information, plus a copy of your current research as Draft (version your drafts). Meet with your committee 2 to 3 times per semester (Beginning, middle, ending).

  6. Meet with your Supervisor after every report you send out and ask him how you are doing. May only take 10-15 minutes during his office hours. Schedule follow-ups if your supervisor finds red flags. He has all the data now to make a determination on how you are doing.

Doing this kept me on the ball every day. I kept setting obligations with professors, and met them. I sent out reports regularly for their review to keep me accountable.

  • This sounds nice in theory, but surely the professors you are talking to are only useful if they are paying attention, and my experience is that it is hard to make academics pay attention unless they think they will get a paper or money out of it, and sometimes not even then. How did you manage it? Jan 8, 2014 at 20:43
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    Well, actually.. the 600 character version is the expert Professor who was to be my supervisor left. All of the other professors said my research was too complicated for them to have time to dedicate to me. The one that accepted asked I work with a team of other professors I was to line up. Soon after, my supervisor became the Graduate Studies advisor and had extremely limited time to give me. I was expected to follow through on my written plan without supervision. The other professors, especially the Math professor, were already over-busy with obligations. They all worked with me after hours. Jan 8, 2014 at 21:29
  • Sounds like the people concerned were quite helpful. Glad it worked out. Did they provide useful feedback, or were they just a mechanism to make you stick to a work schedule? In my experience, it is rare for people outside the speciality to really have a good idea what is going on, and they usually don't have time to devote to understanding the issues. So as a result, one is generally on ones own with the details of the problem. Jan 8, 2014 at 21:35
  • I also want to add that the Math professor spent the most time (3x more than the others) on my CS research. He was not on my committee, and declined to be named on my research. He received only some kind of academic merit points. He stayed late with me, and we had extended e-mail conversations, many times. He was extremely nice. Another professor who was on my committee continues to help me with the continuation of my research post-graduate. My degree is from Western Illinois University. @Faheem, maybe you're right in regards to major research universities - I don't know. Jan 8, 2014 at 21:37
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    Glad to know that your professors helped you out. They sound like they were good to you. I agree with your statement that you are "in the driver's seat, and also have to decide the travel path you will take on your own". That's a good summary of the process of doing research. :-) It is also worth noting that you don't necessarily find the best mentors at major research universities. The people there may just be too busy and/or important to pay attention. In any case, it sounds like you did Ok. Jan 8, 2014 at 21:44

This began as a comment, switched to an answer, and just kept getting longer, so I'm gonna have to split it into sections...

Reframing the problem

I disagree that it's "procrastination no matter how you look at it," and I wonder how many ways you've actually tried looking at it. I say this somewhat confrontationally, but very sympathetically, as I've struggled with the sense that I'm just procrastinating throughout my free time in higher education, and ultimately rejected it. There's a lot more to life than work; this is easy to forget in grad school, and there's a lot of pressure to do so. Ask yourself whether you care about the things you spend your time on for other reasons you haven't fully acknowledged, or whether you're judging those pursuits as wasteful by someone else's value system, not your own. I see from your other questions that you have struggled (as I have) with the sense that other people judge success by the wrong criteria, and ignore opportunities for lateral growth if it doesn't follow their narrowly defined path to [_insert_short-term_work_goal_here_].

If you sincerely think those other concerns of yours aren't valuable, ask yourself if you could stand to work instead every time you notice yourself switching your focus over to one of those concerns. If you can't, you may find that there is some necessity to the (non-work) concern at hand, and may want to reevaluate it again at that point while you're in the moment. If you still feel there's no value to it, ask yourself whether you are just looking for something else (anything, really) to do instead of working. Ask yourself if you don't want to work on some level, and if so, why that might be so.

Given your situation (which was also my situation at times, in ways), you may be finding yourself more free from extrinsic motivation (pressure, expectations, "or-else" negative consequences, and so on) than you have been for much of your academic career. The transition from inflexible, specific, structured deadlines (which probably begin in middle school and carry all the way through the first year or two of a Master's program) to a more diffuse sense of partly internalized pressure and guilt for not being a more diligent workaholic is a subtle transition that occurs most dramatically in grad school (or so I'd say, based on our shared experience with hands-off supervisors). As you slowly realize you're falling behind in some sense because you're taking time off from work to handle your own life, you realize you can't count on those old, structured sources of extrinsic motivation that almost feels like a fight-or-flight response to an encroaching predator (e.g., the "cram-or-fail" decision on the night before a final exam). Those of us who make it this far have probably mostly chosen to run into the jaws of the beast and do battle with it in our flight from abject failure, but some of us have only done this when we feel ourselves running out of time to make a choice of which it's going to be.

Avoidance-avoidance conflicts like those resolve themselves (or force you to resolve them) because when the deadline comes, you have to choose. Without the climactic anxiety of the confrontation that motivates a resolution (however hard-won it may be even in these cases), conflicts can linger much longer in the post-deadlines careerscape. The emotional experience is different: the anxiety is more insidious than in-your-face, and can be tolerated much longer. You can start to feel the internalized sources of anxiety more as you worry less about others' judgment; you can become your own worst critic, and feel more guilty, depressed, or apathetic than truly anxious in the old familiar sense. This is still extrinsic motivation, but it's introjected in that it's internalized: you are now the source of your own negative self-evaluations. (This need not be exclusively true to apply.)

Reframing the solution

This kind of problem takes a different approach to resolve. You can probably find a million self-help blogs about how to be your own supervisor and boss yourself around so you can go back to the old model of operating under artificial, externalized pressure. E.g., "I must spend one hour working everyday before breakfast," or, "Whenever I read the newspaper, I must count the time I spend and put the same amount of time into [staring blankly at] my project." You can find a lot of similar answers to "How to avoid procrastination during the research phase of my PhD?" the second most popular question here at the moment. One of the problems with approaches like (some of) these is that they'll give you a whole new way to go to war against yourself; you'll have to take your infractions very seriously if you're going to take the system seriously at all, and you're probably not going to want to. You'll have to tell/force yourself not to do what you want to do, even when you have good reasons or special opportunities (unless you complicate your system and give yourself vacation time, indulgences, or mulligans, which might not be a bad idea). Another problem is that when you've put in your time or satisfied whatever other requirement you've assigned yourself, you'll feel just like you always did (if you were like me in this regard too) after finishing your self-assigned "homework": ready to go blow off the steam however you can, which probably leads you back to those "procrastinatory" habits you're fighting. If it does, that's a sign that those habits might be the ones that replenish your energy, fulfill you emotionally, and help you feel more like a whole person, more like yourself, and less like a dusty, malfunctioning computer that's been cooped up in a cramped cubicle for too long.

I think the better approach than stealing happy hours while you're off-the-clock (or stealing them from yourself while you're on) is to work more introspectively on your motives and values. I would think this—I'm a personality psychologist—but it's done me a lot of good. I still don't necessarily focus when I should (I'd probably have more publications by now if I did), but I don't feel like I'm wasting my time when I'm not focusing on work. I focus on what I'm doing instead, I enjoy and value it (or through patient introspection and experience, I gradually come to the conclusion that I don't, and I quit), and I don't beat myself up for it during or afterward. I trust that when I want to do something, there's probably a good reason, and I strive to understand it. If I can't find a good reason, I often find that I don't want to do it anymore; problem solved (usually). This has led to some extended "vacations" from work, during which I focus on other things I care about (e.g., a video game, or Stack Exchange!), but when I get to the bottom of what I'm after in these pursuits, and I get it, I'm enthusiastic to return to my work, and I bring new ideas to it. I integrate these diverse experiences, and I enrich my work in the process.

What I'm describing is a shift away from judgmental devaluation of extracurricular "distractions" to a recognition of and reconciliation with my broader set of values, which include my career, achievement, and financial success, but don't end there. I'm my own boss now (read: unemployed :P maybe you shouldn't listen to me!), so I get to enjoy that freedom (and pay the price for it)...and I do enjoy it. I enjoy my work too! Not feeling constantly indebted to it is very important for that feeling, that autonomous, intrinsic motivation (see the same links as before) to arise. Finding joy, fascination, excitement, and the energizing yet relaxing release-through-work of the flow state is all about letting yourself love what you do when the time is right, and knowing it's right because you've defined what you need to do on your own terms: terms of what you want to do (intrinsically), or at least what you really care about (identified motivation, which is often good enough; same links as before). Once you really understand what you're after, your sense of purpose, you can start organizing your projects around it and deriving natural, enduring motivation for your work. You won't want to quit and do something else so often, you'll start waking up eager to work, and if anything, you'll suffer for finding it harder to pull yourself away from your work to eat, sleep, make sweet love down by the fiyah, or whatever else there is to do with life that starts to seem strangely less important.

Acknowledgements, credentials, disclaimers...

I know this sounds like a new-age meditation mantra or performance-enhancing nutritional supplement commercial, but I assure you, these are at least the implications of honest-to-goodness psychological theories of motivation (which are my area of expertise), passed a few times through a thick filter of personal experience. I'm not a typical success story myself (if a success story at all so far), but I have succeeded in rediscovering my love for my work and motivation for focusing on it in a big way by introspecting on these matters of my motivation and values, and indulging my urges to do other things than work at certain points throughout my graduate career. I think I'm a much better psychologist for having "walked the walk," even if I haven't talked enough talk yet to convince others with my publication record, and I know that when I publish the manuscript version of that dissertation I linked above, it's going to be a hell of a lot better for all the time I've spent delving into statistics (and Cross Validated!) over the past few months when I "should've been" writing instead for fear of not publishing rapidly enough. Because I allowed myself to redefine my work in terms of what I value rather than in terms of what was going to get me the most immediate recognition and paycheck (again, extrinsic motives), and because I'm lucky enough to afford the opportunity costs, I put in two months of probably the hardest and most consistent work I've ever put into refining my research, put to rest all my old insecurities about my rate of progress, and apparently can't stop raving about everything I'm learning and how much better I feel about it all now. I don't yet know how long I'm going to be able to keep this up before I start "procrastinating" again (one might argue I'm doing that now), but the plan is to stay this way as long as I can: self-directed, secure, deeply enthusiastic, and well-aligned with my values and overall sense of purpose. The productivity has already started flowing out of this life transition, but it would take a lot more talking to prove it, so I'll leave it at that for now.

I should also note that there's some risk in this approach. It's a long road, you may not have the time and freedom to follow it as far as you need to for the results you might want, and it may not ultimately lead where you think you want it to right now. This is the stuff career transitions and midlife crises (not that I would really know about those first-hand just yet) are made of: confrontation with what you really want and care about, and its juxtaposition with what you're actually doing. Better to get it out of the way while you're young, I say, but maybe not when you're less than a year away from finishing your PhD, if there's some risk you won't as a result. If you can't afford to take your time, this isn't for you. It's a long-term approach that ought to pay off in the end, but there are certainly no guarantees, and it might take a very long time indeed. If you've had the patience to read this far, you just might be ready for it.

I mainly offer this because you remind me of myself, and both of us remind me of what I study, and I'm currently my own guinea pig undergoing very informal road-testing of these theories, for which I could provide plenty more references, but which take some contextualized interpretation to apply here. It's definitely too soon to claim conclusive support for the theory from my own life, but I feel like I'm closing in on that result very rapidly now. In whatever you choose to do, I wish you the best results, and hope you'll come back to tell us what you choose and how it goes. If this self-indulgent autobiography of mine doesn't get downvoted through the pavement, I'll consider doing the same. Cheers!

P.S. In response to your comment on @aeismail's answer, I want to emphasize that part of the benefit of my approach for me has been taking my former advisor's voice out of my brain and rediscovering my own voice. Those two months of hard work (seriously almost all-day everyday studying!) were in pursuit of my own solutions to my own research problems. Because I started listening to myself better and allowing myself to direct my own research according to my priorities, I've learned probably a year's worth of statistics that helps me handle the conceptual bits of my own project in ways my graduate advisor was never going to even while I was still there. If you can give it the time, and accept that you're your own best supervisor, and avoid being or becoming your own worst critic, you can solve those problems as well as anyone can. Ask your supervisor and everyone else you can for input and guidance, but know that you're ultimately the one who has to steer the ship, and don't take your hands off the wheel for a second! But do pull over once in a while to stretch your legs and smell the roses; it's just another way of putting gas in your tank.

  • 1
    Your answer is exceptional advice, but you have also left out just how hard your advice is to follow.
    – aestrivex
    Jan 8, 2014 at 22:15
  • I'm amazed I was able to write so much and still leave anything out! Good point! Jan 8, 2014 at 23:56
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    @NickStauner i wanted to wait until I can read and re-read your answer before I respond. It's really a gold mine, this answer of yours. THank you for taking your time to write it all down. Whether or not it'll help in practical terms is uncertain, but I am certain that it provides important insights. I can assure you that I will be coming back to this answer from time to time.
    – posdef
    Jan 9, 2014 at 7:11

The Pomodoro Technique is great for when you find yourself in a cycle of procrastination. Combine with self binding. I've also had a lot of luck with creating minimum output requirements and tracking; Beeminder might help, at least until you've internalized the habits you want to build.

The important thing is to set yourself up for success.

I would suggest trying to attack the problem from many directions:

  • Spend some time each week renewing your coverage of the literature. As you get further along a project, you'll find you have a better grasp of where to look, and what it is you want. You may find incredibly important work for you after months of search, just because it took that long to find the right words.
  • Simultaneously, spend some time each week collating the information you have; create a wiki on your topic, and keep it up to date. Build a mind-map. These exercises will help you identify links and gaps in your conception of the problem.
  • Narrate your work: Keep a blog, a journal, that you dump every wisp of thought or spark of information into. Doing this will help you avoid loosing a spark of inspiration, while also freeing your mind to work on whatever task is actually at hand.

You've touched on a number of related problems, some of which are common to all grad students (anyone can procrastinate, even if they have a supervisor that requires more regular feedback), and some problems that are specific to your situation (a supervisor that is not very knowledgeable about your project).

There's no reason that your supervisor has to be the only person who helps you with your project. There are many other professors and academics around who might be more familiar with your specific goals, so make use of them. This can include professors who you've taken courses with (choosing course projects that relate to your research is a great way to kill two birds with one stone, so to speak). But there's no reason you can't just approach a professor out of the blue, and ask them if they could meet with you for an hour to help you with a specific problem. Most professors would be very glad, and the worst that can happen is they say "no" and you're back to where you started. You can also contact academics around the world, for example if you've read a paper by her or him and need help figuring out the details. Most academics love to talk about their research and get their ideas out there, so they'll probably be happy to help.

In regards to your more general problem of procrastination, that's something that I'm still struggling with. One tip that I have is to treat it like a job: Put in a solid 8 hours every day, from 9 to 5 ish, just like you would have to at a job. Then go home and relax in the evenings. When I started grad school, I was wasting a lot of time during the day, and then I'd get home and feel like I should do some work because I did nothing all day, so I'd work in the evening. That meant I didn't relax in the evening, and so I'd procrastinate more the next day. Procrastination is not really relaxing, because you always feel like you should be doing something else, so you can't switch off. If you can separate your work and the rest of your life into nice blocks, and make sure you do some really relaxing leisure activities in your off time (reading, sports, music, etc.), you'll feel a lot better (at least I did).

  • 1
    About finding other professors to help. My Committee asked me to speak to another CS professor for a referral to find a Math professor. That math professor referred me to the final math professor who actually was the one to help with my research. Ask around for some contacts from professors you know. They may be able to refer you to another professor that can help. Maybe even a potential mentor at another university - you never know. Jan 8, 2014 at 23:05

The word you are searching for is self-discipline!

When I get distracted it is mostly because I lose the motivation for some topic. The next time when you get distracted from your work, take a break and/or try to work on another part of it.

Because your supervisor doesn't set goals for you means not that you can't set them for yourself. Important is, that you don't exaggerate it and thereby set yourself too much under pressure. Always setup goals that you can achieve in the given time!

In short:

  • Take regular breaks to get your head free. This is often underestimated!
  • If you get distracted, work on another part of your topic
  • Set goals for yourself that you can achieve in the given timespan
    • Daily goal: write at least x page(s)
    • Weekly goal: finish section y
    • Monthly goal: finish chapter z
  • If you made progress or finished an important part reward yourself to keep up your motivation


  • Don't spend too much time on stackexchange
  • If you are on facebook, limit yourself to one visit per day!
  • The problem with S.M.A.R.T. goals is that they are useful when you know what needs to be done. If I am stuck with a particular spec/feature that I have no idea how to solve then I can not set specific, measurable, realistic, attainable and time-bound goals.
    – posdef
    Jan 8, 2014 at 18:22
  • @posdef: I disagree with 4/5 of your conclusion. Maybe you can't be specific with your goal, but what's stopping you from setting a MART goal? :P Maybe something like: see how much progress I can make toward understanding my spec/feature problem, on a scale from "none" to "solved it!" (solving can include the conclusion, "It's not possible."), as judged by myself, my supervisor(s; optionally), and colleagues I trust, over the next day, week, month, and quarter (separate goals). Worth a shot maybe? Good way to track yourself and see how much your concern is justified vs. needless, at least. Jan 9, 2014 at 7:32
  • @NickStauner i see your point... it's worth trying out, at the very least.
    – posdef
    Jan 9, 2014 at 8:21

you need feedback or you will die, you are perfectly entitled to request to meet with your supervisor for an hour a week. If they are unwilling to give even that then there is usually a clause in most grad studies contracts that will allow you to nominate a "second supervisor" (replacement) if you are unhappy. Chemistry (of the personal type) plays a large role in the success of teams so it is important to work with someone you like.

Following on .. if you have spare cycles and are happy with your progress see if there are others in the dept you can collaborate with - perhaps you will be credited on their publications too.

Publications are the currency of academia, like it or not, and time needs to be spent specifically targeting publishable work. So try and figure out how what you are doing today will lead to publications. Your supervisor didn't get there by accident they know very well how to play the game by now.

Which brings me to my final point, it sounds like perhaps there is a communication gap twixt you and your supervisor, ask yourself if you have been prickly or defensive with them at any point - if you have then throw your ego out the window, listen carefully to their suggestions and get it done. You will need their good word above all else in order to succeed.

  • That's a dismal outlook...not that I haven't heard of circumstances it suits unfortunately well... Jan 10, 2014 at 0:10
  • 1
    yes, whenever I have seen the above situation it has never concluded well, so am warning strongly against it. Jan 10, 2014 at 15:15

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