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I am a first year PhD student in science. I have a good advisor, the kind that will spend time with you (he is busy not emeritus), read what you send him, reply emails, give good advice for future, good project management. I've googled for what are traits of good advisors and what to avoid in bad advisors (e.g. here) and he fits all of good advisors and none of bad advisors.

However the problem is I feel that he has micromanagement style. He is very detail oriented and tries to understand every step you do. I meet him twice a week, and it is basically a do this, show me this next time. He will tell me exactly what to do.

Granted however I am not a very strong student who is capable of independent research right away, but I still like to be able to do explore my own ideas, or at least be able to do things independently, as I think that is the point of the PhD. Hence my question is whether it is normal for advisors to micromanage early PhD students, and whether I should be concerned, because I definitely do not want to spend my whole PhD working like that. Maybe he will turn into a hands off advisor later?

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    Are you able to ask senior students whether he will be a hands off type supervisor in the future? I do micro-manage at beginning. Once a student is competent, i.e., he/she knows what I want or knows how to do things, then I no longer micro-manage. Dec 22, 2020 at 4:11
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    "Granted however I am not a very strong student who is capable of independent research right away," What would then be the possible alternative to micromanagement? If you cannot work independently on your own right away (like many PhD students are, my earlier self included), how are you supposed to learn how to do it? Dec 22, 2020 at 15:16
  • If you have your own ideas about what you want to work on, then rather than waiting for your advisor to give you the next steps, tell your advisor what research you are considering pursuing. If they agree then not only do you get to work on what you want, but you have some confidence that you are not pursuing a dead-end, since your advisor didn't warn you against it. Also if your advisor sees that you can come up with good ideas on your own, they might give you more freedom.
    – user4574
    Dec 23, 2020 at 3:56
  • Some of it can be human (you and him). Some of it can be him being perfectionist. I would act naturally and let days shape the relationship (for little more time). --I don't hold or pursue a PhD
    – Curcuma_
    Dec 23, 2020 at 14:45
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    Professors stop micromanaging when they get the impression you're always one step ahead of them. You lead the discussion when you've got a meeting. You've got a plan for the next four weeks. Don't show and explain all the nitty-gritty details, but have them ready. Etc.
    – Karl
    Dec 24, 2020 at 13:43

7 Answers 7

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Some PhD students need micromanagement. Some are harmed by it.

Some supervisors know how to customise things to the needs of the student. Some supervisors do not know how to micromanage. Some some do not know how to not micromanage.

Tell your supervisor what you want. Listen to your supervisor's feedback - what you want might not be possible. If you have tried this several times and the relationship is failing spectacularly, get a new supervisor.

What you are experiencing is within the range of "normal." There's no way for us to know if it is "good."

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A useful view on this is offered by the situational leadership model (Paul Hersey and Ken Blanchard). The idea to match one's leadership style to the needs of the supervised person. People generally start out with low competence and high commitment levels (D1 in figure below) and, therefore, benefit the most from a directing leadership style, which could be perceived as micromanagement. As the competence and commitment levels change, the leadership style is adapted.

enter image description here

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    Interesting chart. However, why does commitment go from "high" to "low" and then back to "high" as the supervised person goes from D4 to D1? I would think for a PhD student commitment should start high and only decrease as the student either becomes involved in other projects or becomes disinterested. Dec 22, 2020 at 19:31
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    @6005 There is some elaborate theory behind it, see my link. Some of it has not actually been confirmed by science, but I would still call it useful especially with regard to the D1 level. Dec 22, 2020 at 19:35
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A lot of this is going to depend on what your field and your time limit is. I'm a molecular biologist/bioinformatician in the UK. Students who come to me have 3.5 year to finish collecting data and another 6 months to submit their thesis. This means there is not a lot of time to lose, especially if you want to publish in that time as well. In my field an experiment can easily cost thousands of dollars, and every experiment a student does is an experiment that someone else in the can't do.

In these circumstances it is normal for a supervisor to micro-manage at the start. In the ideal world students are given more freedom and responsibility as they learn, and prove themselves trust-worthy. In practice only the best students reach full autonomy in 3.5 years, and some need micro-managing right till the end.

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My own personal philosophy is this: if your advisor suggests that you should do something, you should probably do it. But if your advisor suggests that you shouldn't bother... consider doing it anyway.

He is very detail oriented and tries to understand every step you do. I meet him twice a week, and it is basically a do this, show me this next time.

This sounds good to me -- I would recommend explaining yourself to your advisor, and following his advice.

I still like to be able to do explore my own ideas

Great! Do it! As long as you're not using up laboratory resources, or something similar, then you don't need his permission.

Next meeting with your advisor, you should make some progress on what he's asked, as usual. But why not also bring in your own suggestions -- which you spent some time and energy exploring since the last meeting?

Odds are, you will end up exploring dead ends this way. This is fine -- it will give you a greater understanding of your subject as a whole. And who knows, you might figure out something your advisor overlooked.

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As a first-year graduate student, your focus, besides classes, is on building your research skills. I would be elated to have an advisor who is obviously involved in your education, responsive to your questions, and interested in the details of your experiments, not just the production of data. Consider this a confidence-building and expectation-setting phase. I, as the PI, would want to make sure that the experiments are well planned, with the proper controls, and that the data are reproducible, with limited variables. Once I have confidence that my first-year graduate student does things properly, I can let go a little bit and go from biweekly meetings to weekly meetings, then on a normal lab meeting rotation schedule.

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It depends

There is no single right answer to the question of how 'hands-on' a PhD supervisor should be.

In principle, it should be determined by the nature of the project, your existing skills/expertise, and the extent to which the supervisor's skills/expertise are actually conducive to 'micromanagement' (in my discipline, it is rare for any one supervisor to possess all the specialist knowledge needed to manage every aspect of a PhD project in detail; for that reason, a research student often works under 2 or even 3 supervisors, and he/she is expected to acquire a variety of skills/expertise independently, through a combination of reading, doing, and 'hands-on' guidance/training).

In practice, it is often determined by the personality of the supervisor, his/her other commitments, and his/her past experience. What you need to ascertain is why your supervisor is 'micromanaging' your work. Possible reasons may include:

  • the supervisor is imparting a skill/specialism that requires intensive instruction and oversight (you should start by assuming this reason);
  • the supervisor, when he/she did his/her PhD, may have lacked support from his/her own supervisor, and is 'overcompensating' by going to the opposite extreme in his/her own approach;
  • the supervisor may have a history of PhD students failing to complete projects, and is trying to ensure that you succeed;
  • the supervisor may think you lack motivation or capability; or
  • the supervisor may be a control freak.

It can be a delicate matter asking about this. You could start by asking your supervisor about how he/she thinks you are progressing. Then, you could ask him/her what he/she expects of you in the next few years, and what you need to do to fulfil those expectations. Ask your supervisor to comment on your weaknesses (everyone has weaknesses), and what you could do to improve. If, after asking about these issues, your supervisor does not bring up the issue of 'independence', you should then raise the point -- you could phrase it something like:

I understand that, to get a PhD, I have to make an independent and substantial contribution to knowledge; obviously, I appreciate that this does not happen overnight, but could you tell me what I need to be doing in the next few years to reach that threshold, as a researcher specialising in [insert name of field/discipline/specialism]?

The www is awash with lots of generic advice about this, some of which may be very useful. But keep in mind that the answer will be unique to the individual and the field in which he/she is specialising. In many arts and humanities disciplines, it is often expected that a PhD student should present at conferences and even publish as a sole presenter/author. In the natural sciences, conversely, multi-authored papers are more common.

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One other thing to consider: Does your advisor have tenure? If he's coming up for tenure in a few years, it would be massively beneficial for him to manage you in the most optimum way possible to ramp up productivity.

What you perceive as "micromanagement" might be him putting you on a path that is very well planned and thought out to get quick and tangible results. I think at the very least, as a first year student, you need to curb your desire for independence and try to get on the same wavelength as your advisor. After you've objectively demonstrated competence, you can have a candid conversation about having more of a say in the projects you want to do.

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