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So I have had this advisor for about 8 months now. Literally all students in my department talk very highly of him: his previous graduate students (master's) have gone on to have successful careers in PhD programs or are top data scientists who earn six figures.

I just took his class this fall. He prohibited all collaboration for homework, and we were not allowed to ask him questions either, unless we thought there was a typo on the problem or similar. Also, we were not allowed to discuss the material with others i.e. we cannot study for exams together or even talk about the book we were using. Or any of the topics. According to him, "collaboration is for undergraduates who struggle". So yeah.

Well, moving forward with his research. He refuses to read anything I write if it has a typo or I've made a mistake with citation. He won't read anything I've done, if he sees an imperfection. He also has strictly told me not to discuss my research with others / seek help elsewhere. Him I can ask questions, but only on papers / reading that I should do. Nothing about how to learn to program something or if I have a difficulty understanding a theorem. He always tells me "you're a master's student, you should do this on your own, you're not an undergraduate anymore".

Also, he has questioned the legitimacy of my undergraduate degree a few times due to me not being able to prove something he finds "trivial".

Now he wants me to learn programming in C, which we never discussed when I began my research. He compares me to his previous students, claiming how so and so worked 95+ hours per week on their master's thesis for 12 months after finishing all their classes. He idealizes cultures where studying is prioritized over everything, even one's mental health.

I am frankly getting tired of this, and contemplating on switching advisors. Am I just going crazy, or are his remarks completely out of line as an advisor? Is collaboration and similar stuff really that bad and makes you lazy and incapable of doing stuff on your own?

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    When you talk about the success of his previous grad students, are you talking of all those who entered the program, or only of those who completed it? I suspect there might be a significant difference, in which case his apparently sterling record might have more to do with survivor bias than him being a good teacher. – Geoffrey Brent Jan 16 at 1:48
  • Comments are not for extended discussion (nor for answers); this conversation has been moved to chat. Please see this FAQ before posting another comment. – cag51 Jan 17 at 18:48
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    This sounds familiar to everyone who enters industry. This sounds like first day of work (including being tasked with learning a new programming language/app you've never seen before) – slebetman Jan 18 at 4:31
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    @slebetman: My first day on first job: "How about you design an API for the new audio system." "Will do, boss!" <moves briskly to Google what "API" stands for> – Daniel R. Collins Jan 23 at 1:02
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This sounds pretty extreme, even for the "sink or swim" school of education. If you can meet the extreme standard without going crazy you will probably turn out ok, if a bit of a workaholic. But the road will be hard and painful.

But, given your sense of it, you should probably move quickly to the exits. Not everyone is like that. Some of us actually try to be supportive.


As for the "why" of it, he just seems to demand perfection and won't compromise in any way.

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    If one can survive this, one is likely to be successful, if leaving a bit of sanity on the road on the way. It is not surprising that this prof is successful, but such a style is for few. If it is not for you, leave while you can. Don't feel bad about this, this is not the only route to success. – Captain Emacs Jan 16 at 8:01
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    If one can survive this, one is likely to be successful regardless and there's no rational reason to leave said sanity on the road. – Alex Reinking Jan 16 at 22:01
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    The situation makes me wonder if this was the interaction from day 1, or this is what it developed into – Scott Seidman Jan 17 at 0:09
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    If one is to survive this, one might be successful. However, one will probably less successful than one would be if one had gotten proper support. Let's not forget that last part. – DonQuiKong Jan 17 at 21:55
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    @DonQuiKong [citation needed]. You are misleading potential viewers with an unfair and uncalled for judgement against the professor in question. If you cannot backup this claim, please remove your comment. – Voile Jan 18 at 4:01
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Let's go through the points:

  1. Perfection: To some degree, I agree with that. Training to avoid mistakes in the first place, to provide clean work at every milestone is a good habit, as long as it does not interfere with getting the work done at all. It can, of course, and like in this case, be exaggerated, but sometimes one finds that the more disciplined one is in making sure one has done the best to produce a clean job, the more it becomes ingrained as a second personality to not accept second best. Of course, few people can uphold it to a practical 100% level, but of course if one can do so, there is no surprise they get top jobs or earn a lot of money: if a consultant can regularly deliver practically perfect work under time pressure, one is worth every bit of that. In academia, the time pressure is less, but if one has consistently high standards, this will create a reputation for reliability. Which is quite a high currency.

  2. Independence: This is slightly more contentious, but still can make sense. To some extent, it means that you are able to work on your own, depend on your own judgement and are required to understand things for yourself. It will grow your knowledge and competence as individual. Given that our world is increasingly requiring collaboration, this may look like an obsolete expectation, and perhaps it is. However, if you, as an individual, master this, it makes you stand out from the crowd. As academic, it is increasingly frowned upon to work as individual, while it used to be a sign of particular competence few decades ago to be able to do so. Of course, this is not everybody's style, and in my own opinion, everyone should choose their favourite position on the cooperation slider (as long as it does not interfere with academic assessment misconduct, of course; or one leeches the work of other people to advance oneself).

  3. Work schedule: Clearly, there are people who are ready and able to work the 13-14 hours a day every day of the week. That's a very particular breed of people. Top-level politicians, with all sneer they get from the public, belong to that type. However, the fact that one can not uphold this should not mean that one does something wrong. This is simply a biological limitation. There is a good reason why reasonable countries have a guideline of a 40-hour week distributed on 5 days; it can vary a bit, but not far; for most people, productivity simply drops drastically beyond that (not talking about quality of life). So, if you cannot fulfil the work effort expectation of this supervisor, there is nothing wrong with you, but this group is not for you, and you better switch group, the earlier the better.

This supervisor certainly earned his fearsome reputation and success and those who managed to survive his "Navy Seals" approach to research certainly did so, too. But this is definitely not the only route to success, and may also not be the right route, either, depending on which type of science one is aiming for.

What is important is for you to realise that there is no shame in deciding that this is not for you if you cannot uphold this schedule until the end. Identify what you want to do and who would be doing this, not just because someone's group has a "guaranteed reputation", but because you like the work they do and their style of work matches yours.

Caveat: If the prof is professional, he should be rational and cool about your switch. Mismatch of styles happen, that's the way it is.

However, be prepared for the following. There is a distinct possibility that, should you indeed resolve to switch, this prof will react in one of two ways which you should both ignore: either they will try to put you down and say something along the lines that he "always knew your work was unsatisfactory and it's better for you to leave"; or they will actually try to keep you because essentially what they did to you was what some call "tough love" and "black pedagogy".

If any of these two should happen, do not pay attention to it and do not fall for it.

In the first case, they try to justify their own "failure" to get you over the goal line at the expense of putting you down. Do not get goaded by that. Just take your leave from them in a professional way.

The second case, I think, would be even more despicable (and it occurs, make no mistake): it means they actually liked your work and they tried to get you get better by treating you badly. Once you have come to the conclusion that the above schedule is not sustainable and have committed to the switch, do not be tempted to give in to this and to try further. As discussed above, this mode of operation is this guy's recipe for success - do not expect things to change if you then again decide to stay. You have already sunk 8 months of your life, things will continue to go the way they went before.

TL;DR Decide if this style is for you, at least until completion. If it's not, find a different group to work with and do not look back.

EDIT As Prof. Santa Claus says in a comment, "perfection" in the sense of a text (reasonably) free of spelling errors or non-compiling code is a default minimum expectation.

When I return corrections to a student and then with every correction iteration, there is still a considerable chance that I will find new errors introduced, not in the new material added, but in the parts that have been read but those that are being corrected, this is one of the few things that can seriously test my tolerance. It's ok to make mistakes first time around, but once one fixes them, one needs to take care. I am, of course, not saying that this is the case for OP, just make sure it's not you doing these things.

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    @user2768 Good point. I was inferring from the description of OP that this prof is unlikely to make compromises. They are where they are because of an uncompromising attitude. But of course, if the prof makes an acceptable offer, why not. What I think, however, if it is indeed "black pedagogy" they apply, that they will return to the pattern once the student has returned. Also note, the student is unwise to leave before having secured a place in a different group; retracting that switch might damage their reputation with their second prof. – Captain Emacs Jan 16 at 9:26
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    I must confess, I do strongly disagree with "perfection in the sense of spelling errors ... is a default minimum expectation". Certainly the code should compile! (Don't send latex code though; just send the pdf!) Do I want a student to spend ages polishing a draft which I haven't yet critiqued to find every spelling mistake? (It takes ages.) Or do I not care if they've written "One otbains..." a few times. I'd rather give them feedback, them implement this feedback, then at the end make it perfect. Research isn't about typing insanely accurately. I would about the research quality – Sam OT Jan 17 at 9:32
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    Of course, if the document is absolutely littered with typos and badly formatted things which actually hinder the reading, I would be concerned. This would show a lack of basic care. But I want to see good [insert subject]. Providing the typos are relatively sparse and do not at all impact my reading of the draft and giving critiques, I do not care. I work with international collaborators who aren't great at English sometimes. I care about the maths they send, not the English. That can be sorted at the end. One optimisation. Don't spend time 100% optimising stuff you may then delete/reformat – Sam OT Jan 17 at 9:35
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    Agree with Sam OT - fix spelling mistakes that your spell checker points out, always. Just get rid of the annoying red squiggles. But if you're writing a draft paragraph that you might cut or completely rewrite entirely in the final version, there is also a reasonable upper bound on how much effort should go into the spelling. – ObscureOwl Jan 17 at 13:50
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    Regarding how important fixing typos is: I recommend the story about Van Halen and brown M&Ms. – Stephan Kolassa Jan 18 at 12:05
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I would switch advisors, if I were you.

I can understand him only answering questions for papers that you should be reading; this keeps your thesis focused. Learning to program can be good for you to start. The no-collaboration rule seems a bit extreme.

Please take care of your mental health. Find time to socialize with your classmates, have a hobby, and practice mindfulness.

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    With an average of 14-15 expected work hours a day including weekends, there is not much time left for classmates, hobby, mindfulness. I think first priority, if one stays, should be sleeping and eating well. – Captain Emacs Jan 16 at 7:59
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I can identify with your advisor. On the other hand, his statement "collaboration is for undergraduates who struggle" makes me wonder if he may not be especially articulate in justifying his methods or empathetic in implementing them.

This answer is similar to that by Captain Emacs. It is largely subjective, based on my time in the US Navy (on a submarine as a reactor operator), later as a medical student and psychiatry resident/attending, and I'm now on my third career as a data analyst (not a data scientist).

Part of what he may be trying to instill in your work habits is the idea of attention to detail. It's critical in any kind of work, but especially important in STEM fields. You don't want to be the person responsible for crashing a Mars lander because you used Imperial units instead of metric. That may be one reason he's strict about typos or citations. He may feel that attention to detail is a skill you could improve on. It's a common criticism.

If I can add anything to this discussion, it is that learning to perform a skill is not the same as performing a skill. In education, you will very often do things for pedagogical purposes that you may not do in a real-world situation. The idea that you shouldn't learn a shortcut until you master the brute-force method expresses this idea. The idea that struggling to discovery an answer on your own leads to a better, deeper, richer, longer-lasting learning and promotes creativity and "higher order thinking" captures this idea. At a real job, you will certainly collaborate with others. But you should at least be able to perform an entire task on your own (if it's considered a "data scientist" skill). And in education, you need to be able to demonstrate that capability. True, your advisor may be taking this idea to an extreme. But also consider that taking ownership of a task is an important step in maturity and (in my experience) one that is often difficult when students make the transition into independent professionals. It was difficult for me.

Short personal anecdote: When I was in college, I would have conversations with my younger brother who was in high school. Sometimes he would ask me a question and my reply was, "I'm not going to tell you because I know that is something you can figure out, and you will feel proud when you do." And my prediction never failed to come true.

Even when you don't know the answer and truly can't figure it out yourself, learning how to find an answer on your own (other than just asking someone or a simple web search) is another skill that a professional needs to have (and a student needs to acquire). His style may be more Drill Instructor than coach, but he may be trying to engender (and get you to practice) perseverance. You will need that skill no matter what you do in life.

Should you stay with this advisor? I don't have a suggestion there. The other answers on this page will give you something to think about. I just wanted to give what I think your advisor's view may be (even if he uses different words to describe it). If this answer isn't what you need, maybe it will benefit someone else who comes to this page in the future.

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This sounds very much like the famous Moore method.

"That student is taught the best who is told the least." Moore, quote in Parker (2005: vii).

Further:

The way the course is conducted varies from instructor to instructor, but the content of the course is usually presented in whole or in part by the students themselves. Instead of using a textbook, the students are given a list of definitions and theorems which they are to prove and present in class, leading them through the subject material. The Moore method typically limits the amount of material that a class is able to cover, but its advocates claim that it induces a depth of understanding that listening to lectures cannot give.

Likewise, the primary badge of Moore's method is that an abnormally large number of his graduates went on to become top-performing faculty and researchers later on. Personally it's not a method I would want to use (also I've read he kept a gun in his desk and at least once used it to cow a classroom).

But if it's not a good fit for you, then you should leave and find another advisor.

(The linked article has a rather long list of college faculty who currently use the Moore method, I wonder if OP's advisor is on there?)

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Your advisor seems to be the academic analogue of Marissa Mayer:

Managing a giant tech company is a lifestyle that leaves little time for sleep. Luckily, Mayer appears to be able to do without much. On multiple occasions, she's flaunted her habit of getting less than four hours a night and famously said that during her first five years at Google, she pulled an all-nighter every week. "I don’t really believe in burnout,” she said in a 2013 speech at New York’s 92nd Street Y.

At Google, she reportedly clocked in 130-hour weeks, a feat managed by taking naps at her desk and scheduling "strategic" showers.

One unfortunate and ill-timed nap aside, she expects her employees to push as hard as she does. According to New York Magazine, Mayer can be dismissive of people who "want eight hours of sleep a night, three meals a day."

Working for someone like her would for me be asking for problems.

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    Napoleon who would try to sleep as little as possible (he tried and failed to completely get along without it), notoriously fell asleep during the battle of Waterloo at a critical moment, and could not be wakened, leading to an ill-conceived attack. So much for the myth of "don't need sleep". Unless there is this rare medical condition, but even these people need rest. – Captain Emacs Jan 17 at 15:47
  • How does this answer the question? – pipe Jan 19 at 4:28
  • @pipe What someone's body and mind can tolerate on the long run differs from person to person, If you are the rare person who can work 130 hours per week and get plenty of rest by sleeping 4 hours per day, then working only 90 hours a day means that you are underperforming. Marissa Mayer will not hire you if 90 hours per week is your limit. So, it's all relative, you have to see what is possible within the limits of your body and mind. Like Marissa Mayer, the advisor will only work with people who are immune to burnout. – Count Iblis Jan 19 at 5:53
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This professor guy has lost it - if he ever had it that is.

Plainly all students should endeavor to do as much as they can for themselves subject to time available after basic human needs (this does include social life) are met. But let's be honest here. Even very smart students can be a bit dumb about some things. Not every discrete math whiz can get a firm handle on continuous math. And putting in hour after hour craned over a book won't change that. Better to loosen up, kick a ball around so quick you don't have time to think only react, a shower, a beer, a conversation, a rest: the following day it often dawns on us what the concept is. That's what college life ought to be about: learning in a spirit of togetherness - not isolated cramming and to hell with everyone else.

You're in graduate school now. All the more important to think independently, choose your own textbooks, papers, approaches - and your own set of ethics. With this guy you won't become independent: you'll become totally dependent on him.

So by all means cut him loose. I applaud your first academic initiative.

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Collaboration can be a source of cheating for cheaters. Education is about learning independent thought and critical thinking, not formed from the opinions of others but by you. Just work hard, and let the rest of stuff roll off. Be respectful of your advisor and stay focused on you.

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  • Note that OP is working on a research degree, and working in collaborations is a critical part of research. Advice that makes sense for college or high school students may not make sense for grad students. – cag51 May 17 at 18:30

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