This is very closely related to this question. However in that question on top of the academic problems there are also major safety issues and the answers correctly focus on that. But this still leaves an interesting question unanswered: What should you do if you perceive your direct supervisor to be academically incompetent?

Suppose you start in a new lab as a masters or PhD student. The PI is great but very hands off. You are assigned a PhD student or a postdoc for your every day supervision. You get the impression that this person is failing academically. The linked question has a good list of clues. They have no plan for their own research, seem to have trouble understanding the surrounding literature or even the prerequisites, don't come up with new ideas to look into and maybe on top are technically inept and very bad at handling the lab equipment. Essentially you feel like you already are academically ahead of your supervisor and this person doesn't have anything to teach you.

What do you do? And in what time frame, having this impression after two weeks might be different than having it after 6 months but maybe waiting six months before doing anything is too much already.

  • "this person is failing academically" ... is it normal for a "failing academic" to be assigned as a supervisor, of anything?
    – CGCampbell
    Commented Mar 17, 2021 at 13:46
  • @CGCampbell check the famous academic failure of Roghoff&Reinhart theconversation.com/… they failed so much, but they still managed to be called to supervise the Congress on budget decisions, before their failure was made public.
    – EarlGrey
    Commented Mar 17, 2021 at 14:51
  • @quarague using the points from that list, if the issue is a lack of safe behaviour in a lab comes up then this should be raised with whoever is responsible for the lab and safety in it. As from that question, if this came up then you should raise your concerns with this person and let them handle it in order to keep everyone safe. For all the other points you should start from the assumption that you are wrong. Commented Mar 17, 2021 at 16:12
  • Those issues could come from: - not yet knowing how to reduce a complex subject they know well into a few words, - they could have just started from a different sub-field and part of their supervision role is to learn this new sub-field (which they will probably do quicker than the student), -this topic may be different to their main topic and they just don't have heaps of free time to put into understanding it and its literature deeply while working on their main topic. Among other things. Commented Mar 17, 2021 at 16:13
  • What is their role as direct/daily supervisor? You won't need to expertise and experience of a senior professor to show you where to find building blocks for experiments or how to book a timeslot in the lab.
    – Mark
    Commented Mar 17, 2021 at 18:54

3 Answers 3


They are supervising you. You will be 100% sure they are wrong and you are right only after external independent confirmation, which you can obtain by attending conferences/workshops, and publishing a paper or two would be the definitive seal.

However, by that time, you may realize why your directly supervising PhD/PostDoc is working that (inefficent) way ...

So, it is better to show some independence and get -intensively- in touch with the PI after a couple of weeks.

With the PI, it should be possible to have an honest discussion, even regarding the point "the supervisor you assigned me cannot help me because of lack of time/needing some time to freshen up his/her knowledge on the Stat-of-Art of Science and Technology on my specific topic".

If it's not possible to be so open and clear with the PI, well, the issues are way larger than the supervision from said PhD/PD ...

  • 1
    So the two key points are a) it is very hard to know whether your impression of academic incompetence is correct, it might very well be completely wrong and b) talk to your PI.
    – quarague
    Commented Mar 18, 2021 at 9:09
  • @quarague yes, with the catch that unfortunately there are two categories of PI (completely independent of their academic success), the human ones and the ones with the attitude "research is suffering that bring great joy only to who can endure it". Guess which one is dominant ...
    – EarlGrey
    Commented Mar 18, 2021 at 9:12

To quote another answer, stop whining and start kicking ass.

Work hard, do awesome research, approach the PI if the direct supervisor can't help. If your assessment really is correct, it won't be long before the PI lets you forge your own research path.

  • 1
    Who is whining?
    – EarlGrey
    Commented Mar 15, 2021 at 13:24
  • @EarlGrey nobody.
    – Allure
    Commented Mar 15, 2021 at 21:14

Assuming your assessment is correct:

Can you work around them? Then do so and minimise contact (but smile politely while you grin and bear it).

If not, get out of there asap. The whole kick ass idea sounds really neat and inspiring, but life is not a movie montage.

Do not complain to the PI about the assigned supervisor. Either they already know the score, and will not want to hear it for reasons YYZ, or they don't, in which case they will not want to hear about it for reasons UVW --- point is, you are screwed either way if you make a fuss.

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