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I am in the fourth year of a part-time PhD. I have at least another couple of years left, the next two years are for writing up and this year was supposed to be for data collection.

I hit problems with research and data collection because of COVID, a lot of us did. But one of the things that has come to my realisation is that it is my supervisor who chiefly hindered my progress.

I cannot blame her for this, she is just doing her job and she is very respected in her field. I do like her. The main problems came in November 2020. I had a tutorial and I said, "I want to do X this way", she came back with "why don't you do it this other way?" I initially agreed but then, a few hours after the tutorial, I felt like the wind had been taken out of my sails. I didn't know it at the time, or understand it, but she had totally killed my enthusiasm, not only for the piece I was working on, but for the project. This has been going on since November and I have found it very hard to produce anything. In fact I haven't written anything since November apart from one piece.

The crunch time came a few days ago. I wrote a paper plan for her, something that I was interested and intrigued to get on with. The same thing happened again, she wrote back and said, "this is too broad, remove this [very interesting] part and focus on this [not so interesting but practical] part". Try as I might I could not muster the enthusiasm to continue and the paper has been shelved.

I had a discussion with her yesterday and we have agreed for me to take three months off. It occurred to me after our talk yesterday that the problem is that I am not given enough freedom to do my work how I want. YES she is the supervisor, and I am here to learn, I understand that, but this is not working for me this way. I now have three months 'off' but I am thinking of not not doing any work but doing things how I want to do them: I have enthusiasm again for the PhD and am starting to get filled with ideas. I have a research blog which I haven't updated for months because she wanted to vet anything I put on there, but, I asked her yesterday if I can put things up there ANYWAY in the next few months regardless of her input and she said yes.

I am worried that, after these three months, I will have put entries on the blog - much of the content/themes of which I want to put in the final thesis - but we will just go back to doing things the old way and she will say a lot of the stuff I wrote isn't that relevant and she will want me to focus on authors I am not interested in and for me to remove ideas I had.

How do I explain I need more freedom and her management style/suggestions are not working for me? Or should I not say that at all? I respect her and want to put this point across in the best way. Or do I just do three months of work my way and then, when she sees how effective a more hands-off approach is, she will agree to do things that way?

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    Your supervisor vets your personal blog? Out of everything you've written, that's the biggest concern for me. – astronat May 11 at 12:14
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    Surely there must be arguments for doing things you mentioned "your way" and "her way"; one or another method might be better in various conditions, under different assumptions or if applied to different systems. It is never just "I want it this way". Your question could benefit from mentioning this. – sleepy May 11 at 12:35
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    It's common in some fields and for some advisor temperaments to challenge a student in many of the ways you illustrate. It forces you to think on your feet, to analyze quickly, and develops those aspects of you. It also tests the depth of your understanding, your ability to communicate, and your independence. Unpleasant no doubt, a form of tough love. – A rural reader May 11 at 18:04
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    > I felt like the wind had been taken out of my sails. ... she had totally killed my enthusiasm ... This is a very strong emotional reaction to just a suggestion back in November. I'm not excusing your adviser of anything, but it doesn't sound like a normal response at the time given your description of what your adviser did then. I would recommend talking about this with a counselor - it is possible your loss of motivation has internal sources as well as external too. (I myself am going through therapy for similar issues) – Akshat Mahajan May 12 at 1:53
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    Re the blog issue: The most common thing I learn from reading papers (and even more so going to conferences) is that "if you try this approach to solving a problem and have an average amount of background knowledge and common sense, you will solve the problem." The specific details don't matter so much. So, your blog may have inadvertently "given away" your research before you had got the credit for it by formally publishing it. If another research team is thinking about using methods A B C or D, and your blog tells them "method B works", they may well finish and publish before you do. – alephzero May 12 at 12:32
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There are several intertwined issues here, and it is going to be difficult to sort them out:

  1. Your supervisor is an expert. She likely knows things you don't. So if you suggest one way and she suggests another, it may be because she has seen that way tried before and knows that it doesn't lead anywhere.

  2. Your supervisor doesn't seem to be great at leading, or doesn't recognize that you are not her colleague yet. If two people at the same level are trading ideas, shooting them down or poking holes to patch can be a very useful exercise. As a new researcher, you aren't at this level yet, but she may be treating you as though you are.

  3. What you consider interesting and what she considers interesting may not overlap

  4. What you consider interesting and what is actually publishable within the scope of a single paper or blog post may not overlap.

Let's treat these individually.

  1. I have seen many grad students (and I have been one myself) who don't fully grasp the field. I've read papers, thought "Oh, I can fix that problem", then gone on to work for a week and then find the paper written 20 years prior that solves it. She has a much broader understanding of the field than you do, and she knows what's been done. Take her suggestions helpfully: "I want to do X, but my supervisor suggested Y instead. I'm going to compare and contrast the two methods in a literature review and see which is best". That's your job as a PhD student anyway.

  2. This is time for an awkward conversation. Depending on your personality, I personally suggest being a bit blunt but polite. Tell her what you told us: "When I suggest something and you change it, it takes my enthusiasm away. Can we work together to make sure that my ideas are fully explored, even if they aren't the best?"

  3. This is up to you two to figure out. This is more fun. Ask her what she thinks the big problems of the field are, why she's in the field, what interests her about new research etc.

  4. My supervisor was phenomenally good at writing. I am not. He was also very good at focusing a paper onto the key relevant points. I was not. We fought over papers a lot, to be honest, and to be equally honest it was a mutual problem. Both of us had reasonable ideas, but he was better at it and knew what it took to get published. I did not.

If your supervisor thinks that you are proposing something too broad, that's a very, very good indicator that you are. Think of those broad ideas as your research program, and the individual smaller ideas as your research projects. Projects lead to papers, programs lead to careers. Don't take it as "this is a useless idea", but more as "this is not suitable for publication because you haven't actually solved the big problem. You have, however, solved a smaller problem that moves us towards the bigger solution. Let's publish that and keep making progress"

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    +1 for “Projects lead to papers, programs lead to careers.” Each paper should contribute to the research conversation around an important topic, but each paper needent (and probably cannot) resolve the conversation. I often have students who propose something that is a lifetime career sized problem rather than a paper sized problem. Some of this, I think, comes from reading pop science books which bring together 30 years of past research vs new work. – Dawn May 11 at 14:30
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    The final paragraph needs to be foregrounded. A part of a PhD education concerns narrowing your ideas into chunks that can actually get accomplished. Grad students have very little conception of this coming in--they underestimate what it actually takes to implement their grand ideas. They think the supervisor is diminishing their vision rather than drawing you to understand what hard work a real scientific vision requires. The supervisor may be doing you a big service here by showing you how to keep your grand ambitions in the background and tackle small parts.... – transitionsynthesis May 11 at 21:07
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    ...And, yeah, not every aspect of that is going to be exciting work. Some of it will be boring. But every job, including being a researcher, has boring work-a-day aspects that you'd rather not have to do. You can't expect that all of your productivity will issue forth from an ever-flowing fountain of inspiration and excitement. You need to find methods for being productive even when you aren't bursting forth with enthusiasm. – transitionsynthesis May 11 at 21:07
  • This is a great answer, thank you. Especially the last paragraph is very helpful. Maybe what I am proposing is too broad and I like to cram more in to a paper than I realise, rather than working on smaller issues which fit into the bigger whole. – C26 May 13 at 8:42
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    Re point 2, I'd add that the purpose of supervision by someone more experienced is not just to do as you're told, it's to ask why and start picking up their institutional knowledge of the field. And if their reasoning doesn't hold, to push back against it with your own reasoning, which is preparing you for life outside of just being a taught student. – Graham May 13 at 12:35
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I agree with everything in the excellent answer posted already, and would like to add another aspect to consider.

As your PhD progresses, you are expected to grow into an independent researcher. And this includes a number of skills, one of which is to be able to explain, and defend, your ideas in front of others.

From what I see in your question (as it currently stands; this would become a bit different if you actually toned down how the supervisor addressed you), your supervisor wasn't impolite, and offered what seem more like discussion points than "orders". As an expert in her field, they are likely giving you comments representative of potential reviewers and readers of your potential publications. Your supervisor is just the first in a line of people you need to convince of the validity, importance and interest of your research.

My suggestion would be to try and treat it as an invitation for a discussion: an opportunity to better explain the nuances and the reasoning of the approach you propose as well as a chance to compare to different approaches to the problem.

Let me try and use the examples you provided:

  • You said you had proposed to explore an approach X, and your supervisor suggested you try a different one Y.

    If you had actually went on, used your X to obtain some results and submitted a publication, how would you react to a reviewer saying "I see that Y could also be applicable to your problem. Have you considered comparing your results with Y?"

    Instead, if you treat this as an invitation to explain your reasoning, it will only strengthen your work. Why did you chose X over Y? Do you think X has more desirable properties, or Y has shortcomings?

  • You proposed to work on a problem A, and the supervisor proposed to focus on a sub-problem B.

    Is B a very important factor in A? Is it possible that using sub-optimal B would change the performance on A substantially? (In which case, if you do not do B well, maybe your work on A wouldn't be valid?) Or, do you instead think that your supervisor misunderstood the proposed scope of A, which you believe is a well-rounded and self-contained research question?

    If your own advisor does not understand you well, it is an indication that the reviewers or readers might misunderstand you too -- and it is on you to express your ideas clearly.

In both of these cases, and in general, as a researcher you should not take things at face value. In addition to communicating your ideas clearly, this also means trying to understand why your supervisor proposed Y/B. If you do not explain your reasoning to your supervisor, or understand theirs, it is difficult for the supervisor to guess you do not agree with their proposed plan. Discussion with your supervisor is the best way to refine how clearly you express your idea, and how convincingly you can demonstrate it.


As a personal anecdote, I had a similar situation during my postdoc. As I was polishing our accepted publication, we had a discussion about future directions. I wanted to do A, and my supervisor wanted to do B. We had a passionate (but polite and respectful!) discussion about the benefits and drawbacks of A and B. As I realised I still have a few weeks to finish up my current task, and the prep work that would be required for either A or B could easily take another few weeks, I agreed to get started on it and asked if we could discuss it again after this prepwork was done. The next day, my supervisor called me back to their office and said that they have thought a lot about our discussion, and told me they would support my opinion as a researcher and that he wouldn't want to force me to begin a research direction I do not agree with. Firstly -- best feeling ever, I was beaming for days. Secondly -- this never could have happened if we didn't have a detailed discussion about A and B, supported by arguments from both an extensive literature review and our past experiences in our respective fields.

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  • This is a very useful answer, thank you very much. My supervisor has, in the past, mentioned to me about defending certain ideas I've had. My initial response, in my head, has been, "I don't think that's entirely necessary" or "this person is asking the wrong question". I think this points to the failings in me in this regard. Before I started this degree I was engaged in a more journalistic aspect of writing and am used to being 'right' a lot and uncriticised. I think I really need to adjust my attitude and see that these issues have multiple perspectives. A PhD is very unlike a master's. – C26 May 13 at 8:37
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    I'm glad my answer has prompted you to see things in a broader perspective. If you finish your PhD "uncriticised" -- you probably did something wrong. Just wait for Reviewer #3 :) And you are absolutely right -- a PhD is nothing like a MSc. In a Masters, the goal is still basically to get in-depth knowledge about a topic X. A PhD is about the ability to get up to speed with a topic quickly, spotting gaps in the current literature, seeing ideas through and communicating all this to others. You do all this on some topic/problem X but the goal is developing good research skills. – penelope May 13 at 8:59
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An aspect that I haven't seen addressed in the other answers is the fact that you appear to struggle to maintain motivation and are easily deflated by contrary opinions even when these are offered in a constructive manner. This could be indeed a problem that is specific to the current situation - it's very common for the relationship between students and PIs to be tense near the end of a PhD, in part due to the significant external pressure (completing your training, submitting and defending, future career decisions etc.) and in part because increased independence from your supervisor is precisely what a PhD is for, and can change your dynamic in ways that make you less accepting of micromanaging.

However, nothing you mention about your supervisor suggest to me that she is behaving in an extreme or unreasonable manner, so chances are that you might have a better long-term outcome if you work on your own response. A couple of ideas from my personal experience:

  • Try to make yourself more resilient to criticism. Easier said than done! I have ADHD, one symptom of which is Rejection Sensitive Dysphoria, an incredibly intense and physical reaction to even very mild criticism. I am not suggesting that you suffer from the same (I hope not!), but I have found some help in trying to detach myself from the immediate response to a critical comment, and try to avoid discussing it while still overwhelmed by negative feelings ("Hmm, that's a really interesting idea. I need to sleep on it before I can give you a good answer." Optionally, follow up with "For now, do you mind if we go back to my original idea?" if you think this can be constructive). Later, when you're on your own, try to consider the idea more neutrally. You need to consciously fight the knee-jerk response to oppose any idea that is not your original one and I find this is harder when in a conversation that feels confrontational.

  • Identify and cultivate academic partnerships with people who don't make you feel deflated. Others have pointed out that the dynamics of shooting down other people's ideas change enormously with even small differences in status. Do you get deflated if a peer tells you that they think you should work on something else? What about someone with seniority but no direct power over you, like another PI? Being able to have your ideas challenged by colleagues is incredibly important in research, both for interpersonal reasons (people who offer you well-thought-out advice are giving you their mental labour for free; even if you decide not to use it, it's important to acknowledge this graciously) and because it enhances the quality of your research (they may point out weaknesses or possibilities you hadn't though of, reveal different ways of looking at the problem, etc.). However, there will be people with whom you "click" better scientifically - try to identify what their traits are and how you can seek out these types of people for future work (the trait shouldn't be "always goes along with what I say", ideally).

  • Learn to work productively on topics that you're not that fired up about. There's a lot of drudge work in academia. There's the project that was really promising and turned out to have a trivial solution but you still need to write up. There's the collaboration set up for networking reasons that nobody is terribly invested in. There's the half-finished project that needs quite a lot of tidying up and the main author's now left. You need to find a way to make inroads into these things that don't make you particularly excited. Excitement is a poor long-distance fuel and research, at the end of the day, is a job.

All of this comes from an assumption that you want to pursue academic research longer term. Another possibility is that perhaps you would find it easier to maintain your excitement and motivation in a less hierarchical and more bite-sized approach like science communication, which you have already started with your blog. You could do a combination of novel research (e.g. analysis and visualisation of data using freely available datasets, of which there are many these days) and reporting on new findings from others that you find exciting. My suggestion is that you try to place yourself in a role that you find rewarding and motivating, rather than try to change the behaviour of individual people, not all of whom may be able or willing to meet your needs.

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    It's also worth mentioning (and perhaps adding to your nice answer) that our resilience and energy are probably significantly diminished right now because of the pandemic. – Greg Martin May 12 at 17:46
  • This is a very interesting answer and very useful to me. It foregrounds my attitude as being the primary issue rather than my supervisor's. What has really been the sticking point in my research is a] comparing this a lot to my master's and b] putting off the smaller things that don't interest me and ignoring, as someone else put it in another question, "the tedium of research". I am thinking the only way I am going to get through this is by just doing those things that have to be done. You are right, I cannot always rely on excitement and it's possible that my ego is getting in the way. – C26 May 13 at 10:56
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Right now, you and your advisor share the same goal - produce publishable research. Since you aren't an expert in the field, the advisor's job is to guide you towards research approaches that will lead to publishable work, i.e. papers that will be accepted by reviewers. It sounds like she is trying to do this, although I cannot tell whether she is doing it well from the information given.

From your post, I got the impression that you believe you know how to research better than your supervisor. I have to wonder why you are still choosing to be advised by her when it sounds like you don't respect her advice.

I didn't know it at the time, or understand it, but she had totally killed my enthusiasm, not only for the piece I was working on, but for the project.

I wrote a paper plan for her, something that I was interested and intrigued to get on with. The same thing happened again, she wrote back and said, "this is too broad, remove this [very interesting] part and focus on this [not so interesting but practical] part". Try as I might I could not muster the enthusiasm to continue and the paper has been shelved.

These statements are concerning to me because as a student, it is your responsibility to produce enough research to write a dissertation. Your advisor is trying to guide you towards approaches that she believes will produce research, but it sounds like you're losing enthusiasm and not producing anything. If you don't find a way to achieve a dissertation, you will eventually fail out of the PhD.

Also, enjoy the flexibility of research. Most jobs have a direct supervisor, and while you don't have to agree with them, you usually have to follow their directions if you want to keep the job.

Overall, I see only a few paths going forward:

  1. Find a new advisor whose advice you respect.
  2. Learn to work with your advisor and incorporate her advice into your research.
  3. Figure out how to write papers independently without your advisor's ideas. If it's good enough for a good journal, it's good enough for a dissertation.
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This is much more of an interpersonal relations question than an Academia one. How to let another person know you would like them to behave differently? The best way is to just tell them, politely but directly! How will they take it? Can be anything, depending on what kind of a person they are, and also on how they see the situation.

But here are a few points, from her perspective:

  • I don't know the country or the field, but typically she's on your side. She has invested a lot into you over these years: time, research ideas, possibly her grants, lab resources etc. If you fail, this is all wasted. Of course, as always, there's a point where she might decide that she should stop investing and write off the losses, but that threshold is fairly high.
  • She is likely aware that Ph. D. studies is a marathon that can be hindered by burnout, lack of motivation leading to procrastination etc. So, I think that if you honestly admit to some of that, if she's a reasonable person, she will be oriented towards finding a solution.
  • If my Ph. D. students had too many ideas of their own, that would be least of my problems!

That said, she might see the things differently than you. For example, it might have been that your idea was indeed flawed, and her "this other way" was superior, it was obvious to her, and she thought it was obvious to you, but it wasn't. When you talk to her, it's a good idea to explicitly admit the possibility that her suggestions were right, but you couldn't see why, and that hindered your enthusiasm. So, suggest that she lets you do things your way if the difference is minor, and request that if she thinks she really need to override you, she explains in more detail why.

Of course, if her suggestions were right and you understood it, but it still killed your enthusiasm, that's another story altogether, and you have to learn to deal with your idea being not-so-good as it looked to you. But that is and entirely different question well covered in other answers.

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As a newly graduated PhD, my advice would be to understand and follow your supervisors' advice if they are really experts in your filed. What you considered as interesting might be something not achievable for a PhD project and for a student who just started to build up their expertise in the field. Experienced supervisors have the ability to look at the forest but not the tree, and yet we as students may only look at the tree.

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Choose one of two options:

  1. Get out as fast as you can by finding a new (synergic) supervisor and, likely, a new research topic. It also may mean moving to a different department or even University.
  2. Continue grinding until you get the degree done. Does not look as an enjoyable option given your experience with the current supervisor.
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    I would say this is an over-reaction. After four years of PhD research with your current supervisor, I would call this really extreme. Besides the vetting of the research blog (which could be legitimate, if she is just trying to avoid being scooped), I would say everything here is totally normal feedback from an advisor. If you collaborate with someone, you have to expect them to have their own thoughts and suggestions. Like any collaborator, your PI won't let you just say and do whatever you want and put their name on it! – ZachMcDargh May 11 at 22:03

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