So I recently did my PhD project approval which is the process where I agree my objectives with my supervisor and present a short overview to a review panel.

All that went well and my project has been approved and I can finally make a start on the work I need to do. I'm feeling a bit swamped and unsure about how to proceed tackling the objectives we need to achieve and this has left me feeling quite overwhelmed and overworked.

My supervisor sent me a one line email last week basically saying "do objective 1 now" but I wanted to spend some time with them discussing the theory and devising a suitable way to do this objective.

I know it's all about independent work but I feel I could benefit from a short meeting just to straighten up my work plan and ensure we're both on the same page. To clarify, the problem isn't that I don't understand the theory- I just need to clarify what my workplan should look like.

Would I be dumb if I asked for a sit down to talk through the objectives and clarify what I should be working on? I feel very out of my depth


2 Answers 2


No, it would not be dumb: it is absolutely crucial for you and your supervisor to have clear expectations about each other, as early as possible. It is well-known that the majority of problems during a PhD result from miscommunications between student and supervisor.

So send your supervisor an email as soon as possible, saying something to the effect of (note: check transitionsynthesis' comment below this post):

"I apologize if this is burdensome, but I sincerely feel like I need to have a short meeting with you in this early phase to help clarify my workplan, because I've been struggling with it recently".

I'm very confident that your supervisor will be 100% fine (unless they are the kind of people who abandon their students from day one, in which case you should not have selected them as supervisors in the first place).

I also strongly recommend you to read as soon as possible the book "How to get a PhD: A Handbook for Students and their Supervisors" by Estelle Phillips, which will be of great help to you.

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    I'd advise taking out the apologetic angle on the email. This is your advisor, it is their duty to advise you. Do not apologize for asking what you need. Take out also all adverbs ("sincerely") and hints that this arises from a struggle. Just say, "In preparing to tackle objective 1, I would benefit from a short meeting with you to discuss the specifics of the workplan. Would [suggest x specific time (including start and end time, to signal that this won't be an interminable meeting) and place for meeting] work for you?" Commented Jun 15, 2021 at 0:10
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    @transitionsynthesis I agree with your comment, except with suggesting a specific time window. The chance that the adviser will be free at the suggested time is very small. Better ask for a one hour time slot at the adviser's convenience.
    – user9482
    Commented Jun 15, 2021 at 5:02
  • @Roland Fair point! Commented Jun 16, 2021 at 19:47

In a worst-case scenario, your choice is between

  • asking your question and looking dumb now or
  • not asking your question and looking much dumber later, after you've wasted time going in and out of dead-ends

I would always opt for the first choice, except for one catch: It's a good idea to spend some time trying to figure out a questions by yourself. Not so much to avoid looking bad in front of your supervisor (best to leave behind such a debilitating attitude), but because every interesting question is a learning opportunity.

However, here's a more realistic scenario:

Your particular question seems to be one where you need high-level guidance by someone with practical research experience. You can't possibly acquire that kind of knowledge on your own by a few weeks of reading and poking. That is why you have a supervisor.

Also, your supervisor is an adult, and "no" is a full sentence. If they think your question is not for them to answer, they will (should at least) simply tell you, without thinking badly of you. That's how you learn which questions to ask and which ones to solve alone.

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