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Summary: are PhD advisers obligated to help with technical questions / tasks that PhD student is trying to solve?


This question arose due to my confusion regarding the role of a Ph.D. supervisor.

I am aware that, nowadays, plenty of platforms are available for a researcher to ask their questions. But receiving a proper answer mostly depends on others' will. Suppose I opt for a stack exchange site to ask a question then the possibility of receiving a solution depends on the response by members of the community. If I ask on GitHub or email the author then also it is optional for them to answer my query.

Some tasks during Ph.D. are expected to be completed in a stipulated amount of time. There may be negative consequences if it takes so much time for a Ph.D. researcher to get her query solved.

It is optional for colleagues, teams (if any) to solve a query of a Ph.D. researcher. Although the Ph.D. researcher tries hard to get an answer by reading books and thinking much about the problem, my question is regarding the role of the supervisor in this context.

Is a supervisor bound to clarify the technical questions of her Ph.D. researcher?

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    This seems an entirely reasonable question to me. It is not in the best interests of students at any level to have all of their questions answered directly. Part of being a good teacher is the ability to help students learn to answer their own questions. This is especially true of research students as when they gain their doctorate they should expect to be working at a level where there is nobody to answer their technical doubts as they are at the cutting edge of their field. IMHO, you don't have to answer if you don't think it is in their best interests. Jul 31 at 6:45
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    @alephzero If I could downvote your comment, I would, since your interpretation of the question is based on overly negative assumptions. Giving answers to technical questions is not the same as "doing all the work". It could mean that the supervisor is much more familiar with certain technical circumstances and is able to guide the student in the right way, for example, by helping them to ask the right questions and look in the right places. Jul 31 at 14:05
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    @lighthousekeeper he basically gives what OP asked - a reason why people might downvote and a hint to how this can come across. I wouldn't put it like that (hint: the life experience bit sounds arrogant), nor would I downvote, but the question does read insecure to me and wanting assurances you cannot fail or like it tries to shift blame (pre-emptively?) to others for potentially failing. At the least it can be read like that. If it isn't coming from that place then it's a good hint at perception and how to rewrite if OP cares about that perception or feels it might taint the answers. Jul 31 at 14:30
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    obviously it's fine to struggle with a PhD (or being the supervisor as the question could also be written by a supervisor^^) and the exact boundaries of what one can expect and cannot expect, what the normal challenge level is supposed to be etc. and to question the personal situation and assistance of the personal supervisor! Another issue for that perception might be that it focuses on "technical" questions when many might perceive those to be exactly what the PhD student is supposed to solve themselves. Perhaps specifying the field could help to clarify in that regard. Jul 31 at 14:37
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    What do you mean by technical? "How do I use this instrument?" "How do I do this model in R?" "What does this theory mean?" Jul 31 at 22:45
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No.

The role of supervisor is understood in a number of ways by a number of people, but supervisors are not bound to clarify technical questions. They should provide reasonable guidance (for instance by suggesting possible solutions paths, references to similar material, appropriate training on equipment, course selection).

Now reasonable guidance means different things to different people, mentoring takes many forms, and supervisors have different styles, but good supervisors can and will gauge the amount of guidance needed on an individual basis. Other supervisors may choose to let the students sort themselves out.

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It is not in the best interests of students at any level to have all of their questions answered directly. Part of being a good teacher is the ability to help students learn to answer their own questions. This is especially true of research students as when they gain their doctorate they should expect to be working at a level where there is nobody to answer their technical doubts as they are at the cutting edge of their field. IMHO, you don't have to answer if you don't think it is in their best interests.

It's also quite possible at PhD level that the supervisor doesn't have the answer (and nor might anybody else), which is what makes research fun.

I view a PhD as being an apprenticeship to be researcher in some particular field of research, so the aim is to learn the skills required by working with (hopefully) a master. Learning how to address doubts or solve problems for yourself is part of the progression to a journeyman (journeyperson?) that can work on tasks independently. Your job is to get your apprentice to that stage by the time they finish. Sometimes that is by directly teaching them things (e.g. how to use a chisel), sometimes it is having them work with you on something, sometimes it is letting them make their own mistakes and helping them to learning from them. I am learning to make musical instruments as a hobby, and I learn more by thinking about things for myself and trying to work out what I am doing wrong than I would if my (truly excellent) teacher just demonstrated how to do everything.

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    Very nice. Every teacher/professor should keep this in mind. "... at any level..."
    – Buffy
    Jul 31 at 11:50
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    The additional paragraph (...no one knows...) is also important to remember. Can't vote twice, though. Sorry.
    – Buffy
    Jul 31 at 13:12
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I think there are some more general underlying questions in this, implied and necessarily precedent to the question asked. Answering them, answers the question.

  1. Is a supervisor bound to entertain every question a researcher might ask?

I'd argue no.

I feel it's ethically fine for a supervisor to set well-defined boundaries. An extreme might be "no more than 10 questions a day, by email, before 10am. In each, show what reasonable effort you made to find the answer yourself" - I've laid down similar boundaries myself, albeit far less stringent, when mentoring large numbers of people.

It'd also be ethically fine for a supervisor to fail to respond to questions which were clearly asked to large numbers of people at once; were abusive or personal; were asked through a weird medium; were not on the topic of the research; or were otherwise in violation of commonly-implied social boundaries for expecting a question response.

So the supervisor is not ethically required to even respond to every question from a researcher.

  1. If an appropriate question is appropriately asked, is the supervisor bound to respond?

I'd argue yes.

If the researcher has shown reasonable effort in their search for answers, and found none, then they've likely encountered a "blocker".

It's arguably the whole point of mentoring, to hear and respond to problems encountered by those we're helping: without such interactive guidance, we're just a YouTube video on legs.

Are there those who won't fulfill this ethical responsibility? Absolutely. There are crap supervisors in academia, just as there are crap managers in business. And unless there's some explicit rule in place in the institution you're working at to force them to take a greater interest in helping, there may not be a lot you can do about that.

  1. What form of response is the supervisor bound to give?

Any of the following would be fine:

  • "I don't know how to help you with that."
  • A partial answer, acknowledging that it's only partial.
  • A full and complete answer of the question, maybe even raising additional issues that might be relevant.
  • Proposing a reframe of the question, if it seems based on a deeper knowledge failure. Arguably the best help a mentor can give is to see beyond simple questions to deeper issues.
  • A pointer to likely sources of the answer.
  • A suggestion of other avenues of inquiry or research approaches that might lead to an answer.
  • ... and so would many other approaches.

And as others are said, answering every potential question is neither the only, nor the best response to every question anyway, since we're trying to teach people to fish, not give them a coupon for unlimited free fishsticks.

I suspect that's why the OP didn't say "answer", but rather "clarify".

TL;DR: For any reasonable question, asked reasonably, and within any explicit boundaries set by the supervisor, YES, but only a response, not necessarily an answer. It's a mentor's role to give support and advice.

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Your supervisor is usually someone fluent in the research field you are doing your PhD in.

But it does not have to be the case: my supervisor was maybe 40% competent in my research (a novel one at that time) and I was not expecting reseach help from him.

He was a wonderful supervisor, though: he helped me to navigate the muddy waters of Academia, was keen to listen and to challenge some of the points, and was very helpful in the logistics of my PhD.

We had an extraordinary relationship but

Is a supervisor bound to clarify the technical questions of her Ph.D. researcher?

Certainly not. Besides the slightly demanding "bound" (or at least this is how I read it, as a non-English speaker) they may simply not know the answer (it is research after). I would say that if at some point you do not discover the answers to your questions on your own your PhD is not that great (in terms of learning how to do research)

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  • Indeed, there should come a time when you know/understand some things better than your supervisor, and are in a better position to answer the questions - you have been studying them and they have not. Aug 2 at 14:21
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    @DikranMarsupial: yes, I would argue that this point should come quite fast, for things you have a common understanding of. If someone does not make the effort to understand something that is on the way to their PhD then there is something wrong. The further you go, the fewer of such cases where you want someone to explain things to you (generally speaking)
    – WoJ
    Aug 2 at 14:24

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