13

I'm a PhD-student in (hopefully) my final year of my thesis, but there are still some open tasks before handing in. Since funding has already run out some time ago, I am trying to wrap up everything as soon as possible. Thus, I try to be more pro-active, i.e., do not wait until colleagues or my supervisor are answering mails/setting up meetings, but rather set them up and plan them by myself. This also involves writing meeting notes from meetings covering the next steps and send those to the persons involved.

Especially for planning future steps I usually prefer to get responses within a reasonable time frame (i.e., usually within two workdays) such that I can continue with the discussed tasks as soon as possible. If I do not get responses within that time frame I earlier could assume that everyone agreed with the results and next steps.

Now, during the recent months my supervisor and colleagues started working together and increasingly ignored the summaries. On multiple occasions the decisions of earlier meetings were completely neglected and the direction of the project was changed, meaning that I had to discard my work done until that point to start from scratch again. When bringing that up my supervisor stated that I should be more aware of the schedule of the people involved, and therefore understand that getting answers/change suggestions can take up to several weeks. He stated that I should be more relaxed, something which is getting more difficult for me in light of the situation stated above.

I currently do not know how to handle the situation, and how to improve it (if possible). Thus:

  • Are my expectations to get responses in a timely manner (i.e., two workdays) too high? I know that my colleagues and my supervisor are busy, but I'd still appreciate it if I would not have to deal with changes introduced several days or weeks later.
  • What would be the best strategy to improve the current work situation, to finish the project within a reasonable time frame? To a similar question it was suggested to set own deadlines for answers, comments, etc., but that failed in my case.
13
  • 4
    Hmmm. Are you trying to take over the supervisor's job? Their authority?
    – Buffy
    Sep 23 at 18:57
  • 10
    Or, are you that student who, when put on a team, decides to do the work all by themself? I hate to seem harsh, but it reads like you lack something about the concept of teamwork.
    – Buffy
    Sep 23 at 19:26
  • 17
    Your supervisor is your boss. Bosses tend to prefer to work on their, and not their employees timeline. It’s a good idea to set up meetings and write notes, but don’t expect to be able to will your boss into changing how they operate. The attempt alone can easily be off-putting. For better or for worse, you likely have to accept that. Sep 23 at 19:34
  • 2
    @Buffy: It might have been written like that, but I definitely do not try to take up all the work in a team. I would rather expect clear expectations, such that I can work on those tasks (thus I took up writing the notes), and it can be frustrating if I've been told several weeks later that I misunderstood something in the meeting, and therefore all my work during those weeks is in vain. To avoid spending time on tasks which are not necessary I therefore try to clarify as much as possible before starting. I hope that that clarifies the situation a bit?
    – user_0815
    Sep 23 at 19:49
  • 26
    It's debatable whether, when funding has run out, the supervisor is still the student's boss. If this means what it would where I live, that means the OP is working in an unpaid capacity as part of the supervisor's lab. In that context I don't think it's unreasonable to be annoyed that one is having to regularly discard work because people are not responding (even to note they will follow up with more detail later) in a timely manner. Sep 24 at 3:22
28

Your expectations may definitely be unrealistic.

I have a PhD student who needs to complete his dissertation draft by the end of October, when the contract runs out (revisions can come in later, but the bulk of the work needs to be done by that deadline). For the last year, we impressed on this person time and again that there is not much time left, and that they need to deliver publishable chapters. Over the first half of this calendar year, including the relatively quiet Summer months, this person delivered basically nothing.

Now, in September and October, lies the peak of my teaching load. If I neglect my teaching for even a moment, I have 200 screaming students in my inbox (and rightfully so). During such a busy time, if the PhD student would suddenly deliver a draft, I cannot guarantee that I will have a go over it within the next two weeks, let alone two working days.

You must understand that your supervisors may be under pressures from all kinds of sides: management duties, teaching duties, reviewing duties, multiple students to supervise. These pressures are not equally intense all the time, but it's hard to quantify what hits exactly when, so it's impossible to forecast when you will get quick answers and when you will have to wait longer.

Regarding your second question: the best plan is probably to make a timeline of what you can deliver independently. Don't focus on what they can do for you, focus on what you can do for you. If you keep producing material, at some point there will be a skeleton of a dissertation. Your supervisors may quibble with exactly what flesh they want to put on the bones, but if you keep working towards the end goal, at some point they can no longer neglect the direction in which you are pushing your work (which is: completion, one way or another).

5
  • Thank you for the answer! Of course I understand that my supervisor and my colleagues have busy schedules, but still, at some point it would be nice to get feedback in a timely manner, to avoid spending time on tasks which can't be used afterwards due to misunderstandings.
    – user_0815
    Sep 23 at 19:51
  • 13
    The point is: "timely" is fluent. In my calendar, Monday may be occupied fully by teaching tasks, Tuesday may be filled with meetings on organizational matters and a MSc thesis award ceremony, and Wednesday may be filled with teaching tasks again. If you send me a document on Monday morning, I will literally have had zero time to look at it on Thursday morning, three working days later. Any fixed number of working days may be an unrealistic assumption, and two most definitely is. Sep 23 at 20:37
  • I fully understand that, and I do not expect feedback to papers/thesis/larger things within just a few days. I rather would need feedback for the scheduling and planning of experiments which were discussed during meetings, to avoid misunderstandings and include clarifications. This feedback is (at least from my point of view) significantly more time sensitive compared to papers. A paper can wait, having to throw out experimental data/reconfigure the whole experiment because of miscommunication/different expectations & aims hurts a lot more.
    – user_0815
    Sep 24 at 13:34
  • 4
    @user_0815 It sounds like your issue isn't the timing of feedback, it's that they keep coming back and changing your setup. You need to sit down with your advisor and say "Look, I need to run this." No science is perfect, you have to go with "good enough" eventually. Have a final meeting and integrate their comments one last time (or don't). Sep 24 at 14:35
  • For me, “timely” is 2 weeks. Anything urgent I budget one week for collaborators to read and provide feedback. Sep 25 at 20:07
14

If OP is independent, that's great. I am a big fan of PhD students that set their own schedule and are proactive, as long as they are reasonably capable of taking a sensible route.

If a student would start foisting a time table and response times upon me, however, and insist on them being followed, we would have a discrete "tete-a-tete" about who is in charge of setting the schedule.

Now, of course, you are under time pressure; we do not know what was the cause of that or who was responsible for that - but from your question it seems that you regularly went off into directions which were later canceled. We do not know whether this is because your supervisor would be a pedant, or because you might have been more enthusiastic than discerning. This may have cost you a lot of time in the past.

Also, you talk about "tried to be more proactive." That indicates that there was another problem in the past; we do not know what it was, but perhaps you were too reactive in the past and you now try to compensate for that - but you cannot dump recovery from past mistakes onto your supervisor to fix.

All this is reading between the lines of your question, and the matter may have been entirely different.

Your funding problem is the real issue here, it appears. Ask your supervisor what can be done to alleviate your problem. If additional funding cannot be found, ask them what they advise for you to be able to finish as quickly as possible. Be respectful, they may be able to help you in your situation - but, by no means impose your pacing onto them.

4
  • 1
    My main reason for becoming more "pro-active" was the feedback from my supervisor. Initially I did not write notes and asked for confirmation, but after he changed expectations and parameters several times weeks after starting the experiment while stating that he always intended the experiment to be run in his way, and I misunderstood in our meeting I decided to write notes, such that I at least have a guideline to follow and to refer to.
    – user_0815
    Sep 24 at 13:36
  • 2
    @user_0815 Yes, that's precisely what I suspected. It is now clear that you were originally not pro-active enough, but now you seem to be overshooting in the other direction. There is a clear mismatch between what your supervisor expects and how you work, and it appears to lie at the bottom of your issues. Since you are towards the end of your thesis, probably your best bet is to discuss with your supervisor how to optimally accelerate your thesis. Sep 24 at 13:43
  • I tried to, but he insists on finishing all experiments/simulations/papers/etc. first, which is difficult if those requirements get changed or extended constantly.
    – user_0815
    Sep 27 at 8:01
  • @user_0815 I see. That's a problem, indeed. You may need to be concrete on the timeline with your supervisor and check how this can be cast in stonenow. Sep 27 at 13:14
10

Are my expectations to get responses in a timely manner (i.e. two workdays) too high?

Yeah, I think that's a high expectation. In some groups it may be possible, but especially to expect this from a group of multiple people each who have their own responsibilities both to themselves and others I think is too high. I'd set about a week as a low end for expectations, partly on the basis that most people have a somewhat weekly schedule (that is, if they have more free time on Thursdays, it's like that free time recurs every Thursday). However, some times people have other "one-time" events that may make them unreachable for longer (their own deadline, particular busy parts of a course year such as before/after exams, etc).

What would be the best strategy to improve the current work situation, to finish the project within a reasonable time frame?

It sounds like you're soliciting a lot of feedback for this stage in your project. By now you should somewhat know what you're doing and who you're working with. You should be able to anticipate some of the feedback you get and pursue alternative directions without getting instruction.

For things you need immediate feedback on, especially from more than one stakeholder, schedule meetings. Prepare all the information necessary to make the decision, present it concisely, and get your answer. I do think it's generally reasonable to have a weekly meeting scheduled with the people you work closely with, but that's not reasonable for everyone. However, if you're someone that needs a weekly meeting to be productive and your supervisor isn't, well...you're pretty much out of luck by this stage on that one, you'll just have to manage. This is sort of "week/month one" negotiation stuff, or things to work out before you even start.

If you have more than one thing going at once (you mention multiple "tasks" that need completing), structure your work so that you can be waiting for feedback on some things while preparing others.

Lastly, work with your advisor on a reasonable timeline. Instead of asking for more rapid feedback (your solution), present them with your problem (needing to graduate by some date) and ask for guidance. At some point one simply has to stop iterating on things. There is no natural defined end beyond which there is no more work to do for most academic projects.

2
  • We worked out a timeline for the project several times, but each time requirements changed (or were added by him), resulting in delays. Therefore, at least for me it is difficult to believe that new timelines will help much here.
    – user_0815
    Sep 27 at 8:00
  • @user_0815 You don't need to make a "new" timeline, you need to work together to stick to the old one. So, if something new is added that takes more of the finite time remaining, then something else has to be dropped. What would your advisor suggest dropping to incorporate the new requirement? In addition, your timeline needs to budget for things to change because things always do. It's not realistic to budget only for everything to work perfectly the first time.
    – Bryan Krause
    Sep 27 at 19:01
5

You are trying to boss your advisor around, and that is not going to work. Other answers have had much good advice on alternatives.

I would like to focus on one detail in your question:

the direction of the project was changed, meaning that I could discard my work done until that point to start from scratch again.

This is not acceptable. It is way to late for changing directions. Push back on this.

We are talking about your thesis. Your advisor can offer advice, but you decide whether that advice is good or not. And if they are too busy to talk to you, make your own decisions and stick to them.

Once you get out of the "three steps forward and two steps back" routine, you should be able to reach the goal in a reasonable time.

1
  • I am not sure how to push back on it if my supervisor finally is responsible for saying "Yes, you can submit this thesis." Unless I could finish all the tasks he gave me this will not happen...
    – user_0815
    Sep 27 at 7:59
3

Are my expectations to get responses in a timely manner (i.e. two workdays) too high? I know that my colleagues and my supervisor are busy, but I'd still appreciate it if I would not have to deal with changes introduced several days or weeks later.

From my experience, a one-word answer is yes, your expectation here is unrealistic. I state later why I say so.

What would be the best strategy to improve the current work situation, to finish the project within a reasonable time frame? To a similar question it was suggested to set own deadlines for answers/comments/etc., but that failed in my case.

I would think that a hard deadline is the best way - where you leave your current position and/or move to your next employment. In most cases, the first vision of a PhD project is not achieved - which is fine. One of the outcomes of a PhD project is also your career training and that is non-negotiable. Apart from that, if your university requires you to have certain requirements fulfilled before defending your thesis, that should be done as well. On the research outcomes, by the time you finish your PhD, the experiments/data/code should have been documented properly and have reached a stage to be made publicly available if that is what your group has agreed to do.

The thing is your research project(s) is only a part of your colleagues' (including your supervisor) ongoing projects. They should prioritise your projects since a PhD is a hard deadline, unlike their employment which might not be for a limited period, but placing unrealistic conditions on them would harm your collaborations with them. There are other factors (family, life and so on) that determine how much and when they can focus on working on common projects with you.

My suggestion is that having end goals for your PhD to achieve some research outcomes is a great way to approach and tackle your PhD - since it gives meaning to what we do. But it is a problem if it gets in the way of you collaborating with others and makes you non-flexible and non-adaptable - both to the research goals and to the schedule. One of the other outcomes of PhD is also to work with people on big projects (longer timeline and goals which typical PhD projects are). I would suggest having open communication with your group - tell them why a certain deadline is important to you in the long term and give them the room to think and react when they want instead of requiring them to respond within 2 days. Giving them the benefit of doubt when they are late in responding is also good for your health and nerves (you can think and work on your personal projects in the meanwhile). These are positive collaborating practices and is conducive to your career growth and good health in the long term. In the end, if you feel like the grand goal of your PhD is unattainable due to the pace of the work, it is still fine since you do grow out of your PhD and have learned something in the process.

Hope this helps.

3

I think you cannot steer your supervisor and the research project. Everybody besides you have multiple other duties like different research projects, other PhD students to supervise, writing proposals, reading theses, writing papers, teaching, and so on. They have to balance the amount of their time they spent to these topics.
Further, your personal goals (finishing your PhD in a timely manner) does not necessarily align with the research group (research breakthrough, some long-term goal, creating PhD thesis topics, being interesting for industrial collaborators, preparing research questions for the next grant).

So you cannot change how fast you get answers and you cannot change the research group. I think you should try to decouple your PhD thesis from the research in the group.
Sit down with your advisor and define what you still need to do for your thesis. Both of you have to agree, that once you covered the defined scope, you are allowed to write up your thesis, hand it in, and defend. Beside that, you can or cannot invest in the common research direction - that depends on what you can negotiate with your advisor. Their slow pace will help you allocating your time to your personal research, to aim finishing your work.

Good luck.

2
  • The issue here is that my supervisor still tries to change the scope of the work by extending it after meetings, even if the opposite was discussed during the meeting. This is the reason I try to keep notes, to verify if it was my memory which failed (and the topic came up during the meeting) or he changed his mind afterwards.
    – user_0815
    Sep 27 at 7:58
  • @user_0815 That is a problem. You have to make an appointment and nail him down on a scope and make it clear to him, that you want to write your thesis with this scope. If the project changes, that's fine and you will support them. But you make it clear to him, that it is time for you to wrap your PhD thesis up.
    – usr1234567
    Sep 27 at 8:06
1

Getting timely responses/decisions by email in academia is in my experience a lost cause. However, if you're scheduling regular meetings (which are the right way to make time-sensitive decisions, imo), you shouldn't have to deal with things by email. I would suggest that you try to be clearer about meeting agendas and conclusions.

It sounds like during meetings, you and your PI/collaborators aren't on the same page about when you're making a firm decision about the next steps in the project, and when you're having a general discussion about possible options. So you need to be very explicit about what you need, what you're planning, etc - and you need to do that during the meeting, not by email, because emails clearly aren't a good communication medium for these kinds of issues in your group.

  1. Before the meeting, send everyone an email summarizing what you want to talk about and what decisions you need to be made.
  2. At the end of the meeting, state what you understand the decision to be and what you plan to do as a result, and ask if everyone agrees with that and if they have other concerns. If people have concerns or the decision is unclear, you want to make sure that this is figured out during the meeting, instead of by email afterward. If it looks like things are unclear, schedule another meeting (or extend the current meeting if possible).
  3. Your goal is to make sure that by the end of the meeting, everyone understands what decisions have been made and what you will be spending your time doing, so that if they decide to change direction later, they know this will cause wasted work on your part.

That said, projects pretty much inevitably involve changing directions and wasted effort going into different things that end up not working out - if everyone already knew what they were doing, it wouldn't be academia! So it's possible that everyone does already understand how much time you're spending on backtracking and wasted work, and they think that's how science normally works. (They may be right! There's not enough detail to tell.) In that case you have a larger-scale problem, and you should talk about that with your PI and ask if there's anything that can be done about it, possibly by making your work more independent.

1
  • 1
    'try to be clearer about meeting agendas and conclusions' A thousand times yes. You know a committee's got problems when, at every meeting, the motion "to approve the minutes of the previous meeting as an accurate record" produces a heated debate and a closely-split vote. (I've seen it happen in very high-stakes contexts.) Sep 25 at 17:10
1

Since funding has already run out some time ago, I am trying to wrap up everything as soon as possible

I think this is the key issue. The project suddenly became much more urgent to you, but it did not get any more urgent to anyone else. Your advisor and other stakeholders are still getting their normal salary and so are still on the same pace they used to be, you are trying to accelerate the pace.

The only way to solve this is make your advisor or other stakeholders truly understand why this is so urgent to you, and get them to feel the same urgency.

Read the book "Never Split the Difference: Negotiating As If Your Life Depended On It" by Chris Voss. One key takeaway from this book: phrase questions your advisor in the form of "how am I supposed to?" For example "As you know, the funding has run out a long time ago. I can't get a job until I finish my dissertation, but I can't finish my dissertation due to XYZ issues. I have $X left in my bank account. How am I supposed to pay my rent and buy food once that runs out?"

He might answer this by solving the problem in a different way. For example, maybe he knows of some other source of funding get you through until the end. Or maybe he agrees to speed up his timetable.

1
  • My supervisor mostly cares about the main project to be finished, but keeps changing directions of the experiments (which is the reason I am trying to keep notes and to verify them after meetings). He does not care about my funding issues, and keeps telling me to just find a job. How, that is up to me.
    – user_0815
    Sep 27 at 7:56

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.