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For the background: I am a Ph.D. student (UK) in a computational field (my job can be done anywhere in the world where there is an internet connection, no experimental work involved). I started around one year ago, during the covid period.

My supervisor is a senior professor, who graduated from a top university, his whole career is based on his post-doc project. He is really busy and has little to no time to give (I speak with him around 30 min each week.), other problems are:

  1. He is asking us to be from 9 AM to 5 PM, Monday to Friday in the office.
  2. He doesn't know anything about my topic, and never really gave me good advice, he never for example told me "I found this interesting paper you should have a look at it". I never had an exciting scientific discussion with him.
  3. He never listens to you and shows it with disrespectful behavior (Constantly look at his watch among other things of the same sort)

I like what I do so much that I do not think of it as a job, but this 9 AM to 5 PM thing makes it feel like a job. If I wanted to transform my passion into work I would just find a regular job. In my (maybe naive) opinion, academia is hard work and responsibilities, but at least you are supposed to work with more freedom?

I asked if I could leave the office from time to time to work from home or anyplace else (the office is small and crowded, I spend my day in front of three screens, I find it hard to study books here for example). He told me that my request is "unreasonable".

When you are late in the morning he sends you a salty email, etc... He gives more attention to this micromanaging things than our actual projects. It is such a big deal for him that we had to sign a paper saying that we are "essential workers" to come work during the lockdown. When one of us receives a ping that we should self-isolate because we've been close to someone with covid, he is pushing for that person to still come. I don't know why he is acting like this, because nowhere in my contract it is written that I need to do these hours in the office.

So now I am doing like every other student, I ignore him and do what I want. Which of course I feel guilty about... This starts to affect me, I notice that I don't want to work as much as I wanted before (I used to do much more per day during my master for example)

Now the question: Am I the one being unreasonable? I just wonder if I am delusional and not fitted for academia

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    Are you getting paid (employed), receive a scholarship, or are you self-funded?
    – lalala
    Nov 28, 2021 at 6:28
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    The last sentence and the title contain different questions. I suppose you are looking for answers to both?
    – henning
    Nov 28, 2021 at 7:52
  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. Please do not write answers in the comments.
    – cag51
    Dec 1, 2021 at 16:21

9 Answers 9

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Now the question: Am I the one being unreasonable? I just wonder if I am delusional and not fitted for academia

Based on your description it is your advisor who is unreasonable. If this was an experimental (e.g. biology, medicine, etc.) lab, there may have been a justification to insist on attendance registration. But seeing it's a mathematical/computational science you do, your advisor's standards are highly non-standard internationally, in my experience.

Since what matters eventually in academia is for most parts your productivity in publishing significant work in selective journals and conferences, I think you are neither delusional nor not suited to academia. It's your advisor who is not suited, it seems.

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I run things on the basis of core hours, usually between 10am and 4pm. I make it clear to students that this is when I will normally be available, and when I expect others to be normally available.

I find it is useful to have core hours with everyone present so that some amount of “peer troubleshooting” can be done between members of the group. In addition, there is something positive about showing up for work regularly. If the atmosphere in the group is good, attendance is rarely an issue.

On the other hand, I also make it clear to the students that I am very flexible with exceptions, and that I am “result-driven”. There are days where people will be absent, and I’m fine with this provided they give a heads-up to everyone in the group (no side deals with me personally). Someone may work late because things are going really well and it’s not reasonable to show up early the following morning. Someone may have a dentist appointment etc.

I am fine with people occasionally working from a coffee shop but less so working from home. At least for me, I need to transition from “leisure time” to “work time” and this is best done by changing environment (of course, not always possible with the pandemic). Everyone realizes that common sense should prevail, and I’ve rarely had to enforce strict core hours with one or another student.

So while I don’t think it’s completely reasonable to be so strict as in the situation your describe, I see your situation as an extreme case of a generally reasonable system. In my experience,the converse extreme situation where nobody shows up leads to fragmentation and loss of productivity. It seems the major issue in your case is that the supervisor does not provide a constructive environment that would stimulate the students on a regular basis.

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    Just because you would be more efficient in a coffee shop than at home does not mean that it is not the other way around for many people. I certainly would not be able to work in a place with many other people while I can comfortably work from home. Not everyone is like you ;-) Nov 28, 2021 at 15:59
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    This model may be suitable partially to experimental labs, or labs that develop program code. This is highly unsuitable and highly non-standard to any lab doing theoretical work, in which creative thinking is done many times in solitude by individual group members.
    – Dilworth
    Nov 28, 2021 at 18:49
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    Please rethink your position on working from home. I have been working from home to a greater or lesser extent for almost 20 years now. I did a lot of my PhD work from home (I never even came to the lab at all while writing, for example) and a lot of my postdoc work as well. I would never be able to work in a coffee shop but I am more productive at home than in the lab or office. Your point about transition from leisure to work is very valid, but that's why I have a home office and even when I didn't, I was still more efficient at home than in any place with other people.
    – terdon
    Nov 29, 2021 at 11:07
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    @ZeroTheHero: I suspect the reason people have "latched on" to that part is that it illustrates a theme that seems to underlie your entire answer: you describe yourself as "very flexible" and "result-oriented", but all your specific examples depict your management style as only marginally less rigid and controlling than the OP's supervisor. The part about working from home is illustrative in that regard: you clearly felt a need to justify it, but your only justification amounts to "it doesn't work for me, so I don't like to allow it for anyone." Nov 29, 2021 at 20:12
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    … To me, actually flexible and result-oriented management (whether in academia or in the workplace) means 1) starting from the assumption that your team members are competent adults capable of self-organizing and managing their own work and collaboration, 2) only departing from this assumption if and where evidence shows it to be necessary, and 3) supporting your team and helping them develop efficient working practices together, rather than imposing solutions from above. Nov 29, 2021 at 20:12
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Supervisors come in all shapes and sizes. I'd say that around 50% of supervisors i know require attendance 9-5. This is true of purely computational labs just as much as experimental ones, although it is a field with a high proponderence of experimental labs, so its possible the culture of experimental labs rubs off on the computational ones. My attitude is that I expect group members work 8 hours a day and to usually be available 10:30-4 (but available can mean on slack/email/zoom, especially since the pandemic). I do think that things work better with people present in person because it allows casual interaction between people, and senior members of the group to provide unscheduled help to junior members. But i don't enforce this. And i would certainly never have recommended people use the essential worker loop hole (unless they were doing COVID research, which one member of my group did)

Most supervisors, even the ones that don't require 9-5 attendance do have an attitude that a PhD shares a lot in common with being employed, and that things work better if both student and supervisor work on this assumption.

As for the rest, just sounds like you are being poorly supervised. 30 minutes a week is more than many people get, but i would expect the to at least concentrate and act interested during this time. All professors are busy right now, and apparently more than 50% of academics are currently showing signs of burn out, but it sounds like from the rest if your group members that this isn't a new state.

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Some PIs run their lab in one way, other PIs run it differently. Choosing a lab which does not fit your wishes is a poor choice. Yes, you are unreasonable to expect the lab to change for you.

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Food for thought: Professors operate on grant funding. Bidding to a grant requires a basis-of-estimate for the cost (hours and currency) to do the research. Establishing core hour expectations allows them to obtain an estimate of how many student-hours a project with a given scope. Of course, student-hours are different than person-hours in a real world setting, but it's a start.

The expectation that you be physically present suggests that your prof wants to do "management by walking around" but your description doesn't seem to fit that pattern.

The issue raised on your advisor's attitude is separate from the core hour and physical presence expectation. Sounds toxic. If you're making progress, keep moving forward. If you're flailing, I suggest seeking a different advisor.

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A PhD is a delicate balance between a job and an education. On the one hand, you're getting a degree and are expected to learn something. On the other hand, you're also getting paid to be there. So, while I understand your frustration, I don't think it's completely unreasonable that your supervisor is treating you like an employee; he is, after all, paying your salary (assuming you're not on an independent fellowship).

The fact you're also getting paid to be there also means you don't have complete (or even much) control over the direction of your project. Most likely, your PhD is part of a larger, externally-financed project with very clear deliverables that need to be reported back to the grant agency.

As a student, the realisation that a PhD often has less freedom than an MSc is pretty tough, but unfortunately this is the way the system works these days. My advice is that if you want real academic freedom, you need to "buy" it via your own external financing. The good news is that there's plenty of opportunities for such early-career financing for e.g. travels abroad, postdoc fellowships, etc.

As someone who now finds themselves running a large(ish) group, I have to say I'm also a little sympathetic to your supervisor. I'm sure that nothing would give him more pleasure than to spend the days discussing the technicalities of your project. However, the system described above likely means that most of his time is spent managing these large large projects (including reporting and other admin tasks) and figuring out how to keep the ball rolling via the next round of grant funding. Just like going from an MSc to PhD, the postodc to professor jump is also something of a bait-and-switch...

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    Thank you for your answer, a few clarifications: I don't think it's completely unreasonable that your supervisor is treating you like an employee; he is, after all, paying your salary He is not paying my salary: the university is. On the other hand, you're also getting paid to be there. I am not paid hourly, and as stated, my contract doesn't mention anything like that. I'm sure that nothing would give him more pleasure than to spend the days discussing the technicalities of your project. This is highly optimistic
    – Kalliope
    Nov 28, 2021 at 16:56
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    Do you mean you're paid via a university-funded fellowship, or a grant for which he is the PI? Because this makes a difference... Nov 28, 2021 at 19:00
  • I have a studentship from the university for X years, my performance needs to be assessed each year. This studentship is mainly (but not fully) funded by a grant from an external institution.
    – Kalliope
    Nov 29, 2021 at 13:17
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    In those business areas where physical, 9-to-5, five-days-a-week attendance is not clearly required by the business needs, I believe that it's also unreasonable for a business to require it. Nov 29, 2021 at 14:05
  • @Kalliope Maybe this is not a valid point. At the end, you are getting paid to do some research under this supervisor, and he is getting paid (indirectly) to be your supervisor - that is, to supervise your research and ensure a positive outcome. This essentially makes him your boss, regardless which pocket your salary is coming from. Of course, it can be a case that a boss is not a good fit for an employee, and so can be a supervisor a bad fit for you.
    – Neinstein
    Nov 30, 2021 at 11:44
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I believe there are two main issues:

  1. Your workstyle is different from what your supervisor wants:

This is a question that you sould have discussed during interviews (e.g. is mobile office possible, can I work frquently from home etc.) Of course this is harder during the pandemic to see how this plays out but especially then it is important to also check what happens after Corona, during lockdown and in phases without lockdowns. It is of course NEVER acceptable if your boss forces you to sign an essential worker document if you are not exactly this. This could be taken up to HR or the responsibles from University, but with the probable outcome your boss will be very annoyed. Micromanagement is also something which is hard to realize during interviews. If you are not the only one in the group who is unhappy about this maybe create a need in the group to allow home office e.g. for 4 days a month. Start with a small number and show your boss that homeoffice is not holiday but working time and you are productive. In general I recommend everyone for PhD interviews to spend time (lunch, virtual coffee) with the working group ALONE to get more details for the ways a group works as you are not alone with having a hard to deal with your supervisor.

  1. You are not happy with supervision:

This is essentially a different topic. While as a Master student you can expect a grade of supervision during PhD this is not the case anymore. Often supervisors do not really understand the topic of the PhD students so usually post-docs are more helpful for technical things, supervisors more for the general direction. See if you have people with similar problems in your lab. I was in the same situation, the sole one working on a topic and a supervisor I saw maybe once a month for like 30minutes. It taught me a lot (like seeing possible research directions, carrying a project on my own) but it is much harder than having a supervisor which knows the topic and guides you. Therefore, this highly depends on the group and supervisor and you need to decide which style you prefer and what you would like for your PhD but just know this type of supervision is not completely unusual.

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    I am not unhappy with my supervision, I am quite independent and it's not a problem for me. I am unhappy because my supervisor is not active in my project and still forces me to be here from 9 to 5 every day. If we would have an active collaboration, I wouldn't mind doing 9 to 5. If he asks me to be here 8 hours a day, it should involve him working with me, at least having some interactions. Maybe I have a naive view but in the world we are living now, it feels weird to have a small office crowded because of ideological reasons.
    – Kalliope
    Nov 29, 2021 at 13:08
  • I understand your issue I would probably feel the same. As I mentioned it is not okay during these to force people into the office. Decide wether its worth talking to people at the University about this or try to create a force within the working group. Without high incidences I guess @ZeroTheHeroes answer applies, I also feel communicating with people in the office and other PhD peers (at least 2-3 times a week) helps foster the community and more creative discussions over a coffe. And for me such discussions were valuable even without shared projects.
    – JennyH
    Nov 30, 2021 at 14:18
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If your supervisor is paying you (with a stipend or tuition remission), then you have an obligation to make a minimum amount of progress on your project. If you are being paid through a grant, your supervisor is expected to make progress on the project described in the grant application. Therefore, the supervisor must see to it that you make progress on the project. In this case, the supervisor–student relationship is much like manager–employee relationship. The supervisor has obligations that must be met and you have been hired to meet those obligations. The supervisor should have explained the obligations of your position when you were hired (or joined the group). If you are not making sufficient progress on your project, your supervisor is well in their rights to demand that you put in more regular hours or find a new job.

If you are not being paid and are supported by an external scholarship or from your own funds, you should move to a new group because it sounds like your current supervisor is offering you nothing. If you have your own project and are sufficiently self-motivated, you may be able to find a supervisor who is much more hands-off.

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    The question is whether creative progress can be made in such an authoritarian environment. I assume that forcing people to stay in the lab physically all day long reduces productivity.
    – Dilworth
    Nov 30, 2021 at 19:30
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    @Dilworth This is exactly it! From 9 to 5 I am just a machine in front of a computer trying to find something to do that is suitable with my environment. I am not able to think clearly, or to study a book, read a paper...
    – Kalliope
    Nov 30, 2021 at 23:05
  • If you are not making sufficient progress on your project, your supervisor is well in their rights to demand that you put in more regular hours or find a new job. I never said that, please do not assume anything.
    – Kalliope
    Nov 30, 2021 at 23:09
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As other answers pointed out, you are very reasonable and this is not usual. But...

What can you do?

If he acts as a company manager, treat him like one.

Compile a detailed, clear, professional email describing how his current management affects your productivity negatively, with examples given where possible.

  • Describe in a few words how you usually spend the 9am-5pm hours at the office, whether there are times when you cannot do anything, and how would you spend these times on work more effectively out of office. Give examples where a flexible working hour style would have worked better.
  • Describe the negative impact of being in the office on your ability to research. Tell him how you would be more productive out of office (going to the library, being more focused in a calm and isolated environment). Offer openness to test the productivity increase.
  • Highlight your need for professional help regarding your research. Do not question his expertise in your topic (even if you see signs), but describe how a bit more input from his side would be very helpful. Ask him that if he lacks time to participate more, suggest professors in the department with whom you could conduct scientific discussions.
  • Propose a solution to the above issues that potentially could satisfy both of your and his expectations. Ask for a 1v1 meeting to discuss it in person. Be ready to compromise on many points.

Be very clear on your issues and with the goal of the email. Focus on your productivity and professional relationship: what affects your performance negatively, and how could it be solved to increase your productivity. Avoid private issues, as they can easily derail the whole point and give a hook to refuse your suggestions. (For example, "I could spend more time with my SO" is not a reason and should not be included, as it is unrelated to your productivity, at least not directly.)

Keep the email short and concise to the maximum extent, describe each point in no more than 2-4 sentences. Busy people (or those who want to see themselves as one) will not read lengthy letters in detail, and some of your crucial points will be overseen.

Of course, it's possible that you cannot arrive at a situation that satisfies you. In this case, there's no way to resolve the issue, so you must consider whether you can accept the situation as is, or find a new supervisor who would be a better fit.


Regarding the lack of professional discussion: you can attempt to improve this by email communication. Before each meeting, write him a brief email (5-10 sentences) with a list of the points you want to discuss. This gives him a chance to prepare beforehand in mind and give more thoughts on the topic. Supervisors are working on multiple projects, and it can be hard to "jump back" into a specific one you didn't pay any thought for for days, maybe weeks.

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