I'm a first semester student in a PhD programme on a bioinformatics related topic. Before being accepted, I spent around 7 months in learning about the topic of my project. I have a BC degree in Biology, so I'm not exactly well informed in bioinformatics.

I have been losing motivation to continue due to being constantly sent to ask my senior labmates for advice in technical issues regarding code by my advisor.

I have asked for my senior labmates' advice and my advisor is aware of that. It's just that in the long run, I can't see how this will be sustainable. I confronted my advisor regarding my thoughts and was told that I shouldn't expect "technical" issues to be resolved by my advisor due to not having time for that (and sometimes not knowing about troubleshooting them).

So... Am I asking for something I shouldn't be asking? Is this standard in a PhD programme? Am I wrong to expect my advisor to help me solve technical issues about something I am not fully aware/accquantanced with (that being coding, not the biological part in which I have a background)?

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    Yes, you are wrong in expecting help with programming from your advisor. You can expect them to provide you with resources for solving these issues. Such resources can be general advice, pointers to documentation, books, tutorials, training, expert help, ... Ultimately, you need to learn how to solve these issues yourself. Your advisor is supposed to teach you how to fish and not to hand you fishes when you are hungry.
    – user9482
    Apr 27, 2022 at 10:50
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    It seems to me that you're in a good position, as there are senior lambastes who seem ready to help you. Imagine without them, and you'd have a more or less standard scenario. Apr 27, 2022 at 11:40
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    @AlessandroDellaCorte - an interesting auto-correct from labmates to lambastes... The joys of spelling...
    – Jon Custer
    Apr 27, 2022 at 18:56
  • @JonCuster Wow, lol, good catch. Missed it. Apr 27, 2022 at 19:01
  • My personal favorite was when an old (90's) spell checker wanted to change Catania to Satanic. I certainly did not think that was an appropriate characterization of my Sicilian friends...
    – Jon Custer
    Apr 27, 2022 at 19:39

2 Answers 2


Advisor-student relationships can vary widely depending on both the advisor and the student's needs, the project, the field of research, all sorts of things, that it can be difficult to pinpoint a standard or best way to go about it. I am not in a bioinformatics field, but what you described still felt similar to a lot of the advisor-student relationships I've come across in my more fieldwork-based field, so I thought I would use it as a comparison to possibly help.

With marine fieldwork like my lab focuses on, a single student might spend 30 days spread out over the course of months on the boat conducting sampling, or they might even need to travel outside the country for several months to their field site to conduct work. Many students, even in a field-focused field, might not know how to drive a boat and need to learn or may need a lot of field hands to get their project done. Advisors usually don't have the kind of time needed to offer that much field help or take the time to teach their students how to drive a boat, as an example. For these purposes, my labmates share a lot of the effort with each other and teach each other as we work. I personally had to get a lot of help from a more experienced grad student to learn everything from how grad school worked, to species identification, to trailering a boat.

Many advisors also may not have a complete knowledge of how to accomplish their student's project. I frequently explore different statistical analysis options or coding languages for my data that my advisors might not be familar with, so my labmates are actually sometimes better resources for working through a problem. My subtopic of research was also something my advisors had no experience in conducting sampling for, so I've had to ask many other researchers even outside my university for help to make sure I'm doing everything properly.

If any of your concern is coming from taking up your labmates' time, then you can try to focus on either finding ways to help them with their own work in return or just expect to pay it forward once you have more knowledge and other new students enter your lab.

So from my own experience, I think it is fairly normal to not use your advisor to solve more technical issues related to coding like what you're describing, due to either a lack of time or a lack of knowledge, and where you may actually be better served by your labmates. Some grad students I've met have said they have had a couple long how-to-code or how-to-write-a-paper sessions with their advisors, so circling back to the variety in these sorts of relationships, it is possible to have that as well, but even in those situations, they also had to do a lot of the learning and extra work on their own or with others.

I hope my response has been helpful in giving you some outside perspective and examples, but what might be even more helpful is to talk to other students in your lab or department about their experiences. They'll know your advisor's particular style and could maybe help in telling you how they've worked with them and navigated possibly similar issues or concerns.

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    Thank you a lot for taking the time to read my question. I will talk to my labmates and understand my advisor's style. Like I said, I'm new to grad school so I didn't have no one to talk this sort of things with. Thanks again for the advice :) Apr 27, 2022 at 18:31

I think it really depends on your program as to whether they will help you or not.

For example, in my program, I study bioacoustics where programming comes into play quite a bit, and the same with my lab mates who have another advisor. It is definitely quite common for them to send us to ask others, but at the end of the day if no one can help us/if we are still stuck they do engage with us and try to solve the problems. Either through an additional meeting or through our personal one-on-one meetings with them.

So no I do not think it is wrong of you to ask, especially since you seem to be using your resources before going to them. Like the person said above every relationship is different, but I hope you get the support you need soon!

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    Thank you for taking some of your time to address my issue. I always try to ask my labmates and leave my advisor as a last resource because of time issues regarding my advisor's schedule (and I fully understand) I just hope it keeps more or less a sustainable relationship before I have no idea what to do. Thanks again :) Apr 27, 2022 at 18:36

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