27

I am international STEM PhD student in the UK.

My advisor asked me to try and attempt a question that he has been thinking about for more than five years. He was always very encouraging, but wasn't confident that I would be able to solve it. I wasn't very confident either.

It turned out to be much simpler than expected (and the simplicity of the solution was perhaps his blind spot). I managed to solve it. Since I told him about my solution, he has turned markedly cold towards me, hardly ever replying to emails and appearing a little aloof/defensive during meetings.

I am not a mind-reader, and hence wouldn't like to speculate on why he is acting this way. What are some things that I could do to make him like me again/not screw up my job application? He has collaborators at the very top places, and I'd love to do a postdoc with them.

I have thought about offering him co-authorship, playing up his contribution to the project, etc. But all of these attempts could backfire, as he may feel insulted, etc.

Like I said, I think he is in general a very decent person, and has always been encouraging towards me.

7
  • 27
    “offering him co-authorship” seems like a strange phrase here. If this result is important enough to publish, surely you would include your advisor in the author list? You would not have anything to publish without them… if you proposed to publish a result without your advisor, that would definitely explain the breakdown in the relationship to me.
    – mhopeng
    Aug 13 at 0:44
  • 27
    @mhopeng- The advisor being co-author with the student is not a norm in my field. Students are expected to write single-author papers, and acknowledge the advisor's help in the relevant section, even though the advisor may have told them about the question and provided a lot of help and guidance. This is different from engineering, where the advisor is almost always acknowledged. Aug 13 at 13:33
  • 7
    Feels like we may be missing important info about the interaction that you didn't notice, or didn't think is important. Also, even though this is in the US, you might mention the cultural background of your advisor to help us rule out underlying cultural sensitivities. Aug 14 at 19:34
  • 4
    I think @ScottSeidman may be on to something here. More details are needed about how exactly you told him about your solution. If it was as a surprise in a group meeting and you said "Oh it's easy!" then that could really have been a serious faux pas for some "old style" professors.
    – uhoh
    Aug 14 at 20:26
  • 2
    If you are posting this question in your real name, that is a step in the wrong direction as your adviser might see this as a personal affront towards him if he runs across it, and moreover he will likely be resentful of the fact that other people might google your name and easily (I’m guessing — I didn’t try) find out his identity.
    – Dan Romik
    Aug 15 at 23:00

8 Answers 8

39

I'd guess offering him co-authorship is a mistake as he might take it as condescending, plus the usual reasons.

I'd guess the advisor is disappointed in themself, not in you. That can be hard to accept. Acting badly in such a situation is common enough.

It is hard to suggest that a student act like the adult in the room, but that may be what you are faced with. Let me suggest two alternatives, with the first recommended over the second.

If you have good relations with another faculty member who also has good relations with the advisor, seek advice from them. They may, actually, be able to be an intermediary. It is also good to have someone on the faculty knowledgeable about such things in case things really fall apart.

The second is to ask for a sit-down with the advisor and start off with "Where are we? How can we move forward?"

Congratulations on finding the insight to solve the problem. If it has been hanging about for several years it is likely an important contribution. Your solution method may be more important than the question itself, actually, as can be true in pure math.

18

With the caveat that any answer to this question is a bold attempt at mind-reading, I will humbly add my two cents.

It is not uncommon for academics in STEM fields to have a pet question, on which they hang a (usually over-optimistic) internal belief that when they finally find (and publish) a solution, they would be able to upgrade their academic and even social standings among their peers.

From that point of view, having a younger and less experienced person solve the problem, is hard to reckon with, and even more so if the solution was simple (or seems to be simple in hind-sight).

It is very possible that you advisor is confused by this turn of events, for several reasons, including potentially a perception that his very ability to advise you in your studies is now in question.

My advice therefore would be to:

  1. Give your advisor the time he needs to come to terms with the new situation. If your advisor is a decent person, he won't hold a grudge against you for long, and would be happy to recommend you to their peers. As long as you don't take advantage of the situation, your advisor will finally come to the correct conclusion which is you should not be blamed or accused for finding the solution.

  2. Think of all the different ways this person has been good and kind to you and how that attitude has contributed to your PhD's experience so far. Find the time(s) and place(s) to express your favorable view of him, and your gratefulness for his kindness.

  3. Keep up your academic work and consult your advisor as you did before - This will help signal that nothing's changed from your side, and that you would like to restore the routine. If he doesn't immediately reply - simply remind him that you want to keep advancing your work and that his inputs would be appreciated.

HTH!

9

Unless there's some context not specified in the question, the advisor's reaction is not normal.

If they didn't think you had some chance of solving this problem, they were setting you up for failure, which is awful. Now that you have solved it, they should rejoice and be congratulatory, glad that you have together* cracked a long-standing problem. Arguably an advisor's greatest success lies in their students going beyond where they have gone.

You are self-aware enough to resist speculating; so do consider that the apparent distance might be unconnected to this incident. You are in the best position to judge this.

*As others have pointed out, many of us would view this as a joint success shared between you and the advisor. There's a high chance that the advisor sees it the same way, and they could be greatly offended by you suggesting co-authorship.

Since your primary question is about what to do, I suggest you don't bring up this solution for a while. Let them decide where/when to publish it, while you focus on other research areas (assuming this wasn't your only research problem). Attend meetings (if that's a thing), interact normally, keep doing your work and wait to see if there's any change in their outlook towards you.

3
  • 3
    Yes, as described, not normal, but unfortunately there are academics who do not behave like human beings and if this case is the case any reasonable response may elicit further weirdness. Your answer is pretty much optimal, but I rather fear more weirdness in store for this student.
    – Deipatrous
    Aug 13 at 19:45
  • 3
    If they didn't think you had some chance of solving this problem, they were setting you up for failure, which is awful - It doesn't sound like that to me. Advisors often suggest hard problems, sometimes with the thought that the student might have an idea and make partial/related progress, or if not, they'll suggest moving on to a different problem after a short time.
    – Kimball
    Aug 15 at 3:07
  • 3
    @Deipatrous I generally agree with what you mean, but "there are academics who do not behave like human beings" seems like a huge overshoot here, and an unnecessary dehumanization. Feeling hurt and holding some unreasonable grudge against a less experienced person who solved something you worked on for 5 years with such ease is a very human feeling. Academics are not robots, and not perfect.
    – Neinstein
    Aug 15 at 14:37
5

I would follow the advice from @mhopeng's comment, prepare a draft of an article with two names of the authors and submit it to your advisor for approval. From the ethical point of view, he seems to have made significant contribution to the matter, and you may be mistaken about what is "a norm in your field". Let him explain it to you if it is indeed not "a norm in your field". If he declines co-authorship, at least you will have offered it to him.

2
  • 1
    I second this as the best (and more importantly, the most non-confrontational) way forward. Based on the question, I think it's safe to say this is a math/physics/cs/eng situation, in which case co-authorship is most likely to be just assumed; not even a question. Given the information provided, this path gives some more wiggle room to figure out what the PI is actually thinking.
    – Jerome
    Aug 15 at 3:13
  • @AtomJZ I wouldn’t say co-authorship is “not even a question” for maths. The hurdle for co-authorship is quite high there, and I’ve seen cases where the supervisor proposed the question, and even provided very meaningful guidance and feedback without expecting to be a co-author. Of course, YMMV.
    – MacRance
    Aug 17 at 7:52
3

Other answers have done a good job of capturing how your advisor may reasonably be feeling, and that your advisor "should" be able to maturely handle those feelings and treat you fairly, but in terms of reality it is helpful to accept that,

  1. everyone has feelings,
  2. feelings are not always rational,
  3. even someone who tries to objectively handle irrational feelings may struggle, it is simply not always easy,
  4. doing some small things to help your professor resolve their feelings in a productive way will lead to the maximum happiness for you.

So I agree that your current thoughts about what you can do for your professor will probably backfire, because they are pretty transparent and sort of rub it in your professor's face that you solved the problem and not them.

I have thought about offering him co-authorship, playing up his contribution to the project, etc. But all of these attempts could backfire, as he may feel insulted, etc.

Instead, use the Ben Franklin effect. Find something your professor can do/provide for you that you want/need, and ask your professor for it as a favor. The key is that it must be absolutely sincere, the more serious it is the better.

The good news is that this shouldn't really be that hard, because you do seem to think your professor is good at their job, and it's part of your professor's job to teach you (and your job to learn) (both math and non-math things like collaboration, publishing, etc.), so you should be able to identify some area where your professor is particularly strong (best if they are proud of being strong in this area) and you aren't that strong and ask them to help you.

The best part is that this is, once again, absolutely sincere. You are not just inflating your professor's ego to soothe them, you should actually get something of value out of this, and that it has a side effect of reaffirming your professor's self-worth and re-establishing the teacher-student relationship is also nice. This means that even if your professor recognizes what you are doing it's almost impossible to resist the effects because they are just natural outcomes of things that are true.

1
  • I think the supervisor is too old and knowledgeable in human nature not to see through this. There's no need to look for things like that anyway: they occur naturally - typically when organizing and writing up the thesis, if not before that.
    – Trunk
    Aug 15 at 19:40
1

I think @ScottSeidman may be on to something here.

Feels like we may be missing important info about the interaction that you didn't notice, or didn't think is important. Also, even though this is in the US, you might mention the cultural background of your advisor to help us rule out underlying cultural sensitivities.

More details are also needed about how exactly you told them about your solution. If it was as a surprise in a group meeting and you said "Oh it's easy!" then that could really have been a serious faux pas for some "old style" professors, whether they are from another culture or not.

Instead, in a private meeting, something like "Professor, I think I may have found a way forward" only, along with the first half of your solution, pointing the way would have been the appropriate way forward for some.

This way you feel them out carefully, to see if they want your solution to work or not.

Some professors may help you complete it, even encourage you by saying "you're almost there, what's next?" and, believe it or not, others may say "No. You're completely wrong. That can never work" at which point you create the appearance of disappointment and simply drop it.

Later, they will "discover" the solution themselves and appear to forget your contribution. This happens all the time though much more so in context where Confucian influence is afoot, at least in my experience.

7
  • 7
    You shouldn't need to handle your advisor with safety gloves, and certainly not try to lead them on like a rabbit. While in some cultures you may be expected to be more tactful, in the UK or US, generally being direct and polite is appreciated.
    – Kimball
    Aug 15 at 3:13
  • @Kimball I certainly agree with that sentiment, but we shouldn't need to say "excuse me" when we burp and fart in public, and yet we do in the US. Humans are weird and the nature of their weirdness varies. Professors in the US are not all necessarily "American style". It's a diverse country and a diverse population, so depending on the details (which haven't been shared in this case) different approaches can have different and sometimes unexpected results. While we shouldn't have to be tactful, there are nonetheless benefits to being aware of how to be.
    – uhoh
    Aug 15 at 6:34
  • It's not reasonable to basically "gift" a possibly important discovery to a professor, and especially not in such a condescending way. While this may have avoided the conflict, the solution is not to give away OP's discovery, it's to get the professor over with his (childish but very human) grudge.
    – Neinstein
    Aug 15 at 14:43
  • @Neinstein please consider posting that as an answer, describing just how a student does that to their professor
    – uhoh
    Aug 15 at 15:50
  • @uhoh there are plenty of other answers doing just this, written by much more experienced users than me.
    – Neinstein
    Aug 16 at 0:03
1

To provide a slightly different point of view - if your field is a slightly more experimental or engineering related one, maybe the problem is a different one? Maybe you (in your inexperience with the specific challenge) have oversimplified the problem and have "solved" an easy case, or produced a solution that will not really work in practice?

I see this happen quite frequently in applied CS - advisor poses a challenge to student, motivated student disappears for a couple of weeks to return with a glorious "I have solved X by applying well-known method Y", only for the advisor to point out that this straight-forward solution really only applies in highly idealised special circumstances - and that the goal is more to think about how to do it with practical complications A, B, and C in mind.

With that in mind, maybe the "coldness" you perceive is more disappointment that you have not really grasped the problem yet. Or, alternatively, the meeting when you presented your solution has not gone well, and what you are experiencing now is the aftermath of you discarding the limitations your advisor wanted to you to teach about.


Just to make clear, I don't know if that's happened, it could certainly also be the case that OP's solution is great and the advisor is being unreasonable. I just wanted to raise this as an alternative possibility and it's up to OP to decide if that's possibly the problem here.

5
  • If this was the case, the professor would've let OP know. I can't think of a reason for him to confirm OP's solution while it not being one, and then turn a cold face out of pure disappointment. The only reasonable flow of events would've been the prof explaining OP why is their solution a bad one, even if only in a few words.
    – Neinstein
    Aug 15 at 14:49
  • 1
    @Neinstein I generally agree, but then I note that OP's question does not say that the professor has explicitly confirmed that a solution has been found. I have seen way too many misunderstandings where a polite professor tried to lead a student towards discovering their mistake, whereas the student remained completely oblivious. As I wrote, it's plausible to me that the "coldness" is an artefact of the advisor's frustration that the student does not get that they have, in fact, not solved the problem.
    – xLeitix
    Aug 15 at 14:56
  • Even in this case, he would've let the student know that he does not think the solution is correct or complete. I don't see how could the student think they found the correct solution while they didn't, unless the professor made very, almost implausibly blatant communication mistakes, or unless the student is utterly, absolutely oblivious. The solution not being correct, or enough, is a key information that's almost impossible to misunderstand.
    – Neinstein
    Aug 15 at 15:04
  • 1
    I appreciate your point of view, but this is not the case here. Aug 15 at 15:24
  • @OP: Have you any knowledge of the professor's personal situation at all ? For example, suppose that a member of his family was undergoing a health crisis that became acute around the time you delivered your solution. That would explain a lot of his distraction with you. if something like this is involved, expect no change in his attitude with you.
    – Trunk
    Aug 15 at 23:26
1

Well, I'm glad you cracked the problem set by your project supervisor, whether by luck, determination or genius.

I'd say most students are underestimated by their PhD supervisors. Academics often evaluate people by their everyday manner rather than by their actual output and younger people always seem too happy-go-lucky to older people.

Firstly, look at the bright side of your situation. The supervisor has not gone into indignant denial of the validity of your solution. So he is at least sane.

One way to get things "back on track", i.e. both you and your professor standing beside each other and facing a common challenge, is to look at the implications of your solution for the technology in question.

Obviously, your supervisor will have thought more about this than you: you say he's fancied this problem for a few years. But that is no reason why you should enter his study limp-armed and begging for pointers to the next summit. You must also start to think about the implications of your (and take modest pride in that word) solution for the branch of science/technology concerned.

Give this matter some reflection time just as you lie into bed at night. Hopefully some ideas will flush out in the days that follow. Then schedule a meeting with the supervisor and present your ideas - or lack of them - to him for the extraction of maximum benefit from your (plural) recent advance.

He will probably have a positively critical approach to your ideas and advance some useful ones of his own. Either way you should both be back together in joint conspiracy against the often secretive world of natural philosophy.

1
  • 1
    "most students are underestimated by their PhD supervisors" this has not been my experience, at all. I would say the much more common problem is that advisors forget that students still need to learn, and are disappointed that they don't start their PhD fully trained.
    – xLeitix
    Aug 16 at 7:34

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .