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I'm a math major and I'm finishing my bachelor thesis. I was lucky enough to find a hardworking and caring advisor to work with. I'm very grateful with him for his guidance but, during this time, I noticed he likes to give a bit too much guidance and sometimes restricts my creative freedom.

He suggested me to prove some results and I successfully proved them while also developing related examples and ideas on my own. When the moment to put everything on paper came, he wanted me to explain some of those results in the way he reached them. When I try to explain something, he interrupts me every five minutes (no kidding) saying things like "it should be better if you start motivating this in this way", or wants me to change the structure/order of the argument (when my initial structure is also correct). He likes to state the same thing two or three times and elaborates a lot, but I prefer to state things clearly and only once. Sometimes we discuss for hours minimal details like the placement of commas or my election of words. Since I get tired of the conversation I just change what he asks me to.

I managed to include all his observation on the writing while trying to add my personal ideas, but now that I need to prepare the talk for my defense I would like to have the freedom to plan it completely alone.

Being honest, the only two people who will actually be listening to me will be my advisor and my mom: one of them knows everything backwards, while the other is already happy with me getting a degree. Then why can't I explain the content of my dissertation in my own way? I also find more difficult to explain the ideas following my advisor's line of thoughts instead of mine.

Taking into account that I will be presenting work done by me and him, I don't know if it's right to ask for total freedom to prepare and give my talk. Is it right? If yes, how can I discuss it with my advisor without looking like an ungrateful person?

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    Do I assume correctly that this is in mathematics? Re "When I try to explain something, he interrupts me every five minutes (no kidding)": I find it a bit surprising that you find an interruption every few minutes too much. If I explain something (in direct conversation, not during a talk), either to a colleague or to a student, and am not interrupted very frequently, I will soon be concerned that I completely lost the other person and that they just keep listening out of politeness. Apr 10, 2023 at 12:00
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    @JochenGlueck yes, it's a math thesis. I hadn't thought of it that way. Maybe I'm too used to a "classroom" environment, when someone talks and explains what they deem important while the others listen and ask questions at the end.
    – Amelian
    Apr 10, 2023 at 18:02
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    I think switching from "classroom style communication" to "conversation between experts" is just a difficult thing to learn. I vaguely remember the situation when I wrote my Bachelor's thesis (about 12 years ago): My advisor liked the maths in my thesis, but during one of our meetings he strongly criticized some of my writing and he also seemed quite unhappy about the (quite inefficient, I think in hindsight) way how I explained ideas and arguments to him. [...] Apr 10, 2023 at 19:02
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    [...] After the meeting I was in such a bad mood that a postdoc (who had also attended the meeting) found it necessary to reassure me that I shouldn't worry since "those are simply things that everybody has to first learn when they write their thesis". Things turned out quite well regarding the thesis. Two years later the advisor of my Bachelor's thesis became my PhD advisor and, after a while, essentially let me do whatever I wanted to. Apr 10, 2023 at 19:02
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    "He likes to state the same thing two or three times and elaborates a lot, but I prefer to state things clearly and only once." Good mathematical writing does indeed require you to elaborate things a lot and sometimes repeat yourself, rather than leaving the work of thinking through the consequences of what you said to the reader. What you, as a novice in the enterprise of mathematical writing, think of as "stating things clearly and only once", is quite often not going to be perceived as "stating things clearly" by the reader, so I would recommend taking his advice to heart. Apr 11, 2023 at 10:45

3 Answers 3

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Summary: The main point of supervising your thesis and talk before you deliver them is teaching you how to do these things. Forsaking the supervision entirely is going to the other extreme. Rather, try to convince your supervisor to tune down the micromanagement.

Then why can't I explain the content of my dissertation in my own way?

The ideal is this:

  • Your supervisor is far more experienced than you at scientific writing and presentations. Many bachelor students go into their thesis with barely any relevant experience.

  • By receiving constructive feedback on writing your thesis as well as preparing your talk before delivering them, you learn a lot about writing theses and giving talks, respectively. Retrospective feedback is far less efficient because implementing the suggestions is a major part of the learning process.

  • Good supervision balances between teaching too little and micromanaging them and explains its recommendations, e.g., why a certain argument structure is bad.

Mind that it’s quite common that students find this process unnecessarily tedious when they are first exposed to it and even when the supervisor actually does too little.

That being said, going by your description, your supervisor is micromanaging and obsessing over details. For example, if I disagree with a student on the placement of a comma, I’ll quickly leave it to them to look up the respective rules and either convince me or be convinced.

Taking into account that I will be presenting work done by me and him, I don't know if it's right to ask for total freedom to prepare and give my talk. Is it right? If yes, how can I discuss it with my advisor without looking like an ungrateful person?

In the above ideal model, asking for total freedom is directly going to the other extreme, and thus asking a lot. By declining any supervision of your talk, you are also skipping the intended learning effect. Moreover, a supervisor who tends to micromanage will likely obsess over perceived shortcomings of your talk – and there will be some if you prepare it on your own. If your talk is graded or you are likely to rely on your advisor’s goodwill in the future (e.g., for recommendations), this is a bad idea.

Rather, I recommend that you try to gently push the situation to the intended ideal and tactfully ask your supervisor to:

  • micromanage less,
  • focus on the important parts first (as opposed to commas),
  • help you realise your structure instead of imposing his structure,
  • provide rationales for his recommendations.

This is certainly a less radical demand than dropping the supervision entirely.

As for how to tactfully broach the subject, it really depends on your supervisor, in particular his experience and priorities. Is he rather inexperienced as a supervisor and open to suggestion, or is he settled in his ways? Does he value the learning effect mentioned above, or does he just want to mold every thesis and talk according to his ideas? The best scenario here would be the respective first cases, which allow you to appeal that you learn more with more freedom.

when my initial structure is also correct

Sidenote: This is a hill I have seen many mathematicians pointlessly die on. Their presentation is the mathematical equivalent of a Yoda condition, yet they refuse to restructure it because it is technically correct. Of course I don’t know whether your structure is good or bad, but correctness is just a necessary condition and does not mean that your writing is good.

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    Can you provide an example of how to tactfully ask the supervisor to micromanage less? "Can you please micromanage less?" would be a very rude thing to say at least in my Northern European culture. Apr 11, 2023 at 14:09
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    @FerventHippo: I could, but I doubt it would be of much use, since it strongly depends on the supervisor (I named a few central aspects in the answer), the details of what already happened, and the culture. (Also, I am from a notoriously direct culture.)
    – Wrzlprmft
    Apr 11, 2023 at 14:19
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Probably not, largely for the reasons others have given. Also importantly, I think there's something important to learn from: "He likes to state the same thing two or three times and elaborates a lot, but I prefer to state things clearly and only once." His way is generally better. When teaching, repetition is an essential technique that teachers use to impart learning. With the most adept students, less repetition is necessary. But among smart mathematicians conveying what to them are complex concepts, explaining things more than once, in more than one way, is certainly best practice.

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    I also support stating several times the same idea in different shapes if you are giving a talk, but not if you need to write it down. I meant that sometimes I'm asked to write the same argument in different ways and I don't like it. I think that, if someone reads my writing and realizes I'm over explaining, they will get bored and will stop reading it.
    – Amelian
    Apr 11, 2023 at 1:46
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At the end of the day there are two things at play here:

  1. Your work is your work and it is entirely up to you what you put in it.
  2. It is your supervisor's job to help you make (1) the best it can possibly be. They will also inevitably have more experience in academic writing than you will.

Consequently, they're well within their rights to tell you what they think is better, but it's up to you whether or not you choose to take that advice. If you would like to respectfully decline, there's nothing wrong with that. You should still hear the advice they have to offer though, condsider it, and then decide on whether you want to incorporate it; don't just go it alone.

However, I will council that if your supervisor is also going to be the one marking your thesis, take their advice whether you like it or not. A bachelors thesis is not the time to start trying to make your own waves, it's the time to learn how to walk the well trodden path and get some solid foundations. Play the game, get the marks you need and you can start trying to do thinks your way later.

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