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I'm a junior student at a competitive university in my home country and I major in a mathematical field. Last year, I went to the (tenured) professor who matched my interest and she said she normally doesn't give students problems, but we should find our own research problems and write a research proposal. We had some high-level talks about her work but she didn't give me any list of papers to read, etc. After several months I found a problem and wrote a proposal with a method to solve it. I submitted it and she said the problem was not very meaningful. She suggested I talk to some of her Ph.D. students, which I did.

The first semester I attended her group meeting but gradually chose not to attend the second semester. At that time I suffered from some mental health problems, like very low self-esteem and severe procrastination. But by reading papers, taking courses, and talking to my peers, I cultivated my own understanding of the field and gained a lot of technical skills.

I eventually submitted another proposal, which she also rejected (said it was common sense), but she suggested that I should work on one of her projects with her Ph.D. student (~1-year after I first contacted her). It is an ambitious, challenging big problem, but she said it's okay if we don't get the ideal result.

I did learn (in a rather painful way) a lot about the research process. My advisor will reply to my email and schedule a meeting with me whenever I want, and we can talk happily about technical detail and general questions. However most of the time I don't have something meaningful to say to her so I choose not to send an email. She never sends emails/messages to her students to ask how they're doing and said it is the student's duty to take care of their own research and plans etc.

She says what she is doing is cultivating our independence. I think perhaps I was not mature enough and there was some miscommunication between us at least in the beginning. I'm in general enjoying the research and considering applying for a decent Ph.D. program. But I am a little concerned about continuing in research after this experience. Is my experience normal?

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    I realize there's a question in the title, but it would help if the associated details were more focused in the question. Are you asking whether it's normal for undergrad research to go differently than expected?
    – user137975
    Commented Apr 15, 2023 at 21:02
  • I took a stab at shortening this; very long questions with too many details are likely to be closed. You may make further edits if needed.
    – cag51
    Commented Apr 15, 2023 at 21:28
  • Thanks for the effort!
    – ssjk667
    Commented Apr 17, 2023 at 7:59

3 Answers 3

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There are very different approaches to student project supervision. I think your supervisor's approach is one that you will find fairly often, although maybe not among a majority of supervisors.

The problematic thing I see here is the expectation that you find your own project topic. It's for sure good to give students the possibility to come up with their own topics, but I don't think this can be expected at undergraduate (or even MSc) level. So in principle a supervisor should also be available who ultimately defines a topic if the student can't do that. Now this to some extent depends on how the workload coming from project supervision is organised. It may be that your supervisor has decided (rightly or wrongly) that she has overall so much work from project supervision that she wouldn't want another student who needs a large supervision effort and a topic designed. Depending on the departmental workload organisation, she may be well within her rights to act like this (and even "ethically justified" if her workload is high). For the students this should be OK as long as they have the option to find another supervisor who is willing to define a topic for the student (I'm not quite sure whether this would've been possible for you).

Personally I was pretty independent as UG student (maths) and my supervisor wasn't very present and had the reputation to leave lots of freedom to the student (and would steer only very lightly), but he'd provide me with a topic. Not a detailed plan but at least directions good enough that I had a fairly clear idea where to start and how to go on (as far as I couldn't then make that up myself).

My advisor will reply to my email and schedule a meeting with me whenever I want, and we can talk happily about technical detail and general questions. However most of the time I don't have something meaningful to say to her so I choose not to send an email. She never sends emails/messages to her students to ask how they're doing and said it is the student's duty to take care of their own research and plans etc.

This is consistent with my own attitude as a supervisor, and therefore seems normal to me. Yes I'm available for helping, but the students need to take responsibility for their own process, particularly deciding when they need help and what help they need. This can be rather fundamental (I'd be happy also to help with "I don't know what to do next"/"I'm stuck"), but still it's up to the student to bring it up.

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  • Thanks for answering! I'm gradually learning what professors think. But he is the only person in my department whose interest match mine, so I don't have a choice.
    – ssjk667
    Commented Apr 17, 2023 at 8:00
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What you describe is not normal. Research is about the unknown, but throwing students in the deep end with no training or guidance is not good practice.

I think perhaps...there was some miscommunication between us at least in the beginning.

I agree. I think the professor was saying "If you have an idea for a project, I can advise it" and you heard "I am advising you and your first task is to come up with an idea for a project." Since you didn't actually have an idea for a project, nor much an plan for how to come up with an idea, it probably would have been better if you had continued looking for an advisor with a more hands-on style of advising.

gradually chose not to attend the second semester...a lack of sense of belonging..severe procrastination

Assigning blame after-the-fact is rarely productive, but I think there is some on both sides here. On one hand, I don't blame you for the above miscommunication: undergrad students "don't know what they don't know," so the professor should have stepped in once it was clear that you had no ideas and were floundering. Letting you waste years coming up with bad ideas is not good practice. On the other hand, if you were an absentee researcher with a procrastination problem, she may not have realized you were floundering.

I am a little concerned about continuing in research after this experience. Is my experience normal?

Bear in mind that you are no longer a second-year undergraduate, you have learned a lot. So while your first experience may have been a little bit painful, it is likely that starting a new position with a new advisor will be much less painful, since you now have more technical knowledge and also more knowledge about what good research looks like.

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  • Thank you so much for reading my post and answering my question! However, she did mean "one should reach her with a project plan to do" and the misunderstanding part is I thought it was just finding something interested to work on and didn't understand the potential hardness.
    – ssjk667
    Commented Apr 16, 2023 at 4:16
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What you describe is normal. Research is about the unknown. Fruitful questions to answer are hard to find, especially (perhaps) in math and math-adjacent fields. It took Einstein 10 years of thought to finally understand Special Relativity. If you can predict the outcome when you begin, then it isn't really research.

Your advisor may be doing you a favor, actually, by not disguising the difficulty. It is impossible to comment on her ability, however.

But you seem to me to have been doing just the right things. Finding and reading papers, looking for possible extensions or alternatives.

I hope that your system is flexible enough to count you a success even if you didn't wind up with results. That happens in research all the time. You follow a thread that leads nowhere. Or where it leads has no impact. Don't be discouraged. I'd guess you learned a lot and gained some insight. That alone is very valuable.

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  • I cannot upvote your answer now. Thank you for reading and answering to my post!
    – ssjk667
    Commented Apr 16, 2023 at 4:17

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