Here is my situation: I am a Ph.D. student in theoretical CS. Since the start of my Ph.D. I have been sending my advisor the descriptions of my results verbally, he would usually ask me a bunch of clarification questions and I would answer back. Usually after some repetition of the questions-answers process (which usually lasts for about a month), he would declare that my result is correct. At that point, I would always ask him if he could write it up and he would agree.

Lately, it seems he is producing more papers so he stopped collaborating with me. He said that the time it takes him to formalize my results is almost equal to the time it takes him to write up his own papers.

My results are usually about the same level (they're shown usually in A-rated conferences) as my advisor's own.

What can I do about it?

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    My results are usually about the same level(are shown usually in A-rated conferences) as my advisor's own. It would be no different even if your results were presented in a A-conference and your advisor's results in a Z-conference. There is an asymmetry in the "doing science" that needs to be solved, because you are a PhD learning "how to do science", i.e. you must "do science" on your own. What for an asymmetry? this one: Who is writing up your advisor's reults? the advisor! Who is writing up your results? the advisor!
    – EarlGrey
    Aug 15, 2023 at 9:19
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    How do you send your results description in verbal form? do you record yourself and then send the audio file to them? doing the transcript of the recording is a good way to start you formally writing you results.
    – EarlGrey
    Aug 15, 2023 at 9:24
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    I think you need to clarify what you mean by formalizing your results ? Christ, if you are in theoretical computer science (computability, verifiability, complexity, ML, game theory ...) then you must already be quite accustomed to formalizing your ideas in your head and on paper before you even start to (in)validate them. If you are not, your supervisor has been "propping the scrum" for you throughout your doctoral work. This is really disgracefully unfair on the professor who must have piles of other demands on his/her time. Get on a 101 course for formal definition a.s.a.p..
    – Trunk
    Aug 15, 2023 at 14:42
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    P.S. If the problem pertains to dyslexia-type issues, please contact the relevant bureau on your campus for this. You can't go on the way you are.
    – Trunk
    Aug 15, 2023 at 14:44
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    Why aren't you doing the write-up? Aug 16, 2023 at 7:34

4 Answers 4


As a PhD student, you are training to be a researcher in your field.

A very important (but difficult) part of being a researcher is communicating your results.

It sounds like, so far, you've done conceptual work in your field, but your advisor has helped with the communication part. Perhaps your advisor has helped "too much", but whatever the reasons, it seems like you have a false idea that this is how things work indefinitely: you describe your results, and your advisor writes the paper.

It's not reasonable for this to continue indefinitely. At some point, you need to learn to do the entire process. It seems like your advisor thinks it is past time for you to learn that step.

I think this is a very reasonable move by your advisor, and you should try to do these steps on your own. If you have trouble with specific parts, it's okay to ask for advice, but you should not expect your advisor to continue doing half of your work for you.

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    +1 I think you brought accross an extremely important point in an very polite way. "It's not reasonable for this to continue indefinitely." Giving a bit less regard to politeness than you have, I'm tempted to say that this has never been reasonable to happen at all. Aug 14, 2023 at 19:25
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    @JochenGlueck No, probably not reasonable at all, but OP's advisor should have helped OP understand this earlier on yet apparently has not, so as you picked up I'm making some effort not to lay the blame for this on OP. I do think it's not necessarily bad for advisors to take a strong role in writing for their students' first coauthored papers, though preferably after the student has at least made an attempt at a draft; formalizing and writing everything themselves does not seem to be good pedagogy.
    – Bryan Krause
    Aug 14, 2023 at 19:30
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    As a mathematician, I'm actually tempted to say that you haven't actually done any of the research until you've formalized it - describing it as informal ideas doesn't count (though is necessary)! Aug 14, 2023 at 22:42
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    @AlexanderWoo Nothing is true until it is typed up neatly in LaTeX. I cannot tell you how many flaws I've found in my arguments when I go to type them up. Most of the time, the gaps can be papered over, but I don't believe it until it is typeset. :D Aug 15, 2023 at 15:35
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    @EarlGrey While that could be a problem, it is not the problem that OP has. The problem that OP has is that their advisor would prefer to chew on their own food and is not currently willing to digest OP's work into marketable output.
    – Bryan Krause
    Aug 15, 2023 at 15:38

A PhD is a bit like an apprenticeship. An apprentice cabinet maker starts out by sweeping the floor, making cups of tea, rough cutting timber to approximate size etc. While this happens, the master craftsperson shows the apprentice how to use tools properly, and about the properties of wood, and aspects of practical aesthetic design. After a while, the apprentice starts making furniture with the assistance and supervision of the master. A while later, it is more or less just supervision. At the end of the apprenticeship, the apprentice makes pieces that demonstrate they have gained the required skills to work independently and become journeypersons.

In academia it is much the same. We start working with the supervisor with their research (or a training task where the supervisor already knows what the likely problems and solutions are) so they can pass on their skills. Then we progress to having a problem of our own to work on with their help and supervision. Then towards the end of the project we should be more or less working independently, showing we have developed the skills required to do so, with the supervisor only providing minimal guidance. The thesis is basically your apprentice piece and you are ready for a post-doc, research assistant or even independent faculty post.

So if it is a skill that you need to be able to research independently, it is a skill that your supervisor should not be doing for you at the end of the project. A good supervisor will taper the amount of help they give you in order for you to develop as a researcher (and not drop you in at the deep end). It sounds like you have a good supervisor!

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    Some comments have been removed. While "suggesting improvements" is an acceptable use of comments, please avoid extended discussion or debate.
    – cag51
    Aug 16, 2023 at 2:11
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    The apprentice should learn to sand the floor, paint he fence, wax on and wax off... Aug 16, 2023 at 16:20

It's extremely, extremely important to be able to communicate your ideas and write them up in a clear fashion. Once you have worked something out, you have to be able to explain it to other people (that includes verbally and in written language).

I think your supervisor is saying that he already has helped you a lot with writing up your ideas and clarifying them to the point where he was basically doing it for you. I'm not blaming you for this as it can be quite confusing when you are a PhD student as there are no standardization amongst what PhD supervisors do for their students to the point where you might think that something that they are doing is normal practice when it really isn't.

But think about it: imagine a nightmare viva scenario where you have results which you present at your PhD viva but then are unable to answer any basic questions about any of it. It becomes clear that the supervisor did it for you and the examiners have to fail you (I know of one time when this has happened).

Your supervisor is saying that you need to do this yourself although he might be able to offer some comments here and there.

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    OP says "He said that the time it takes him to formalize my results" so I think the advisor is politely telling them to start fully producing and evaluating results on their own, not simply on the communication aspects of "writing up ideas and clarifiying them". The viva scenario is a (realistic) nightmare: after years of thinking "doing science is this" you discover in half an hour "doing science is something else"
    – EarlGrey
    Aug 15, 2023 at 9:34
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    Ah I see. Well in that case, my advice is even more relevant: stop thinking that what the supervisor is doing for you is standard and start doing the work yourself.
    – Tom
    Aug 15, 2023 at 9:36
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    +1 for "it can be quite confusing when you are a PhD student". I would actually wonder why the OP's advisor didn't communicate the expectations early on. Not every PhD student enters the PhD program knowing "the rules of the game". Aug 15, 2023 at 18:21

Another thing to consider -- not necessarily happening in your case, but it is quite a common complaint by junior researchers -- is the idea that you are opening yourself up to not getting enough credit for your contributions to your discipline.

In the more benign cases, the question is should a supervisor be added to the list of authors of a paper, even if the contribution is small? In other cases, the question is should the supervisor be listed first as the primary author? This issue has been discussed many times and there's no point in going over it all here.

In more extreme cases, the supervisors takes all the credit and the researcher (the ideas person) does not even any authorship. It doesn't seem like that is happeneing to you but it is something to be wary of...

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