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I’m currently a PhD student in electrical engineering in the US, and I changed supervisors after the end of my first year as a PhD student. There were several reasons for this, but the main one was because I would fall into the following cycle with my previous supervisor:

  1. Supervisor proposes an idea (e.g. a way to solve a problem).
  2. I express my concerns that this idea will likely not work and will need fundamental adjustments.
  3. I am told by my supervisor to not ask too many questions and to just follow orders and implement their idea.
  4. I do as I’m told and implement their idea to the best of my ability and, as expected, it does not work.
  5. I am then blamed by my supervisor that the idea did not work, even though I expressed my concerns before. Another consequence is that time is wasted during my PhD.

I saw no way out of this cycle with my previous supervisor, so I decided to change supervisors in the hope that this wouldn’t happen again. However, with my current supervisor, I feel that I’m falling into the same cycle again. My new supervisor does not read too many papers in the literature. He simply sent me an initial paper to start with, and I continued reading the literature from there. Because of this situation, my supervisor often proposes ideas that sound reasonable at a high level, but don’t really work when I look at the details.

The difference in this case compared to the situation with my previous supervisor is that I purposefully resist my new supervisor more in step 2 above to make sure that their idea has a very low probability of failure, so that I don’t get blamed for its failure in the end.

Unfortunately, this has led to the unintended side-effect that my new supervisor sees me as argumentative. They’ve hinted at this on some occasions.

I’m not sure what exactly I can do at this point. Changing supervisors again is clearly not an option. I’ve also tried saving emails from previous conversations as proof that it’s their idea and that I expressed my concerns. However, these emails don’t persuade my new supervisor otherwise and I still get blamed.

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    There seems to be a cultural clash. Are you from the same culture as your advisor? Would they allow you working much more independently, e.g., come up with your own ideas? The described cycle sounds very toxic to me. Beyond the overarching directions, I would expect step 1 to be "PhD student proposes an idea" but I'm from a different culture.
    – user9482
    Dec 7, 2023 at 8:21
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    What happens when you propose an idea? Or when you start off your supervisor's idea and propose a modification that might work? Dec 7, 2023 at 8:35
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    You’re overlooking the research opportunities this presents. Why not dig into why the idea, as presented, didn’t work out and what it would take for something different, but similar, to be successful? Dec 7, 2023 at 16:57
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    @Aruralreader yes, that is what I do in the "express my concerns" step. I think about the details about my supervisor's idea, and try to understand how it can work. It as at this point that I sometimes find flaws in their idea. I try to explain these flaws to them, and propose a different path forward, but I'm often met with resistance.
    – mhdadk
    Dec 7, 2023 at 21:56
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    @Aruralreader I back down and just follow their idea, which eventually doesn't work and I get blamed for why it didn't work even though I explained in the past why it wouldn't work.
    – mhdadk
    Dec 8, 2023 at 0:26

4 Answers 4

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Keep in mind that this is subjective, but here's my advice moving forward:

  • Point 0: Reframe your expectations

As a PhD student, you want to do independent research, with some guidance from your supervisor. At the start, it makes sense for them to steer you a bit in terms of the big picture; later, you'll just want them to support your line of inquires. To get there, you want to build trust with them. Assuming good faith on all sides, the best way to achieve this is successfully completing tasks, and some niceness.

  • Point 1: Find a big-picture idea/problem you both like

It sounds like your supervisor is already sending you suggestions (papers) and the like. Find something that you want to work on, and that they seem supportive of. This is a threefold objective. Scientifically, you should have some big-picture direction (even if it's not ideal, you'll learn a lot). Logistically, you want your supervisor's blessing to work on X (you can expand your degrees of freedom from there). Socially, you've been struggling to agree with them. Thank them for their contribution to finding X idea, and celebrate this win. Try to err on the side of being collaborative and agreeable.

  • Point 1b: Take their ideas on board

Your supervisor might have more detailed ideas about how to do project X. Don't dismiss them out of hand; write them all down, thank them for their input. Once you've built more trust, you can argue again: for now, assume that they know what they're talking about and are trying to help you.

  • Point 2: Debug, do science

Go through their ideas and your ideas, and come up with a reasonable plan of action to work on project X. If you're unsure about the implementation of some details, talk to a postdoc or some more experienced lab-mate. You might need to put some token effort into your supervisor's ideas to show that the approaches are unwise. The key point here is that you agreed to work on project X, and this is your positive attitude moving forward. Changing the implementation details along the way as the need arises is within your wheelhouse, so do it. Document what you're working on, what you tried, what worked so far (or didn't).

  • Point 3: Update supervisor

Keep up a regular meeting schedule: let them know how project X is going. If you needed to fundamentally adjust their suggestions, frame it positively, e.g. "I did some reading and [Y paper] suggested that [Z method] is more efficient, so I implemented that..." or "I tried [dumb idea], but [obvious problems] happened, so I asked [trusted postdoc] and followed [N approach] instead.". As long as you have reasonable results and used a reputable scientific approach, they should come around in time.

  • Point 4: Be nice, build your reputation

Keep working on project X, but don't forget the long game - you want your supervisor to trust you, and help you grow into a mature collaborator. Don't gloat if your approach works (over your supervisor's), give them credit, try to stay positive when problems arise and avoid the blame game. Right now you're "argumentative": at the end of the project, you're aiming for something like "well mhdadk sure is opinionated, but they get things done". It's probably also a good idea to try to build positive relationships with postdocs and other senior scientists around you.

  • Point 5: Feed into the positive pattern

Once you're completed project X, propose your own ideas for the next big-picture and see how your supervisor reacts. Ideally, they'll give you more freedom once you've shown that you work well with it. Always try to find some common ground, but as you get more experienced, treat their recommendations as suggestions.

A positive anecdote: I had a similar, but far less extreme problem with my masters supervisor. They were a big-picture person, trying to give me specific advice (since I was starting out) but this was not their forte. A kind PhD student explained to me that when Prof A. said "do X to get Y", they meant that Y is a cool topic that they're interested in, and I should aim for a simpler, attainable rephrasing of Y with whatever method seemed most appropriate (often somewhat related to X). This was a bit confusing at first, but worked out well in the end.

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  • Thanks a lot for the positive anecdote. It actually explained a lot for me.
    – mhdadk
    Dec 7, 2023 at 22:07
  • +1 for building relationships other than that with your supervisor. Such situations feel a lot less "trapped" if you have career eggs in many other baskets. It might also provide comparison points so you can gauge how reasonable/representative (or not) the specific relationship with your supervisor is. IDK whether you intend an academic career, but the ability to be gregarious and then selective seems crucial. Rarely will you be quite so beholden to a single other individual again
    – benxyzzy
    Dec 8, 2023 at 9:52
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Obviously I'm not in the same room, so all I have is your description and interpretation of the (indeed unproductive) pattern/cycle. Here is my interpretation, especially since this is now the second time this seems to be a problem between you and a supervisor:

  1. Supervisor proposes an idea (e.g. a way to solve a problem).

=> IMHO that is exactly what a supervisor is supposed to do. Obviously, the more experience you gain as a PhD student, the more independent you will become and the better your own ideas and approaches will be. I think it is important to realize that especially at the start, your supervisor will have years (sometimes decades) more experience in doing science and at having these macro-level hunches of why something may or may not be the right direction approach. I do recognize your frustration, having been there myself, but trust that your supervisor is not just throwing stuff around that won't work. Unless they are a horrible scientist and supervisor, but there's no indication of that here. In fact, I think you should prepare yourself for a future in which your supervisor will hardly ever run out of new ideas or new suggestions and will keep throwing them at you, and it is your job to carve out the best way forward. Especially in engineering it will ultimately be about coming up with something that works and when you are successful, a good supervisor will be happy regardless of who came up with what suggestion when. All these interactions and discussions were needed to get to the final stage. Remember that.

  1. I express my concerns that this idea will likely not work and will need fundamental adjustments.
  2. I am told by my supervisor to not ask too many questions and to just follow orders and implement their idea.

=> If this is what always happens then indeed you will come across as argumentative. Of course it is good that you see all the pitfalls and problems. In fact, smart and fast thinking PhD students will often see that. But it is your job as a PhD student to learn and overcome these obstacles (ideally together with your supervisor) - and all of that starts with you at least being open and willing to try something they suggest. Also: if during your discussion you come up with alternatives that will improve on the idea of your supervisor because of some obstacles you foresee, then a good supervisor should recognize those. Maybe not right away, but if you try their idea/approach and it doesn't work (see 4) and you come up with an alternative or a solution and that does work (and you can show them the data/results next time you meet), then I still need to come across a supervisor who wouldn't be excited and happy about that.

  1. I do as I’m told and implement their idea to the best of my ability and, as expected, it does not work.

=> If you do this grudgingly, without coming up with possible alternatives then that's probably not what the supervisor intended. A good supervisor would hope that a student will explore their direction (macro-level idea) and then come up with work arounds where stuff fails (micro-level idea). It seems like you've never actually gotten to that point because the argumentation and discussion wins out.

  1. I am then blamed by my supervisor that the idea did not work, even though I expressed my concerns before. Another consequence is that time is wasted during my PhD.

=> There is no such thing as wasted time during a PhD. I don't know how this works in electrical engineering specifically, but very often most of what you try fails. It's about overcoming these failures that is part of the learning process during a PhD. You learn problem solving skills. You learn to stick with something if you truly believe in it and care about the topic/problem you are working on. You learn to hone your argumentative skills so that you are not perceived as a a nay-sayer but as someone who never runs out of new ideas and alternatives. It's all about having a constructive discussion and this is something you need to learn.

I would try to bring this very point up with your supervisor as it will show signs of maturity: Tell them that you get the impression that you come across as argumentative. That you don't think this is productive for either one of you and you want to improve on that. Then ask them how you can work on this together. Truly listen and take it from there. Are you sure you are being blamed? Is that what your supervisor intends to communicate? Is this the same reaction you got from your first supervisor? Ask them what they really mean here! This will also take time and practice, so be patient.

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    ‘Don’t bring me problems, bring me solutions.’ - I tried using the Doohickey method as we discussed but the data wasn’t very good, so I switched to the Whatchamacallit process and started getting these preliminary results. I think a slight tweak to the Thingamabob will really let us get good data.
    – Jon Custer
    Dec 7, 2023 at 13:46
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    wasted time during a PhD is too much discussion and argumentation of why it won't work and not enough doing
    – D Duck
    Dec 7, 2023 at 19:14
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    (+1) "Maybe not right away, but if you try their idea/approach and it doesn't work (see 4) and you come up with an alternative or a solution and that does work (and you can show them the data/results next time you meet), then I still need to come across a supervisor who wouldn't be excited and happy about that." My only concern about this approach is that this can waste a lot of time if my supervisor's initial idea almost always contains flaws. At the start, I used to implement their idea with no questions asked, but this changed when I saw that their initial ideas often lead to a dead-end.
    – mhdadk
    Dec 7, 2023 at 22:02
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    "There is no such thing as wasted time during a PhD. I don't know how this works in electrical engineering specifically, but very often most of what you try fails." I completely agree that most of what I do will fail, but because I do not have much time left during my PhD, I would prefer that the failures happen on a low level (details) rather than on a high-level (research direction). Failures on the low level, in my experience, often require much less time spent than failures on the high level.
    – mhdadk
    Dec 7, 2023 at 22:05
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It sounds like you need to listen more and talk less. Done is better than perfect. You aren't getting things done because you are trying to be perfect. Do the task. Maybe you are supposed to do it wrong for a reason.

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It appears you are always trying to challenge your supervisors points of views that's why you think you are trapped in a cycle. As a PhD student, look at your supervisor as parent and give them that respect and a listening ear first. Take their suggestions into consideration and combine with your own ideas. Never go and tell them their ideas didn't work only yours worked out. That's telling them they are not qualified to supervise a genius like you.

Your main issue is PRIDE.

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