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I am doing my PhD with a supervisor who is well-intentioned but very busy and disorganized. (It doesn't seem they're uninterested in my work.)

It's always been a struggle to meet up, e-mail answers take forever, reviews of work even longer, etc. I am their only student. I don't think the work is going that bad, but I envy other PhD students who have a more followed, mentor-pupil relationship with their advisor.

Having someone takes time to explain more advanced/technical stuff (stuff seen only in research articles) is quite useful. This prevents me getting stuck with the more advanced stuff, or failing to get the bigger picture behind the technicalities.

I feel I could learn and produce a lot more with a little more support, but at the same time I understand he's busy and I don't want to bring this up and risk upsetting him.

How can I deal with this?

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    What field is this? Pure Mathematics? How many people does he advise?
    – Buffy
    Commented Jan 24 at 20:07
  • Yes, and at this stage in the game I feel like having someone that takes some time to explain to you the more advanced and technical stuff (stuff you see nowhere else basically, other than research articles) is quite usefu. Otherwise you may get stuck with the more advanced stuff, not getting the bigger picture behind the technicalities
    – Alex999
    Commented Jan 24 at 22:53
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    @Alex999 I feel "disorganized" is a separate issue from "won't take time to explain advanced/technical stuff". How does he react when you do get his attention and ask technical questions?
    – academic
    Commented Jan 25 at 10:28
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    When I was a PhD student, I felt a bit in this situation (not as extreme as yours). At least I learned to be independent. There is a saying that "Bad supervisors make good mathematicians".
    – Didier
    Commented Jan 25 at 17:25
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    Have you tried requesting a regular schedule of meetings (say at the same time every week)? Even procrastinators can typically keep their calendar appointments. Commented Jan 25 at 19:35

6 Answers 6

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In all of these situations, there is a big stretch between the ideal and the practical solution. Ideally, you would express your concerns, your advisor would listen, and together you come up with a detailed plan that has goals, deadlines, etc. Well, good luck with that.

In my experience, people who are chronic procrastinators at a late stage in their careers (e.g. by the time they get to be advisors), seldom change. (In response to comments: here I also include those that suffer from chronic indecisiveness, are addicted to being over-scheduled, and are disorganized to the point that it negatively affects those around them.) And why would they change? It has worked for them. But this is not a fatal flaw. One person in my thesis committee was an absolute procrastinator: nothing, but nothing would get done until the very last minute -- we are talking about running to the FEDEX box on every grant deadline. Never returned an email in less than a week, never arrived on time at a meeting, etc. But she was otherwise a wonderful committee member! Always encouraging, always generous with her time (ahem, maybe the reason always late), always giving good advice, known for writing good letters of reference, and always generous with lab supplies.

I suspect that any attempt to set deadlines on a procrastinator or chronically overscheduled person, especially one that has power over you, is risky at best and counterproductive at worst. My advice is to learn to live with it: submit your things on time, send reminders, be friendly and lighthearted about it. And if this particular procrastinator has other traits that compensate for that, appreciate what you've got.

Having said that, here are a few strategies that have helped me with dealing with disorganized/procrastinators, especially those which have power over me:

  1. Write very short emails, no more than 2 sentences each, and one subject per email. Make them easy to reply to.
  2. When you meet in person, bring 1-2 questions written down, and read from them, to show the person you are not there on an open-ended chat, but that when you go into their office, it will be all business and then be out in a few minutes.
  3. When you make requests, be precise. Don't say "I wish I got a little more support". Instead say "What do you think of me spending a week doing experiment X as a proof of concept for Y?"
  4. Send them weekly (or monthly) short progress reports. Even if they don't reply, they'll read them, and it will lower the activation energy required for the next conversation.

If you are like me, procrastinators drive you crazy. So as you progress in your career, and are in a position to choose who you work with, make sure to choose to work with people who don't procrastinate.

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    I'm not sure procrastinator is a good description here. I would read OPs description as the advisor working hard all the time. They are just very disorganized and bad with time management. They see an interesting task so they work on it but forget the other tasks they should have been doing. Your general advice still applies in this case though.
    – quarague
    Commented Jan 25 at 8:39
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    @quarague I had the same thought, but then again working on an interesting task instead of handling higher priority more boring tasks is a form of procrastination. Like surely you had heard the joke about people suddenly doing all their house chores when it's time to do their taxes. Commented Jan 25 at 10:18
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    To add some additional perspective, I'm an experienced and successful professional who was recently diagnosed with ADD. It's not my place to diagnose, of course, but I recognise some of these traits in myself. Procrastination can be a coping strategy for folks with challenges with executive functioning. This isn't to say that the world around them just has to put up with it. Rather, it means that a solution that works for both of you will need some compromise and recognition of peoples' limited ability to change. A regular scheduled meeting is an excellent idea to help address this.
    – Dancrumb
    Commented Jan 25 at 15:20
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    Don't assume it's procrastination: He could simply be overworked. Many academics are, and then things that are not the absolute top priority (e.g. being prepared for a lecture the next day) will tend to get put off as you describe. It's a life spent "firefighting".
    – Flyto
    Commented Jan 25 at 22:34
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I'm going to have to speculate based on hints you have given here. First, I'm guessing that the advisor is a bit new at this and that it may be that his learning/working style and habits are a bit different from yours.

I'll note that your success is important to his career, though he may not be aware of that. And he may be overwhelmed with his job as you are with your degree. And some students work well alone with little support, which might have been his own case.

But the main "guess" is that he doesn't actually recognize that there is a problem and so hasn't taken action to address it. If that is correct, then you need to make him aware with a personal meeting in which you ask for regular, scheduled, guidance.

I'd suggest that you try to arrange a one hour weekly meeting, perhaps even in a coffee lounge or other comfortable place in which the goal is to "discuss mathematics". You each talk about your current concerns and search for insights into your research.

If you can arrange for this to happen, don't look for answers to questions but to pointers as to where you can find those answers. Take a bunch of index cards to each meeting. Some blank ones and some with questions or "thoughts". You and he can write "ideas" on those cards and follow them up later. Some of those ideas would be authors or papers to explore.

In mathematics it is possible to get lost in a thread of research. This might be true for both of you. Insight can come from informal conversations and is one reason authorship of a math paper can be earned in a short conversation that imparts a key insight.

But, until he realizes that you need support you aren't likely to get it. And if he realizes it and won't provide it then you have decisions to make about whether he is sufficiently supportive to continue with him.

If I've "over supposed" here, I apologize.

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It is unfortunate that your advisor is not being organized. A lot of frustration in mentoring stems from a student feeling like their advisor isn't there for them.

I think that you need to raise these concerns in a very honest manner. This can be done without offending anyone. Some examples:

  1. Technical stuff: set meetings on an online calendar (like Google Calendar). This is to help you have regular scheduled meetings that set off reminders. If an email goes unanswered for more than 2 days, send a polite follow up.
  2. Create a mentoring plan with your advisor: a compact (yes, a compact, not a contract) between the two of you. This sets the expectations you have from them, and their expectations from you. This plan should be regularly reviewed and updated.
  3. Create a mutually agreed mid-term plan with them. For example, "on the Spring 2024 semester I want to finish this draft, start a new project and attend the seminar by Prof. X on sublunar conjugations".

If none of this works, perhaps suggest introducing an additional mentor (another faculty member, a postdoc) that would help with your work.

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    1) and 3) are good suggestions, but 2) can really really backfire. Telling your supervisor how to do their job ("sets the expectations you have of them"), even if you are right and they are wrong, is not going to go down well. Commented Jan 25 at 11:10
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    @Marianne013 The key point with a mentoring plan is that it is created together - it should not be you telling your supervisor how to do their job, but rather you telling your supervisor what they can expect from you, and your supervisor telling you what you can expect from them. Importantly it might reveal things the OP needs, but the PI can't or won't provide. Our dept requires such agreements when a faculty member gets a new student. This depend on the OPs judgement of the advisor's character. I But as an advisor who is chronically over-busy and disorganised, I would not take it badly. Commented Jan 25 at 13:15
  • A mentoring plan, as pointed out by Ian, is an exercise in setting mutual goals and expectations. It is never one-sided.
    – Spark
    Commented Jan 25 at 13:34
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    @IanSudbery If a student came to me with (2), I would be open to the idea and not offended, but with little experience and no one to turn to for advice, I'm not sure how effective I would be in writing such a plan or in recovering if something went awry. OP could try, but it seems like the sort of thing that works better if entire departments adopt it.
    – academic
    Commented Jan 25 at 13:42
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    @academic you are right that it is important to have departmental/college/university support better mentoring practices. However, this is not necessarily a very complicated thing to do - just a discussion on the whiteboard with dates, expectations etc. can be a good step in the right direction.
    – Spark
    Commented Jan 25 at 19:29
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No supervisor is perfect. I would hope that your relationship with your supervisor has positive aspects though. It may be worth identifying those to keep a positive attitude. Generally it helps if you and your supervisor are a good fit from both sides so you may be able to make up for some shortcomings on the supervisor's side and vice versa.

I see, however, that what you describe can be quite problematic. You may be able to address your wishes and concerns directly when talking to your supervisor with the goal to reach some agreement how to handle such situations. It may help you already if your supervisor tells you to remind him as often as you feel necessary about feedback you want etc. Personally, I am always happy to receive reminders from students. I prefer that a lot compared to unhappy students who do not let me know when they want/need support. So if your supervisor is a reasonable person: Give him the chance to explain himself and to improve. Try to reach a mutual understanding of each others expectations which, I fear, works best by talking to each other.

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If your supervisor doesn't work, there's no choice but to get information and skills elsewhere. It can be from classmates or other students of similar fields, or other teachers, on the Internet, during an internship, or from artificial intelligence.

Then you will just test if your supervisor will be satisfied if you de facto take the initiative and bother them only in the most necessary cases, where you will only present them with a solution. But if it doesn't work, there's no choice but to find another supervisor, perhaps in another workplace or another country.

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I had a similar experience with my supervisor and as a result my three year PhD ended up taking five. Its clear that this individual is using up your most precious resource which is your time. In my case this supervisor was behaving the same way with other candidates and they all ended up firing him from their PhDs. I followed suit. Its really a question of competence and unfortunately well meaning doesn't cut it. There isn't much to be gained from trying to second guess what this persons issue is as its not something you can change. Your best bet is to request a change in supervisor based on their performance, usually these kinds of supervisor have a track record of similar behaviours and the university are aware of the issue, its just some departments take the head in the sand approach. I would approach the department head or whoever your contact is in terms of managing PhDs.The second best scenario is to add an additional supervisor to the team. Its your PhD so you have take responsibility for managing it. Because if your PhD lasts longer than your stipend that causes even more problems and people have had to abandon their PhD as a result. You simply dont have the time during a PhD to let someone else dictate your timetable and waste your time. The thing about these kinds of people is that if you behaved the same way towards them and wasted their time I doubt they would allow it either. It will obviously upset the supervisor however its their responsibility to work to standard which is what they havent been doing.

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