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In my PhD, I have two supervisors who I meet every week. One of them knows my topic very well from one perspective, but usually not too involved with the mathematical design or methodology.

The other one has little knowledge about the application, but usually understands the mathematics behind it clearly. Till I produced my first journal paper, he was the one because of who I progressed in my PhD very well. He taught me the right research attitude if not the intricate details.

I’m in my fourth year and I am trying different things. He once told me directly that sometimes he’s not able to go through all what I’m doing because he thinks I’m becoming independent and he doesn’t have a lot of time. I totally respect it.

However, during my meetings now a days, when I’m discussing things with my first supervisor, he’s dozing off. I have been observing it for quite a while now. It really feels weird. And the way he looks at the screen when he’s conscious makes me feel like either I’m stupid, or the way I approach the problem doesn’t attract him much. Probably as he’s a mathematician, he feels whatever I’m doing is too simple for him?

As soon as I start discussing things about my private life or vacations, he is active again. I’m slightly intimidated by him so standing up to him to say this sounds not so nice. When others in the past never encouraged me to pursue a good research attitude, he did and that’s how I progressed.

How can I ask him about this politely but fearlessly? It doesn’t feel nice. To be honest, I feel it’s disrespectful also no matter how knowledgeable a person is. It shows indifference.

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5 Answers 5

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I have two supervisors who I meet every week

What is the purpose of these weekly meetings? Given that you are "becoming independent" and otherwise seem to be on a good trajectory, it may be that such a high frequency is no longer needed. Or perhaps the weekly cadence is okay, but you can shorten the meetings and make your requests more actionable. Beginning students usually need to give detailed and frequent progress reports because they need detailed and frequent feedback. But as students mature, they no longer require such close supervision.

Probably as he’s a mathematician, he feels whatever I’m doing is too simple for him?

I wouldn't assume this. You are neck deep in this stuff, but it sounds like your advisor isn't tracking the project at all except by listening to your updates. Which means that one of the following is true: (1) you are awesome at explaining things, (2) he is asking a lot of questions so that he can follow what you're doing, or (3) the words are washing over him and he only takes in a tiny fraction of what you're saying. So I think his boredom is more likely to be because he's not following you at all, rather than because he's ten steps ahead of you.

How can I ask him about this politely but fearlessly?

I wouldn't necessarily ask him why he's dozing, but I would ask about changing the meeting frequency or format. If that doesn't resolve the problem, you could try asking for feedback or advice about your communication / presentation skills. Saying something like "I want to make sure these meetings are useful for you, and I also want to make sure I'm doing a good job giving progress updates. Do you have any suggestions for how I could improve my progress reports in future?"

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    I appreciate this answer. Indeed sometimes it feels like a lot of work making a broad presentation every week. I can’t help myself from making it detailed. So the best solution is to reduce the frequency.
    – CfourPiO
    Apr 12 at 6:45
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    @CfourPiO learning to explain what you are working on in a way a beginner would understand is an essential skill to aquire, don't give up! Apr 12 at 8:06
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    @DavidRaveh This is a very important and, still, a very neglected skill. This is the level that in almost all circumstances the level a presentation should be.
    – user27119
    Apr 12 at 9:58
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    Totally agree with the others…rather than focusing on the bytes you transmit, focus on the bytes that get received and understood. Better to emit 10 ideas and they understand half than to emit 100 ideas and they only understand 2. Even an expert audience will take in less than you think. You can combine this with the reduced meeting frequency - should be a nice change all around
    – cag51
    Apr 12 at 13:30
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As a follow up to the excellent answer provided by cag51, as well as something you said in a comment by way of reply to cag51's answer:

...making a broad presentation every week. I can’t help myself from making it detailed.

This might be an indicator that you need to work on your presentation style. I see so many talks where the author really does not understand the concept of information density. There is a huge amount of detail on every slide, which almost seems to be deliberately presented in an opaque a way as possible -- the cynic in me sometimes thinks that this is a deliberate ploy to make oneself look clever, but it can be innocently done as well -- we are all sometimes guilty of making a "talking to the expert in the room" type talk.

Whether at conference or group meetings, when the presenter goes into too much detail, I find myself switching off!

Some of the best talks I have seen hare the most simple, bare bones outlines of what the author has done. Tell a story, have a beginning a middle and an end. One strategy I employ is I give the most simple version of the talk: focusing on what have we done, why do we want to do it, and a VERY basic how we did it, and a brief conclusion. As a general rule I tailor the level of my talk to what I would expect a clever undergraduate to be able to understand, because when you are the expert, that's the position your audience is most likely to be! Even in related fields, the audience isn't privy to your specific research. I then prepare supplementary slides which go in to the detail of how I did the things specifically, in case someone asks

You said you find you're unable to stop yourself going into detail, that's fine I have that problem too (its often a good tool to help organise your own thoughts, so it isn't wasted effort). But instead relegate the detailed slides to the supplementary section and just present the general overview first as the main event, and then if your supervisor has questions, then flick to the supplementaries. As a rule I think 10 minutes on the main talk is more than enough, especially for a supervisor update.

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    I watched a talk of a Fields medal winner and he did this quite well. Why do we care about this? How close are we to proving this conjecture? Not close at all. What about a weaker conjecture? In this case, maybe it is a bit easier. Here is roughly speaking what I did on this with some pictures of the overall strategy without too many details.
    – Tom
    Apr 12 at 9:22
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    It's really the way to go with talks in my view: less is, very nearly always, more! I don't know if you are able to post links in the comments, but could you post the name of the talk?
    – user27119
    Apr 12 at 9:54
  • I agree with the last part you said. Thanks for the answer. I will work on it. However, at the same time I should say that it’s a progress meeting. I usually want to discuss things that didn’t work or if I am confused. Doing a whole talk every week will just drain my energy. My presentations in public are actually well received. I know how much effort goes into it. Doing it every week is not possible. I usually do a 5 minutes recap. Doing it more is just inefficient. So, first I think I’ll ask them feedback on my content and if it’s hard to follow. Secondly, I won’t do many meetings.
    – CfourPiO
    Apr 12 at 21:11
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    @CfourPiO I was using the talk as an analogy, but throwing together a few slides a week is not much effort at all. They don't have to be conference level. You don't really explain what goes on in the meetings. If you're just talking at him, then maybe this is the issue? How is one supposed to follow detailed material, again, I'm not surprised he switches off. Based off what you have written, it still sounds like presentation style is your problem; whether that is specific to slides or meeting format I cannot say as you didn't provide that information.
    – user27119
    Apr 13 at 14:35
  • @user27119 thanks for the reply. Actually, it’s still a presentation style and I spend 5 minutes for a recap. However, I see your point and that’s why I agree with the last part of your answer. I will spend time to make graphical slides in the beginning to go from a broad to a narrow scope of the research. I will definitely work on it. Thanks a lot :)
    – CfourPiO
    Apr 13 at 15:32
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Don't guess. Don't waste any effort on making value judgments. Diagnose and fix the problem instead.

When someone dozes off during a meeting, clearly the meeting isn't effective at engaging them. You can ask them to change, but that would be rude and ineffective. Their behavior and the circumstances that lead to them being sleepy are out of your control and, frankly, none of your business.

What you can change is the meeting. Do they need to be there? What for, exactly?

I would ask them for a one-on-one meeting to discuss what sort of feedback you both think you need from each other and how the meetings can be restructured to provide that feedback in the most effective manner without them having to sit through parts of the meeting they don't need to participate in. That way, you can optimize things for both of you without anyone's feelings getting hurt.

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    Thanks for the answer. I think I am coming to the same conclusion now. I can’t change them but at least I can ask feedback if it’s not interesting. I do a recap every time I start talking and I know I need him for specific issues. Even though he has a recap, he dozes off. I need to know why but indirectly.
    – CfourPiO
    Apr 12 at 21:31
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    In a communications course, I was taught that in order to communicate effectively, you shouldn't "start talking" in the first place. What you should be doing is ask questions and listen. Make the session as interactive as possible. The audience should be in the driver's seat as much as possible. You are serving them. What do they need? What do you need from them? Apr 12 at 21:36
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He is tired, I wouldn't spend any time worrying about it especially because he is friendly still when talking about non-academic stuff. Its not worth dragging up why he isn't getting enough sleep because it could be a hundred reasons, and it is usually involuntary so we just let it slide it could just be a phase.

There is an advantage in everything though, and with this it can be a good opportunity to practice your presentation style or delivery with a safe audience, but with a sleeper in it so that you even have a tangible metric for your progress. See it like a challenge on what type of presentation will keep him awake, and note the times that he falls asleep and see if it is during the same part of the presenation.

Shun details. Leave out all data points, statistics, process descriptions as possible. Counterintuitively, the less we say and the less we go in to detail about what we're working on the more others perceive us to be doing... that is, their imagination will fill in the blanks and if they ever do want to drill in to some statistics or details you will be able to effortlessly respond like a zen monk with all of the details you supressed earlier.

  • Oh and one thing I want to add, and this may or may not be possible to do, but if he is responding well to talking about vacations and some non-math stuff like that, if you can somehow incorporate that into your presenation that may work... I don't know what your application is but if it could be talked about in the context of a vacation, just as an example here, then tying in some non-math content is maybe something to consider.
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  • Thanks for the answer. We usually discuss something private before starting. Although I may not want to know the reason for his dozing, I still need to know why it’s boring even if I do a recap. It matters because he’s one of the supervisors and he has to approve my thesis in a few months. I find it unprofessional, so I definitely can’t let it go.
    – CfourPiO
    Apr 12 at 21:26
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First of all, there’s cultural element, here. In Japan (where I live) it’s very common for people to sleep during presentations. It’s not considered especially rude. Sleeping in a three-person meeting might be considered a bit odd, but still not offensive.

Do you really need guidance from the sleepy guy, or does he just have to approve the work you’re doing? If the latter, sleeping might be a good sign — it indicates that he’s not worried about your progress. If the former, see below.

Other than that, I’ll (mostly) just repeat what others have said:

  • Keep the content high-level. Omit details. Make it brain-dead easy to follow. This is a useful skill for you to develop, anyway.
  • Focus the discussion on areas where you’re looking for help/answers. Ask questions (especially to the sleepy guy). Make the meeting interactive.
  • Establish a pattern of posing a question and then asking each of the two profs for their opinions, in turn. If the sleepy guy perceives this pattern, he’ll know that he’s going to have to speak, and that will probably keep him awake.
  • Understand that you just reporting what you did is pretty boring to most people. Talk about the significance of what you’ve done. Why is it important? Why would anyone care? Where could it lead?
  • Show your excitement for what you’re doing. Be animated. Laugh. Vary the pace and volume of your speaking. If you’re not excited about what you’re doing, then don’t expect others to be, either.
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  • I find this answer so useful, really. It is broken down so logically. I wish I could vote for all answers as all of them are so clear. `` Do you really need guidance from the sleepy guy, or does he just have to approve the work you’re doing? If the latter, sleeping might be a good sign — it indicates that he’s not worried about your progress. If the former, see below. ": This made me think a bit more about the situation. Indeed, once he mentioned that he didn't have time to see all my reports as he believed I was good at going deep into the topic.
    – CfourPiO
    Apr 15 at 7:45
  • However, culturally, here (EU), it is still a bit weird to sleep. As long as he doesn't mention that it is because my style of presenting is boring, I can never know. However, if there is no reason coming from his side now, it means that I do not have to worry.
    – CfourPiO
    Apr 15 at 7:46

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