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I have to write a report about my academic progress every year, upload it in my university account (before May 15) and schedule a meeting with my thesis committee (before May 31). I started working on this report in the beginning of April. There are no guidelines for this report, but from other PhD students at the same university I hear it should not be too long (2-3 pages) and contain a list of all the completed and scheduled activities that contribute to your doctoral training, along with a summary of what you have done in the past year. With this in mind and last year's feedback that the report was not detailed enough, I wrote a 5-page report with some context, a summary of what I did last year and a step by step of what I did in the past year.

After my supervisor read this first version, he said he wanted a different structure and even more details. The structure he wanted was to not recount the progress chronologically, but to work towards the main result without going to deep into the problems I have had to solve to get there. I re-wrote the report with this feedback. The second time he read it he said I should take a break and come back to it later while he was on holiday. He said he wanted to change the focus of the report to what I will do in the future instead of what I have done. He also asked to split it up into two parts and talk less about the second part, even though I spent a lot of time on that topic. He also suggested I get some feedback from a post-doc in my office. He gave me some comments on May 14 in the evening when I was just about to upload the report in my account. I took his comments into account. There were no major issues. He only asked to give a bit more details about what I did last year - which, of course, I already wrote a report about last year. At this point, the report is already 7 pages long. When I had finished that, my advisor asked to read it again. Later in the evening, when I had already gone home, he replied that there are still some things that should be rewritten. He said I should ask for a deadline extension, both for the report and for the meeting. However, I already uploaded the latest version of the report in case it is impossible to upload anything after the official university-wide deadline.

My question is: is it normal to ask for so many re-writes on a report that only three people will read? I understand that it is a good writing exercise, but I think the deadline extension is taking it too far. If this was a research paper, I would understand. Re-writing this report so many times is keeping me from working on my actual research paper. Am I allowed to say this, or should I go along with what he says? At what point is it truly correcting my writing and when is it just being difficult?

Any advice on how to deal with this situation is greatly appreciated.

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    This will depend on things that we can't know. In particular it depends on how exactly the report is assessed and used. Maybe your supervisor has past experience that certain things in reports (or missing) tend to create trouble. It may even depend on the exact "three people" who read this and what their competences are. It also of course depends on the quality of your writing and understanding the issues, which we can't know. If you have an OK relationship with the supervisor (which we can't know either), of course you can ask politely whether and why the effort is really needed. May 15 at 15:55
  • Has your supervisor ever said anything to you or has this all been by email? This is a classic case where a proper actual conversation will clear the air and remove misunderstandings. In person if at all possible - the investment in time and trouble will be well worth it. May 16 at 7:00
  • As an update: I proposed to discuss the writing during my thesis committee meeting as a part of my doctoral training and my advisor was happy with that idea. During the meeting, we asked the other members of the committee if they had any comments about the report and they said it was very good and that I seemed like an active and capable student. My advisor was a little bit disappointed by that. Otherwise, we have an excellent relationship. Perhaps next time I will start 3 months before the deadline instead of 1.5 months, so that he will surely be happy with my writing before the deadline. May 23 at 10:18

2 Answers 2

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I had a similar style advisor for my postdoc. It was a mega group and he was a world leader, but he took meticulous care with any written document coming out of his lab. At the time, I thought it was a waste of time, but looking back, he was the one who taught me how to write, and re-write, and re-write until we get it just right. To take pride in the work I put my name on.

I think you are fortunate to have someone take such a direct interest in your education, even it feels frustrating in the moment. This exercise is setting you up to better communicate your research, and likely have a much easier time structuring your final thesis.

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First of, we are just random people on the internet. If we say no and your advisor says yes, then you'll have to do yes. So how do you deal with it? You just do what your advisor says, you discuss this with your advisor, or you escalate. Escalation is a bureaucratic term which means you go up one level of the hierarchy. In principle escalation is always an option, but in practice you need to take into account that it is not free. So you need to pick your battles carefully. I don't think this merits escalation. So that leaves just do as you are told or discuss it with your advisor.

As to this document: the value is not the number of people who will read it but as a way of structuring your work: It helps you and your advisor evaluating and reflecting on what you have done and learned, and planning what you will do. So putting effort in that is definitely worth while even if very few people will read it.

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