I am currently part of a research group where members work on a wide range of topics, from nuclear model calculations to quantum entanglement SPDC. Our professor has a laid-back approach and likes to fund PhD students working on diverse subjects. Due to my limited research experience and the "non-pushy" environment, I have made very little progress over the past six months. I estimate that I am at about 20% of where I could have been with my pre-thesis project. I know I will be switching groups for my final thesis, but I am unsure how to appropriately discuss this situation with my current supervisor (a PhD student). As an international student in Germany, how should I approach this conversation? Is this a really bad thing to talk about?

  • What exactly is the status of your "pre-thesis project"? Does it formally count in any way? Is there anything that depends on it? Commented May 26 at 14:46

3 Answers 3


German here. All I can say is, ask early, ask often and ask a lot of people. My guess is what you interpret as a "laid back" attitude/"non-pushy environment" is actually your supervisor expecting you to pro-actively tell them if there is a problem. So start doing that now. There are certain cultures that encourage you to only report successes, Germany is not one of them. You might feel uncomfortable doing this at first, but it gets easier with practice.

Don't assign blame, just tell your supervisor that you are unhappy with your progress in your current project and ask for advice. If you want to change topic, bring that up, too. It's unlikely they'll take offence, Germans tend to be fairly direct. I note that you say you are being supervised by a PhD student. PhD students work under the supervision of a professor (I guess the laid back professor you mention), so it's important to talk to the professor as well (tell your PhD student supervisor beforehand), just be careful not to put the blame on the PhD student.

But also talk to other PhD students in the group to see if you can get a feel of how working on their topic (if you are interested) is going. Ask them about supervision. This is important, as I assume that you won't be able to change again. Most PhD students are happy to help, just make sure you keep your questions short and to the point. ("How often do you meet with your supervisor ?" etc)

Good luck!

  • 6
    +1 Excellent advice, and to the point. Commented May 23 at 14:56
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    Not sure about talking to the professor. I never saw them during my bachelor not master thesis in Germany. Only at the presentation.
    – DonQuiKong
    Commented May 23 at 20:37
  • I agree with @DonQuiKong, definitely start by talking to your direct supervisor first, the PhD student.
    – Sursula
    Commented May 24 at 6:44
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    @Sursula I think that's what I indicated, but this student thinks they are about to fail (20%), at which point you definitely should go up the chain. The professor will have had to give the OK to have that student in their group in the first place and PhD students can easily be out of their depth without realizing it when it comes to supervision. I agree that in Germany undergraduates typically don't see much of professors outside lectures and exams (for me that was a positive ;-), but professors still like to be warned before the shit hits the fan. Commented May 24 at 9:23
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    @Marianne013: "I agree that in Germany undergraduates typically don't see much of professors" I'm wondering to which degree this might be field dependent. When I was an undergraduate student in mathematics in Germany I was under the impression that the contact to some professors was quite close and it got only more afterwards. Now, as an assistant professor in math at a German university, I also wouldn't say that my students don't get to see me much. Commented May 24 at 11:54

To add to Marianne013s excellent answer:

In Germany, people are often expected to be quite self-reliant and independent in their work and probably the PhD student thinks everything is ok because you don't say it isn't. In all likelyhood, their own German supervisor had a similar approach. They are probably not even aware that you would prefer or need a more active supervision. Tell them you do, and that you felt unconfortable talking about it.

Often people who previuosly only dealt with people who are used to doing things one way---in this case "the German way of hands-off supervision"---are unaware that there might be people with different needs. They are a PhD student after all, and probable do not have ample supervising experience. Voicing those needs might broaden the horizon of the people supervising you and help them become better supervisors for future students after you.


I was in a similar situation before. I (undergraduate student then) was drawn to one of the projects of a lab and realized that wasn't at all what my supervisor of that project (a phd student) is working on once I've joined, and I ended up being confused about what they are doing and had made very little progress.

I was quite scared of talking to the phd student about my problem then, but in hindsight there is absolutely nothing to be afraid of. Even though they have more experience on research than you, keep in mind that they are by no means superior than you in the academia ladder and you should just treat them as a peer student/colleague. Talk to them first (because they are most familiar with the problems you have), and then talk to the head professor of the lab if that's not helpful. Maybe they will even offer words of consolation, since they might have also gone through the same things in their own research.

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