I'm frequently put in an awkward position by my advisor: he communicates pretty badly (vague, doesn't give enough information, isn't clear with what he wants, references things that could mean many things), and then I have to interpret what he means. If I interpret it incorrectly, I often get chastised because from his point of view, he gave me directions and I didn't follow them correctly. If I ask for clarification, I often get chastised because he sees nothing wrong with the bad directions he gave me.

I'm of course open to the possibility, but I don't think it's just me -- I've been in meetings with him and several other people, showing information that everyone clearly understands but he's very confused. Inversely, I've also seen other people be confused by what he's trying to say. To try and find a positive example, the people who seem to work best with him are people who mostly do their work independently (postdocs, for example).

It's very frustrating to me because I'm genuinely trying to work hard and please him, and I do think he has good ideas -- he just acts like the things in his head that are clear to him are thus clear to everyone else.

I know he tries to stress independence as well, which I understand is a valuable trait -- I know too many grad students who are basically passive "gophers" who just go down the list of what their advisor tells them to do and never end up thinking for themselves. And I appreciate that, but it can go just as badly in the opposite direction, when I'm pulling out my hair because I just have so little information about what he wants, but he thinks I have a lot.

Is there anything I can really do? I'm usually all for it, but I don't think talking to him directly and specifically would really accomplish anything here: he's successful and seemingly pretty set in his ways.

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    Ok, maybe this is a stupid suggestion, but it seems you are having difficulty understanding what your advisor is instructing you to do. Is it an option to try to figure out stuff for yourself and not worry so much what your advisor is telling you to do, or is it too early for you? Of course, there is also the possibility your advisor may not react well to attempt to think for yourself. In any case, you'll have to start doing it as some point, so perhaps try to get started now? I realise this doesn't help you with your advisor difficulties, at least directly. Commented Jun 3, 2014 at 21:41
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    Define "wrong thing". It's research, how do you know what the wrong thing is? Commented Jun 3, 2014 at 21:46
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    Unfortunately, the best advice may be "Find a new advisor," not because your advisor is incompetent or unethical or unlikable, but just because you don't work well together. Encouraging students to think independently is great, but it's hard to see how that encouragement can be effective without a foundation of clear communication.
    – JeffE
    Commented Jun 3, 2014 at 22:30
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    @FaheemMitha, I mean more "wrong" from what he wants. A good example is he asks me to make some figure, and has something pictured in his head, but doesn't explain it well. So "right" is what was in his head.
    – anon
    Commented Jun 3, 2014 at 22:57
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    Sorry for not having a better answer, but from personal experience I'd say: if this already goes on for a longer period, you need to get rid of him.
    – Zane
    Commented Jun 4, 2014 at 15:30

5 Answers 5


As an advisor who often thinks I'm giving clear instructions when I'm not :), here's one thing that will require a certain amount of pain, but might help long term.

You might have tried this already, but when you're given somewhat vague instructions by your advisor, try to spell them out as precisely as you're able to and repeat them back to him on the spot.

So your advisor says, "maybe you should try (vague idea) X, Y, Z".

You say, "so you mean that for (vague idea) X I should try A, B, ??".

Your advisor might say, "no no, I really meant D" while frowning fiercely at you. But at least then you've managed to get something precise out of him.

Or (and this has happened to me), your advisor says "Hmm. you're right: X doesn't make any sense: ignore that". In which case you've successfully eliminated one unclear option.

The "pain" here is that your first few meetings might go quite badly while you both struggle to learn to communicate with each other. But I suspect that if your advisor is merely not thinking carefully enough about the ideas he's suggesting, this will force him to think more clearly about them.

  • exactly what I was trying to say with my post, but much clearer! +1 Commented Jun 3, 2014 at 22:44
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    "As an advisor who often thinks I'm giving clear instructions when I'm not" +1 for that. When I first read the question I thought "Well, I know this is not coming from one of my students, because I make myself very clear. Or, wait, maybe not...?" I wonder how many other advisors felt the same way. Commented Jun 3, 2014 at 23:16
  • Thank you for the response, it's good to hear the perspective of someone in his position. I've tried exactly what you said, going into his office with a pencil and pad and resolving to ask him questions until I can't possibly have any confusion about what he wants, no matter how dumb it makes me look. He has actually flat out told me a few times he won't answer my questions, and not after I've already asked a bunch about the subject.
    – anon
    Commented Jun 4, 2014 at 18:31
  • As a concrete example, yesterday he said a figure I made "looks rather poor" but nothing else. To make it more confusing, it was alongside several other nearly identical figures that he didn't mind. I asked him "What about it do you think I should change?" and he said "It is a question for you to answer I'd think". That is verbatim the (email) conversation. I understand not wanting to baby me, but I have literally nothing to go on. To me, this is akin to saying "I'm thinking of a number. What is it?"
    – anon
    Commented Jun 4, 2014 at 18:35
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    @Yung: Based on what you've related in your comments above, I think it may be time to look for a new advisor. Commented Jun 4, 2014 at 20:48

Every graduate student I have ever met or been spends more time than is ideal wondering exactly what their advisor wants them to do. Similarly, all advisors used to be graduate students, so they are familiar with the phenomenon, whether they presently have it in mind or not. As MHH says, graduate students tend to err on the side of "not wanting to look stupid". Again I speak from personal experience: my advisor was (and is) one of the quickest and deepest thinking mathematicians on the planet, and -- despite the fact that he is one of the warmest people I know -- I was powerfully intimidated in our meetings for several years. At one point I decided that he thought that I was a little bit quicker and lazier than I actually was...and I decided to nurture the "quickness" and reveal my very solid work ethic at a later, more appropriate time. In retrospect I am amused by the fact that I had such a psychologically astute approach -- indeed, I still believe that opinions about people's abilities are earlier formed and less mutable than opinions about people's practices -- which was nevertheless distinctly -- obviously, really -- counterproductive.

Because many students approach meetings with their advisors with a lot of trepidation, they also want to err on the side of having the meetings go as smoothly as possible, again in a distinctively unproductive sense. If your advisor says something that you think is not a good idea or outright false, it's so tempting to swallow it in the moment, go back and spend a week or two making sure that it's problematic, and then spending another week trying to figure out how best to break the news. But again, though psychologically understandable, that's exactly wrong: why are you spending weeks exploring an idea that you immediately perceive is bad?!? Instead if you have a thought like this, you should share it with your advisor right away. It might make him frown or momentarily dampen his enthusiasm: but that's all obviously worth it.

That advice is slightly off-center for your question, but let me return to center in repeat it in a context which makes it even harder to follow: if your advisor tells you something and you don't understand it, should you really go away for a day, a week or a month trying to implement the thing you didn't understand? Of course not. You should ask for clarification.

In your particular situation you seem fixated on the fact that it's not your fault that you're not understanding your advisor. In my view if you really see it that way, you're more than halfway to the decision of choosing a new advisor, which may in fact be the right one for you. Sometimes two intelligent, competent, friendly people who want to work together in practice can't interlock professionally. That's really a bummer when it happens -- I've been there -- but a certain point you have to acknowledge it and move on to a better relationship.

In your case though it sounds like you're not there yet. I think you included in your question what in some sense you know you should do and then brushed it off: you need to talk to your advisor about the the lack of precision in your communication. (You say that he seems set in his ways. Okay, but who cares? What matters is -- hat tip to the Prince of Denmark -- whether he is set in his ways.) It's either that or finding a new advisor, and since the latter is a larger undertaking in every way, definitely try the former first. In preparing for this critical meeting, you should practice conveying the problematic lack of precision without making either party "to blame" or individually being accused of being "unclear". This is actually true: in any communication, the onus of understanding lies on both parties. Rather, bring it up in a very positive way: you have perceived something that you feel will make things work much better. In the conversation, listen carefully to how your advisor feels and especially how he feels about you. If he is not open to this conversation or explicitly enunciates frustration with you for needing too much hand-holding: okay, you gave it a try. But if you phrase it in the terms that I did above -- you're serious, he's serious, but it's got to be better to spend a few more minutes to make sure you understand each other properly before you go off and spend all kinds of time and energy implementing those partially understood suggestions -- I really think your advisor should be receptive. In fact, as others have pointed out, I would go into that meeting with at least the hope that he's not actually at all unwilling to be more explicit and your perception of that is part of the miscommunication.

Good luck.


Now I can't be certain that what I'm about to say applies to your advisor, but it does apply to many interactions. I've learned that with any advisor (given that you have adequately prepared yourself for your meetings) always err or the side of "appearing stupid" to trying to "interpret vague directions". Science is all about clarifying confusion, and asking "dumb questions". In fact, some of the best research has it's origin from scientist questioning something that "didn't quite make sense" to them. Most likely the questions you ask aren't dumb, and even if they are, hiding the misunderstanding will only lead it to be revealed at a later time. Even worse, something might seem vague or confusing because the advisor is wrong or hadn't thought out all the details. Never set out do something your advisor told you, when you don't understand, that usually leads to problems down the road. Instead ask for clarification, even if you think it will tarnish your reputation a bit. If he appears fussy now, oh well, you still need to learn. If you think he is the one who is wrong or vague, asking (politely) specific questions is the best non confrontational way of approaching the situation, so you two can discuss the issue and mutually come to a consensus (which might be a consensus to disagree - for now - and come back to it later). If he is a good advisor he will respect someone asking him questions.

I know you said "If I ask for clarification, I often get chastised because he sees nothing wrong with the bad directions he gave me." What exactly does he say? I can often think I am being chastised by someone who doesn't intend on that being the case. Without more detail than this, I'd like to give your advisor the benefit of the doubt. It's possible that he really is frustrated, but that may not be the case here.

Note that many advisors can appear agitated when they aren't in the slightest bit upset or annoyed. This can occur for a bunch of reasons, but two common ones are (1) the advisee is projecting his own feelings of inadequacy onto the advisor and assuming the advisor thinks bad things of the advisee, when he actually doesn't, (2) he makes scowling or upsetting facial expressions when he is confused or thinking hard (this may have nothing to do with you).

I suspect (1) is especially at play here. Graduate students (and sometimes even professors!) frequently suffer from an impostor syndrome (me included), and the description of your advisor relationship could go along these lines.

If your advisor focusses on fostering independence, his students are going to fail a bunch of times; he (hopefully) knows this and views it as a good thing (and I agree independence is a very good thing to foster!). Your advisor most likely knows that asking a "good research question" and coming up with procedures and algorithms on your own, with only vague tips, is very difficult. He has likely had many students fumble around for years with nothing to show for it until one day, with their hard work it eventually pays off. You will come to your advisor with "strange" ideas; that comes with the territory of being this kind of advisor. The key for you is to not let your frustration lead into thoughts about what your advisor thinks of you. I often spin stories in my head about how my advisor thinks about things I do. These thoughts are unhelpful, and while it's easier said than done you should try your hardest from going down this path. Beyond working hard, what your advisor thinks of you is out of your control. Ask him the stupid questions, the people who ask stupid questions are often the people who get ahead in life.

When I was in undergrad I asked professors, grad students, and peers all types of questions. I thought, what do I have to lose, I'm just an undergrad. When I got to graduate school, I all of a sudden shut the "question asking off" out of intimidation and now realize that this was a major mistake which hindered my success during my earlier years of graduate school.


The problem isn't unique to academic circles.

One person telling another exactly what they actually want without confusion on either side is one of the hardest problems in the world.

So perhaps stick up an grad-student version of this old chestnut with "what the supervisor asked for" and "what the grad student heard" substituted for some of the silly ones to remind everyone that it's a common problem that's nothing to be embarrassed about but does have to be handled.


(it's been floating round the net in various forms for a long time)

I was lucky enough to be doing my postgrad in a different area to my undergrad so wasn't so embarrassed to keep digging detail out of my supervisor but you have to both invest the time in making absolutely sure you know what's wanted.


For situations like this, I think its important to rely upon other members of your committee for clarification. You probably aren't going to change the way your adviser communicates, but you might be more successful overall if you consistently communicate with your other committee members... or make sure one of them are present when you meet with your adviser. I was quite intimidated by my adviser in my PhD program, but my other committee members helped to keep things in perspective and clarify goals in ways that my adviser never could.

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    Note that this answer is only applicable in places where the committee works like in the american system. Commented Jun 4, 2014 at 20:56
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    You have to be somewhat careful about going this direction. Of course, if you have a committee, talking to them consistently is a great idea (regardless of your advisor). However, until you have addressed the situation directly with your advisor and decided that you have exhausted all options, your committee shouldn't "replace" your advisor for most functions. Obviously farrenthorpe didtn't say to replace your advisor with your committee, but you have to be careful that your committee collaborations don't even appear that way. Commented Jun 5, 2014 at 6:24

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