I am at the beginning of the research portion of my PhD program and as is standard in this department, I am to begin my research by writing a small literature review of some relevant papers in my field, chosen by me and approved by my advisor. This includes replicating and tweaking/improving the experiments ( which boils down to code ) in the chosen papers along with discussion in the results comparing mine to the original papers, etc. Note that this paper is not directly to be published; it is part of my qualifying exam. I am given about a month of time to do this (along with other research related things I must do...).

The problem:

When sitting down to write, I am constantly blocked by the fear that the work I am doing is not quite what my advisor wants. My advisor casts a wider net with his research interests than most professors I have seen, so his students seem to do projects in various areas within engineering. That said, the research summary I am doing is largely on clustering in machine learning, and I fear my advisor has little interest in this topic, or worse.... that I am, in a sense, not doing what I'm supposed to be doing?

If I were doing this very same research or a class, a clustering report in machine learning, I feel I would have no problem at all just working contently and developing my ideas and trying to come up with as interesting an experiment as I could and generally adapting to wherever the project took me and doing what needed to be done to finish it, but the game is changed since I feel I am working on this problem for someone rather than just for myself. Additionally, in my undergraduate research, I was given very straightforward instructions so there was no ability for me to choose papers on my own ( e.g., "Replicate the results in this paper", "Write an abstract mentioning X, Y, and Z" ). The freedom I'm given in this research review experience is somewhat confusing, I suppose.

Is this concern a normal feeling? What do I think/do about it? The reason I ask is that i precisely am afraid to be working on the wrong thing, and I am frozen in my writing and am struggling dearly. It is an incredibly nagging feeling to think that that my report isn't focused correctly. For the purpose of this literature review, should I just follow where the research takes me or should I change the focus of it and just try to please my advisor?

To be clear, my question is of how to balance being independent and satisfying my supervisor?

  • Better to have done something which can be critiqued than to have done nothing at all. Make drafts and outlines, do the requested replications, and SHOW IT TO YOUR ADVISOR!
    – Bill Barth
    Commented Sep 16, 2014 at 3:18
  • I'm not sure whether your question is, "How to handle the fear and uncertainty of doing independent work with looser constraints than I'm used to?" or "How to balance being independent and satisfying my supervisor?" - your post seems to bring up both issues, and it's kind of confusing which one you want answered. Can you clarify?
    – ff524
    Commented Sep 16, 2014 at 3:27
  • Yes, sorry. My post was a bit of a rant. "How to balance being independent and satisfying my supervisor?" is what I'm interested in solving. I'll add that to the post.
    – user27886
    Commented Sep 16, 2014 at 3:29

1 Answer 1


Is this concern a normal feeling?


For the purpose of this literature review, should I just follow where the research takes me or should I change the focus of it and just try to please my advisor?

The correct answer is neither.

Given that this is the beginning of your PhD research, you haven't yet developed much of a collaborative relationship with your advisor. This is the time to start.

Consider your advisor's initial suggestions as you would any advice from someone more experienced than you. (Even if your advisor is not an expert in machine learning, he/she does have more experience than you in developing promising research ideas that are suitable in scope for a qualifying exam - don't underestimate that expertise.)

That means you should definitely start out along the path your advisor set out for you. (Unless you hate it - in which case, go set up a meeting with him RIGHT NOW and tell him your concerns.)

But, that doesn't mean you need to follow his instructions to the letter. If, somewhere along the way, you are inspired to follow up on a particular idea, don't reject it just because it's not exactly what your advisor told you to do. Part of what's expected of you is to come up with ideas of your own.

If you have an idea you'd like to follow up on, do a little bit of work to verify that it's not a complete waste of time, and then bring it to your advisor and ask for his advice. He/she may explain to you why it's not advisable to pursue it (e.g., maybe it's not appropriate in scope), or suggest pursuing it further after your qualifying exam, or maybe your advisor will be as excited about it as you are.

Whatever the end result, make sure to communicate honestly and often with your advisor. Especially at this early stage, it's a good idea to check in now and then with your progress and make sure you're on a path that's heading somewhere good.

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