Given that it's a very broad question I'll try to create some context:

I'm in my first year (just started) and at the moment my task as PhD student is closer to learn the techniques and technologies used in the department than to real work. Almost in a weekly basis I receive small tasks which, once completed, are reported and then substituted by a new small task.

However, sometimes the task is completed and no report is due (for whatever the reason) so I'm stuck with no excuse to go to my supervisor's office and no work to do on account of not going to my supervisor's office.

My supervisor is a very busy person and so I have always the feeling I'm intruding when I 'request' (by mail or simply going to his office) to talk to him.

I would like to build some cofidence with my supervisor, but I don't really know how to approach him in the first place. Any tips?

Ps:I was sure someone would've asked this before, but I couldn't find anything so I would like to apologise in advance just in case it has already been asked.

  • 16
    The fact that you are "afraid" of going to talk to your supervisor is worrying. You should have a chat and clarify when and how you should approach him when you need input. No matter how busy he is, it goes in his best interest that you make progress in your PhD.
    – Davidmh
    Commented Jan 28, 2015 at 8:41
  • 4
    I find it a bit strange that a phd student is managed this way. My supervisor expected me to be more self-dependent. If he was not available (e.g., travelling) I had the freedom to try some small (not very costly) ideas on my own (possibly after informal discussions with other people in the lab). If everything fails you can always read some papers.
    – user9482
    Commented Jan 28, 2015 at 10:59
  • It sounds like you're still settling in to the student/advisor relationship. You need to keep open your lines of communication -- you're part of the reason he's busy, not a victim of the fact he's busy. Here's a suggestion -- drop him an email letting him know that you've finished, and proposing a next step. This could be read further on what you've just been doing, applying it to another sample, etc. A "no" with a reason is also instructive.
    – Chris H
    Commented Jan 28, 2015 at 21:08
  • 1
    Isn't it rather positive when a task is finished early? I mean, no supervisor can exactly gauge how long it will take a student to do a task, and if you are faster than expected, so much the better. Ready for new tasks, or as ff524 said, to work on your own/the big picture. Commented Jan 29, 2015 at 12:42

6 Answers 6


Just talk to your advisor when you feel you need his input.

All of the busy people I know (myself included) want the people they work with to let them know if things are ahead of schedule. When I supervise a student, someone has to be moving things along. If the student takes responsibility for that, and can be counted on to come to me when he/she needs my input, it's much less work for me than the students I have to monitor more actively.

Having said that, there are several things that can also help:

  • Ask your supervisor to discuss the "big picture" with you. This way you'll understand what these small tasks are getting at and can make a reasonable guess as to what the next task will be. This will help with your problem and will also help you develop your skills as an independent researcher (which is what you're training for, after all).
  • Develop your own research interests (either side projects, or related to the work you're doing with your advisor) and work on those when you're "blocked" waiting for your advisor. This, too, will also help you develop your skills as an independent researcher.
  • I can see now that my problem was more about approaching my situation as a PhD student rather than approaching my supervisor. This was just part of the problem (I'm using 'was' instead of 'is' because I think identifying the issue is 80% of the solution. Many thanks to all of you)
    – Gin
    Commented Jan 29, 2015 at 19:00

At this point you should assign new tasks to yourself. If you don't know what to do, reading books or papers in the field may be a good start. If he's already given you a real research question, you should start thinking of things you can do to solve it yourself, without him feeding you the way to do it.

Lots of people can carry out tasks that other people assign, but you'll stand out if you contribute your own approaches to solving the problem, and show that you're an independent researcher.

Alternatively, you can email him early and see if he replies, and while you're waiting you can work on other things.


Across the course of your Ph.D., you are expected to develop into a independent researcher capable of formulating and pursuing your own independent research agenda. Right now, you're behaving like an undergraduate waiting to get your next problem set, rather than like a scientist. This is pretty common for new Ph.D. students, but you're going to have to grow past this point if you want to be a researcher.

A good way to think of these small tasks that you are being given is as "training wheels," feeding you a research agenda one incremental step at a time, in the hopes that you will start to figure out how to choose the next step on your own. When you finish a task, try to figure out what the next interesting thing to do in pursuing this research might be, and do that until your next meeting with your advisor.

Then, when you meet, you can say you finished the task early, and tell about what you did next. Your advisor will likely be very happy that you are showing initiative, and can give you feedback to help you learn to make more and more productive research choices on your own.


You can either use the suggestions offered above, which are fine, and both offer paths to moving on to a new task, but I offer an alternative which might apply.

Think about whether you're really finished with the task at hand, and consider if there are ways you could do it better, learn about it more, extend your research ....

On a smaller scale, if you're using Pomodoro time management, and you finish your task in the middle of a Pomodoro, you don't stop, or rest, or move on to the next task. You finish better. You cross every t and dot every i.

On a larger scale, when somebody brings be a program that they said they "finished" that has an involved user interface, I'll sit down with them and hit wrong buttons in the interface until its crashed. Then I explain about rigorous testing, failure mode analysis, etc, and tell the coder to bring it back to me when its bulletproof. If the program controls big pieces of moving equipment designed to move research subjects, I tell them that when they think the code is ready, they can be the first rider!

This is just a suggestion for consideration, and sometimes the approach could be valuable. Other times, you really would be wasting time if you took this approach. Use it judiciously.


You can either treat it as if you were seeking an audience with Kublah Khan in which case you should approach your supervisor with decorum and due reverence whilst being careful not startle him. Then receive some sign that they have acknowledged your presence and then wait for some further indication that you may approach.


Accept that you are a Ph.D student on merit deserving of his time and attention. If you find him awkward try formally booking a meeting slot but be respectful of his time and never request more time than is really necessary.


I would suggest sending an email to an account you know he uses frequently and say something like the following using a subject line;

Subject: Assignment Completed

Dr. Name,

I've finished the "whatever assignment" you gave me the other day. At your convenience, let me know when you want me to speak with you again. Contact me at this address or at this cell number.

Thanks, Name

Sending a very short email like this is not intruding, and, if he gets upset by this, be prepared to be saddled with a lousy (personality wise) supervisor for quite some time. Getting irritated by that very short, humble, informative email is completely unreasonable.

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