I am a Computer Science undergraduate doing a research project in Bioinformatics. I know my weaknesses, especially that I am not good at speaking, listening, and interacting with people in all social context. Until now, this wasn't a problem, I hardly paid attention in class, studied by myself directly from books, and got excellent grades. But in my current position, I have come to understand that I have to improve some social skills if I want to advance. Right now, it's plainly difficult to me to follow the rationale among two or more phrases if I don't see them on paper and this characteristic is causing problems because my advisor's instruction are mostly oral.

Although my professor praises my ability to do math and program, he complains about how I easily lose track of the instructions. This is a true problem, specially when processing biological data (one thing is that the program works, the other is that it makes biological sense and I am not yet conversant in biological background). This situation is starting to raise problems with my advisor and I have to find a solution before everything gets worst.

Note: I take notes. This is the most logical, straightforward solution, but I never developed the ability to take good notes as I didn't like attending classes. I'm working to improve this skill, but I the problem of connecting orally communicated ideas effectively remains.

As a summary, I have to figure out how to follow the incredible amount of oral information passed to me, even if I have never built this ability.

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    Have you tried taking notes during your meetings? – Noah Snyder Mar 13 '15 at 19:28
  • @Noah Snyder - Absolutely, but, as i pointed out, I hardly went to class, I am not a good note taker and never developed that ability in class. – je_b Mar 13 '15 at 19:32
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    A great time would be to start trying it out now! Don't be afraid of asking your adviser to slow down or repeat something so you can jot it down. For biology stuff, seeing as I am also a bioinformatics person (or used to be), I understand how that can get confusing. Since you're pure CS from your description, you can probably get away with asking about the biological process behind it. That being said, you should probably brush up on an intro to biology textbook. Probably can bum one off a Bio Major. – Compass Mar 13 '15 at 19:56
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    Also, consider discussing things with your fellow PhD students. This will, at least, be less stressful and intimidating than with your supervisor. – Davidmh Mar 13 '15 at 20:55
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    Do you have any language barriers? What language do you communicate in? What is your native language? – peer revu Mar 13 '15 at 21:39

I've found that taking notes, even point form, is really helpful.

Even if you were good at understanding oral instructions, taking meeting notes would be useful.

They let you go back to things you didn't have much time to think about at the time later on.

You could also email your supervisor a summary of your understanding of the meeting and your plans until the next meeting, so that he has a chance to correct/clarify in writing any misunderstandings, or refocus your priorities.

As for the problem of connecting oral instructions, you should take every opportunity to confirm your understanding of the main points discussed so far in the meeting. Rephrase what you just heard back to your supervisor. If there is a definition you don't know, either ask right away, or jot down the word to ask about later.

  • I take notes, but they are of little utility compared to the amount of information I receive. Furthermore, some professor don't like to be emailed with things they consider menial(mine). I wouldn't do that if I had students, but I can't change my advisor's aptitude. – je_b Mar 13 '15 at 19:51
  • You can ask at [productivity.se] about better note-taking techniques. If you can make your email simple and readable in less than a minute, your supervisor will more likely understand. You don't even have to ask him to do anything. It could just be a "this is what I took away from the meeting, and these are my plans until we meet next". Then, if you follow those plans, he can't really be disappointed, since he had an opportunity correct you. – peer revu Mar 13 '15 at 19:57
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    @je_b Don't be too intimidated about emailing a recap email to him. Put yourself in his shoes -- would he rather spend 5 minutes reading your recap email and fix issues from the start, or wait 2 weeks to find out that what he thought would be finished turned out not so? – Heisenberg Mar 14 '15 at 0:10

You say your ability to take notes is limited, but he expresses most of his comments verbally -- have you tried audio recording your meetings? Most smart phones have an app that will do that.

You should also ask him if that's alright first. You might get in trouble otherwise.

  • Unfortunately, he doesn't like this. He is very very good in its field, but military and ego-inflated. – je_b Mar 13 '15 at 20:30
  • That's really unfortunate. Maybe you can ask again, referencing the conversation you had about staying on instruction. Say that would be an easy way to start fixing the issue. – walkar Mar 13 '15 at 20:33

Forgive me if I'm way out of line, but the problems you describe sound similar to those who have Asperger's. Especially, difficulty with social interactions and difficulty processing instructions given verbally and with less than complete logical precision are both indicative of that condition. Have you looked into this? If the diagnosis seems to fit, then there will be a lot of resources out there to help you.

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    I don't know. I have had the same kind of problems since I was a kid in school. I had a depression outbreak with signs of psychosis some years ago and, when I was a bit recovered, I asked the psychiatrist about Asperger, but he said that it was unlikely. Right now I still have symptoms and hallucinations, but I learned to live without medication. In any case, I don't consider speaking about my mental illness to my supervisor. – je_b Mar 13 '15 at 19:38
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    You've gotten professional help far beyond my own expertise here (I'm a mathematician, which is, famously, not especially close to being a psychiatrist). You might possibly consider getting checked out by a specialist for that purpose. Or not, it's up to you. Another idea is to assume for the sake of argument that you have something like Asperger's, see what you would be advised to do if that were the case [cognitively and behaviorally; not pharmaceutically!], and try it for a little while. If it helps, it helps. If not, on to the next thing. – Pete L. Clark Mar 13 '15 at 19:43
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    @je_b: "I learned to live without medications." As stated, it looks as if this is what you wanted...but you're still dealing with hallucinations and such. I don't know if it's aspergers, but I warmly recommend you go back to working with an analyst, including whatever appropriate medication. Forget about the stigma - mostly it seems also in your head -...when things reach that level, you certainly can benefit from help. Depression alone can make you deal with what you describe. Go get help; it's your life, and you don't get a medal for toughing it out. – gnometorule Mar 13 '15 at 22:12

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