I am a first year maths PhD student at a UK university, and I recently made a very long post about potentially quitting my PhD and I am severely lacking motivation (see here for much more details).

I am starting to wonder whether my disillusionment is partly caused by my supervisor. Don't get me wrong - my supervisor is lovely, we can talk about things fairly openly and she really knows her stuff when it comes to mathematical analysis and partial differential equations. Over the first few months of my PhD she was very supportive of everything I did, but only recently have I realised how that has essentially bitten me in the arse.

We had a couple of very long conversations recently about the fact that she is worried about my progress despite being only 6 months in - namely that she feels I have not been putting in the time required. This is definitely true I must admit, but the reason for that is my motivation has really plummeted recently and as a result I've been finding simple tasks very difficult (her main worry recently is that I've been spending 2 months trying to figure out a task which she says would take any analysis graduate student 2 hours - or moreover, I've had a lot of difficulty getting around to it due to other departmental commitments such as attending classes, doing teaching and marking, and taking lecture notes for special needs students) I do also feel that because my analysis background is probably a bit weak (and she was aware of this when I applied to the studentship) that my supervisor has been expecting that I'll just solve this problem myself rather than carefully structure the first few months to allow me to absorb the content and take my own time.

I feel as though my supervisor has been leading me into a false sense of security somewhat; towards the start of the PhD she was just politely agreeing with whatever it was that I was doing (even if there were some errors in the way I was doing things) in order to positively support me, bearing in mind I was a new student and she was still getting to know me, and this falsely led me to believe that I was somehow doing okay. I feel as though she has been insincere and hiding the truth from me, hoping that I'll pick up on her polite "hints" that certain things should be done, rather than just simply saying if there was something I wasn't doing right or saying "that's good, but you really need to do X". I would much prefer being supervised by someone who is much more direct about if there is something I have done wrong as this would allow me to correct things at an early stage, rather than let things slide and then only later on down the line realise that something really is wrong.

This is a repeat of the research project that happened during my MMath at my previous university. Once again, I have encountered an inexperienced supervisor (who is fairly new to supervising students and getting a lot out of them) who has not been actively engaging with me as much as they could have done, who has been overly nice up to this point in the hope that it will have made me more productive, only to say that "I have been very positive and encouraging, and even when I have been trying to make things a bit more difficult for you, that doesn't seem to have worked" as though they are trying to use their own politeness as grounds against me. WHY DON'T PEOPLE JUST TELL ME DIRECTLY IF SOMETHING ISN'T RIGHT?

Anyway, this could be purely my own fault and this may just be the result of my own incompetence at research work or time management (hence the other post about me considering quitting), but is this something that would ring alarm bells for other PhD students or alternate supervisors? Would it be worth considering a much more assertive supervisor (my advisor is someone who seems like a genuinely nice guy but he is also incredibly knowledgeable about mathematics and he has supervised a lot of PhD students - the students I've spoken to who have him as a supervisor seem to be doing well) instead of quitting altogether? To put it simply, I feel as though my supervisor has just been a "yes woman" and only now do I feel that the indirect politeness has bitten me in the backside.

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    You might find the following question useful: Can I successfully adapt to an advisor who will not push me to work?
    – Mad Jack
    Commented Apr 10, 2015 at 23:28
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    Sounds to me like she's treating you as an adult and expecting you to take personal responsibility for yourself and your work. (That's a good thing). Re "This is a repeat of the research project that happened during my MMath at my pervious university", the common factor linking the two projects is you. I'm suggesting that the problem does not necessarily lie with your supervisors. It seems like your expectations of what a supervisor should do (you seem to want them to motivate you and tell you what work you should do) aren't lining up with reality.
    – A E
    Commented Apr 11, 2015 at 8:38
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    There would be many, many people (like me) in the world who'll say - You are incredibly lucky to have an adviser who is happy to hand you the steering wheel! Doesn't always work out like that.
    – 299792458
    Commented Apr 11, 2015 at 19:11
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    You should see my supervisor who treats students as paper producing slaves.
    – user
    Commented Apr 12, 2015 at 8:15
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    Since this post - a lot has happened for me. I decided to withdraw from my PhD studies as my supervisor and I decided it was the best thing for me. Come to think of it, my supervisor was actually really good at her job but I was in the incorrect mindset and I hadn't taken the time to properly appreciate how well she was treating me. Essentially it's not a matter of needing the supervisor to kick me up the backside in the end - I was suffering from two problems: (a) declining interest in research topic, and (b) feeling worn out having been studying continuously all these years without a break.
    – user32670
    Commented Apr 24, 2015 at 10:31

8 Answers 8


From what you've written, your supervisor actually seems like quite a good supervisor. Students rarely accomplish much of note during the first six months and the majority of students would quickly lose motivation if their supervisor immediately started criticising their work ethic/output while they were still getting their feet wet. As StrongBad has said, 6 months is probably the earliest point that your supervisor can stop giving you the benefit of the doubt and sit down with you and point out the areas in which you need to improve.

Different students require/prefer different styles of supervision. You seem to want less independence than most PhD students I know. So, you need to sit down with your supervisor and communicate this to her. Frame it in a positive way, e.g. "I really appreciate how supportive you have been of my early attempts but I feel that I have become a bit lost and need more direct guidance. Can we start having regular meetings for the next few months where I show you what I'm working on and the approach I am taking, and you can let me know whether you think there are alternative approaches to that question or whether I am better working on a different problem?" Right now it doesn't seem like you are even giving your supervisor a chance to change her style of supervision to fit your requirements.

Finally, as somebody who has witnessed what can happen with a 'direct' supervisor and an underperforming student (it's not pretty), I think you might be underestimating the importance of a supportive supervisor, which your supervisor certainly seems to be. Talk to her, tell her what you are struggling with and see how it goes over the next few months.


I have been a PhD student once (passed), and subsequently during a long academic career I supervised about 30 PhD students, about 28 of whom stayed the course and submitted a thesis. They all passed.

You sound as if you are not very interested in the subject you are researching. When you started, did you not think, "Wow! It would be really neat to find an answer to that problem"?

When you become Dr Smith, an expert in thingology, that says two things to the world:

  1. You know a lot about thingology and have contributed new ideas to it, and
  2. You can work independently and with self motivation to get a big long project completed.

Doing a PhD is neither like doing a job (even an interesting job), nor is it like being educated at school or as an undergraduate. After the important animal necessities of food, sex, sleep, shelter and so on, the work of the PhD should be something that you find intrinsically fascinating to the extent that it fills your thoughts most of the time. It may be that at its start you merely found it intriguing, but that fascination should grow as you find out more about it.

If you regard it like a job (with a boss), or like doing a first degree in order to get a job, then you will perform indifferently at best. And you won't enjoy it.

At a minimum you should not do a PhD unless - in altered circumstances - its subject would be something that you would study anyway as a hobby in your spare time.


In general, it is difficult for supervisors to be able to quickly identify if something is wrong. Often UK programs evaluate students after one year. My department holds an viva voice after the first year and progresses students from MPhil to PhD. In my field, psychology, a reasonable outcome after one year is an understanding, and literature review, of the thesis, and a completed experiment. As a supervisor, the 6 month point is probably the earliest I can identify if a student is unlikely to clear the minimum bar unless there is a major change. Even at 6 months, it is difficult to judge. When tasks that should take hours are taking months, that is an indication of a problem.

PhD students, especially in the short time-limited programs in the UK, need to be self motivated. That means you need to understand what you need to accomplish by when. By now you should probably be outlining your thesis is a big picture sense and have some well defined aims and some background reading about why these aims are important and substantial. The aims should be agreed with your supervisor as being worthy of a PhD. It is likely that over the next 2.5 years these aims will change, but you want a starting point. You also need to know where you need to be at the end of year 2. As you build a roadmap with your supervisor, you can get an idea of how long things should take. When things take much longer then you and your supervisor think they should, you need to meet with your supervisor ASAP.


I'd have to agree with AE that you are not expecting the correct things from your relationship with your supervisor. Sure, it's her job to help guide you, but it is not her job to make you feel motivated. That's squarely your responsibility. If you don't feel her style is to your liking, it's not her fault if you stick with her instead of finding someone else. If you feel like you don't enjoy the work you are currently doing due to the time consumption, you may want to ask yourself if you are cut out for the field to begin with. A job requiring a doctorate probably isn't going to be light in requirements schedule-wise. In addition, you will have to work both for, and with, people who may be similar to your supervisor. If you don't like her when she's optional in your life, imagine how you'll feel when you can't simply walk away and find another person. You'll need to be more flexible and really talk with her about your issues. In fact, try having an adult conversation about how you feel concerning the way she operates.

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    Why would you want to add this as a comment? It reads like an answer and is definitely long and thorough enough to be one.
    – Mast
    Commented Apr 13, 2015 at 14:48

Sorry for being blunt, but: forget about your supervisor.

I mean, don't actually forget about her, but it sounds very weird to hear you talk about her "giving you tasks" as if she was having you sort her bookshelves alphabetically or something. You have a subject you want to study, right? Or even some specific research questions? Make the assumption you're not going to get a great deal of help from your advisor right now, regardless of the reason.

Now, try to come up with a broad plan. I know it sounds impossible, especially when you need to make assumptions regarding your own abilities, but really - pretend it's a plan for somebody else. Try to get to a point when in the back of your mind you can tell yourself "Ok, I want this and that to happen already", "I need myself to accomplish X because then I would be able to do Y which I am looking forward to" etc. Your work plan doesn't have to be perfect, or even valid; you'll probably scrap it when your viewpoint changes or when you've obtained some partial results on something - but that doesn't matter either, it's the mindset, I think, that makes the difference.

And when you have this kind of mindset, you'll essentially be trying to utilize your advisor: Come to her asking for very specific guidance, opinions on what you're doing on your own, oracling references to the literature on this or that obscure aspect of your field, and so forth.

(Yes, this is much easier said than done and it's not like I did that during my Ph.D., but that's a long sad story not for this post. I made it through though.)

So, technically, the answer to your question is: "Maybe there's a problem and maybe there isn't, but that's not what you should be concerned about given your situation."


I know this is somewhat tangential, but have you every been evaluated for learning disorders, particularly Attention Defecit Disorder (ADD)?

While you mention that there could be some subject area knowledge that you're lacking in order to complete the tasks she's assigned, it sounds like your biggest hurdles are time management and procrastination, which are very, very common problems with ADD.

In that respect, instead of expecting your adviser to help you with those issues, you should consider seeing an ADD coach (a therapist trained in working with people with ADD to manage time and track progress on tasks). You could also consider a behavioral therapist, who could help you develop new patterns for how you approach tasks in the first place (some coaches are trained in both). Very frequently, universities either have in-house staff who can help you with this or can get you a referral to a local therapist.

  • I do actually have Asperger's Syndrome (with which there may be a link with dyspraxia) but I have actually thought that maybe I do suffer from ADD, so I might see if I can get tested at some point. My brother has suffered from ADHD so it might be a thing that runs in the family.
    – user32670
    Commented Apr 13, 2015 at 20:12
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    Nonetheless, I've managed to annihilate my main source of procrastination by creating a separate login account on my work computer which is meant strictly for work-related matters. No Facebook, no YouTube, just websites like ResearchGate, Stack Exchange and so forth. Worked really well today!
    – user32670
    Commented Apr 13, 2015 at 20:13
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    @omegaSQU4RED: kudos to you for creating the separate login account. As an ADD sufferer, I've actually zero'ed out ( Facebook, YouTube and other distractions in my hosts file, and I think it's good advice for anyone who gets easily sidetracked.
    – tobylaroni
    Commented Apr 15, 2015 at 13:52
  • Although most of these responses are from an academic point of view, which can be biased against the student, I'm relieved to see a reply for once that is sympathetic towards my psychological background. My supervisor said that there was a task to be done that didn't need to take anywhere near as long as it needed to - and it's not even an open problem. I got sidetracked trying to understand a proof of an inequality which subsumes another one which I used to derive the result I set out to prove - even though in the end it didn't help. I'm going to see if I can get screened for ADD at my GP.
    – user32670
    Commented Apr 15, 2015 at 14:01

Having experienced a "hands off" advisor myself, I'm going to say yes, there is something wrong with your advisor. Where my advisor was horribly emotionally abusive, yours sounds like she simply doesn't give useful feedback; in either case, though, you aren't getting the guidance you need. Many people forget that graduate students are students still, meaning they came to grad school to get guidance in how to pursue advanced research. If you aren't getting that guidance from your advisor, that means they aren't doing their job.

Most people who reach the upper echelons of most branches of academia have never learned about teaching or mentoring - they do what was done to them or what seems like a good idea. However, there's a whole branch of study that has developed concrete guidelines for how people learn best: successful learning involves timely and appropriate feedback. Without the feedback (and guidance, so the lessons aren't excessively hard to come by), the rewards centers of the brain never light up, and motivation to continue down the path you're on decreases. It sounds like this is what's happening to you (and it's what happened to me when I couldn't get a response from my advisor about my research, even when I asked him point blank whether it was acceptable or not). If you knew enough to light up your own reward centers (i.e. if you knew how research was conducted and what "accurate" results look like) what would the point be of paying a school to teach you this? You'd already be an expert, and wouldn't be looking to an expert for guidance.

And just to back up what I'm saying with the opinion of a respected professional mentor on the topic of academia, I give you the following link: The 5 Top Traits of the Worst Advisors Oh hey, look at that - Is nice, and friendly, and available made the top spot on the list.

Good luck with handling the situation; Karen's blog (the one from the link) is actually a great place to find solutions to the type of bind you're in.

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    Read the blog post and completely disagree that being nice, friendly and available is the worst trait an advisor can have. Her main point seems to be that you you do not want an advisor that is unwilling to confront you if you are underperforming or have a massive problem with your research profile (e.g. no first-author publications), which I wholeheartedly agree with. But being nice, friendly and available and giving tough love are not mutually exclusive. Do you seriously believe the only advisors willing to tell their students that they are lacking in this or that area are horrible people?
    – user49483
    Commented Apr 19, 2015 at 4:20
  • As an example, I would consider my advisor as 'nice, friendly and approachable'. But I could not for a minute conceive how anybody in our group could get a decent way through a PhD without a first-author publication and feel they were doing OK (wrt the blog post @lead linked to). Before I even started my PhD, I knew my advisor expected at least four first author papers at minimum. I know of nobody in our group who has left with fewer than this. If I were to get off track then my advisor would let me know but that nothing to do with being nice, friendly and approachable or otherwise.
    – user49483
    Commented Apr 19, 2015 at 4:37
  • @user49483, lead: Note that the blog post was provocatively stated, and the full quote is "Is nice, and friendly, and available... And never gives you the fierce criticism and the tough pushback that forces you to confront your weaknesses, take risks, stop whining, cut the excuses, get over your fears, and make hard decisions about reputation, money, and jobs." To paraphrase to the first part is very misleading. Commented Mar 22, 2016 at 0:54
  • I think the context of my answer speaks to the full quote, not the partial quote.
    – lead
    Commented Jan 20, 2018 at 6:17
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    " If you knew enough to light up your own reward centers [..] what would the point be of paying a school to teach you this?" --- Who on earth actually pays for being a PhD student? You get paid, normally!
    – Dilworth
    Commented Nov 12, 2021 at 17:53

Could there be a problem with my PhD supervisor?

No, certainly there is nothing inherently wrong with your nice supervisor (based on your description).

It may be that you would benefit a stricter more direct advisor, but this does not mean anything is "wrong" with your supervisor.

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