I'm a PhD student and I just had my half-time examination. My supervisor thinks my data is "crap", my report "wasn't good", and my presentation was "a disaster". Maybe he is right. However, he doesn't seem to know how to provide feedback constructively.

At other times, his feedback is either vague ("these slides could use a little more oomph") and only helpful half of the times ("the standard way to analyze this is to...").

I am not sure how to cope with with this type of feedback, mentioned in the first paragraph. Any ideas?

  • 1
    I would say, set up a meeting, and explain in advance that you need additional feedback. Then really do cross-examine what your supervisor thinks could be improved---obviously not aggressively, but your supervisor is being paid to help you.
    – Calchas
    Commented Jun 21, 2015 at 14:59

3 Answers 3


You may want to separate two types of issues here:

  • the presentational issues of your work
  • the scientific issues with your work

The first of these types spans presentation style, style of writing, and the structure of your written deliverables. The second one spans all scientific aspects of your work.

You should definitely be able to get some feedback on the scientific issues. If your advisor says that the data leaves room for improvement, (s)he should be able to give reasons for that. Also, if you ask how (s)he thinks how the data could be improved, you should get a usable answer, as this is part of the role of an advisor.

As far as the presentational issues of your work are concerned, you may be well-advised to ask ofther people for help (e.g., your fellow PhD students). Scientists often learned how to do that well by "learning by doing". This doesn't imply that they are also be able to explain how to do it in the right way. The quotation "these slides could use a little more oomph" suggest that this may be the case. But actually without knowing your advisor, it is impossible to tell.

It may also be that that your advisor is expecting you to engage more in discussions with him/her. For example, if (s)he said "the standard way to analyze this is to...", then (s)he may expect that you provide a rationale for the choice of your approach. This discussion can then lead to a better understanding of your work, both for your advisor and you.

Again, because of the limited knowledge of your situation, it is difficult to tell whether this is really the case in your situation.

  • Usually I find these types of supervisor very helpful in a way as they are never happy with whatever you do. Hence it can cause 2 thing either u will get encouraged or discouraged with this. Encouragement in the sense that you would say to yourself that ok whatever i do he is not happy but i will prove him wrong one day. where as if you think that damn whatever i do i can not make him happy then why even make an effort is the example of discourgement.
    – Saurabh
    Commented Jun 21, 2015 at 10:18
  • Two students thought the same presentation was "great". My reports are generally well received in both style and form. To clarify, this is more of a "scientific issue". The second to last paragraph I think suggests some kind of mind-reading by the student and a lack of engagement with the methods from the supervisor.
    – noumenal
    Commented Jun 21, 2015 at 10:23
  • 6
    The fact that some students thought the presentation was great is not necessarily inconsistent with it being "a disaster" from a more professional viewpoint, so beware... That is, it's not necessarily the case that "more professional" means more-and-better of what students expect from talks. Commented Jun 21, 2015 at 14:37

Next to the very fine other answer, I would like to point out that different personalities have different guiding needs (students) and guiding styles (supervisors).

Whereas some students appreciate very detailed feedback, others prefer more generic remarks that leave more room for their own personal touch.

It seems to me that your preferred style and the one of your supervisor do not match. This does not mean that his style is not right for anybody, nor that you are necessarily demanding unreasonable guidance. You might be better of with another supervisor, without anybody being at fault.

  • 4
    By what norms are comments like "disaster" guiding?
    – noumenal
    Commented Jun 21, 2015 at 12:23

My solution was to ask another professor who was also present during the presentation for feedback. This gave me a balanced view on 1) my performance and 2) my supervisor's opinion.

Signing off, opinions are not highly valued in academia, especially not in the scientific community, which always strives for objectivity. This is what surprises me about this type of feedback. It lacks style.

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