15

I'm a 5th year Ph.D. student. I've worked on several different projects in the last couple years, some of them not related to my dissertation topic, so I don't yet have enough results to say for sure when I will defend. I'm working solely on my dissertation project now, and I'm working as quickly as I can.

We have group meetings once in a while. Another faculty member and his student also attends because they collaborate with my advisor. In the past several meetings, my advisor has been too busy to attend, and the other researcher, who is not too familiar with my research activities, has been asking me things like:
Are you writing any papers?
Have you formed your committee?
How many years have you been here again?
When are you going to graduate?

When I say "no" "I don't know" etc., he has an expression of concern (or maybe pity). I am really annoyed by this. It's like someone keeps on asking me about my fish when it died recently. I'm already under enough stress trying to do research. The last thing I need is someone reminding me I'm behind schedule - it's demotivating. Not to mention this makes me look bad in front of my group mates.

What should I do? Tell him bluntly "it's none of his business"? Stop attending group meetings?

While it's unfortunate that my graduation is delayed, taking into account my own abilities and changes in research topics, I'm happy about where I am, working on something I'm interested in. I would much rather do some meaningful and quality work than slap together something half-baked for my dissertation. (Of course, I know I could be making more money by getting a real job sooner, but these are the best years of my life and I would rather spend it doing something I love.)

  • 18
    What should I do? — You should stop worrying what other people think and finish your thesis. – JeffE Aug 22 '15 at 2:54
  • 10
    Send them there. – Raphael Aug 22 '15 at 9:13
25

It is well known that "When are you graduating?" or even "How is your research going?" can be touchy questions among graduate students. But this is well known in part because they get asked these questions constantly, including by each other. And even if they can be unpleasant to answer, they are still fair questions. I'm not sure that the problem lies where you think it does.

I'm working solely on my dissertation project now, and I'm working as quickly as I can.

That's a pretty defensive thing to say straight out of the gate. Basically you sound like you want to ward off in advance any thought of optimizing or improving your path to the PhD. An academic who sees no room for improvement is setting the bar pretty low. I am a tenured faculty member, and if you came to me saying, "I think you could work faster / more efficiently / with greater output if..." then believe me, you would have my attention.

We have group meetings once in a while. Another faculty member and his student also attends because they collaborate with my advisor. In the past several meetings, my advisor has been too busy to attend.

Forgive my prying, but I have already seen something that to me looks more serious than some other faculty member asking you some questions you don't like. Your advisor is too busy to attend your group meetings? You know, I think you might work more quickly if....

When I say "no" "I don't know" etc., he has an expression of concern (or maybe pity).

Both concern and pity are positive emotions. This guy sounds like he is -- you got it -- concerned about you. The fact that he is showing up at several consecutive meetings while your advisor is not makes me think that he is indicating a desire to help you out.

I am really annoyed by this. It's like someone keeps on asking me about my fish when it died recently.

I find your simile to be pretty strange, but I'll try to play along: isn't it like he's asking about your living fish who has looked a bit less than healthy recently? Maybe I'm not getting the picture: who or what has died in your recent life, metaphorically speaking?

I'm already under enough stress trying to do research.

Yes, you sound like you are very stressed out. People who are too stressed out are not doing things in the best possible way, or even in a healthy way. Most commonly there is some kind of disconnect between their future hopes and their present actions. Talking through that kind of dissonance, and adjusting either or both, could be very helpful.

The last thing I need is someone reminding me I'm behind schedule - it's demotivating.

If being reminded that you're behind schedule is demotivating, then something seems off-kilter. Being reminded that you're behind schedule should be motivating, unless the schedule is not reasonable, in which case that should be directly addressed with your advisor. If it has been, then the problem seems to be that you haven't been honest enough about your situation. If he expects you to graduate next semester because you're an Nth year student, and you and your advisor have decided that you're not going to graduate until the following semester, just say so.

Not to mention this makes me look bad in front of my group mates.

Your group mates should know your situation better than someone who has been sitting in for a few weeks, so I don't really understand why this makes you look bad. Unless they don't understand your situation and these questions are revealing it....which is not the visiting professor's fault.

What should I do? Tell him bluntly "it's none of his business"? Stop attending group meetings?

Stop attending group meetings?!? Presumably the group meetings are an important part of your own research and progress [although with your advisor absent, I have to wonder...], in which case not going would be a terrible overreaction. (If they are really not valuable, then okay, don't go. You'll work more quickly without having that waste of time. But tell your advisor about it: why is he having you go to meetings that are a waste of your time?)

I think the bottom line is that this faculty member is trying to be helpful, but if you have fallen into an interaction with him that from your perspective is only getting you down, then you should talk to him directly about that. I would suggest making an appointment with him privately and at that appointment have the conversation that he wants to have all at once. Tell him about your situation. You can tell him that you think he might be concerned about you but that now that he knows Extra Information X, you hope that he can see that you are now firmly on track. If he disagrees, then he can share his opinion with you privately and perhaps even give you some actual help. At any rate, one can only ask questions like "Have you formed your committee yet?" "How many years have you been here?" so many times. If you give him the chance to spend as much time as he wants asking those questions, then with any luck he won't ask them again at your group meetings, and if he does you can say, justly, "We discussed this thoroughly last week, so I don't want to take up everyone else's time revisiting it now. We can talk later if you like."

Anyway, please don't dismiss the idea that this faculty member could help you out. Good luck.

  • 4
    Consider an analogy: Say your mother-in-law has started pestering, "So when are you guys going to have a baby?" You are undergoing a fertility treatment, and have, together with your spouse, decided not to disseminate this information. Now the MIL, who has expressed little interest over the years in getting to know you as an individual ("the other researcher, who is not too familiar with my research activities..."), notices some crud on your stove and some mold in your bathroom, and starts speculating on poor housekeeping leading to "problems in the bedroom", resulting in ... – aparente001 Aug 22 '15 at 18:14
  • 3
    ... lack of conception. --- So here's my question for you: do you think your answer will result in the OP feeling less defensive and less sensitive to the collaborating professor's intrusive questioning? Is the questioning only occurring when the advisor is out of the room -- and if so, let's ask ourselves why? There is a balance of power between professors and grad students that your answer does not seem sensitive to. --- I remember my department chair pushing me to change my thesis topic from what my advisor and I had chosen together, to a humdinger of a problem he had in mind, ... – aparente001 Aug 22 '15 at 18:20
  • 2
    ... which was not remotely related to my own research interests. When I brought the story to my advisor, we decided together that I would go off the department grant that funded RAs, and switch to TA funding instead. Once I did that, the meddling stopped! --- Your assumption that the advisor is shirking his duties is one of the ones I find most unfair in your post -- totally unsupported by the OP. For all we know, the advisor was on a two-week paternity leave on the birth of his second baby. Or moving his recently widowed mother into a nursing home. --- Your intentions and well ... – aparente001 Aug 22 '15 at 18:27
  • 2
    ... wishes for the OP are clearly nothing but good. But I've noticed that it is sometimes difficult for an established professor (not just you!) to step inside the skin of someone who is highly sensitive. Sure, the OP would benefit from having a thicker skin -- but your post does not strike me as having a high likelihood of furthering that goal. – aparente001 Aug 22 '15 at 18:30
  • 5
    @aparente001: My answer most certainly addresses that the OP feels under pressure and stressed out. Your suggestion that there is something in my answer that will harm the OP is a conversation-stopper. Best of luck to you and your son. – Pete L. Clark Aug 23 '15 at 2:54
-3

Since you probably don't want to confront him in front of others, I see two options:

  1. Let your advisor know what's going on and let him or her deal with the problem; or
  2. Assert yourself directly with the collaborating faculty member outside the meeting. You can say, for example (calm tone throughout -- that's important), "I appreciate the concern for my progress that you've expressed in recent group meetings, but I can assure you that I'm in good hands with Prof. So-and-So. You don't need to worry." If he doesn't get the hint, and starts in on you again during this conversation, then you can step it up a notch: "I mean this with no lack of respect, Prof. So-and-So: I am already being well advised." Stop there, and look him squarely in the eye for a moment (just long enough for him to hear the unstated Butt out), and then calmly leave, thanking him for his time. If after that he still says things that make you uncomfortable in the group meeting, the next step up is to stand up to him in front of the others: "I don't think it's appropriate for you to ask me these questions. As I already told you, Prof. So-and-So is my advisor, and I have full confidence in his/her guidance of my studies."

I would go for option 1 if possible.

  • 11
    I don't think it's appropriate for you to ask me these questions. — Downvoted for this suggestion. The questions that OP describes are completely appropriate. The visiting professor is there in a professional capacity and is asking professional questions about the members of the research group he is visiting. If "So, how's your work going?" so threatening that you feel the need for this level of confrontation, something has gone very badly wrong. Get help, either from your advisor, from the visiting prof, from another faculty mentor, or from a mental health professional. – JeffE Aug 22 '15 at 15:37

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.