I am a PhD student in the social sciences and halfway through my fieldwork. It recently became clear that my original research project would not work out as planned and significant changes were necessary.

How do I elicit advice (via email or skype) from my advisors on which new idea they view as most promising?

I am corresponding with my advisors trying to develop ideas for new ways forward. My problem is that my advisors only provide comments on the details of my new ideas, as if we were at a workshop presentation. (e.g., I suggest two new ideas, and they respond with three questions/suggestions for each idea about how I could improve it.) I am grateful for this. But what I need most now is some guidance and what new ideas stand out. What seems promising/exciting and what less so.

I know that my dissertation project is ultimately my choice, and should be driven by my interests, but I would like to make the decision with some outside guidance.

  • 4
    Just ask them? "What new ideas stand out? What seems promising/exciting and what less so?"
    – ff524
    Jan 8, 2016 at 11:21
  • 1
    @ff524 have I just posted a non-question driven by grad student anxiety? Jan 8, 2016 at 11:31
  • 4
    Possibly. Anxiety, frustration, disorientation from banging our heads against walls, who knows :)
    – ff524
    Jan 8, 2016 at 11:33
  • "but I would like to make the decision with some outside guidance". No. Guidance without cold-fact data is worthless. First you implement your new methods (with the suggestions they made) and then they provide feedback. No advisor has a magic answer everytime you hit a wall and you are the one supposed to find the answer. Once your answer fails again (after tested with real data), then you will receive more guidance and so-on. Ideas without data to back them up, are a dime a dozen.
    – Alexandros
    Jan 8, 2016 at 11:49
  • 3
    @Alexandros Educated guesses about which of a few proposed directions appear more promising than others, based on extensive experience in the field, seems like a valuable and feasible thing that an advisor can provide, that doesn't in any way detract from the student's contribution to the research. (The student's job is then to confirm or refute the educated guesses, by doing some solid, high-quality research.)
    – ff524
    Jan 8, 2016 at 12:08

1 Answer 1


You need multiple mentors for different purposes. In my experience, some very experienced faculty cannot see the big picture of their research, but provide excellent advice about the details. Some similarly experienced faculty can only give advice on the big picture and will pay no attention to details. Seek mentors with a diversity of strength.

You can also try asking your mentors explicitly for broader advice. I've had mixed results doing that.

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