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(Not his actual hand writing)

I am currently working under an academic research adviser who is a very nice person and very knowledgeable but I think he has problem in communicating with others (myself included) that is hindering the research progress and outputs of his group.

This problem is demonstrated on three fronts:

1. Poor handwriting

His hand writing is very very messy, comparable to the figure above. I do not understand how anyone can understand him. Everyone else in the research group communicates using Latex or some other software to make the writing neat and understandable. Further, he never erases anything but just scratches things out. Can you imagine what scratches on messy hand writing look like? Even messier.

I'd like to think that messy hand writing is linked with unfettered intellectual creativity but I just cannot understand anything that he writes and neither can anybody else.

2. Unclear presentation or slides.

In my opinion slides should be made to the point, clear and concise. I found a random example not even related to my field of study to clarify what I mean: http://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/economic-sciences/laureates/2011/sargent-lecture_slides.pdf

But his slides are routinely overloaded with equations and unclear graphics obviously cropped and pasted with no regard to background, positioning or anything. Simply put, the slides do not capture the main idea. And because of this reason he routinely go over time or skip large chunk of complicated equations during presentation, this causes 1/2 of the people to stop following him and it is very noticeable.

3. Unclear notation

I think this one is quite serious because he routinely uses symbols that are a little ambiguous in their meanings. In fact his symbols seems to consistently go against whatever is currently in the literature. For example, people in my research field uses Greek alphabets for one thing but he uses it for something completely different. Also there are definitions he sort of made up on the spot that I thought were standard. I am honestly not sure whether I should just adopt his conventions or keep whatever other people have been using in this field.

I think part of the reason is because he is from an older generation who is used to the paper and pencil type of work and is not very adapt with technology. I think he is also a very busy person so he has to come up with ideas and notations on the spot which causes conflict with the rest of the world.

Is there a good way I can approach him to address these problems without offending him or hurt his feelings?

  • 7
    How should you approach your adviser and tell him that he has a communication problem [?] — Like an adult; you know, by simply letting him know that you do not understand what he is attempting to communicate. I think part of the reason is because he is from an older generation who is used to the paper and pencil type of work and is not very adapt with technology. — Yes, but all the technology in the world doesn't do you any good if you don't know how to ask questions on things you are unclear on.
    – Mad Jack
    Commented Apr 3, 2016 at 21:50
  • 2
    I don't know why his cluttered slides are relevant to you as his research student. In what context does your advisor use slides while advising you?
    – ff524
    Commented Apr 3, 2016 at 21:57
  • 4
    As it's stated, this seems like a rant about an adviser and not much of a question. The answer to the question to "how should you approach ..." is simply "by talking to them nicely and respectfully". Commented Apr 3, 2016 at 22:00
  • 1
    You cannot change his handwriting (mine is bad, and it's not like I don't try); you are unlikely to teach him to make better slides; and I doubt that his notation is ad hoc - it's just unfortunately what he's used to even when academic consensus has decided otherwise (an introductory analysis class at my undergrad school had a prof use sub-scripts in NE/NW/SE/SW (all of) corners of variables, resorting to Hebrew letters when that wasn't enough). Bad is it is, try to get used to it. Commented Apr 3, 2016 at 22:21
  • Send him/her to this page anonymously. Commented Apr 4, 2016 at 22:28

2 Answers 2


I would advise you to approach him on a different base than he has a communication problem, namely on the base that you have a problem with his way of communication. Note the slight shift.

Phrasing it that way eliminates the problem that you may accuse him of something or even offend him. For example, you would not say "your handwriting is poor" but "I have a hard time to read your handwriting and it costs me a lot of time to read it". Also, you would not say "your slides are unclear" but "I do not get the main idea from the slides and would find it helpful if [...]". Finally, instead of "your notation is unclear" you would say that "I consistently get confused since the book X uses the notation Y while you use Z".

  • I found two typos that I'm apparently not allowed to edit: 1) .. base than he has ... 2) ... your handwriting is poor...
    – Arsak
    Commented Apr 6, 2016 at 15:56

I can understand your frustration, I have an advisor right now that has some of the qualities you have mentioned (points 1 and 2)! Here is my take on your situation.


  1. He is an older and busy professor => I'm sure he has heard many complaints about these points before. I'm even sure his colleagues and dept. chair know that too! Guess what, he is still the same, he will be the same. My advise to you is learn how to adapt. My adivor's had writing is really bad and we (his PhD students) keep old drafts of his writing with marks up of words that we could not get the first time just in case we need to decode his writing from a current draft! We all faced this issue once we joined his team. We would go to his office just to ask on how to read certain mark ups he wrote on our drafts and papers! To be honest, we tried to introduce him to the very simple and friendly Word "track change" but he politely said that this is not the way to teach and correct drafts. He only requests hard copies of manuscripts to go over and only asks for the soft copy once the paper is ready to be submitted. Also, he gets annoyed if he sees any of us reading/reviewing a paper or a draft using the computer, he would simply shake his head and say, "Kids these days!" (smiling and in a funny way). Honestly, I used to hate that but now, this is what I do. I still use pencil and a hard copy of the paper I'm reviewing or writing. To be honest, my advisor is right in a way. I agree that it is not the best/optimum/environmentally friendly way to do research (by printing pages and pages of drafts), but papers really sound and look different when you hold them in your hands. As I said earlier, to each his own, but since you are his student, you do not have to agree with him/her all the time! But, to keep your work going and avoid delays and arguments, you might want to do things his/her way! I believe that each student should has his own scientific charisma, but so far you are still a student so you might change your views if you try new (or in this case old school) stuff!
  2. His note are all over the place and 1/2 the people stop following him and it is noticeable. If it noticeable to you, it must be noticeable to him/her too (during all his/her years of research and teaching)! Keep in mind that slides or presentations need to be somehow clear and easy to follow. But, they also do not need to be colorful and include cinematic effects! Perhaps to your advisor, having clean cut presentations is not that important. S/He cares about the science only. I would suggest that you offer to fix 1-2 of his presentations. Change them into something completely different. Arrange them in a way you would do your own presentations. Then, show them to him, perhaps he will like them and change the other slides (or most likely, will ask you to do change them).
  3. Unclear notation => read point 1 above again.

Finally, being a graduate student is tough. The truth is, if you look closely, many PhD students turns to be like their advisers (in a way or two). How many of us have said "he (your advisor) does not know hat is he talking about?!" or "That does not make sense, he (your advisor) must have not read the previous page". But that is ok, I'm sure our students will say the same one day!

Having daily contact with someone can and will change the way you do or see stuff. Simply put, try not to over think such things that are annoying you and focus on the positive aspects. Your advisor is a nice and knowledgeable guy! Trust me, this is a hard combination to have in an advisor!

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