So I have an advisor who seems to be kind of peculiar. He is quite famous in his field and has good reputation.

However, his way of working with students is more like waiting for him to come up with ideas for students. And since he has "good taste", he is always aiming for big goals which makes it take a lot longer to formulate any concrete project.

Research ideas from students are usually discarded. It's been over a year and I still don't have a research project. Also, for papers that he thinks aren't that important, he will ask his student to write it up and rarely take his time to read the paper or provide suggestions for revising which means that students have to wait a long time to get anything published.

The other funny thing is that he almost never replies back to his students' emails and rarely helps his students in finding postdoc positions. How do I work with this kind of advisor and is it a good idea to switch advisors?

  • 3
    Also, for papers that he thinks aren't that important ... students have to wait a long time to get anything published. — Is the advisor a coauthor on these papers? From your description, it sounds like they would have been too far beneath his notice to make significant intellectual contribution, in which case he would not be a coauthor. In that case, you do not need to wait for his feedback, advice, or permission to publish. Find other senior mentors if you think you need help, but then just submit it yourself.
    – JeffE
    May 3, 2016 at 18:05
  • It's been over a year and I still don't have a research project - Different fields and countries have different cultures. What is the norm in your area?
    – Kimball
    May 4, 2016 at 0:22
  • If your advisor is that smart and famous. Trust the process! Your time will come soon. Most likely s/he knows what they are doing and it is virtually very hard to change or even for him/her to feel the need to change! This may not what you need to hear, but this is from my experience with similar advisors.
    – The Guy
    May 4, 2016 at 2:17
  • Have other recent students been successful in getting the PhD? How long did it take them? Were they successful in getting faculty positions? May 4, 2016 at 4:20
  • I am in US and a top university, I am not saying that he will delay graduation for students, there is even one student graduated with no publication. However that certainly does not help the student to survive in academia. I think currently he is kind missing the path himself, since he has told someone that he has not been doing anything interesting for over a year.
    – user12916
    May 4, 2016 at 19:32

5 Answers 5


If the advisor is well respected externally in her field and active (what is her publication/conference record in the last 5 years?) and relatively supportive in other ways (interesting conversations about research topics, is available in person when students drop, has funding) and if she has a group of supported students/postdocs in her group; then my advice is to decide whether your personality allows you (cheerfully or pretend-cheerfully) to take on some leadership roles in self-mentoring.

  • start a weekly or bi-weekly group meeting, journal club, or similar where also people in the group talk about what they are doing. (try to arrange that it is convenient time (check his class schedule/university meetings) but do the meetings even the weeks he cannot show.

  • schedule a 20-30 minute meeting with him once every week or two regularly to discuss progress, don't count on him to set it up. Make sure to prepare something (at the beginning) that isn't asking for help so much as showing off things you find interesting or have accomplished that week.

The point is to avoid appearing as if you need hand-holding, but to get some interactions going which are positive and useful for yourself to succeed. (And show of how much of a self-starter you are).

The delay in publishing papers - if there are senior co-authors, also look to them.

On the other hand - choose another advisor Sometimes email gets buried, but a consistent 'never replying or acknowledging an email from student(colleagues,department admin)' gives me the heebie-jeebies. We have had several faculty in my department over the years who had that trait and in their particular cases it never made any sense except as some stupid passive-agressive issue. So, on the basis of that trait alone, I'd suggest finding someone else who is more excited about their work and respectful of other's time and energy.

  • Thanks for advice! Some facts first, I am the only student left in his group, he rarely takes any postdoc. The whole group is quite small and he has been stuck with coming up with great ideas for several years without much progress and ignores student's ideas simply because they are usually not groundbreaking.
    – user12916
    May 3, 2016 at 20:54

I have same experience too, but he always replied our email. What I suggested is you should talk to him what do you want and be polite, also you need a good impression for him. I think that he will hear you if you have a good impression for him.

If you couldn't make it, I think you should ask your dean or headmaster, or someone else if you want to change your advisor. But I think he's a good choice for learn in real world. In real world you will face many personality. Take him as a challenge will be good.

For his "good taste", better you investigated by asked someone or your senior, they might be help you.

  • I think you should ask your dean or headmaster, or someone else if you want to change your advisor — This is weird advice. Why would you need permission from anyone except your new advisor to change advisors?
    – JeffE
    May 3, 2016 at 18:07

Switch advisors and complain to your dean. When I was still in college, I had this issue with many professors. My o.chem prof promised research to many, but never got around to it, similar to your situation. I eventually had to switch advisors because this guy went nowhere fast. I also wound up complaining to the dean when other profs engaged in uncommunicative behavior, as well, because they are obligated to engage in timely communication with all students since their academic future relies on it.

From my academic experience, profs who are unhelpful are truly only out for their own good and could care less about you. Thus, you must switch advisors as soon as possible for your own good. Remember, for the most part, nobody but you cares most about your future, so stay actively engaged in your academic career to avoid these characters.

Hope this helps!

  • And what was the effect of complaining to the dean in your case, if I may ask? May 4, 2016 at 4:43
  • All professors that were not communicating with their students were reminded of their obligations and students began receiving quicker and more frequent e-mails from the profs in question. Of course the dean's office tried to downplay everything, but more communication resulted. What's good is, where I went to school, if a prof received like three complaints, then further action was taken to stop the poor behavior, so it's good to start documenting stuff like this.
    – Yistorian
    May 4, 2016 at 4:50

Most of the things you discuss in this post are matters of advising style which will work well for some students and not for others. Some students need more hands on advisors or smaller projects, and while other students will find more success with this advisor's approach. So if it's really not working for you consider switching, but strangers on the internet won't really help in identifying whether this advisor relation is working out for you specifically.

There is one big exception to my first paragraph, you say your advisor "rarely helps his students in finding postdoc positions." That's a big red flag and a problem. Presumably you want to get a postdoc, and if your advisor is not successful at placing good students in good postdocs, then you should probably find an advisor who does better. (Unless you just mean that he is successful in placing postdocs, but somehow does so effortlessly, in which case it's not a big deal.)

  • I agree with the overall tenor of this answer, but I am not sure about the line "if your advisor is not successful at placing good students in good postdocs, then you should find an advisor who does better".
    – Yemon Choi
    May 3, 2016 at 21:49
  • Ok, softened it a little. I can certainly imagine situations where someone who wasn't generally good at placing students would nonetheless be the right advisor for a particular student. And of course, one shouldn't hold it against advisors for being willing to advise weaker students, someone has to do it. May 3, 2016 at 21:53
  • It's your idea of "placing". Perhaps this reflects the relative standings of what you do compared with what I do, but with a PhD in the cohomology of Banach algebras one is not going to get a postdoc in the UK. I was extremely lucky to even get one in Canada, and not have a 2-body problem or similar.
    – Yemon Choi
    May 3, 2016 at 22:05
  • 1
    Sorry, I didn't mean to disparage your work, I was just taking your description of the situation completely as you described it (that your choice of field completely excludes the possibility of staying the UK). I also have no objection to someone deciding to do a PhD primarily for the enjoyment. Anyway, I've learned from your response and your good points. May 3, 2016 at 23:57
  • 1
    No worries, Noah; sorry if I over-reacted. Problems of online textual communication, and all that :)
    – Yemon Choi
    May 4, 2016 at 13:23

This may not be possible, but you could help him overcome his 'ideas block'. Be proactive, ask him the specific areas that may be fruitful or if not, look for areas yourself. Read up, and then send him a bunch of 'interesting' problems/ideas and justification for why each is interesting and its significance. Be creative, think outside the current trend. This list at the minimum will be helpful to you in your PhD even if you change adviser. If you stumble on something interesting, I'm sure he will reply. Better still if he tells you why the ideas are bad. You can choose to argue your case or accept that they are bad; no harm done, either way you learn something. If in the list there is something worth pursuing, he may give you something more concrete (refine what you said) or spur him/her to come up with something more concrete. Good luck!

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