I started my PhD within the last one year in a STEM field in the US ,and I cannot seem to convince my advisor about any of my ideas.

I usually don't get concrete research directions from my advisor, ie. a direction of research that might be valuable to look more into. I am completely free, which can be good and bad.

I only get one out of two types of feedback: (1): Lets find a project together, so generate more ideas so I can grasp what you are interested in or (2): When I suggested some ideas, all of them don't satisfy my advisor, and I should "look for more ideas". My advisor might be right with the arguments, but I didn't get any advice yet on how to improve my "research".

The more senior students of my advisor seem to have the same/similar problem, so I don't feel like I want to make the same mistakes as they did and get stuck at this stage.

But I cannot get beyond this point and so I can't really start a project. I could ignore the advice and work on my own without letting my advisor know, but wouldn't then the point of the "advising" role be gone? How can I get my advisor to be convinced of one of my ideas, and ideally get more "useful" feedback?

At this point I really feel like its somehow a communication problem. Maybe judging about the "quality" of my advisor is not the question I look to answer (I assume there are "pro's" and "con's" to have hands-off advisors), but rather if you have any tips on how to overcome this "infinite idea finding loop" and get more in-depth with one specific project in this situation. And, to be more general, how can I establish a better communication?

  • 2
    Why, as a starting PhD student, do you need to convince your advisor of your ideas? Has your advisor not suggested any concrete literature? Do you doubt that your advisor has enough ideas that could be a starting point for a PhD thesis?
    – Earthliŋ
    Commented Apr 12, 2016 at 2:07
  • I didn't get any directions or suggestions for directions from my advisor, at least from how I interpret the conversations (maybe there were some hidden implicit suggestions that I didn't get but at least nothing specific and explicit). I'm not sure how to respond to your second question, I don't have doubts but I also don't get any positive feedback about my current ideas, so I don't know if my direction is right or wrong plus I don't feel like I get any support. If I shouldn't worry about my question (which your comment implies), then what should I do in my situation except convincing? Commented Apr 12, 2016 at 2:16
  • 1
    Usually your advisor should give you concrete literature (at the very least). (Have you asked specifically for what to do?) Maybe you should ask a question "Am I being supervised correctly?" instead, where you tell us exactly what your advisor has done as advisor.
    – Earthliŋ
    Commented Apr 12, 2016 at 2:23
  • My advisor relationship started with "what are you interested in". Then after one semester I found a project that however was classified by my advisor as "too risky" and my advisor says its "too far away from her/his expertise so can't give real feedback", so now I am basically hunting for another project that fits all the needs. Its a little bit more complicated but thats the rough overview of my situation. "Am I being supervised correctly?" sounds tempting to ask, but at the same time I'd feel wrong about criticizing my advisor during my first year and also I like the freedom in general. Commented Apr 12, 2016 at 2:31
  • I think usually the advisor should give you a starting point in a research direction that he wouldn't classify as "too risky" or "too far away from her/his expertise". The project itself would usually develop out of concrete problems that result from discussions about this research direction. I don't think you should hunt for a project by yourself, because you don't yet have the necessary expertise.
    – Earthliŋ
    Commented Apr 12, 2016 at 2:54

4 Answers 4


First step is to have good ideas. :)

But wait, you are starting your phd, by definition, you wouldn't know what a good idea is, you do not have the experience (usually, let's leave the genius outliers aside for now).

When I have a crazy idea, I develop it a bit, to see where it leads. If leads somewhere interesting, I prepare a nice, informative presentation, and schedule a meeting with the boss. Sometimes I get shot down, sometimes the idea is accepted, but "preparing the field" is important. You need to present your ideas properly, in a well prepared manner, to increase the chances he would understand it. And clearly presenting ideas is the bread and butter of research.

With that said, have you tried an honest conversation with him on this aspect? Nothing wrong with an student telling me he is lost and he needs a concrete direction. Even better if that direction has specific, detailed objectives, including some easily attainable ones to keep the morale high.

Be honest, be polite, be patient, and be clear.


Ideas alone will not be sufficient in some cases. You need to provide supporting evidence and if possible, proof.

For example, let's say you are analyzing the data emerged out of an experiment and find something that doesn't match with the expected outcome. If you come up with an idea in your mind which you think might explain the phenomena, don't just jump up from your seat and run to your adviser, rather you must check and verify the details with care. You may follow the usual research methodology like a background check for the published articles at first, eliminating the obvious experimental pitfalls, errors in analysis and so on. If your idea still stands, then you may create a detailed report with everything you have done to prove your claim(a LaTex PDF?) and submit it to your supervisor. From my experience this is an effective way to communicate novel ideas.


I think the most practical things to do is to ask your advisor for a starting point.

  1. Ask your advisor for specific books, articles to read.

  2. Work through these books/articles (and their exercises/problems) and ask questions where and when you can (without annoying your advisor, of course).

  3. Also tell your advisor what you're planning on doing next. This way you know if you're drifting too far from your advisor's expertise, or into territory that your advisor deems uninteresting. (Knowledge that your advisor can't verify or doesn't find interesting is unlikely to play a big role in your thesis.)

  4. Ask if problems/questions you come across can be asked in a different (or more general) context. If the answer is

    • "Yes of course!", do it as an exercise (and show your advisor afterwards)
    • "No!", find a counter-example
    • "I don't know [but it doesn't matter]", leave it
    • "I don't know [but it would be interesting]", try to find out more.

Problems from this last category are often the ones that make it into your thesis, but as you see, you don't get there without initial (specific) input from your advisor.


For a PhD, sometimes it is common to wait 1-1.5 years before starting working on THE topic! It seems that your adviser is waiting on funds/proposals! Once he gets them, you will have your topic and (you and the other student) start working on their topics. Does your advisor has any other students than you two? Did s/he say anything about funding? Are you a sponsored student? If none of the above is correct, then you might wanna have a deep discussion with your advisor by telling him/her that you don't feel "good/safe" being delayed this much or you are eager to publish (papers) or start you qualifying/comprehensive exams or start going to conferences (sometimes this will do the trick).

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