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Last semester, I took class A and loved the material. It was a subject I excelled in and professor A' was someone I understood well.

I thought it was perfect to take the course 2A and make A' my thesis advisor, but this entire semester, he missed many classes (due to sickness and/or being the Chair of our department), was only available for 'pop in' office visits, rather than scheduled ones or scheduled office hours, and we rarely had homework we could do, because our class was riddled with confusing theory and no examples.

For a grade, he asked us to learn and present material in class. I'm a student who needs to bounce ideas off others in order to really understand material really well.

Since no one (fellow grad student wise) could help and he was always unavailable, I stuck to books and mathstackexchange.

I got turned around many times, and when I had to present, he constantly interrupted me to tell me "what [I] meant to say". After 40 minutes, I got so worked up I started to tear up.

I felt like the time I spent trying to work through material by myself was worthless, and anything else I could say wouldn't be "up to snuff" in his eyes, but I pressed on through hiccups and tears. I know he was trying to make me a better student, but I'm not sure I can take a year of trying to do something right on my own, rarely meeting up with my thesis advisor, and falling flat during my thesis defense.

Questions: do I find another thesis advisor? Is this just a personal problem, and I should consider counselling?

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    I should consider counselling? — The answer to this question is always yes. – JeffE May 8 '16 at 1:48
  • Another question (mine): "Should my advisor consider counselling, even if (s)he may feel no need for it?" - The answer to //that// question is also always yes. If only there had been a way to enforce this.. – PKG Oct 15 '16 at 4:51
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The choice of thesis advisor is extremely important in an academic career, arguably the most important choice you will make. A good advisor will know your talents and set you a great problem, which you will solve in a timely fashion; a good advisor will also be a tremendous asset to your career in writing letters of recommendation and just plain giving advice. A bad advisor can easily send your career to an early grave. Hence this choice is very important, no pressure. :-)

Given all this, I would urge you to select a different advisor. Although A' taught a class you like, there are plenty of warning signs that this will not be a productive relationship for you. A' is busy, A' taught poorly, you didn't learn much in course 2A, A' disrespected your work during your presentation, etc.

You should find an advisor, perhaps in a different specialty, with whom you have a better connection. This may delay your graduation. That's okay; it's much better to do the right thesis in 7 years than the wrong thesis (or drop out) in 5 years.

  • I agree with you and aeismail. Choosing a graduate advisor is important, but I think I will work with a co-advising team. He had a rough semester, but that doesn't mean he's a bad professor or advisor. He's proposed a really nice thesis for me and this is an opportunity I want to take advantage of. Thank you for your input. – User5634 May 9 '16 at 1:24
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You've not really commented on your thesis advisor's role as a research supervisor, which is quite different from being an instructor. Someone can excel in one role but be [almost] incompetent in the other.

Consequently, it's hard to give you solid advice. The basic question is if your advisor's unavailability is impeding your research progress. If so, then you should definitely explore other options, if possible. For instance, look for a co-advisor for your project with A'. If no options with A' pan out, then you should consider switching advisors.

However, if the teaching style doesn't carry over into research issues, then it may be worth your while to wait and see if things improve.

  • A' and I have not started researching anything yet, only briefly passed around ideas. He has only been my professor, but every time I've asked to sit down with him to discuss my project, he either brushes me off or tells me he only has 20 minutes. If this is the case, when he manages less than five students, I feel like this will be a similar outcome when we actually research, but you think I'm over judging this situation? – User5634 May 7 '16 at 21:34
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    every time I've asked to sit down with him to discuss my project, he either brushes me off or tells me he only has 20 minutes — Yes, you should get another advisor. Quickly. – JeffE May 8 '16 at 1:48
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    Seconded. I had an adviser like that. It wasted years of my life and seriously affected my mental health. – Mox May 10 '16 at 6:26
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I agree with both vadim and aeismail: choosing an advisor is important and there's some indication that the chair may not make an ideal advisor for you at present, but there's not enough information to say this person would not be a good advisor for you. Here are some points to keep in mind:

  • My personal belief is that how well you can work with someone is just as important as their field of expertise in choosing an advisor. While there are some types of math you may not like, probably there are many fields you would be equally happy working in.

  • Both being chair and being seriously ill (I don't know if this is the case for your professor) can significantly cut down on the availability of advisor. On the other hand, some professors not in these situations are rather hands-off, and some chairs can still make a fair amount of time for their students. It sounds like you already know you want a "hands-on" advisor, so that should help you in finding an advisor. (Suggestion: talk to some of a prospective advisor's other grad students to see how and how much they interact.)

  • Some students (perhaps you) get more anxious/stressed than others, and some professors are better at putting such students at ease than others. Possibly he was not aware/did not anticipate your reactions to his interruptions and/or maybe he was just cranky because of stress of being the chair and dealing with his own illnesses. It's possible that he can learn to deal with you in a less stressful way (this might involve a conversation, or possibly not).

  • I don't have personal experience with this, but I hear counseling can help with stress and anxiety issues. Most universities (at least in the US) have services for such issues, so if this is not an isolated experience for your it may be a good idea to see what is available at your school, independent of who you choose for an advisor.

  • Why the mention of the supervisor perhaps being "seriously ill"? I am slightly concerned that the answers thus far lean a little too far towards giving the supervisor all the benefit of the doubt. (I agree that one should not rush to decide this supervisor is terrible; but we should also not rush to decide the OP is over-reacting.) – Yemon Choi May 8 '16 at 4:34
  • @YemonChoi It sounded like the professor had missed a significant portion of the semester due to illness, but maybe I misinterpreted that? As for giving the professor too much benefit of the doubt, I think my first 2 points suggest looking for another supervisor. – Kimball May 8 '16 at 5:05
  • Oops, my bad; I didn't read closely enough. I do think the concrete points you raise/suggest are good ones – Yemon Choi May 8 '16 at 5:11
4

The clear answer is: No you should not have this professor as your advisor. Why? Let's take a look at what you know so far.

Last semester, I took class A and loved the material. It was a subject I excelled in and professor A' was someone I understood well.

You liking and excelling in a subject or a course or the material is totally orthogonal to whether the one teaching it is a good teacher. There were quite a number of courses I took where I got the highest grade but that I felt were terribly taught, because I could see that the teacher was simply unable to teach well. Everyone who was already good enough didn't need the teacher, and everyone else who needed help couldn't follow. In some cases the teacher was trying his/her best, so I'm confident they would eventually become good teachers, but in other cases the teacher had a wrong attitude toward students, sometimes one of utter laziness and sometimes even one of condescension. I don't need to tell you to stay away from the latter sort.

I think it is likely your impression of professor A' was mistaken in some way or another.

I thought it was perfect to take the course 2A and make A' my thesis advisor, but this entire semester, he missed many classes (due to sickness and/or being the Chair of our department), was only available for 'pop in' office visits, rather than scheduled ones or scheduled office hours, and we rarely had homework we could do, because our class was riddled with confusing theory and no examples.

Missing classes due to sickness is not at all his fault, but neglecting his teaching responsibilities due to being department chair is simply being irresponsible, unless you think the department itself has unreasonable demands. However, I would have expected that whenever a professor is sick another professor will temporarily take over the class and continue teaching the material as best as possible.

This judgement is further supported by the fact that he does not put aside office hours for his students, does not give homework for practice (not to say go through the solutions), and gives no examples. It would however be necessary for you to find out whether your classmates in general felt the same way, to ensure that your confusion over the material is not because you lack some prerequisite knowledge.

For a grade, he asked us to learn and present material in class. I'm a student who needs to bounce ideas off others in order to really understand material really well. Since no one (fellow grad student wise) could help and he was always unavailable, I stuck to books and mathstackexchange. I got turned around many times

It is sad that no fellow student was willing to help you. Did you ask him when you could see him (instead of asking whether he is free at certain times)? If so, then he ought to try to help you!

and when I had to present, he constantly interrupted me to tell me "what [I] meant to say". After 40 minutes, I got so worked up I started to tear up.

Whether this was bad teaching depends on exactly how he said it. A teacher who is very meticulous might constantly point out slight inaccuracies, but in a way that does not put down the student. But most teachers do not know how to do this. Even worse, some teachers put down students simply to show off. But the question is about you. We don't need to know or speculate about your professor's motives. If you cannot take his style of teaching, don't force yourself!

I felt like the time I spent trying to work through material by myself was worthless, and anything else I could say wouldn't be "up to snuff" in his eyes, but I pressed on through hiccups and tears. I know he was trying to make me a better student, but I'm not sure I can take a year of trying to do something right on my own, rarely meeting up with my thesis advisor, and falling flat during my thesis defense.

Indeed, even if he doesn't mean it, his attitude or style is very likely to be unsuitable for you, in which case it makes no sense to not look for a advisor that is better for you!

Is this just a personal problem, and I should consider counselling?

Of course you should also consider it. As long as your university supports confidential counselling, it may be a good thing for you to go for it, not because there is any problem with you, but because they might be able to provide all kinds of help (not just a listening ear) that you surely cannot get from Academia SE or elsewhere on the internet!

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    +1 for "We don't need to know or speculate about your professor's motives. If you cannot take his style of teaching, don't force yourself!" and "even if he doesn't mean it, his attitude or style is very likely to be unsuitable for you, in which case it makes no sense to not look for a advisor that is better for you" – Yemon Choi May 8 '16 at 13:47
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    he does not put aside office hours for his students, does not give homework for practice (not to say go through the solutions) Not giving homework in grad topics classes is not so uncommon. I can also imagine many profs do not set aside office hours for grad classes either (though I agree one should be somewhat available to answer questions). – Kimball May 8 '16 at 15:03
  • @Kimball: I didn't judge based on not giving homework, but it was simply a part of the obvious larger issue of not seeming to care about student learning. If the classes were excellent (not confusing), no homework is perfectly fine... Also, I have a rather broad view of homework; it includes anything that the teacher tells the student to think about before the next class (whether it is turned in or not). If the class is so engaging, the teacher can't even stop the students from coming up with their own homework! – user21820 May 8 '16 at 17:16
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I don't think that your advisor has done anything especially wrong. He was busy as a chair of department, so he cut on the class. This is natural and common. He is a chair, which will be a great asset to you and means probably that he has organizational capabilities, many connections, talents, and good scientific reputation, as well as seniority.

You like the subject of research of your advisor and this is of the up-most importance.

He behaves in an honest scientific manner when you presented your ideas, and this shows seriousness and attentiveness as well as care. Perhaps he is a bit impatient; but nobody is perfect.

Overall, I have not seen anything crucial that would entail you to switch an advisor.

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