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Usually during our meetings my advisor will complain a lot and tell me I am doing stuff wrong. How can I tell if he thinks I am a bad student or if he is just trying to give me direct feedback?

Keeping this general so this question becomes a reusable resource.

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    Advisors don't hate or love students. If your advisor doesn't want you; he/she will ask you to look for another advisor. – seteropere Jun 2 '16 at 20:35
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    So, are you doing stuff wrong and need to get your act together? Are the complaints about you, or your work? Is he challenging your work (which he should do), or challenging you as a person? What is wrong with direct feedback? – Jon Custer Jun 2 '16 at 20:49
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    @seteropere Students will not be asked to leave if that makes faculty look bad in front of peers. – Anonymous Physicist Jun 2 '16 at 21:28
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    @seteropere I find that highly unlikely; last I checked, advisors are human. – Tin Wizard Jun 2 '16 at 21:50
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    You could ask? e.g. "I find it difficult to tell if you think I am performing poorly or if you are just giving me direct feedback. If the former, I don't mind the honesty, but I would appreciate knowing." – gwg Jun 2 '16 at 22:11
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He's probably giving direct feedback. If your adviser really hated you, he wouldn't spend the time in improving you.

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    @marcman - Yes, it's a valid point, but it doesn't really answer the question. The question asks, "How can I tell if it's X or Y?" and this answer only says, "It's probably Y." (Not my downvote; I'm just speculating.) – J.R. Jun 2 '16 at 21:38
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    Also just speculating, but it's perfectly possible for someone to spend time berating if they hate you. That is, after all, how you end up knowing that they hate you. – Wetlab Walter Jun 2 '16 at 21:43
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    @J.R. I interpret the answer to be "You can tell that it is Y, because X makes little sense. Of course no guarantee as I can;t read his mind." – Lyndon White Jun 3 '16 at 0:51
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    @J.R. No, the answer says "It's probably Y because of Z", where Z is a concept that doesn't take many words to explain. – David Richerby Jun 3 '16 at 11:18
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    This isn't necessarily true. There are many reasons one might give feedback other than "because they don't hate you". They may be compelled to by department rules, they may be trying to scare you out of the department, they may crave a sense of superiority and gain that through berating others, etc, etc. There is a long list of reasons a professor may provide "feedback" other than the one listed here. – Jay Carr Jun 3 '16 at 12:56
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Know his style. There are advisors who think that it is better to be direct and tough with their students. At the end, they are preparing you to the real-life after PhD and don't want you to waste your time (and theirs) with something they see as incorrect. There are other advisors who are very polite. "You are wrong" is their last resort. This also depends to the student's culture and how he/she perceive such criticism.

When I first visited my advisor's webpage, I thought he is rude. At least this is what others have told me about him: tough and rude. Very hard to work with. Now, After 5 years with him, he is just a serious guy. Loves research and wishes students to be serious like him.

On the other hand, some advisors care about every detail you give to them while others are very hands-off. Knowing your advisor's style would help you very much.

So how can you tell? Act as a professional. If your personality is involved within the criticism then he might have some prejudice against you. IF it's all about the work, then most likely he is just a serious guy that wants you to proceed fast. The best thing to do is to stick with one of his criticism, fix it, do your best in addressing it. And check with him again. Then compare what he's saying now with before.

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  • You thought your advisor was rude because you visited his homepage? – Sverre Jun 4 '16 at 10:44
  • @Sverre Not really. I was mainly mis-informed about him before visiting his webpage. – seteropere Jun 4 '16 at 10:54
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    I just don't understand what you visiting his homepage has to do with anything, then. – Sverre Jun 4 '16 at 11:45
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    @Sverre I think he means his impression of the advisor before he met him (looking at his webpage searching for advisors) was "tough and rude" – Azor Ahai -him- Jun 5 '16 at 0:31
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There is a third explanation: your advisor does not know how (or lacks the motivation) to give feedback that is not complaining.

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Get a second opinion

Try to get some feedback on your work from someone other than your main supervisor. Maybe you have a secondary supervisor you can talk to, or you could offer to give a talk at an internal research meeting. If people bring up similar points (perhaps in a politer way!) then this points towards your supervisor being harsh but fair.

Is the criticism constructive?

Is your supervisor bringing up points that are useful, and possible for you to act upon, or just putting your work down without any indication of how to improve it? If it's the latter, try pushing your supervisor for constructive points. Something along the lines of: "OK, that's a good point, can you suggest a way that I can get around the problem?" If they avoid the question, then that's not a good sign.

The previous two points won't distinguish between a poor supervisor who is not good at giving feedback and a supervisor who has something personal against you. So, you also need to find out:

Are they the same with everyone?

If your supervisor has other students, chat to them. Have they had the same experience as you? If so, then it's probably nothing personal and is just your supervisor's style.

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If your supervisor is old and established, chances are they are just being short and to the point. It isn't about what they think about you, its more about what they think about the thing you just handed them.

If your supervisor is younger though, then all bets are off. It could mean anything. My supervisor went to one these "How to be a good manager that gets the most out their workers" type 3-day courses, which he and other PIs at my place of work were encouraged to go to. They hold them every year, but last year the notes of the in-house management course was "leaked" (well, left in a bin..) and it suggested PIs try using tactics like "tough love" on at least 1 student in the coming year so you can see if its a good management style for you/your lab, plus its an important skill for a manager to know how to do, and it sends a clear message that you're the boss, etc. There are numerous books on how to manage a lab -- I encourage anyone who feels like they have a strained and unnatural relationship with their boss to read one.

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    I don't think it has to do with age. Advisors can be skilled or incompetent at any age. – Anonymous Physicist Jun 2 '16 at 21:27
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    Haha, true :) But certainly for young advisors they are incentivized to try "modern management strategies" which at the student level manifests itself as "I think my supervisor thinks X, but I don't know why because we have no history that would result in X". – Wetlab Walter Jun 2 '16 at 21:34
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I would question why the advisor's intention is even relevant. Many times in my own life I have been presented with antagonistic attitudes / individuals. The question that I always asked myself was:

"Is this helping me?"

If the critiques were aiding my quest to better myself, if they were helping me to be better at the task at hand, then I allowed for the harsh criticism that I was receiving. Sometimes in my life I have found that kind of criticism to be highly motivating. At other times, it has been detrimental to my mental health. This judgment call has to made irrespective of the intent of the criticizer. An overzealous coach can be just as emotionally draining as a belittling advisor.

The key determining factor is how you, the target of the criticism, feel about the message being received. Does it inspire you to do better? Does it make you want to curl up and cry? This feeling may even vary day by day based on your own emotional state.

In summary, I would offer that the important question is not the intention of the advisor, but how you receive the criticism. What better way to handle an advisor wishing to do you harm than to transmute that negativity and better yourself with it.

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I'd ask.

"What do you think about me as a student?"

Aside from being a mind reader, this is your most direct route to the truth. The "as a student" part is optional really. It could open the floor for a more communicative relationship. You might find out some good things. You might find out some bad things. But in the end, you'll learn something. If your advisor's replies are equivocal, ask a more specific question. The mere asking of a personal question like this could soften your advisor up a bit, at least momentarily, or have them reflect on your working relationship.

You could pursue second-hand information, either about yourself or about the instructor's previous relations with students, but anything you hear is likely biased. Anything negative you hear this way could merely stem from your instructor's natural venting process and may needed to be digested with a grain of salt.

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I would say you should just ask him.

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