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I'm in my second year of my PhD and my advisor is very, very positive. She never gives me negative feedback, even when I objectively have made a mistake.

For instance, two months ago, I noticed that I had made a mistake in my code that invalidated about 6 months of work. She wasn't even mad, saying things like "everyone makes mistakes" and "we can fix this." I was able to redo the analysis and still find interesting results, so it did more or less work out. But this is just one example of how positive she is.

Last year she encouraged me to apply to an university internal poster session and strongly suggested that it was highly probable that I would win one of the prizes offered. I did not win, nor do I feel like I was that close to winning. I was a first year student competing against fourth and fifth years.

Additionally, she is always happy with whatever I present to her. I'll admit, some weeks I do not produce much work, sometimes I'm slow to give her abstracts to review for conferences, etc, but she is always happy with whatever I give her.

She praises me excessively for every little thing, no matter how good or bad. She says "excellent work, great job, you're making fantastic progress." I get the same exact level of praise on the weeks I do a lot of work and weeks I do little work.

I'm used to working with PIs were much more blunt. Not necessarily negative, but told me how I was doing. If I didn't do much work, they would say "that's all you've done?" However, if I actually did a good job, I would get a "good job" or something.

It's very hard for me to manage my expectations with my advisor. I don't know if I am actually doing a good job or not. I don't know what my approximate actual chances are for awards and acceptances to conferences.

I'm afraid to ask her to be more blunt, because I'm afraid she would completely switch and criticize me too much.

How can I manage my expectations and work better with my perpetually positive professor?

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    Does she tell all her PhD students they're doing exceptionally well? Maybe you really are making good progress. Also, it sounds like you are really hard on yourself (e.g. expecting her to get upset when you make a mistake), maybe she is reacting to that by trying to be reassuring. – ff524 Oct 31 '16 at 5:47
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    Do you have publications? Especially such with peer review? Trust me, you are lucky with your supervisor if they are encouraging - if you do not know whether the work is good or not, you can find other sources of direction. But a "put-down" supervisor is hard to compensate for. – Captain Emacs Oct 31 '16 at 9:14
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    I have to say I have the same problem, also with a new PI.. I never thought having a PI that's too "nice" could be a problem, but it sometimes is. There's praise for a lot of little things it it almost makes me feel like I'm in kindergarten sometimes, and being given a good star for tying my shoelaces. Yet at the same time, there is no teaching that occurs, which I see as the main problem because I've not learned anything from her besides necessary experimental techniques. Let me know if you find a solution ;) – ConfusedStudent007 Oct 31 '16 at 11:28
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    Also, I do think in some cases you might be too hard on yourself. For instance when 6 months of work was invalidated, chances are you are already beating yourself up over that. There was no point of her criticizing you. How she acted was how I, and I think a lot of PIs would have acted. Plus, she might have been impressed that you was able to find the mistake yourself. In my case as well, my PI does give quite a bit of constructive criticism to lab members at times, but thinks I do much better work so doesn't for me. Doesn't mean I'm great (the problem), but better than the few she's got – ConfusedStudent007 Oct 31 '16 at 11:36
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    First - try to control what you can control. You said you are afraid to ask for more criticism, so here's my criticism for you: your fear is standing in the way of you asking for what you need. Perhaps try to frame the request in a positive way: ask for suggestions on how to make your work "even better" instead of saying "could you be more blunt?" Second - I have no idea if this suggestion will work, but it might: it seems like your advisor has a preference for praise. If you ever do get good criticism, say: "wow your feedback was so helpful, thank you!" – Bryan Krause Nov 1 '16 at 2:52
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I sympathize with this because I had an overly positive advisor for approximately 3.5 years, until I was getting ready to go on the job market and then suddenly he had tons of problems with my work. Others have told you to go elsewhere for criticism. This is probably a good idea, but you should also be able to have a good, balanced discussion with your main advisor who knows your work best.

Two things might be helpful:

1) Ask her what criticisms a reviewer might have of your approach to X

2) Ask her what needs to be done to improve Y

The first may help because she may be able to get in a different mindset about criticism if she is asked to think about the paper like a reviewer (a reviewer's "job" is to be critical, but she may feel that an advisor's "job" is to be encouraging). The second may help because it invites her to frame problems in an encouraging, positive way (which seems to be her comfort zone).

  • Thanks for your input. I have a similar problem as you and the OP, and was wondering if you've ever had negative feelings (resentment is probably too strong a word) for this situation. I've experienced it as well where during my experiments and work, it's all praise even as I struggled for weeks and months with experiments alone. Hardly any help or suggestions. Then after the work is done, sometimes comments will be made about things I could have done.. I know it's immature, but bitter feelings still builds up over time. Do you have a good (or any) relationship with you old mentor? – ConfusedStudent007 Nov 1 '16 at 13:38
  • All your feelings are valid! I definitely sought out my other committee members to provide what was lacking in the main relationship. Try to target a few other faculty with whom you get along well (even if they are in slightly different areas) to provide some kind of support for you. At the same time, I like to keep in mind this is like a parent-child relationship. Part of leaving the "nest" is you start to resent your parent - and then when you graduate you start to realize there were some good things you just couldn't see until it was in the rearview mirror. Good luck! – Dawn Nov 4 '16 at 1:24
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It seems to me that the problem isn't her being positive, it is that you:

get the same exact level of praise on the weeks I do a lot of work and weeks I do little work.

If she calls your work 'great' on good weeks and 'pretty good' on bad weeks, you can work with that. However if she says 'good job' in both instances, there is no way differentiate between good weeks and bad weeks.
One way to deal with that is to explicitly ask her to compare your work with previous work. "How does this paper compare with my previous papers in your eyes"? "How does my work this week compare to my work in previous weeks"? "Would you say these results are a more significant contribution to the field than my earlier results X, Y and Z"? Emphasize that you want to know when you did better then other times to help you learn and what to emphasize in publications/posters. Hopefully she will respond along the lines of: X, Y and Z are all great results, but Z really stands out. Still very positive, but differentiating between the good and the great.
Another option would be when considering major results/things you want to publish is to ask other senior academics for their opinion. In this case, remember to keep your supervisor in the loop. A way to approach it could be: "I am really proud of this part of my work and you agree that it is great. Do you mind if I show it to person X and discuss it with her/him"?

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    What you highlighted is my main problem with her. I feel like I don't know how I'm actually progressing. I feel like some of the results of tests I run are ambiguous, or only partly encouraging for my research. I want to find a way to find out how good my results actually are. I haven't published anything yet (though I have presented at a conference) and I do think I'll get some feedback from our collaborators at that point. – beth Oct 31 '16 at 19:36
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    @beth You could always calmly ask for more in-depth and possibly more critical feedback. Keep in mind, though, that "good research" involves just as much (and possibly much more) failure and ambiguity than "not so good research". Possibly your advisor is trying to maintain this perspective, and saying what you've done is great because she knows that failures and mediocre advancements are an integral part of the process and she identifies your particular "failures" and "mediocrity" as the good kind, and doesn't want you discouraged by them. – zibadawa timmy Nov 1 '16 at 4:23
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(1) Learn to let all the effusing she does wash over you like water off a duck's back.

Look elsewhere for ego stroking. Hers is clearly not working for you. But ego stroking is not the main thing one needs from an advisor.

(2) Train her to give you substantive guidance. Email can be helpful for this.

If she is incapable of giving you substantive guidance, look for a different advisor.

  • How would you suggest 'training her to give me more guidance?' – beth Nov 1 '16 at 2:42
  • With effusive positive feedback when she manages to give you substantive guidance. (And email where you send her your reports and ask for comments.) – aparente001 Nov 1 '16 at 2:46
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I wish I had your problem. My advisor was contradictory at best and purposefully confusing at worst. The problem is that you may very well have an excellent grasp of the topic area and are doing an amazing job. Some people can not accept praise and only respond to negativity.
Also what happens a lot is that many PhD scholars become discouraged and give up because their advisors are not supportive. I think she wants to not be that kind of advisor. If you know that there are errors in your work that needs to be fixed maybe she wants you to fix it without being told to fix it. Could that be a tactic?

Also, there are those PhD candidates who are afraid of success. Are you one of those people? At the end of the day, when you complain about her to her superiors and colleagues all you can say is that she was too supportive, too encouragine, she liked your project too much. For her that is a win-win because you are the kind of person who just likes to complain and she can prove her point.

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