I have been working on my doctoral thesis with a very well known professor in the field. I am going to finish 1 year of my study with him. As usual, we have been meeting every week at least once on the problem.

Problem: No matter how much I do prepare about the possible discussion on any topic, I have been losing confidence in front of him almost in every discussion. This is probably has something to do with me thinking that I am not capable of working with him. My standard is not that much. I don't know whether is this normal? How do I get over this problem? Sometimes, I can't even speak properly when he sends me to the whiteboard for any explanation. This is weird. I feel really bad after that. I keep messing up discussions. However, he gives me time. Can I get a few suggestion on this?

Note: English, which is not my native language, is the language of communication during these discussions.

  • 31
    "No matter how much I do prepare about the possible discussion on any topic": This is the issue, an issue that I see in many students. In principle, you should not need to prepare for a discussion about topics on which you are working on: you should be able to discuss them anytime. If you have to prepare for the discussion, somehow, the topic has not yet sank in. Commented Nov 14, 2016 at 21:38
  • 2
    @MassimoOrtolano: Is it? I will surely work on it. But, why do I think that I should not waste his valuable time for some bad discussion. That is why I used to prepare. May be you are right! (+1)
    – Coder
    Commented Nov 14, 2016 at 21:42
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    @MassimoOrtolano, I used to compile a list of questions and open problems for every discussion with my supervisor. It was a great preparation.
    – Turion
    Commented Nov 15, 2016 at 8:50
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    @Coder the language issue should be highlighted in the main question text. I have seen this same situation result in diminished confidence, even at the same time when conversation and intellectual exploration in the native language is still strong. Somehow this inherent desire cannot be exhibited strongly enough in English for that person.
    – Pysis
    Commented Nov 15, 2016 at 14:52
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    I may write an answer later but for now I just wanted to let you know that you are NOT alone! I used to feel like an idiot after every meeting with my advisor. I spent the first 3.5 years of grad school feeling this way and it took a lot of practice and reflection to get over this. It all comes down to confidence.
    – syntonicC
    Commented Nov 16, 2016 at 0:11

9 Answers 9


I experienced something similar at the beginning of my PhD. It was mostly due to the fact that as I was verbalising my ideas, I'd realise their flaws, that they don't quite make sense, or that I hadn't it as figured out as I thought.

I suggest you try to verbally explain your ideas to someone else (if no one else, plushies are great listeners) before you talk to him, that'll give you extra confidence. It is important that you speak out loud, and from the beginning: don't skip right to the meat of the question, your problem may be in the fundamentals.

If this is your problem, once you get the hang of it, you'll quickly learn how to weed out some of these bad ideas, and gain confidence on your explanations.

Something I have seen my students struggle with (and probably myself too, but I don't notice it so much) is that when I ask them a question, they try to answer it as soon as possible, so they get stuck in suboptimal explanations, increase their confusion, get more stressed, and lastly blocked. He is giving you time, so take it, think carefully about what you are going to say, and explore different ways of expressing it before you start saying it. And furthermore, if you find a better way of explaining it, feel free to scratch what you just said and start all over again.

Another option is to set the the ground for a discussion by sending a long email taking your time to explain everything. And if you feel you didn't manage to get your point across, never hesitate to send it after the fact.

Lastly, for a few weeks I got the feeling that my supervisor wasn't really understanding what I am trying to do; but after I gave a 30 min presentation of my work in the department, from the bottom up, he got very excited, and now his comments are, I feel, much more spot on. The presentation included explaining my tools for people completely unfamiliar with them (to be specific, a specific technique built on deep learning for machine [but not deep] learning practitioners).

For your case, consider asking for some time, thinking on it on your own, and coming back with an explanation whenever you have it.

  • +1. Thanks for the input. However, I have all the explanation for any question does he ask. The problem with me is uttering them out with full confidence. I usually stop talking and just jot down on the whiteboard every single explanation in mathematical ways. He never complained about it till now. But, as a PhD student, I should learn to speak with confidence, because, it is my research and I should be presentable.
    – Coder
    Commented Nov 14, 2016 at 21:41
  • @Coder I have added a paragraph in between, number four. That may be what happens to you. As a researcher you should be able to explain your research, but not necessarily beautifully at a moment's notice: take a few moments to think the best way of saying it, and to have a plan of action (and maybe use the mathematical definitions as a guide for your words). I don't mind waiting for you to think of a good explanation, I prefer that to hearing you mumble as you try to come up with something to say.
    – Davidmh
    Commented Nov 14, 2016 at 21:45
  • Yes. I went through it. I must try your suggestion. Thanks.
    – Coder
    Commented Nov 14, 2016 at 21:47
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    In software development, this approach is called rubber duck debugging. Commented Nov 15, 2016 at 12:58

What you are lacking is confidence in yourself. What I see commonly is a student who has such respect (rightly so, I'll assume) for their advisor that every debate is interpreted as 'I am wrong'. This isn't correct. Academics love to debate, and fruitful discussions question every answer. So, when your advisor questions your stance, know that he or she is engaged by you, not necessarily questioning your thesis per se.

Secondly, it is important that you become confident enough to say 'I don't know'. You can't know everything, and your advisors job is to push your boundaries. Feel confident, and admit when you don't know something but retort with 'excellent point, I need to look into that'.

Those who admit a lack of knowledge often glean more respect than those who feign knowledge or become combative.

To gain a foothold, prepare well for your next meeting. Read 5 or so papers on the topic and know them well; refer to them during your discussion. Having that armory will give you more confidence than you think.

  • This is very true in my case at least the first one: "a student who has such respect (rightly so, I'll assume) for their advisor that every debate is interpreted as 'I am wrong'." -- I should work on this.
    – Coder
    Commented Nov 15, 2016 at 6:52

I have not tried this, but I have seen that some people are able to increase their confidence in public speaking by taking some acting classes. I don't mean you would need to make a full hobby of it, but maybe one semester would be helpful.

If you are not very comfortable talking while working out some math on a whiteboard in general, then -- it's time to form a study group! In my opinion, there are very few things in life as fun as working out math problems on a board with a friend or a small group of friends. Try out various levels: problems you could do in your sleep, problems where you're just making up nonsense as you go along, and everything in between.

Edit: Food for Thought About the Language Aspect

  1. I had a study partner in grad school who was from China. One day he mentioned that he had to go home in order to study his Russian before we could get together. I didn't understand why he had to go home in order to do that. He explained that when he did his Russian study he would pronounce all his exercises in a very loud voice -- actually, he said that he shouted -- and he wasn't comfortable doing that in his office.

  2. My first six months living in a foreign country I was very quiet. People who met me at that time thought I was just the quiet type. Actually, I was still getting comfortable using the language. Over time my natural personality came to the fore. It just took time. Eventually I became completely bilingual.

  3. Some years later my family situation changed and I needed to learn some German in order to communicate with my new in-laws. But I only saw them twice a year, and without the immersion, my German never really took off. I've always been a perfectionist, but at some point I decided that German grammar was never going to make sense to me and it was more important to just crash through a sentence and get my point across as best I could. I decided that functioning in family life during visits was more important than getting it right. I discovered that you can actually train yourself to allow mistakes. I was able to come to terms with speaking pidgin German.

  4. In grad school, in the summer, I organized free "English for Public Speaking" classes for my international fellow students and their spouses. Each student chose a poem to work on and, inspired by my friend's experience studying Russian, I asked them to recite their poems very loudly. I gave them warm-up exercises to loosen up, such as the following: "Give me a breaaak" while shaking one's head. We had a short exercise for each vowel sound, such as "How now, brown cow." Students were supposed to use a small mirror to check proper mouth shape. Even though they were already using English at a sophisticated level in their studies, I noticed certain patterns of grammar errors. We practiced those basics quite a bit, so that it would become second nature to form negations, questions, and indirect speech, with the correct auxiliary and the right word order. By making sure that these grammar basics and pronunciation basics were correct, the students' confidence really grew. (I'm not sure that they had ever had individualized feedback, when they were learning English in their home countries; and once they were in the U.S., others felt it would be impolite to correct them.) Another thing we worked on was: in preparation for the thesis defense and job talks, each student wrote a short presentation about a non-science topic, for example, one student wrote a one-page description of his home country, Singapore. When a student read his presentation to the group, the most important part was the Q & A at the end. Everyone was encouraged to ask questions. The presenter was supposed to repeat each question before responding to it.

  5. A conversation partner might be helpful. Some universities facilitate matching people up, for example, someone from France might want to polish his English, and he would be matched up with someone who wants to improve his French.

  6. Some towns have literacy volunteer programs, and some of these programs are set up for international students who want to improve their English.

  7. Reading equations, and talking about math, involves some special expressions that aren't obvious from looking at what's written on the page, for example, [(x + 3)^2 -1]/x would be read "x plus 3 quantity squared minus 1 all over x." It's easier to relax when you know you're saying things in a natural way.

Questions: are you more out-going in your first language than you tend to be in English? Do you sometimes feel doubtful whether you're saying something correctly? Do you think you have a noticeable foreign accent? If so, how do you feel about that?

  • 1
    Acting can definitely help: it teaches how to stand, what to avoid, how to control yourself on stage... and it is a lot of fun.
    – Davidmh
    Commented Nov 15, 2016 at 7:39

Prepare for the discussions

As Massimo Ortolano points out, ideally you shouldn't have to prepare for a discussion. But we're living in a real world. The following might help you being more confident in front of your supervisor, and at the same time progress in your PhD.

Each time before a discussion, take yourself half an hour and do the following:

  1. Think about what you want to discuss. What have you found out since the last discussion? (Even small things count.) What are the open questions? What did you not understand? Are you missing resources on a particular topic? Do you need your supervisor to explain something to you?
  2. Write it down. Make a list of all your findings and questions. Organise it. If you want, make little tick boxes next to each point, so you can tick them off in the discussion. Sort your topics in a way they can lead you through the discussion. If you have a bigger finding or train of thought, think about how you could present it on a blackboard.
  3. Fix holes. Maybe there is something you didn't understand that you suddenly start grasping now that you've written it down. Maybe you suddenly see a flaw in one of your findings. Being aware of that is already a great step forward for not getting thrown off balance when your supervisor points it out.
  4. Use your cheat sheet. The list you've just written is your friend during the discussion. Bring it, hold it, look at it, write down your supervisor's comments, look up things you can't remember from the top of your head, let yourself guide by it. It will give you confidence and make your discussion more productive.

davidmh has made another good point on which I'd like to elaborate: At some point, you will be the expert on your research topic. No, really. There might be lots of bigger experts in vast areas around yours, but at least in one howsoever small part, you're the expert. Your supervisor might actually understand less about that part than you, even if there are lots of other topics he knows better due to his experience. I had this point in my PhD, and you will reach it as well, or have already reached it. At this point, you need to explain your topic to your supervisor, and explain it well.

  • 1
    To your last point, I'll add: very soon (probably already now) you will be the world's foremost expert in your dataset (or equivalent). My supervisors have suggested things that would make sense in a general case, but they weren't aware of certain specific problems that would invalidate it in our case.
    – Davidmh
    Commented Nov 15, 2016 at 12:12

I actually "suffered" from a very similar phenomena - I stressed out way too much over each meeting with my professor, to the extent that I felt that I was developing an obsession to be able to simply pass a meeting without overly stressing and flushing. It even felt like I was defining my self worth (or at least my academic one) not according to my abilities and character, but solely according to these meetings, despite being aware of how silly it was. The thing that made it even more ridiculous is that I didn't even feel that inconfident academically about myself, it was just some kind of weird and depressing dynamic that arose from the situation and that I felt I had no way to stop. It was very depressing.

This is no easy fix, but for me what eventually helped was going to therapy. Talking about it infront of a psychologist helped me frame the problem in words, and eventually helped me treat the interaction with my professor differently, which led to more productive research. In hindsight, I can definitely say it was more about my issues (childhood, parents, etc..) then anything that really related to my abilities or to my professor - I imagine this would probably be the case with most people that have similar reactions. Another thing that helped my overall social confidence towards superiors and large groups of people was doing improvisation acting classes, as someone else suggested in a different answer.

  • Nice suggestions. Thank you. Instead of talking with psychologist, will it be good to talk with other professors from outside universities?
    – Coder
    Commented Nov 15, 2016 at 14:43
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    This should be higher. High anxiety is a problem that can be treated very effectively by a trained counselor/therapist by teaching calming techniques and treatment such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. @Coder No, the strong recommendation here should be to see a mental health professional, not a professor. Your university very likely has mental health services on campus that you can access for free or at low cost. Commented Nov 15, 2016 at 23:30

Yes, this is normal, not only in academics but everywhere you meet a superiour.

Some practical un-academic tips:

  • Get in the habit of regularly searching for things (in private) that you did very well. For example, make a list of personal successes of the previous week, every Sunday. This will teach you that you are not as bad as you think you are. Of course, don't put in things like "washed laundry in time", but things related to the topic between you and your superiour.
  • When you start to feel the tension building up, breathe deeply and calmly. If breathing calmly seems to make it worse, practice some basic breathing meditation at home. Buddhists are best at breathing - they are mind specialists after all. If you search for videos on basic buddhist breath meditations, you can get a lot of very practical advice even if you may not subscribe to the religious parts. Here is one I can wholeheartedly endorse: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hLvU7ppM4vE
  • Often, if you have "emotional trouble" during such an occasion, you will actually feel something in your body, not only in your mind. Usually in the stomach (butterflies or clenching) or in the shoulders (tensing up as a defensive reaction). Try to breathe "into" that region to relax. I don't know how to really describe it; just try it, you will see. It works for any body part, even where there's no lungs around. ;) If you manage to relax that body part, often the actual mental tension goes away too.
  • Frequently try to imagine them as a normal person. Imagine yourself and them in normal conversation (maybe not at your meetings, but on a beach or whatever). Remove all aspects of them being superiour to you.
  • Make pauses before answering; ask back if you didn't understand the question (or even if you did, just to give you time).
  • Try never ever to impress them. Be yourself, be neutral.

A lot of answers have focused on having confidence in your work, and practicing what you're going to say. Obviously that's all good, but I'm skeptical that will solve your problem.

This seems to me to be, essentially, feeling nervous while speaking in public. Plenty of perfectly confident and competent people struggle mightily in front of an audience. Granted, your audience is 1 instead of one hundred, but I don't think that necessarily makes it different. Nervousness is this context is largely independent of how confident you are in what you'll be saying, and it's that nervousness that makes you unable to express yourself clearly. It is, however, entirely normal.

So normal, in fact, that I guarantee there's some sort of presentation group available near you that would allow you to practice in front of an audience. Either on campus, or via meetup. Is there a business school, or communications school, on your campus? They probably have something. And even if by some long shot there isn't, you could probably make one. Talk to your fellow grad students and see if they're interested. Get together and do short presentations of your research to each other, followed by critical commentary.

The only way to get better presenting and speaking to audiences is to practice in front of audiences.


Talk with other people. Debate with others. Start working on defending your ideas on a regular basis. Get used to the idea of defending your ideas and being passionate and articulate about your concepts and thoughts. Join a debate team if you want more formal practice, but you can do this with friends, just try to tear each other's arguments apart. You will learn to build confidence. Just remember to be cordial and respectful and not get angry or flustered.


Start writing an email to your supervisor, summarizing what you are going discuss for today's meeting. Whether you will actually send the email to them or not depends on the communication style between you and them. But at least just pretend you will indeed send the email.

Now, as you write, you will start to realize the flows in your argument. As you write, you will naturally get doubts or perceive questions that may arise. Prepare answers for that. This also gives you to think of the potential discussion flow.

As the supervisor sends you to the whiteboard, it is obvious that they expect you draw something, or write something down. If you have already prepared in writing, probably drawing in google draw or a paper, that will help.

Nothing prevents you from taking notes with you to the meeting. We read hundreds of papers. It is not always easy to remember the names and theorems proposed in them. You can write them down in a piece of paper and take them with you to the discussion. By this way, you may support your certain claims when necessary. Also it will help you with your confidence as well.

Just always remember that supervisor is there to help you. You are preparing for a bigger audience - a conference audience or the thesis jury/committee. There is nothing to lose confidence on meeting the supervisor, though it is often normal as the others have already pointed out.

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