Thanks all for your kindly replies. This is my first time to post something on this website and I also read some other posts. I realized that I didn't get the purpose of this website. So I revised my post.

I am a 3rd year PhD student with Mechanical Engineering background. I have two advisors. One of them is a researcher in our department and another is a professor. Both of them had good papers published before. But maybe recently they are not that into research. The citations are going down. I feel like they think about my research only during the meetings. Their typical mentoring style is:

  1. Let the student find research gaps. The student should justify why this problem is important and why people care about it. They never tell you that "you should work on this problem"
  2. The student should be able to seek sources to solve the problem himself/herself, either doing literature search, or talking to other students. They never work side by side with you to figure something out
  3. They meet students every week. During the meeting, they will throw a bunch of questions, such as "why did you use this example to validate your theory?" and "why did you propose this solution?".
  4. When the student ask them questions, like "which system do you think is better for our situation?" and "Should I add this feature to our system?". Their answer would be "You need to find out yourself", "talk to xx", "what do other people do?".
  5. They give suggestions. But they usually say "I am not telling you that you should do this and you need to decide"
  6. When I follow their suggestion but things don't work out as expected, they would say "we didn't say you should do this and you need to think"
  7. They never check your math. If your math goes against their instinct, they want you to explain in pure English instead of going through math.

I admit that my advisors' questions are good. The questions are usually the ones we will encounter during presentation. I also agree that my advisors give me lots of freedom to do research. But sometimes I feel like I don't know how to swim, they just throw me in the water and let myself figure it out. No doubt that my research is going super slow because I had lots of trial-and-error and I did lots of repetitive things. But they are still pushing me to publish paper, which makes me very upset. So how to make my research productive when they don't give me constructive feedback?

I have thought a lot about what I want from my advisors. Here is a list and I am not sure whether or not I am expecting too much:

  1. When finding a research problem, because I didn't have a big picture of this domain yet, I was expecting my advisors could tell me what people care and why.
  2. After deciding a research problem, I would like them to give me suggestions on what kind of skills that I should get or what courses I should take in order to be able to solve the problem.
  3. During the research, when I need to decide something, like what assumptions I should make, I am hoping my advisors can help me decide. They have done research so many years and they should know what assumptions are realistic and what are not.
  4. I hope my advisors are on the same page with me, not only the big picture but also the details. I can find solution or work on math/simulation by myself. But I hope they could understand my solution and my math. I may not always right on math. I hope someone could point out my mistake if there was. I don't want the reviewers to tell me that my math is wrong and to reject my paper.
  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – eykanal
    Commented Dec 22, 2016 at 1:41
  • Have you talked to your advisors about how you would like more specific guidance and feedback?
    – Buzz
    Commented Dec 22, 2016 at 14:11

2 Answers 2


I'm afraid you may not be perceiving the value your advisors offer in the form of these questions. They are prompting you to resolve ambiguities and to put your project on a solid footing. Rather than telling you what to do, they are providing a more abstract kind of help: identifying matters that you should address. This is no less important to your project.

If they think you are making a poor use of time, then share with them the questions you are actually trying to answer. You just need a consensus on what to work on.

  • I agree that questions are important and they are something I should be able to answer in order to defend my work. But sometimes their questions make me wonder that whether or not my work is on the right track. So I steer my work direction a lot, which makes my work pretty slow.
    – J. Wong
    Commented Dec 21, 2016 at 20:36
  • You are right that I need a consensus with them on my work. But I feel like they don't think about my research except meeting. It is really hard to reach an agreement during the meeting. Even if we reach an agreement, they may change their mind after some weeks...
    – J. Wong
    Commented Dec 21, 2016 at 20:39
  • I think part of the problem is culture shock. Not to offend anyone, but in the United States questions are used as a sort of guidance where it encourages students to think more critically about their work and then move in a good direction based on that (pretty much what Aaron Brick said).
    – user52663
    Commented Dec 21, 2016 at 20:41
  • I don't know whether that is culture shock or just different mentoring styles. My friend got an idea and he started to work with another prof instead of his own advisor because he knew his advisor doesn't have that knowledge. That prof is pretty knowledgeable in this domain and gave him lots of help, including telling the student what theory he should use, verifying the math, and even rewriting the whole introduction section of the paper himself. I know some other professors will work side by side with you to work out the problem.
    – J. Wong
    Commented Dec 21, 2016 at 21:17
  • I know questions are good. But I feel like I spent too much time on trying to answer their questions and steering my research direction based on their questions. I want something that can confirm my direction instead of more divergence. I don't expect my advisors can work by my side but I hope they could give me some constructive suggestions on my work so I could move forward faster.
    – J. Wong
    Commented Dec 21, 2016 at 21:21

@J. Wong From my experience, you are not a lone. I agree with Arron Brick above. This method of training is very common and very constructive for some Ph.D candidates, preferably for those with some experience prior to grad. school. If you don't find this method work for you, I would suggest to articulate this issue with your PI. Remember to be positive about what you think is working for you and what is not working. Then suggestion a solution that you think will work both for both of you. Imagine this training as a marriage of 5-7 years, and you want it to work smoothly as long as it lasts. If you find that kind of conversation doesn't go well with your PI. Discuss the issue with your favorite committee member(s), professor(s), Dean etc. Also, don't forget that your committee members are not there for you to "torture" you only once or twice a year, but they should be there for you all year round. They signed up to constructively help with your project and training. After all you are in a training environment, you will find someone to be the mentor of your dream. Remember sometimes your advisor may not be the mentor of your need, as in your friend's case. Find one for yourself if you don't think your current PI is. Best of luck!

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