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I hope that you can give me a good advice on my situation.

I'm a PhD student with 3 advisors: one main advisor and 2 co-supervisors. I'm very happy with them all and we are working on a paper together. They are very good at providing feedback and criticism (mostly because they don't have other PhD students). Unfortunately, they don't always agree on the content/style of the paper. Now I have worked on this paper for a very long time and every time I have been close to submitting it (2 out of 3 think it's ready) - one of them wants (me) to improve it or push it in another direction. This has been very stressful for me. Now we are again close to submitting it (I hope) and I'm now thinking about what to do differently for the next paper/in the future. The solutions that I've come up with are:

  1. Take more charge in my PhD i.e. don't let one opinion control what is going to happen if there is no other complains.
  2. Only work with max. 2 at the same time.

Choice 1. seems rude to me. Because I feel like it's my job to listen to all of my advisors. But on the other hand, how do I tell my advisors that I think we should work on our communication and that my research is suffering from working with 3 people at the same time that 1) always think they know best, 2) don't like to compromise and 3) don't always agree.

  • 8
    Are they all coauthors? If yes, then all four coauthors need to have a meeting, together in the same room, to discuss your joint paper and agree on what steps each of you will take to ready it for submission. You should not be the sole communication hub, nor should you be the only person working on the paper. If not, thank the non-coauthors for their feedback, but you don't need their permission to submit. – JeffE Dec 24 '16 at 1:00
  • Yes. I have tried to organize meetings with them all where my agenda has been to decide what needs to be done. Usually what happens is that they never agree on any steps or strategy. They "just" tell me what they think should be done from their own perspective and when I try to push them to agree on something they kind of ignore me. – RichardGobble Dec 24 '16 at 9:24
  • Sounds like you need to fire one of your coauthors. – JeffE Dec 25 '16 at 10:07
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It sounds like a significant part of your problem is coming from treating your three advisors equally when, in fact, they are not equal: one of them is your main advisor, and that distinction matters.

You can use the distinction between main advisor and co-supervisors to break the symmetry that is giving your difficulties. You don't say whether it's your main advisor or one of the others who is currently holding up paper submission, so let me treat both scenarios:

  • Your main advisor thinks your paper needs more work: Then your paper probably needs more work, because your main advisor is the one probably closest and most responsible for your work. Discuss the opinions of the others with your main advisor, and if they aren't convinced that it's good enough, then you need to do the work.

  • One of the others thinks your paper needs more work: If your main advisor thinks the paper is ready to submit, then have a discussion with your main advisor about the objection. If your main advisor agrees with the objection, then you probably really do need to do the additional work. If your main advisor still thinks the paper is ready to submit then you can enlist your advisor to help explain to the co-supervisor why the work isn't going to be done.

In either case, if you focus on the relationship with the main advisor, and make that the locus for decisions, you can still keep the benefits of the inputs from the co-supervisors without becoming paralyzed by their differences of opinions. Your co-supervisors may disagree with the main advisor, but if you make it clear that you need to follow the opinions of the main advisor in case of disagreement, then they are likely to view it in those terms rather than feeling upset with you because you aren't taking their advice.

  • Thanks for the advice! I think this is the solution for my situation. – RichardGobble Dec 24 '16 at 0:06
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It's hard to answer without knowing more about what your field is, and what the nature of the collaboration is. Is it you, primarily, doing the work, and the advisors give feedback on what you've done? Do you all together design experiments, and then you conduct them?

In any case, generically, I'd say that your option (1), to take more ownership yourself, is fine. In addition, I'd recommend getting all the advisors in a room together when you all discuss your work. It's much easier to reach consensus this way than by endless virtual discussions.

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