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I have to decide whether I'm staying/leaving my lab soon, but would need a few changes on my PI's part to erase my doubts about whether it's a good idea to stay. Lets assume for all intents and purposes that my advisor really wants me to stay:

  1. I need continuous advising. My advisor tends to have really busy streaks where she will basically lock herself in her office for weeks when overwhelmed (grants/papers etc). Although we still see her every day, it's just in passing, and she's mostly unaccessible. This has been at times detrimental to my project, which is also very exploratory. This is the most important thing for me, but I cannot think of a good way to "demand" it. Only good thing is that she makes it clear that she's also learning, and has asked for suggestions for how to improve.

  2. I need constructive feedback. For better or worse, my advisor has taken to only praise me and give positive feedback. I'm here to learn though, and this is not helpful. I would like to ask her to teach and mentor me.

I also want to make it clear how important these are to me. If I stay and they are not met, I know I will end up dropping out instead of wasting my time, but that's definitely better unsaid. So I have two questions: 1) do you think I should even have a conversation with her, and would you be offended if you students discussed "expectations" with you (I won't phrase it that way obviously. 2) Any advice on how to have this conversation effectively and politely?

Additional detail: I've never brought up any of this, and have just "sucked it up" with a smile. I can't continue doing that though, as it will be wasting years of my time.

  • For point 1, I suggest you to ask to have a coadvisor too. – Massimo Ortolano Feb 2 '17 at 3:54
  • "it would be helpful if changes could be made to make it better" - To avoid the question being closed, I would suggest that you cut out all the personal details and focus on the underlying question given in the title. – user2390246 Feb 2 '17 at 11:05
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    I'm not gonna lie, hoping that your advisor will be able to be there and give you super-strong feedback each and every week may be too much to ask for. Just like you have weeks where you can't make substantial progress on your research due to other work items, she too has times where she just has too much on her plate to deeply think about and help you with your research. – xLeitix Feb 2 '17 at 16:58
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I think you should absolutely have a conversation with your PI. I also think that you can discuss your needs in a mature, polite, and straightforward way such that there is no ultimatum and no negative feelings.

  • Step 1. Email your PI requesting a meeting for this discussion specifically. "Hello PI, As you know, I have to make a decision about transitioning into the PhD program by March X. I was wondering if you could meet with me to discuss this. Thanks, Azzzzzz." This will eliminate the surprise element regarding your conversation with her about these non research related things. That is, if you unexpectedly brought this all up during a regular meeting, it could catch her off guard and lead to a less than positive outcome.
  • Step 2. Be open and honest with your PI. But do so in a way that leaves room for your PI to be the mentor. That is, your post has several hints of arrogance and also suggests that you are really worried about there being a potential for confrontation. That is not the right mindset. You need to focus on what you both want. Your PI is a mentor, and as such wants the best for you, but you have to actually allow her to mentor you. The tone of your conversation should not be: "I need this and this," but instead, "I'm concerned about my growth in this program and so I want to get your insight about these things..." Be open and honest and humble. Keep in mind that you are on the same team.
  • Re: continuous guidance. Ask your PI to schedule weekly or maybe 2x weekly meetings with you. This way you have a dedicated timeslot with her regardless of how busy she is. Again, do not present this like, "I want weekly meetings," but rather, "one thing that would really help me is if we could dedicate a time for weekly meetings."
  • Re: constructive feedback. I once worked with an amazing PI who would often withhold feedback. But a trick I learned is that if I asked them, "Would you do it like this?" or "What do you think can be improved on XX?" Once I specifically asked, they gave it to me! I appreciated that I had some independence to make my own mistakes and learn from them, but at the same time, whenever I needed a little more guidance I just had to explicitly ask for it.
  • Re: constructive feedback (part 2). In addition to using the above method in a more day-to-day kind of way, you could also just tell your PI that you want more constructive feedback. Your PI sounds pretty open to suggestion. It's entirely possible she doesn't know that you feel like you aren't getting enough. Have this meta conversation with her. Again, frame it in a way that does not point fingers at her for not providing it, but instead in a way that humbly asks for more of her input so that you can grow.

This really shouldn't be just the one conversation. You should use this initial discussion as a starting off point where you can be more open and honest about what your needs are and what expectations your PI has. When something comes up address it sooner than later, don't suck it all up with a smile--no one benefits from that.

A final thought is that if you are harboring thoughts related to pay and job offers while in a PhD program, it's possible that pursuing a PhD is not the right fit for you. Even more generally, thinking about "what could be" or "what if" seems unhelpful at best and detrimental at worst. Still, having these thoughts might be a hint about what is the best decision for you.

I hope this helps. Best of luck.

  • Thank you for the thoughtful response. We do have regular meetings, but when things get busy it's usually rushed and I don't get much out of them. We also have a annual meeting set up to discuss feedback (both ways), which is when I'd like to bring some things up. I just hope I have enough in me to get through it without bursting into tears haha. The PI you describe sounds like mine at times. I guess I have to learn to ask for guidance, which I tend not to do as I don't want to bother her when she's busy. – Azzzzzz Feb 2 '17 at 16:40
  • As for pay: I love what I do, and it's a dream job. However, my field is competitive and I also can't bury my head in the sand and pretend money doesn't matter. In the ideal world, I can be "successful" enough to make a career out of this. I would love for that to happen. But if I know I won't have to support I need, I also cannot waste years to chase an unrealistic dream. Not here anyways. I'm hoping I can make this work for everyone though, because again, I love what I do. – Azzzzzz Feb 2 '17 at 16:45
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1) Unfortunately, this is the same situation that happens with many the professors, and probably most of the high-ranking ones. Professors/researchers are expected to write grant proposals, sit on committees, etc. In my opinion as a professor, this is the single most annoying and wasteful aspect of working as university professor/researcher. I too did not get into my field to push papers, and I feel my time and talents are wasted by doing clerical work (grant proposals are sometimes 10% of innovative work which needs me, and 90% of the stuff that could be done by (talented!) clerical staff, but often we are expected to do all the work.

So the answer is: all the good supervisors will have the same problem, so the best option is to ask your supervisor to assign some of her junior colleagues (postdoc or senior PhD student) for day-to-day supervision tasks. Of course, you will have to return the favor to this person by including him/her as a coauthor of your papers, because his work will be in them as well.

2) This is personality issue. I don't think there is way to change that (I assume you are not her first PhD student). But this can be addressed by you - when you discuss your work with your supervisor, alert her to possible problems and explicitly ask her whether she thinks something should be changed, adapted, given less or more prominence, etc. She will have to think and answer when directly challenged.

There is also a small probability that she does not care, in that case she is a very bad choice for a supervisor, so run away.

  • Thank you. Although I'm not the first phD student, I'm the second. And in this case I think that difference matters little. Normally I would totally agree, but it's just not possible for someone else to mentor me. I find myself in the situation where as a new grad student, I need to drive a lot of the productivity.. I've learnt a lot in the process, but it's extremely confusing as you can imagine! – Azzzzzz Feb 2 '17 at 16:48
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I don't know whether you should stay or go somewhere else. However, as you are weighing your options, it might be helpful to explore where the "somewhere else" might be.

To improve your working relationship with your current advisor:

  • Ask not what your advisor can do for you, but what you can do for your advisor. For example, can you help with putting references into some bibliography software for her? Format an illustration for a paper or grant proposal? Proofread something before it's submitted? Update a web page?

  • Consider using email more often. When your advisor is holed up cranking something out under a deadline, she may have an easier time turning to an email from you for 5-10 minutes than interfacing with you in person.

  • Learn to streamline your writing. Be succinct. As long as you are not arrogant, there is nothing wrong with skipping the niceties in an email.

  • Write up what you have done each week, or every other week, and email these reports to her.

  • Learn to knock on her door to ask if she can spare you five minutes, without taking offense if she says no or gets flustered. I don't mean you should be a pest -- but you could try again two or three days after one unsuccessful attempt.

  • Spread the mutual constructive feedback out: request and provide feedback more often, instead of trying to pack it all into one annual encounter.

  • Express your needs as "I-messages," for example, "When I go three or four weeks without checking in with you, I tend to get stuck, and it's frustrating for me."

  • Learn to tolerate more uncertainty. If you are doing original research, and if you are the one doing the original research, you can't expect her to constantly guide you. If she did, then who would be doing the original research? She would!

  • Ditch the smile (unless there is something genuinely charming or funny that you are reacting to). Your studies are serious business. You are not in your program to demonstrate that you are a nice person.

  • Balance out the exploratory work with some work that is not so exploratory. If you have several irons on the fire, then when you get stuck on the exploratory thing, or if your advisor is on the dark side of the moon for a while, you can turn to another project and make some progress there.

  • As previously mentioned by someone else, develop a relationship with another mentor, so that you are not so dependent on just one person. In the same vein, develop collaborative relationships with people at your level. (Some of these may be remote collaborations.)

  • Some of the ideas here are really good: when I was grad student I often made a deal with my supervisor that I do some of his routine or clerical work (such as programming or trying out some simple idea, or shuffling the papers to the secretary) so he could get more time to focus on supervising me. – xmp125a Feb 3 '17 at 17:29

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