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I have an adviser who wants to know every minor details of my work and spend countless amount of time arguing with me over insignificant things. Basically, she tries to control everything I do, from number of hours I spend on homework, what books/papers I read, what font/color I use in my presentations, to whom I talk to with regards to research. Is this considered normal? If not, is this a good reason to change the adviser?

Edit: Sorry for the lack of details. Status I'm an MS/PHD student in my second year of MS. Probably 3 more years of PHD.

Communication I've tried to communicate my concerns; but she usually has the "my way or the highway" attitude". If I insist on something, she ends up sarcastically saying, "if I don't like it, I should consider finding another research adviser". Unfortunately, I'm not the only one in this situation; she seems to be having the same problems with her other students as well. I once mentioned to her that I might leave her group, but she told me "she's the one who's admitted me and no one else would work with me." Indeed, she's a very big name in her field, and it seems to me almost impossible to leave her influence if I choose to continue the same line of research/department/school.

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    As long as her attention to the details of your works is leading to progress, I think it is tolerable. But if you see no good outcome from working with her, yes you should consider a new advisor. Actually I have been in a similar situation. my previous PhD advisor was even trying to control me in non-scientific aspect of my life too. Evetually, I had to change my PhD advisor. It hurt my CV and caused me several difficulties especially in getting job. But my previous advisor was not guiding me to success and therefore I did not hesitate to change my advisor. – user4511 Mar 14 '13 at 10:20
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    what font/color I use in my presentations I can't imagine that ! – seteropere Mar 14 '13 at 11:05
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    what level are you at? Bachelors, Masters, PhD? – penelope Mar 14 '13 at 12:10
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    I don't understand "controls what papers I read". At the max, she can force you to read some papers, not force you NOT to read other papers. @seteropere Sometimes people use terrible fonts. Also forget to use same font throughout. – user13107 Mar 14 '13 at 12:16
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    Having seen presentations with fonts that render labels ambiguous (is that lower case L or a the number one?), and color schemes both garish and rendering things invisible (e.g. cyan which shows up on the laptop screen but not on the projector), I think there are some advisors who need to pay more attention to the font and color scheme that their students use! – Rex Kerr Mar 14 '13 at 19:07
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Advisors come in many flavors, from those who are very hands-off, to those who micromanage. If you are really spending countless hours arguing over details that are seemingly unimportant (although what books/papers you read is most certainly not unimportant!), then you need to have a serious conversation with her about it.

That kind of conversation is difficult as the advisee -- if she is paying for your degree, then you work for her, and she has a lot of leeway to determine what she thinks is important. You have to tactfully lay out for her why you think she is micromanaging you too much, and see what she says.

At the end of the day, if you don't agree with how you are being advised, you have a number of possible avenues:

  1. Talk to another faculty member (probably the department chair).
  2. Talk to the faculty ombudsman, if there is one.
  3. Do nothing, and carry on. PhD programs don't last forever (though they often seem like it), and if you can still produce good work while working for the advisor, it can still work out in the end.
  4. Try to find another advisor (or, possibly, another school)

Changing advisors is not a trivial thing, although many people do it early on in their graduate career. That also involves tact, as professors generally don't like other professors poaching their students without a mutual discussion about it.

Bottom line: before you make any long-term decisions, have a discussion with your advisor about your perceptions, but be tactful and have a plan on what you are going to say before the meeting.

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    professors generally don't like other professors poaching their students without a mutual discussion about it — On the other hand, it's your PhD, not your advisor's. – JeffE Mar 15 '13 at 3:31
  • @JeffE - I completely agree. I have two questions, though: if one of your grad students came to you and said, "at the end of the semester, I'll be switching to Prof. X's lab," wouldn't you wonder why Prof. X hadn't talked to you about it, first? Second question: if a student came to you and said, "I'd like to switch advisors to be in your research group", wouldn't one of your first questions be, "What does your current advisor think of the idea?" – Chris Gregg Mar 15 '13 at 5:19
  • To the first question: First, I would wonder why the student hadn't already mentioned that he was thinking about changing advisors. Why should the new advisor ask for my blessing, when it's the student's PhD? To the second question: Yes, that's exactly what I asked. – JeffE Mar 15 '13 at 14:59
  • @JeffE - fair enough to the first question, but I've known students who are afraid to talk to their advisors and try to move without their knowledge. That wouldn't surprise me as much as another professor keeping quiet about it. – Chris Gregg Mar 15 '13 at 18:09
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You mentioning "homework" makes me think that you are possibly in BSc or MSc programme, but not PhD yet (although, you sound like you're heading there). So, I'll try to concentrate my answer on advice useful to somebody just starting off as a (potential) researcher. Sorry on long text, but since the answer is based on experience it wouldn't have any value without an explanation.

I, personally, would have loved if my supervisor from my first standalone bigger project was micromanaging me. Moreover, I explicitly told the guy "I'm very new at this, and would appreciate instructions and directions on how to approach such a big project efficiently". He left me more-or-less alone, I was a beginner, and didn't handle the situation very well: but one important lesson was that that specific type of adviser was not a good match for me.

On the other hand, the professor that was my primary adviser during my BSc and MSc was a very smart, eloquent and confused scientist. When I first told him I am considering continuing with academia after MSc, very often I would get a feeling he was paying way too much attention to "useless" details, such as:

  • asking me to understand the literature to impossible details
  • making me justify using (sub)methods, (sub)approaches and other sub-parts of approaches he made me study, which were chosen by the authors of the papers he suggested for reading
  • correcting and re-writing my written works as one non-native English speaker to another, where I was sure my grammar was fine
  • making a loud point of small spelling mistakes in Drafts V.001

What helped was, as most people here suggested: talking to him. He got to explain to me that I have to be able to argument my choices, not by saying (cf. John Doe: "Important work on the topic"), but by properly explaining the idea behind the approach, and then properly explaining why it is applicable to my situation. He explained that, he, as an expert, does not know answers to all questions, solutions to all problems, but is in a good position to give an educated guess. A bigger picture here is that if you learn how to express yourself clearly and with arguments, the scientific community can understand you, and build on your work. Bottom line, they can help developing your idea. In the end, in academia today, it is not enough to have a good idea, you have to explain your idea to everyone, and it's surprisingly hard to do even after you feel like you understand everything.

So, from that point of view, what he was doing was actually:

  • teaching me critical thinking, and how to properly read scientific work
  • teaching me that just because something is published, does not make it correct
  • teaching me that just because something grammatically correct, does not mean it is clear, simple and understandable: and understandable is always your goal
  • teaching me that everyone looks down on lazy-asses who don't spell-check their work. It's not nice, but that's how it is :/

In return, since he got my critical thinking working, he would do the same for me: explain and argument his choices and recommendations, tell me why something might not seem important now but will be good in my field later, hinting me on his methods to read scientific literature, explain before recommending literature what he is expecting me to learn from it, etc.

The bottom line is, from the professors side, I think it is very hard to develop a good "scientific style" in somebody, unless you're imposing your own. It's different with somebody with experience and a (semi-)established style, it's different (and possibly more difficult) when starting with somebody new to it all.

And, from student side: If you're still advancing, doing good work, and learning, it's not bad. If you're just in the beginning and will soon change supervisor anyway (e.g. from MSc to PhD), it's even better: you get expirience working with different kind of people, and it will be easier for you to find an adviser with a style compatible with yours.

In the end, it all comes down to communication: if you are on good terms with your adviser, just the explanations on why she's recommending what she is carry invaluable information that assimilate for years. If it's not just mindless task-giving, it teaches you things in very fast and simple (although sometimes annoying) manner

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    +1 I would add that on the bright side, a demanding supervisor is at least spending his/her time and energy on his/her supervisee! – chris Mar 16 '13 at 15:10
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The first thing I would do is improve/repair your personal relationship with your adviser. You should be comfortable in discussing your concerns about being micromanaged.

Also, your adviser may be correct in her recommendations. For example... We all can assume the font you use in your presentation is appropriate, but we may have the same opinion as your adviser if we learn you are using 33 different font styles and sizes.

My advice is chill out and communicate your concerns to your adviser. You two need to be in a a functioning professional relationship where you can communicate effectively and talk out issues. If it turns out that that there is absolutely no chemistry between you two, then move on.

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Is this considered normal?

No. The professor is supposed to guide the student in an academic way not inspecting every tiny thing irrelevant to the student research. However, some professors do have their own style and want their students to follow them. If their style is related to academia then no issue here. Sometimes their style is overlap between personal interests and academic interests in this case remember you are required to follow your supervisor style only as long as you are working in her lab.

If not, is this a good reason to change the adviser?

It depends whether you find her helpful through out your research. If she gives you enough time to meet with her and discuss your research in an active manner then I believe this is the most important thing and no need to change.

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    Not all the things OP mentioned are irrelevant. – user13107 Mar 14 '13 at 12:21
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    In fact, depending on the actual situation (as opposed to the OP's perception of the situation), it may be that none of the things the OP mentioned are irrelevant. – JeffE Mar 15 '13 at 3:29
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I have frequently had to micromanage my students' presentations and writeups. That's part of Ph.D training. The tricky thing for an advisor is telling the difference between style choices that are bad, and style choices that are just different.

I also will suggest which papers to read, and will often rule out other things that my students want to read. Of course I can't force them one way or another, but if I feel that my students are consistently making inexplicable choices about what to read or not, I might come down a bit more forcefully, or at least try to talk to them to understand their choices.

Bottom line, as others have said, what you have here is a failure to communicate :). Talk to your advisor and try to understand why she's asking you to do things a certain way. If you're concerned about how to approach the topic, you can lead off by saying that you're quite happy to listen to her recommendations, but you'd like to know the reasons so that you can understand the context she's bringing to the discussion, and so you can learn for the future.

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    It'd be very helpful if you could elaborate on "a bit more forcefully." I feel if your students do exactly what you tell them to do, and do it all the time, they never get the opportunity to become independent researchers. – user6355 Mar 17 '13 at 12:45
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    More forcefully for me would be: "we had discussed reading these papers, and it doesn't look like you did, and I'm wondering why". And if their response is "I skimmed the abstract and it has nothing to do with what we are working on, and here's why", then I'm happy. Conversely, if they insist on only reading papers as a way to avoid actually thinking, I would actually point that out. – Suresh Mar 17 '13 at 21:32
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I guess you need to understand that as her student, you represent her.

You said she was a big name. Do you trust her? My advice is to just follow her advice. After you speak your point about something, don't argue with her! Just take her advice and apply it as best you can.

If it's that unbearable, consider looking for a different supervisor for your PhD.

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    What is this I don't even – JeffE Apr 6 '13 at 14:42
  • @JeffE Care to finish your sentence? – bobobobo Apr 6 '13 at 16:33
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    know how to respond to this. – JeffE Apr 6 '13 at 17:06
  • What I'm saying is I think the OP's super is extremely paranoid. About her student embarrassing her. OK, the fastest way deal with that is just do what she says. If you trust she's not an idiot, then you have nothing to lose (except your uniqueness and style!) – bobobobo Apr 6 '13 at 17:25
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    This answer does add a useful point to the other good answers. Like it or not, students are to some degree representatives for/of their advisors. – paul garrett Jan 18 '18 at 1:32
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I don't think it's normal, but I also think it's the wrong question to be asking. The right questions are: are you enjoying research? are you being productive? or are you miserable because of your advisor?

In the end, the success of an advisor-student relationship is a function of both the advisor's style, the student's needs, and both their personalities. Some people don't mind being micromanaged, others (like me) would, in your shoes, run. Only you can know what it is that you want and need.

My advice is to first do what it takes so that you're enjoying research, not only because it's terrible to be miserable for years, but also because you won't be as productive while unhappy.

protected by F'x Apr 3 '13 at 13:56

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