My doctoral supervisor is very helpful and I really enjoy working with him on various problems. I have officially entered my second year of doctoral research this month. During discussions, I get few basic (probably, 'technically silly' as I would put it) questions that occur to me at times. But, I don't ask these question to him as he might think I am 'dumb' and I lack technical fundamentals. Then, I suffer a lot on the topic by crawling in the books, internet; sometimes I find answers to my questions, sometimes I don't. I get annoyed with myself sometimes.

There are many supervisors and Ph.D. students out here in academia.SE. Could you please suggest me on the following questions:

  • Should I ask such questions at all during a discussion with him?
  • How would a supervisor feel about a doctoral student asking such dumb questions? (This part might be opinion-based. I would like to see some experience to interpret my situation.)

Note: The questions are related to the research he has pioneered in. It is not always true that I would find the answers to my so called 'silly' questions by Googling. Many research papers don't even bother to contain such internal details on the topic. The only possibility is either I figure out myself or ask my supervisor.

Some (un)related questions (in different situations and contexts):

  • 7
    Have you tried asking your peers? They probably had a lot of the same questions when they started, and they're much more likely to have time to talk, especially since there are lots of them and only one supervisor.
    – Xerxes
    Aug 15, 2017 at 13:33
  • 12
    Unless you are to become a politician, it is almost universally better to ask and look silly than not to ask and be silly.
    – Headcrab
    Aug 16, 2017 at 18:52
  • 2
    Have you heard about the "impostor syndrome"? Something many smart people seem to suffer from in academia.
    – n1000
    Aug 19, 2017 at 10:59

6 Answers 6


Every PhD student "lacks technical fundamentals" in some respect. That is why you are a PhD student and not a senior researcher (though they probably lack more "technical fundamentals" than you would guess, also). You aren't going to trick your supervisor into thinking you know everything by never asking questions that might be "silly".

But learning to find answers on your own is an essential skill, so it's good that you are practicing doing this. I don't know why you say it is "suffering".

I think a good compromise is to spend a reasonable amount of time trying to find the answer yourself. If you can't, then ask your supervisor, and mention what you tried or what sources you consulted. A reasonable PhD supervisor should not "think less of you" for this, and in any case, it's almost certainly better for your supervisor to have an accurate view of what you know.

If you are in the middle of a meeting and you need to know the answer now in order to proceed with a meaningful discussion, then it is reasonable to ask the question on the spot. Again, it is better to be honest about what you do and don't know, than to potentially waste everyone's time by proceeding with a discussion you don't understand.

If you find yourself spending too much time chasing down answers to random questions, then prioritize them. It's okay to say to yourself: "This is an interesting question, but I don't need to know the answer right now; let me set it aside and come back to it in the future when I have more time."

  • 2
    But learning to find answers ... you say it is "suffering". -- I am saying suffering because it kills my time. One example, one question took me 4 continuous days to figure out what was that. It was something related to basics of graph search but was nowhere written as such. But, thanks for the answer (+1). Though it is a rational answer focusing on the unsuccessful discussion, I think at points students feel reluctant. May be it is an act of immaturity. I don't know.
    – Coder
    Aug 14, 2017 at 21:18
  • 18
    Okay, so that's why I say reasonable amount of time in my third paragraph, as well as the last paragraph. Four continuous days is not a reasonable amount of time. As to the last part of your comment, yes, of course it is difficult to admit not knowing something, and it's perfectly natural to feel reluctant to do it! But part of maturing in your field is learning to get past this if it is getting in the way of your progress. Aug 14, 2017 at 21:29
  • 1
    Yes, I understand. Thank you. Okay, I can do this. Need practice and decision on 'reasonable' time.
    – Coder
    Aug 14, 2017 at 21:30
  • 5
    Sometimes the silly question exposes a misunderstanding of an underlying fact, which can be hard to clear up when doing the research yourself (because you still search in the wrong direction due to your misconceptions). This will prolong searches endlessly. So yes, you should ask after trying to come up with the answer yourself, it will save time for both of you.
    – Chieron
    Aug 15, 2017 at 15:18
  • 5
    @alephzero: Of course it is often necessary to spend many days or years on an unsolved problem. I am saying that it is not reasonable to spend four days on a problem whose answer is possibly already known by someone whom you could easily ask. (General rule of thumb, mileage may vary, etc.) Aug 15, 2017 at 21:54

This is a good question, and probably more subtle than many grad students imagine. (And perhaps subtler than some faculty would like to acknowledge, having some expert-blindness, as well as wishful thinking, and false memories/ideas of how "good" grad students can/do/should operate.)

First, I don't see how a novice can really know whether a question is "silly" or not.

Second, right, many things are either not readily google-able, if only because a novice does not know the key-words. Worse, naive or archaic versions of (e.g., mathematics) tend to swamp sophisticated (and perhaps more likely correct) versions, as though by a popularity contest. This also tends to be the case in Wiki, still. (Don't get me wrong, I strongly support Wiki, and send them money, and they're much, much better than 15 years ago, but, still, due to the nature of the situation, they're prey to enthusiastic-but-naive/misguided people...)

Third, yes, one can rightly feel that there is some sort of both moral and professional virtue for "finding out things for oneself". On the other hand, it is easy to go too far with this, and slide down a slippery slope into extreme inefficiency (i.e., not using a presumed expert who has offered their consultative services to you!)

So, e.g., I tell my students to ask me all the "silly" questions they want, since, if they're truly silly, I presumably can answer them instantly, and/or tell them that the questions are not silly, where to read about it (e.g., my own notes of various sorts), or that it's not documented anywhere (despite possibly mythology otherwise).

Still, collectively, yes, students are reticent about talking to faculty. Some of this is visibly due to the drift of conversational styles and related things over years, but, in any case, I claim it's an unfortunate waste of resources.

(Sure, some faculty simply don't want to engage in activities like "talking to students", which may be uncomfortable to everyone involved. Sure, some students want to "be independent", even if this means they'll be out of touch with state-of-the-art. Such things.)

So, obviously, it depends on the personalities of everyone involved... Oop, no good answer. :)

  • 2
    +1. There is a great piece of advice Professor Garrett. Thank you. Probably, it is better to convert my questions to keywords oriented questions that could be looked for after getting advice from my guide. The relationship between student and supervisor gets stronger and more informal with time. May be, that is the right time for on-spot asking of the question. My present exploration of the search space is though time-consuming still helps (I guess).
    – Coder
    Aug 14, 2017 at 22:16
  • 7
    Many faculty will say that they welcome "silly questions," but then judge the student negatively anyway (even if they don't say so to the student's face). This is especially true, and especially damaging, for graduate students. I agree that it's a waste of resources to not ask questions, but it's really on the professor to reassure the student that there is no hidden penalty for making use of that resource. Aug 14, 2017 at 23:12
  • 9
    @ElizabethHenning, oh, yes, I agree, there is plenty of bait-and-switch going on, and I do not know any easy way to dodge it, except perhaps by side-channel info from people who've suffered previously. I avoided asking questions of my own advisor after seeing him yelling at other students publicly during tea... and this was wasteful, but risk/humiliation-avoiding. A bit too Spartan for my tastes. Aug 14, 2017 at 23:14
  • 2
    @ElizabethHenning Not to say you're wrong, but I'd rather be judged a fool for revealing what I don't know than to be a fool for not knowing. That said, I do my best to know what in the heck I'm doing and talking about when working on my own, so perhaps my confidence is bolstered by knowing that I put in the effort where I can. I'm sure the exposure to lots of people who don't know over the years hasn't hurt.
    – jpmc26
    Aug 15, 2017 at 23:30

I have actually directly said to my supervisor that I think some of my questions might be silly, but I must ask because I am lost. He says always to me that my questions are not silly and he'd rather I asked than wasted time or made a mistake. From talking to other colleagues I learned that everybody at some point felt like they did silly things or asked silly questions. I think it's normal to wonder if to ask or not, given that supervisors are busy etc. My algorithm: google and if no answer - ask other phd students and if no answer - ask professor. Then my conscience is clear and I can honestly say I've done all I could before going to supervisor. Hope that helps.

  • 6
    I tell my students that asking a silly question is the first sign of progress. And quite often it makes me realize that I have given an explanation that was ambiguous in some way that I didn't realize.
    – Philip Roe
    Aug 15, 2017 at 18:47
  • @PhilipRoe +1. I have given an explanation that was ambiguous in some way that I didn't realize. This is a nice thought.
    – Coder
    Aug 15, 2017 at 19:37

I have officially entered my second year of doctoral research this month.

I'll offer my anecdotal experience by focusing on this statement, maybe not in the way you expect.

How your personality meshes with your advisor's personality can play a large role in how you communicate. I know some students who simply present their boss with results, maybe ask what to do next, and get told what to do. Or, if things are going especially well for them, and not a lot of direction is necessary, the interaction is even more one-sided. So they may be more afraid of asking "silly" questions, or such a thing just doesn't even exist in their minds.

On the other hand, meetings with my advisor are less structured; we chat about what he's been working on, what I've been working on, I ask him questions about our field that he has more experience with, he asks me questions about our field that I have more experience with. Certainly some of these might fall under the silly category, but we want to spend more time individually working through problems we're interested in, and gain other information by just asking. I don't have time to work through everything, and I'm more interested in some discussion resulting from it anyway.

It also took several years to get to this point, in terms of reaching some level of both research and communication maturity. Not all advisors are this easy to talk to.


To consider questions "stupid" or "silly" is a mark of insecurity that you may inherit from others. What exactly is a stupid question, anyway? Unless it's rhetorical, a question itself presupposes lack of knowledge - which many typically call "stupid". In that sense, all questions are stupid (i.e. marks of ignorance).

Toss that thinking aside, and ask away - unless it becomes prohibitively disruptive, etc.

Many meetings are filled with people who all have the same questions and objections...and keep quiet. Knowledge and discourse dies that way.

Don't let it die. Ask away. And if someone is too snobbish to deal with your basic questions, try to ditch him and find a more decent human being.

  • 1
    +1.A brief, concrete and complete answer to my question, except the ditching part. Thanks.
    – Coder
    Aug 16, 2017 at 20:32

I will answer the implicit question here:

How can I get unstuck without bothering my advisor with relatively trivial questions?

Populate your support system with more than just your thesis advisor. Consider the following characters in the graduate student's food web:

  • The peer mentor (I'll use gender in an arbitrary way so the writing flows easier): This person is more advanced than you, but it's okay to ask him some silly questions because he's lower on the totem pole than your advisor. Be sensitive to this person's own deadlines, etc.

  • The study partner: This person is familiar with your field but perhaps not with your particular thesis topic. He may be able to answer a question right off the bat; he may be able to give you some ideas about getting unstuck. He can rein you in when he sees you spending too much time on something that can be postponed or ignored. This person may help you narrow down which resources are most helpful, and how to use them efficiently. You can reciprocate.

  • The listserv, forum or Q&A site. This works well for anonymous, non-embarrassing posting. Even if you don't get an answer, it's often helpful just to articulate the question in a clear way -- including what you've tried so far.

  • The support crew or cheerleader. This person knows little or nothing about your topic and maybe even your field of endeavor. But at the very least you can use him for rubber-ducking your problem. He might surprise you with a helpful insight or suggestion, but his main purpose is to listen with apparent interest as you walk the problem through, explaining what you've tried and what you propose to try. Sometimes the solution or next step has jumped out at you by the time you've finished laying things out.

  • Last but not least: the less advanced student. You will advance your karma by helping others who are not as far along as you; you will consolidate what you already know, and find out more about how people learn and how to teach, tutor and mentor, by helping others. If you have a good balance between asking some people for help, and providing help to others, you will feel more comfortable about asking for help when you are spinning your wheels.


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