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I am currently a Graduate student.

I had the opportunity to do some research as undergraduate for which the professor seemed very busy. I tried my best to "bother" him as much as possible with emails of when to meet up, questions and guidance for my research. The research didn't go far as you can expect from an undergraduate without any guidance (the type of guidance like a weekly meeting or reading material or direction for the research) I ended up asking a recommendation letter from him in which he butchered me and destroyed all my chances of getting in almost any college. This was after he happily agreed to write me a recommendation letter and was so happy to write all positive words. After I shared with him that I got accepted into a college. He later went on to explain that I "wasn't involved enough". I felt at one point that I was starting to harass him by sending emails every 2 days and stopping by his office hours uninvited. If anything I would expect the opposite kind of complain. That made me feel bitter and do some self-criticism, and be more persistent in the future.

Problem is that I am in a new college (as a graduate student) and facing the same issue. The professor I am doing research with doesn't meet with me, doesn't respond to my emails. And the research hasn't even properly started yet. I am highly-motivated and can take self-initiative but without direction I don't know what to do or focus in. I feel again that I might be repeating the same mistake... so I really don't know what I can do better or if there is a misunderstanding from my part. I have send a chain of 5 emails that went without a response over the course of the last 2 weeks.

  • How do I approach the professor and what do I say?
  • Is there a limit to the emails or office visits? Do professors take this as genuine interest or am I being exhausting them?
  • Is this a way for a professor to kindly stop research or any ongoing projects?
  • What am I doing wrong?!
  • Does this professor advise other students? Can you ask them for suggestions? – ff524 Sep 14 '17 at 2:26
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    Talk to other faculty (and their students). This professor is not your only potential advisor. – JeffE Sep 14 '17 at 2:37
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    I don't know if all the background you provide (recommendation letter etc.) isn't distracting from the actual question. – henning -- reinstate Monica Sep 14 '17 at 17:34
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If this kind of thing happened once, then I might chalk it up to chance (not everyone is friendly or professional). But if it happens twice, then I think it is more likely that you are either not reading the situation correctly or are behaving in an unprofessional or at least strange way (and probably don't even realize it). But it is basically impossible for strangers on the internet to figure out what precisely is going on. After all, we've never met you, seen how you interact with people, etc.

The only real solution is to speak with people you trust (friends, mentors, etc) who actually are eyewitnesses to what is happening and ask them for their take on it. Even more importantly, trust them if they tell you ways that you need to change.

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First of all, take a deep breath. A PhD is a multi-year long program. You will not 'fall behind' if you are left unattended to for 2 weeks.

  1. "Is there a limit to the emails or office visits? Do professors take this as genuine interest or am I being exhausting them?" If you feel like you have to ask this question, perhaps you should tone down your communication for a bit. You have mentioned yourself that you have been dropping in uninvited to office hours and sending continuous chains of emails. You should ask yourself this question: If what I am doing right now does not work, should I keep doing it?
  2. "Is this a way for a professor to kindly stop research or any ongoing projects?" A professor has to advise multiple students, he also has commitments to teaching, departmental duties, reviewing, editing, etc. They are often more busy than you think. Perhaps he may be trying to ignore you and avoid giving you a project, however this seems counterproductive if he has chosen to accept you as his student already. It could be possible that he simply is too busy, or has no good ideas at the moment (they are not inexhaustible sources of projects), or wants to simply spend more time considering before giving you a suitable project.
  3. "How do I approach the professor and what do I say?" Email him first, and then find a way to meet him in person if he does not respond. Perhaps he simply did not see your email. Be clear with what you want. "I would like to have some guidance on what my first project will/should be. Do you have any proposals in mind or suggestions on what I should do?" You can even help guide him by saying some topics you may be interested, or areas where you are strongest in.

As far as I can see, you have three options, in rough order of desirability.

  1. Let your advisor know in clear terms what level of assistance you expect as a student. Ask him if he can provide that level of guidance. If he says no, then its a clear sign you should switch groups and keep looking, but at least you did not waste your time staying with the group.
  2. Adapt to how your advisor works and try to do the best under your circumstances. Perhaps you may learn to thrive under this kind of environment. Perhaps you may not. Some students prefer a hands-off advisor and might even dislike too much micromanagement.
  3. Keep emailing your advisor and haunting him outside his office. If he is an advisor who is hands-off and does not provide guidance, hope that by pestering him you can change how he has been operating for the past decade(s). (No, don't do this.)

Being motivated and eager is great, especially if you can maintain it throughout your PhD. Finding how to channel that energy into something productive, even without direct outside guidance, and learning how to be an independent researcher is an important part of PhD training.

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    @DanielR.Collins You are right, I misread #2. I've also made some changes to my response. Thanks. – user44476 Sep 14 '17 at 14:01
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I tried my best to "bother" him as much as possible with emails

This will not be appreciated. Professors tend to be very busy, with tons of duties to juggle and overflowing e-mail inboxes. Generally, we wish we could handle everything that comes our way promptly -- but this tends to be difficult. Emailing is okay, but back off somewhat.

For a humorous take on this from a busy professor's point of view, I highly recommend Scott Aaronson's The Email Event Horizon.

without direction I don't know what to do

Get used to it, as a researcher you're quickly going to have to learn to find your own direction.

Do something. Read books or papers related to your research area. Attend seminars and colloquiua. (And ask questions after the talk!) Talk to your peers. Pose problems and attempt to answer them. And so on.

Good luck!

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  • +1 Do something (constructive). Try to get out of the mindset of being a student (waiting for reading and homework to be assigned). – Carol Sep 15 '17 at 21:29
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Some people like to be communicated via emails, some people prefer you popping up on their office. I recommend asking your professor directly how does he prefer to get your questions next time you see him, or go to his office for a quick question. For all we know, maybe your new professor is just bad keeping up with emails.

You should also ask his other students how to best deal with him. For example, if I have several small questions for my supervisor, it is better to send them in a few separate emails, or he may only respond the first and forget about the rest. Other people may prefer a single, conglomerate email instead of a flurry of small ones. Personally, when I supervise students, I don't think I have a preference, but I am sure they have noticed which pattern gets them better answers, even if I am not aware of it, hence why is important to ask other students.

I agree with Andy Putman that since it happened twice, there is likely something on your side of communication, but the simplest explanation (and easiest to fix) is that you are just using the wrong format for them.

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