I am currently a first-year graduate student, now in the process of figuring out who I'd like to have as my thesis advisor. Of course, compatibility of research interests is quite important, but personality and work style are too.

The issue I'm currently facing (though it sounds odd to cast it in a negative light) is that the professor with whom I'm most compatible research-wise, is the most polite, nice, and soft-spoken person I've ever met. In lecture and in conversation, he is self-effacing, will go out of his way to make things comfortable for you, never says a bad thing about anyone, etc.

Now, even though I love my field, I've been a procrastinator for as long as I can remember, and my concern is that I'm eventually going to lose my focus / energy if my advisor is constitutionally unable to say things like "You ought to have read more this week", "You should do a better job of this write-up", etc

My question is, should I opt for Professor Tough Love whose research I like slightly less, but who will do a good job of keeping me working, or should I go with Professor Nice Guy? If I do go with Professor Nice Guy, what strategies could I employ to make sure the effect of his coddling is minimal?

I've discussed this with peers, and I received the following advice:

  • You're going to have to become self-driven eventually - might as well start getting practice now.

  • Meet with Professor Tough Love regularly, sort of as an unofficial second advisor, who (besides discussing technical material, which is of course beneficial) will give me the impetus I need.

  • Directly ask Professor Nice Guy to give me more structure, and to be more demanding of me.

Thoughts about these? Any other suggestions?

I realize there's some overlap with How to avoid procrastination during the research phase of my PhD?, but I suppose I'm asking specifically about what to do when my advisor is not automatically going to be a resource for helping me avoid procrastination.

Thanks for all of your help in advance!

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    My advisor is also far too nice and not nearly as verbal about issues or demanding like my previous bosses. I have realized that I can leverage my goal of impressing him to motivate me. Commented May 1, 2013 at 5:33
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    I work for Professor Nice Girl and her feedback and must point out that getting honest and useful feedback becomes an issue. If everything you do is really really nice then this becomes a source of frustration (to put it politely) after a short while.
    – Name
    Commented May 1, 2013 at 19:31

9 Answers 9


To be sure, chooosing your advisor is one of the most important decisions in your academic career. That is not to say that people don't switch advisors for one or more reasons (they do), but it's probably best to take the time to figure it out now (which it sounds like you are doing by asking the question in the first place!) so you aren't faced with that decision later.

It seems to me that you may be asking the wrong question, to some extent. Relying on your advisor to push you is more or less the opposite of a good way of growing into being an independent researcher -- who is going to push you when you become that assistant professor and you're on your own? Furthermore, the last thing you want your advisor writing in his/her recommendation letter is, "Great researcher when pushed to complete the work!" You also don't want your advisor to think that he/she has to push you -- this may just lead to a poor working relationship between the two of you.

My advice is to ask Professor Nice Guy to be your advisor, but also start working now towards limiting the procrastination on your own. That advice is predicated on your comment that your research matches his the best; that should be the driving factor and not some grand idea that you'll get pushed harder by one prospective advisor or another. Tips for how to get a good plan together are outside the scope of this topic, but at the very least you could start by fixing a date you'd like to graduate and working back from there.

As for meeting with the other professor regularly, by all means do that if he is amenable to the idea. I met regularly with my advisor and another professor and all parties were happy with the arrangement.


Given the number of questions on this forum about dealing with intransigent advisors, I'm surprised you even have to ask. I understand your concern about Professor Nicenik, but ultimately the first and third pieces of advice you mention are what I'd suggest as well (ie you're going to need to be self motivated, and you can ask your advisor to help, as long as you don't rely on it).

I wouldn't necessarily recommend consulting with Professor Toughski on a regular basis, although informal chats from time to time might help.


In addition to other good answers: It's not entirely clear but that two issues are being blurred here. After all, a person can give useful critical feedback while still being positive, and, oppositely, can be a jerk without imparting useful advice. However, it seems to happen quite often that at least in our mental constructs (as in @adbar's answer) over-simplify or caricaturize.

"School" often has the strange effect of encouraging an odd passivity, that people take no initiative, but only respond to "threats" (of bad grades, of embarrassment). Obviously this is undesirable, but seems to be what we have. Years of conditioning in such a system creates an unfortunate frame of mind. Equally obviously, unless one plans to take a job in which "motivation" is a boss standing over you and threatening you, being a self-starter is a critical virtue to cultivate. Academe, vaguely-structured or unstructured as it is, may be an extreme case.

Clearly one cannot instantly become a self-starter, and, equally, some degree of procrastination seems universal. Requires some degree of vigilance to fight back. Grad school might be the time to change the source of "motivation", depending less on "teachers' threats" and more on personal goals.

If/when that part of the question is recognized as separate from "personality", there does remain a very serious issue of getting useful information from an advisor. I believe that it is possible to remain completely civil and personally respectful, even sympathetic, while giving accurate technical/scientific opinions. If it is the case that the nice-and-polite person is also not imparting information, that's bad, and it would also be bad if an intimidating, mean person didn't actually impart useful information (but was just scary).

So I'd try to be sure to separate the issues of motivation and information-acquisition.


I'm a procrastinator too, in fact I'm procrastinating right now! I'm also a 3rd yr PhD student with a Prof. Nice Guy style supervisor. If you think your supervisor wont be able to 'force' you to do the work then that's not really a problem. You just have to know how to work with it. Here's a tip:

Tell you supervisor at the end of each meeting where you expect to be by next meeting. If you're anything like me you don't plan on procrastinating, it just happens. You'll be motivated to say you'll do the work in the meeting because you have the best intentions. You'll then have to stick to it out of the meeting because Prof. Nice Guy will be expecting you to have completed what you said you'd complete. It's a hack to force you to act like Prof Nice Guy is Prof Tough Love!

Hope this helps, I should probably get back to work now. Oooo youtube.


I'd say it depends on the ultimate outcome you want? Academia is one of the most unstructured professions you can find, so I'd say that unless you can overcome some of the procrastination, it'll be pretty difficult to keep going with it. On the other hand, I have friends who intentionally picked supervisors that would push them, for exactly the reasons you described, and were in technical fields with intention of going to industry. I don't see anything wrong with that course of action either. It depends on what works for you too. Personally, I find encouragement really motivating, but hate being told what to do, so actually think that Prof Nice Guy sounds better all around. That's a personal choice though.

If you're doing a PhD with the intent of going into academia, here's an excellent article with a few more factors to consider too: http://genomebiology.com/2013/14/4/114

  • "Subscription required" to access this article... Commented May 1, 2013 at 13:59

I gave an answer here that could interest you. In short:

You need to determine how much time you want your advisor to spend on your case. Maybe someone who has a lot of time to discuss various issues with you is preferable even if he/she is too 'nice'...

And nice or not, your advisor has to be firm and polite, as he/she will more or less be your mental punching bag, so with whom can you imagine to live in your head during 3+ years ?

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    Noooo, I would never use my PhD supervisor as a mental punching bag! I find it quite strange that you assume (you said it in your other answer as well) that everyone treats their advisor this way.
    – Tara B
    Commented Apr 15, 2014 at 9:33

This is the weirdest question. Motivation should come from within! Why are you relying on others to direct and dictate your goals in life? If you want to be truly successful with your degree, stop worrying about the "Nice-Guy" being too nice, and start being interested in your chosen field. If you have sufficient interest in the field, you'll not require anyone to drive you.

  • -1 For "Motivation should come from within!" . Very often motivation comes from without - not from people telling you to get motivated, but from your life experience. Or for Mathematicians: Abstract-theoretical-life experiences... OP: Don't "start being interested". You aren't interested enough, don't try to artificially fix it.
    – einpoklum
    Commented Apr 12, 2015 at 23:12
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    The comment was supposed to mean that the OP should have already considered the reasons for their interest in the field. Using that knowledge, they need to dig deep when the going gets tough. When you are lost out in the woods, you must sometimes force yourself to keep trying to survive. That type of motivation is obviously internal. Failing to go out and learn more about their field is not the fault of their supervisor. Commented Apr 13, 2015 at 1:37

Different advisers have different styles. Choose the one that works for you.

Tough Love.

Pros: Will push you to get results. By virtue of being pushy, may also have grant money. May also push other people to have your thesis defense go smoothly and/or find you internships or a job afterwards.

Cons: Can take advantage of you by, effectively, asking you to do "menial" work for him such as preparing Powerpoint presentations, coauthoring papers with you where you did all the research, etc.

Nice Guy.

Pros: Won't waste your time. Also, a nice to be around a nice person ;-) You may end up becoming good friends.

Cons: If you are not sufficiently organized or self-motivated, you may end up with nothing.

  • Many a student I have known who went for option A, only to bitterly regret this at the very end of the PhD. The thing is, A is in many ways the "safe" option, because going in students worry about the Pros you list for TL and the Cons for NG. Toward the end, the student knows that they need not have worried about NG-Cons, and having been the unappreciated minion of TL now seems like a wasted opportunity.
    – Deipatrous
    Commented Aug 15, 2022 at 12:42

You're going to have to become self-driven eventually - might as well start getting practice now.

Yep, this.

Meet with Professor Tough Love regularly, sort of as an unofficial second advisor, who (besides discussing technical material, which is of course beneficial) will give me the impetus I need.

Might help, but as a seasoned procrastinator you may find it easy to dismiss their tough love as a wooden spoon (if I may mix metaphors).

Directly ask Professor Nice Guy to give me more structure, and to be more demanding of me.

Could try, but technically s/he is doing all these things, just in the nicest possible way. You can ask a person to be more scary, but I don't think you'll get very far.

Warning: Prof Nice Guy may be nice, but that does not mean they are stupid. They can see things are not progressing, and at some point pull the plug -- always in the nicest possible way. Or blithely allow you to fail the whole thing.

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