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I have been working on my PhD from home for several months now because my mom is sick, which was fine with my supervisor up until a few weeks ago. Before starting to work from home (in a different country than my supervisor is), we agreed that we would communicate every two weeks and that I would send reports about my progress.

As I did so over the last months, I would rarely receive a response from my supervisor, who is a big name in our domain and is very, very busy. After a few unanswered emails, I had the impression that I should just contact him in urgent cases, so I stopped contacting him every two weeks.

Now he is asking me to come back to work at the office because he thinks that I have not been communicating enough in the last weeks.

I am aware that I should not have supposed that he only wanted urgent information and thus I should have continued sending him my weekly reports, but how can I tell him that it is because I never got any answer from his side?

My wish is to find a good equilibrium in our communication style so that I can continue working from home!

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    Just tell him, honestly and nicely. Easy. – louic Nov 29 '17 at 17:39
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    "Sorry for what happened. I stopped sending reports because I never got a reply. I promise that I will keep you updated in future. But it would feel better if you could send me a reply, even if it's only a note that you received my report. Can we meet and discuss how to continue since I would like to continue staying with my mom who is still sick?" – Mark Nov 29 '17 at 17:40
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    Mark's suggestion is good but soften it a bit: (1) instead of "never got a reply" say something like "I misinterpreted your silence to mean my emails were unwelcome. Was the way I was reporting during 9/x to 10/y working well? I can go back to doing that." (2) This is important: suggest a phone call or Skype once a month. To prevent small problems from snowballing. – aparente001 Nov 29 '17 at 18:12
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    Yeah, "misinterpreted your silence" is way better, maybe even "misinterpreted your responses" in case there was one response every now or then? Something like "I misinterpreted what you wanted, and tried to only prioritize urgent information." – AJK Nov 29 '17 at 18:43
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    What you said in this question seems very reasonable, and I'd hope that an advisor would understand. The other thing you can do would be to include summaries of what you were doing in the weeks you missed, so it's clear you were still working, even if you didn't write the email! – AJK Nov 29 '17 at 18:44
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Yes, it would have been better for the advisor to send an acknowledgement email each time a report is received, and even better to give indications of whether the progress is OK or give the student regular 'pep talk' emails to keep the student motivated.

While I can imagine a student getting a bit peeved with the lack of reply from adviser, that is an unfortunate rationalization to use to stop their updates to the adviser.

Frankly, the reason to send the regular updates to the adviser is to prove that regular and sustainable progress is being made despite the special accommodation. If the adviser had any unvoiced concerns about agreeing to the arrangement, this likely caused all of those concerns (rational and irrational) to have blown up.

One of those concerns is likely that a typical student needs more feedback than the advisor can give remotely, and that the student might stop working without it. (or might decide they don't need to keep the advisor updated as in this case :-) ).

(this following wording is based on @Mark comment with a few tweaks.)

"Sorry for what happened. I have been continuing to work and the progress is good. I have attached the (X) reports from each the X weeks that I did not send them. It was my mistake to stop sending these updates regularly. Can we meet to discuss the work that I've completed so far and your advice whether there are areas that are weak? I'd also like to discuss how best I might continue this special accommodation in which I continue my work while staying with my mom who is still sick. My expectation is that I would need to request this special accommodation would be XXXX more weeks(month)."

My answer is not answering the question (how to tell advisor I stopped updating because he didn't reply to me) but I assumed that the real question was: how do I fix this so that I can continue the arrangement I had? In the face-to-face (or skype) discussion in renegotiating the accommodation is when one can figure out whether there is a regular feedback schedule that works for both parties.

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I would say that, like others, you should tell him honestly.

Something to the effect of:

"My apologies for the lack of communication in the past few weeks. I was under the false impression that you only desired my reports in urgent cases, as there were several that you did not reply to. It was my mistake to make that supposition without explicitly asking you. In the future, I very much would like to continue working from home but I also would like to find the best way for both of us to communicate. We can certainly continue a report every two weeks but, in that case, it would be very helpful to me if you would be able to offer me a little bit of feedback for the report. I understand how busy your schedule is but I would truly appreciate it. Please let me know your thoughts.

Thanks,

[Your name]"

  • Thank you !! This was of great help, I chose Carol's answer because it made me realize that my supervisor probably thought I wasn't working the time I wasn't sending reports, but your suggestion is very helpful and i will use a combination of both answers! – M514 Dec 15 '17 at 17:12
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What a tough situation. I'd say be direct, but I might be inclined to print a hard-copy of the unanswered email chain just to have some first-hand evidence. This kind of situation is never fun to deal with. Good luck!

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