Tuesday, April 2, 2013


I have quite a few conversations with students and postdocs who are floundering because of (what they perceive as) inadequate supervision and feedback.
What should they do?
What should I tell them?

First, it is hard for me to discern how much of the problem lies with with the supervisee and how much with the supervisor. This is particularly so when I don't really know the parties involved or the particular research area. I am also reluctant to get involved in problems possibly created by other faculty colleagues.

It is hard to know how to move forward.
But, here are few basic things that I sometimes tell people and I think may help.

1. Take responsibility and take action. The clock is ticking. Don't wait for someone else to do something.

2. Write. Putting things down on paper can help. This is whether it is the details of a stalled calculation, a draft of a paper or thesis chapter, or a new research idea. This can sometimes clarify your thinking to the point that more feedback or supervision is not required.

3. Rewrite. Checking and polishing what you wrote can again clarify your thinking.

4. Talk. Find other people to talk to about what you are working on. The more the better. Try other students and postdocs and faculty. Just the process of explaining what you are trying to do can clarify your thinking, even if the other person does not understand it.
Finding helpful people can require some effort and courage.

5. Pause. Next time, think twice before you sign up to work with someone. May sure you check out their reputation as a supervisor.

6. Be thankful. This difficult experience may refine the process of you becoming an independent researcher.

I welcome other suggestions.


  1. Very informative and helpful! Thanks!

  2. Indeed, I think a common mistake (I have done it) is to walk out of a job "interview" without having had your potential supervisor interviewed. I tended to think "Gosh, I don't understand a thing about what this person is saying. I could learn a lot working with them". It may turn out that the person is not making any sense.

  3. Great suggestions Ross. I would add: ask for clarification on the goals of your work. If you can't clearly articulate your short-term and medium-term goals, ask your supervisor/collaborator what they think the goals are. (Even if you think you do know the goals, it is still a good idea to ask!). Don't be satisfied by vague feel-good goals - goals need to be actionable to lead to real progress.