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On dealing with an absent supervisor

My lovely readers! I’m so pleased by all the questions I’m receiving – feels like I’m writing something really useful (at least for 1 person) instead of just ranting on about myself.

I received this question lately (and I’ve taken out some information with XXXX because I’m not sure if the reader would like us to know all the details of this case).

Hello Eva ,
I am first year phd since XXXX months, before applying for phd i was very motivated before I was a hard working student I like research and I want to do a successful phd, I started doing my literature review and I was writing in parallel a ACM survey the idea it was to make a systematic literature review, it was very hard for me however i kept motivated for some months and than as I didn’t receive feedback and help for my supervisor
I stopped writing since the last two months because I was stuck and I couldn’t find an idea for my phd just some shapes… and i was thinking I should learn another skills for my phd what make me very busy and I forgot to finish the paper I stopped on the last part i.e the analysis. I was reading your blog and it is very interesting , right now i m just learning the new skills and I am afraid if I will lost time as I read too much but as you know sometimes I don’t understand , I am asking you for an advice about time management I have a pile of tasks to do and learning some languages ;;;and I couldn’t finish my article 🙁 Unfortunately I am alone in the lab no body help me I have another advisor but I see her just sometimes by skype I think she is the only one that understand what I am doing however in the lab my second advisor he is an XXXXX and he doesn’t know a lot of about research I am really feeling bad so stressed as They asked me to implement (lab);;;and nothing is fix right now , please what should I do? during my master i published three conference papers now i don’t have any confidence on myself and now I feel like I don’t know anything and like I am lost should I continue reading and learning the skills that I need or I stop
any tips or advice are welcome

Sorry for the mistakes ( I am from XXXX) 🙂 and im learning english as well


Alright, there are quite a number of elements in here, so let’s break this down into different parts and problems.

1. Not receiving help from your supervisor

If your advisor is a superstar in his field, chances are rather high that he might be away very often to attend meetings, conferences, visit other universities and teach courses abroad. If this is the case, I suggest you try to work out a schedule with your supervisor. For example, if you are working on a certain paper, try and schedule a meeting well in advance with your supervisor to discuss your work. You might even want to schedule a second meeting ahead because chances are small he will have read your work(at least, that’s what I did). Just keep showing up, just keep sending bugging emails and just keep working – and hope you’ll eventually capture your supervisor’s attention.

That brings me to my next point: don’t wait for your supervisor to continue working. Being independent in research is important during your PhD. Yes, it might feel very frustrating not to get feedback on your work, or to get a random comment about work you did a year ago that seems to criticize what you did back then. Have your arguments ready to defend your work and show the validity to your supervisor. It’s your research, and no one else’s, so you shouldn’t wait until you have the OK of your supervisor. Doing research is not like submitting homework, it really is your own project.

2. Not having access to your supervisors

It can be frustrating not to have access to your supervisors, but again, you might like to plan your meetings well ahead to capture some coveted space in your supervisor’s planning. If your supervisors are busy, chances are they will let their emails slide away, and you’ll need face-to-face or Skype meetings (anything that can give you your supervisor’s undivided attention). If you really can’t get much access or support from your supervisors, look out for a mentor to help you with your career, and befriend a post-doc or older PhD student to help you out in the lab.

3. Being stuck

You’re feeling stuck on your literature review. To help you with this feeling of hitting a wall, you might like to reframe your thoughts. Have you considered that how you feel about the help (or lack thereof) from your supervisors might affect your motivation and performance?

Another element in being stuck is that it is a normal step in the process. You always need to build up some friction before you move forwards. It’s when you are at that point where you think you’re out of options and that you feel like giving up that you are about to find the key to make a step forward.

With that said, I think that in your case we are more talking about a lack of motivation and generally feeling pretty bad. Let me explain you in the next steps how you can get your work back on the rails.

4. Defining your priorities

What is really important right now? Finishing that paper, no? The skills are important long-term as well, but they are not as urgent. Note the two key words here: important and urgent (check out this older post of mine on the topic). Make a list of all the activities that you are involved with at the moment: the literature review and analysis, your new skills, getting started in the lab, and all your subtasks. Identify which tasks are (1) important and urgent, (2) important but not urgent, (3) urgent but not important or (4) not important and not urgent. This exercise will help you identify your priorities.

5. Time management

Once you know you priorities, you can start planning. Here are some tips for planning and making lists. If your planning does not work, just be kind with yourself and make course corrections. I also wrote about my time management system here.

What I suggest you for your specific case is to try the following:
– make a schedule of 6 hours per day (the other extra 2 hours you keep as buffer time for anything that spills over, admin and email, and other disturbances)
– devote 2,5 hours a day on your literature review and analysis
– devote 2,5 hours a day on your lab work
– devote 1 hour a day on learning your new skills
– try breaking down the larger chunks of time into pomodoros, and define very well what you want to achieve per pomodoro.
– plan at least one fun activity per night to keep you happy and relaxed and forget about your PhD worries :).

If a daily schedule does not work, try a weekly schedule, and divide 30 hours into chunks devotes to your different priorities (I prefer planning on a weekly basis to see how with a few hours a day I can move my journal papers forward).

6. Getting started in the lab

Check out this post about getting started with lab research, and this post about what I learned from doing experiments. Make friends with the tech guys and the post-docs and older phd students. Be patient, experiments never work from the first trial – but that’s one of the beauties of experimental research – it’s all very playful, so keep it light.

7. Long-term thinking

Getting publications in a PhD might take a little more time. You are in your first year, so don’t worry about not having anything published yet. Think long-term: consider the planning of your dissertation on the scale of the 3 or 4 years of time that you have, and mark milestones in your progress, such as finishing dissertation chapters and/or getting parts of your research into journal papers. You might also like to identify conferences where you would like to go, and plan for your conference papers around that.

I hope these ideas help you!
If anybody would like to chip in with thoughts and comments, you are more than welcome.

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This Post Has 2 Comments
  1. Great tips. This post as well as your other posts always offer great advice! Thank you for sharing!

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