Your Thesis Supervisor May Not Appreciate Your Work Experience
Sam thought that graduate school would be a piece of cake. He already had six years of industry experience and he believed that he could finish his thesis sooner than his peers who came to the program right after college.
His first two years went smooth as he aced his courses, passed his qualifiers and designed a realistic project with his thesis supervisor that could be completed in 4 years. In his third year Sam decided to take his project in a different direction than what he had agreed upon with his thesis supervisor, because he thought it would be more likely to lead to a publication in a prestigious journal.
Feeling confident in himself after having been in industry for so long, Sam worked on his project solo, without giving updates to her supervisor. Sam’s thesis supervisor was an assistant professor with limited funding, and when he realized that the project was going in a different direction he gave Sam a warning to go back to their original plan.
Sam did return to the original project, but also worked on his own idea on the side using up his supervisor’s lab supplies. Sam wanted to collect enough preliminary data to convince his supervisor that his idea was “dynamite, ” and he exchanged several emotional emails with his supervisor to get his support.
At their next meeting Sam’s supervisor gave him an ultimatum: unless he returned to their original plan and met their milestones (which were quite ambitious) he would be let go from their group.
Sam was already at the end of his 3rd year and he didn’t want to start from scratch with another professor, so he abandoned his “pet project” and returned to his original thesis.
Ironically, Sam was the last to finish in her class (after a total of 7 years) despite his extensive industry experience, because he lost so much time on his side-project.
How to Avoid Five Mistakes That Could Cost You Your PhD
Mistake #1: Openly disrespecting your supervisor
Sam’s industry experience gave him false self-confidence, and he thought he knew things better than his thesis supervisor who was a junior faculty member. Instead of listening to his supervisor about the importance of staying with his current project, Sam “talked down” to his supervisor during meetings, and tried to prove why his project was better.
Not only did this mistake damage their relationship, but it also delayed his supervisor’s publications and jeopardized his funding.
What you can do:
While disrespecting your supervisor will surely damage your professional relationship, disagreeing politely can actually help you gain more respect. In graduate school you are expected to learn how to become an independent researcher, and questioning the standard way of doing things is a sign that you are an original thinker.
If you disagree with your supervisor’s idea (or anyone else’s for that matter), first listen to their point of view before speaking up. There are researchers (we all know who they are), who just want to be heard and they speak up at every meeting. It is not necessary to force yourself to say things just for the sake of speaking up.
You are much more likely to gain other people’s respect if you hear them out completely before expressing your own thoughts, whether you agree with them or not.
How do you draw the line between disagreeing and disrespecting?
If you become emotional or defensive during a meeting , you are heading in the direction of disrespect. No matter what others say you. can always stay, cool, calm and collected (the 3C’s) and focus on solving the problem.
Mistake #2: Keeping your supervisor in the dark about changes or progress on your work
One of the most frequent sources of miscommunication is that students do not have a good understanding of what their supervisor’s expectations are – how often should they report progress and when should they ask for help?
Some supervisors are hands-on and like to be updated frequently on your progress, while others trust you to reach out to them when you need help. There is not right style of management, you just need to make sure that your supervisor’s personality is the right fit for you.
Sam’s first mistake was that he kept his supervisor in the dark about his progress, because he did not realize that his research was crucial to his supervisor’s funding. Had he communicated more openly about his progress, Sam could have avoided a potentially disastrous situation.
What you can do:
If you already have a supervisor and you realize that their expectations do not meet your work style (e.g. he expects updates frequently, and you would like more independence), you need to have a meeting to clarify when he would like to updated on your progress, and respect his expectations.
It is always better to err on the side of sending updates more frequently to avoid miscommunication that could delay your publications or graduation date.
Mistake #3: Working on a side project without your supervisor’s approval
While you are expected to take leadership of your thesis, if you are using your thesis supervisor’s funding and resources, they still “own” the project. In addition, they are responsible for the research in their group, and they need to make sure that it is ethical and in alignment with their funding sources.
Some supervisors, particularly the ones with plenty of funding, allow their students to pursue side projects, as long the main project is still on track. In Sam’s case, his side project took up most of his time, and it also depleted his groups’ resources.
What you can do:
Going off in a research direction that you think is interesting (while neglecting your actual thesis topic) is a type of “shiny object syndrome.” Perhaps you come across a paper or a new technique, and you want to try it on your own. As an independent researcher, you don’t always need to consult with your supervisor before you try something new.
The problem occurs when this new “side project” becomes a significant time and resource sink, and you fall behind on your milestones (not to mention that you will upset your supervisor too).
If you come across a novel idea that you think could become part of your thesis, run it by your advisor before spending a significant amount of time (or money) on it. Don’t assume that just because you think this research is interesting, your supervisor will, too. (Perhaps he or she has tried it in the past and chose not to pursue it for good reason.)
Mistake #4: Sending emotional emails
This is probably the most common mistake, because people (especially professors) are so tough to reach in person or by phone, that students have to resort to communication by e-mail.
When you send an emotional email, where you describe why you are angry or frustrated, it can upset your supervisor because he or she cannot sense your tone of voice. There is no way to tell how angry you really are, and you may leave out important details that could help your supervisor solve your problem.
Sam was so focused on getting his project to work that he used email as his primary source of communication with his supervisor instead of meeting with him in person. Since Sam was experienced and his side-project was promising, it is likely that they could have come to an agreement if they had a live conversation.
However, since they communicated mostly by email, Sam’s thesis supervisor assumed that Sam had no interest in doing his original thesis project. His impression was that Sam focused solely on his side-project, used up his resources, and he was very close to letting Sam go from the group.
What you can do:
I usually recommend that you use emails for “neutral” topics, such as sending documents or setting up a time to meet. While professors are busy, what I found interesting, is that when students become more assertive and ask for a time to meet over email (instead of discussing the issues over email), most supervisors find at least 15 minutes either in person or over the phone.
What surprised students even more was that once they met with their supervisors in person, it was easier to reach an agreement than communicating back and forth via email. Nobody likes conflict, or direct confrontation, and when you meet with them in person they are more likely to come to an agreement, than if you had communicated over email.
Mistake #5: Plagiarizing or not giving credit where it is due
Sam did not make this mistake, but I did know other students who came close to being let go from their program because they (intentionally or unintentionally) copied information from another paper, or presented someone else’s data as their own. When you review 50-100 papers for a literature search, it is tough to keep all your references straight.
As you begin writing, the text in your literature review might sound very close to some of the papers you read. In fact, your sentences and word choice might be so close that your thesis supervisor might question whether you “lifted” off some paragraphs, or worse, he or she may accuse you of plagiarism (one of the worst offenses in an academic environment).
Whether it was intentional or not, if your paper is too close to someone else’s, it will reflect very poorly on your performance and could ruin your reputation for years.
What you can do:
Keep all the information from your references organized electronically. Since most of your references will be in electronic format such as pdf’s, you can highlight or box the information within the pdf itself. You can then group your references by category in different folders. This way, whenever you come across a new reference you can highlight the necessary information in the pdf, and then save it right away in the appropriate folder.
This practice will ensure that when it is time to write your literature review, you can pull up the corresponding files right away and see what information you want to use. You can then paraphrase this information appropriately (and include the references) so that you avoid any chances of being accused of “lifting” off or plagiarism.
Also, if you collaborate with others (inside or outside your group) keep very clear records of who generated what data. If you need to present or publish the data, you must give credit to the person who generated it, as well as their group leader.
Which of these mistakes do you think is the most common?
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