“I can’t contact my PhD supervisor until I have something to show”

Nobody wants to send an email to their PhD supervisor saying they’ve achieved nothing in the last three months. The more time passes, though, the harder it becomes.

An example:

Let’s say, for whatever reason, you are unable to work for a whole month. You have two options with regards to what you tell your supervisor:

  • You can just tell them you have fallen behind, or…
  • You can say nothing and wait until you’ve caught up with where you should be.

The second option avoids a potentially awkward conversation, but it also places you under a much higher burden of expectation.

Another month goes by, but you haven’t yet caught up with where you should have been after that first month (perhaps because you under-estimated how long that piece of work would take). It’s now been two months, so you want to produce even more before you say anything.

The more time passes, and the more you feel you should have produced, the harder it gets to reach out. You avoid being reprimanded, but you also become more and more isolated.

By far, the most common cause of PhD failure (or extreme difficulty) I have seen is isolation and a lack of feedback from other academics. So if you’re in this situation, don’t wait to re-establish contact. Do it today.

I know it’s been a long time since I sent an update. I’ve fallen behind quite a bit but am doing my best to get back on track. Right now I’m working on …, but am not sure how to …

Keep it brief, don’t make excuses, and if you’re having technical problems, ask for guidance.

It’s so easily avoidable…

I’d recommend emailing your supervisor every two weeks with brief updates, no matter how well or badly it’s going, saying what you’ve done, what you’re working on, what you plan to do next. For example;

“Just a quick update: I’m still working on the analysis of …, which is taking a little longer than expected as I’m having to learn (technique) as I go. Realistically, this is probably going to take another week or two, and the next step will be to…”

It only takes 30 seconds of their time, and it ensures that they always know (and you have a record to prove that they know) what stage your project is at.

Don’t try to hide like a kid who hasn’t done their homework. Be professional, be honest and communicate.


18 thoughts on ““I can’t contact my PhD supervisor until I have something to show””

  1. Thanks James. I did it this morning and… I had a reply of my two supervisors in less than 2 hours! They know that I’m fully focused on my thesis and that’s important to keep them also focused in my project.

  2. Interesting set of comments. I had a supervisor who was very critical, refused to read stuff unless it was ‘complete’ and even didn’t read my stuff before scheduled supervision meetings. After 2 years (part-time) PhD research with him, and passing my probation from MPhil/PhD status viva, despite him saying I wouldn’t pass, I decided it was time to find a new supervisor and a new university, more suited to my topic. I am now a year into my PhD with my new uni and my new supervisors (i.e. half way through my 6 years) and I couldn’t feel more encouraged. One in particular is always positive and encouraging. Both respond quickly to my emails, whether with questions/requests for advice or comments on written work. I have worked out if I email them on Sunday afternoon/evening, my email will be top of their inboxes on Monday and generally I get comments back on Monday morning.

    I think PhD supervisors need to understand that they are there to help the student, not simply their own career. The sooner there are clear, published standards for PhD supervisors, the better.

  3. Same here..I never had thought that other students face the same problem.Actually i get so nervous every time i should send him an email.I don’t know.Maybe when we realise that we dont have to prove something to them but only to us ,we will overcome these issues…

  4. This completely applies to me, especially after moving across the country with my family and trying to finish writing. Staying in contact though has been so vital for me to keep going! Thanks for sharing

  5. Well, It’s a common psycology among PhD scholars. I too avoided my supervisor for months initially. But gradually I realised PhD is not just about a degree, it’s about experiencing difficult times and of course sharing the failures with lab mates and supervisors with positive set of mind. Things will improve gradually.

  6. Spot on.

    I got so anxious about contacting my supervisor that at one point the email notification noise from my iPhone would give me a quick jolt of adrenaline as I hoped it wouldn’t be them asking for another progress report. This is of course after I had gone down the wrong path of trying to cover up for the fact that I was already behind and had promised the world at the last meeting and was once again still behind.

    Protip: use your supervisor as a resource, *don’t* be worried about looking incompetent by coming clean – they are there to help guide you. It looks much worse when don’t be forthright and the issues become so large you can’t contain them any longer. I should know…

  7. After reading this article, I was left speechless!
    Even though I am not a PhD but a Master degree student, I find your website helpful in making our research journey easier despite all the sufferings and troubles.
    “Not being able to contact the supervisor unless you have something to show” is a common problem among young researchers and a popular misconception. Thank you for addressing this issue.
    I find refusing to give you feedback on your updates on the part of the supervisor much more serious. Examples of surprising but existing facts may include: refusing to read chapters of your thesis unless the whole dissertation is done,never answering your emails, not checking your instruments or tools, not letting you ask him/her questions but rather referring to literature and take your decision on your own…

    Personally, I accepted the fact of working on my own whether it is good or bad after struggling long to maintain contact with my supervisor. It is now a case of sink or swim!!After suffering for 20 months, I cannot let it go!
    I would be happy if you can advise on any issue you find it helpful.
    Best regards!

  8. Same here.. Thanks James, this is what I feel now, for me not contacting my supervisor, because I’m really late..
    Well, I did contact him and I have a meeting with him after he comes back from a trip…
    Good luck for all of Phd students..
    Peace! 🙂

  9. I actually updated my chair about once a month, and he actually told me NOT to send him updates, just chapters since “updates and timelines are for you use only and have no value for me whatsoever.” I think if I had actual constructive feedback on my timelines and updates, I probably would have finished my degree more quickly.

    Take away–if your dissn chair doesn’t want to see/comment on your updates, find someone who will, but I agree with James–send the updates anyway. It’s a paper trail and protection for yourself.

  10. thanks very much for this article . This is exactly my situation and I see it is the same for all the phd students.

    have a nice day.

  11. Are you spying on me? 🙂 Just a joke. This article is written for me at the right time. 2 months passed. I have done some research, read articles, built up a huge library/literature review but didn’t start the actual work. 2 days later I plan to visit my supervisor. This article encouraged me much more! Thanks.

    • Today I had a short face-to-face meeting with my supervisor. Although the duration was short, its impact is great. Now I clearly know what should/must I do as next step. Wow!

  12. This is exactly my current problem. So I will do some work today and contact my supervisor, even it is not as far as it should be.
    Thanks for this helpful kick.

  13. I agree with what you have written which is to let your professor know where you currently are and what is your next plan. To let them your your progress etc.. However we have a professor who refused to listen to anything else beyond results, we are never given the opportunity to speak, much less troubleshoot our work. Hence many have resorted to waiting until it is too late, and rather get the scolding in a “lump sum”. Sad but true

    • Very sad, but I would send the email anyway. If you have a supervisor like this, who acts as a barrier rather than a facilitator, then having an electronic record can be useful to prove that you have at least attempted to maintain contact (in extreme cases where you have to make a complaint to the department).

  14. it is like you have written this article specially for me !
    yes I can’t contact my supervisor unless I have something SOLID done . because he is really busy and our primary communication is face to face meeting (he doesn’t reply to my email and he doesn’t have any social media account) so I accepted the fact that in order to communicate we have to meet face to face for like 30-60 minutes.
    the point is that in order to meet for 30 minutes I have to show something that deserves that time. and yes sometimes I can stay 2 weeks with no progress at all and this will of course delay the meeting with my supervisor.
    and yes when I return to work on my thesis after that long time it feels awkward and overwhelming . so I will write an email right now to my supervisor telling him what I have been doing in the last 2 weeks .
    thanks for that article 🙂

    • I totally agree with you esraa. He spoke directly to me.
      James you have just given me the advice of my academic life at this stage.
      I don’t have the benefit of face to face with my supervisor. Therefore I have been waiting to have something HUGE before making contact. But I find that all the problems associated with this position are affecting me. I’m done! I’m sending an email right away.
      I’m counting on your continual support in this journey.
      Thank you.

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