I am a professor at an academic institution in applied mathematics. Last year around summer, a Masters student in my research group wanted to switch from his supervisor towards my research interests as he became more interested in my line of work. He displayed enthusiasm during my classes with advanced, interesting questions and by coming to my office hours before mentioning that he would like to switch.

After having an extensive discussion with his supervisor, I decided to take on the student's supervision responsibilities. My student worked well on his research for the first two to three months. Given his level of enthusiasm, I expected him to continue on for a PhD with me. So, I was quite surprised when he mentioned that he wanted to end with just a Masters and not continue on to a PhD. He mentioned that he did not know what he would like to do after his Masters, and that he would just like to focus on writing a good Masters thesis for now.

Since then, I had the impression that he has not been putting in enough work every week. His work has been alright and okay and sometimes mediocre. I had the impression that he might have been working on somethings totally different which is not related to my line of work.

Wondering about his interests to guide him in the right direction, I plan to ask him about his future plans and to ask him to just write an okay thesis and put time in to work toward his future goals, be it a job or further studies. Is this the right thing to do as a supervisor? Is the student being ethical here?

  • 4
    From experience, it is very rare to find students that can sustain long periods of work. My students (including myself) go thru' ups and downs. We are not machines. so give him/her time, or maybe help set some short term goals. Feb 3, 2018 at 2:05

3 Answers 3


Yes, I think you're doing the right thing.

One of my service assignments is undergraduate advising in computer science at a selective school. I think my experience with undergrads may inform on what could be happening with your grad student.

All the students I encounter are smart and they're all capable of getting an A in anything if they only took one course, had someone else cooking their meals, doing their laundry and cleaning their bathroom and they actually cared about the subject.

When students don't do well, it's almost always one of two reasons. The most common is that they don't have the time, usually because they're taking too heavy a load, but sometimes due to medical, family, relationship, work or other reasons.

The second reason is they don't like what they're doing. Sometimes it was a terrible course delivered by an instructor who did a terrible job. Sometimes it's on us, but those are rare; academia doesn't run completely open loop. Those student evals actually do matter.

More often, they've been pushed into CS, often by parents, or they've pushed themselves into it. And they hate it. They feel cornered and they want out, but see no way out except to plug ahead somehow and get it over with. An example might be a student who desperately wants to be an actor but is facing threats from his father that any financial support will end if he switches to a drama major. Another may have realized the work is different than she expected and not what she wants to do with her life but believes she's sunk too much into the degree to give up now no matter how much she hates it.

A social worker friend of mine once remarked, "People don't make changes in their lives until the pain of staying where they are is greater than the pain of changing." And in the meantime, they struggle and they don't do well.

I'm suspicious from your description that your student has come to a realization that this just isn't what he wants to do with his life.

When I encounter students that seem to be struggling in this way (which is pretty often with UGs), it's often because they had a plan but it's not working and they don't have a new one. Asking what their plan is when they don't have one isn't as helpful as encouraging them to think about what makes them happy and what they want from life. What I've found is helpful is to ask them to watch Steve Jobs's 2005 commencement address at Stanford and discuss with them some advice he gives: To do great work, you must love what you do. Don't settle. Keep looking until you find what you love. You cannot live someone else's life.


There really might be various reasons, e.g. he might have a relationship finished recently, someone in his family might have died, he might have health problems, a depression, etc. As said in the comments, we are not machines and our personal life strongly affects our work, like it or not.

If you see that he continues to perform worse and worse, and/or his mood/attitude becomes worse, you might consider asking him if everything is fine and offer some friendly help - if you are willing to. But don't be pushy; in fact you are a stranger to him and there is no reason for him to open up before you.

Also, a master's program is something in between being just a student and starting to be a researcher - he just might need to adapt in his own way and pace.

And, finally, people are different: some do work slowly with a constant pace, some (like me) work obsessively for a few weeks/months and need later at least a few weeks of procrastination to rest, cool down and clear their mind. It's really best to allow people to work in their own, most efficient way.


Boredom may be a problem here and he has not yet learned how to cope with that.

Your job at this stage is to motivate him to do the best MSc possible for him (or at least the one that reflects his skills at their best potential). Don't worry otherwise about his future beyond that, it is not in your remit.

He may not be cut out for a PhD; or he may not be ready for it. Sometimes students go to work in industry and then come back for a PhD. If sufficiently talented, they can make amazing students: disciplined, organised, and self-motivated in addition to their academic abilities.

In short, what you need to do now is to find out how to get the student motivated for his present work. Do not try to talk about job/PhD or anything, that can be behind an insurmountable wall in the future for them, especially if they are demotivated.

He says he wants to do a Master instead of a PhD. Don't question this at this point (there can be many reasons for that), but explain that, even for a Master on its own, he would want to have a good one, since this increases his options in the future. And, since it's a far shorter route than a PhD, you can try to convince him to maintain his focus for its duration.

"Is the student ethical": well, why not? He is only damaging himself, and it is not like he is cheating - he probably does not know himself sufficiently well and overestimated his ability to sustain motivation after the switch, but it is very unlikely to assume that he wanted to cheat anyone.

  • How is the student damaging himself here? Feb 5, 2018 at 14:48
  • @nightmarish OP asked whether the student is ethical. I didn't see why the student would not be ethical, as they do not damage anybody else. If they do not work as hard as they could, they get a mark that does not reflect their full potential - thus they "damage" themselves. Of course, one could say that's not important; but then, a better mark gives them better opportunities for the future. Be is as it may, I do not see anything unethical about not giving the very best you can, apart from forgoing opportunities for yourself. Feb 5, 2018 at 16:25

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