I had a short exchange of mails with a PhD student who wished to ask some questions about a paper of mine, which was troublesome in many respects:

  • The student had a blatant lack of basic knowledge and techniques of their field. (Imagine a computer scientist not knowing what object-oriented programming is, a mathematician not knowing what fields are, etc. They did not change fields for the PhD.)

  • The student should be able to answer some of the questions with very little work.

  • Initially, the student did not give me even remotely the information I needed to answer their question in a useful manner.

  • The student seemed utterly overwhelmed with their project.

  • There were strong hints of a “do my work for me” attitude.

For the purpose of this question, assume that I am very likely correct in my assessment. Going into details about why I arrived at this conclusion would be beyond the scope of this question and be disclosing too much. I also wish to make clear that I am not annoyed by the questions or similar, I am just worried about the situation.

I am now wondering whether I should write a mail to their supervisor (whom I don’t know and who is not at my institution) informing them about this incident. My considerations so far are:

  • I am pretty confident that this student will not finish their degree (by honest means). As long as they continue with this, they waste time and resources: their own, their supervisor’s, and other researchers’ whom they are emailing.

  • If I were this student’s supervisor, this is something I would like to know since it can prevent me from wasting my time and resources on them. On the other hand, I hope that I would quickly notice these qualities in a PhD student.

  • This problem will likely escalate soon anyway.

  • It’s the supervisor’s job to talk to the student and give them the possibility to clarify in case I misjudged them. However, if I am wrong, my information may wrongfully harm the student if the supervisor overreacts or the student’s image is tainted subconsciously.

  • Depending on the situation, such a communication as mine may allow the supervisor to smoothly get rid of the student – which is good if I am right and the student is incompetent, but bad if I am wrong.

My question is this: Is there anything else I should take into account when making this decision? (I know that, at the end of the day, I have to weigh the arguments myself.) Note that I already sent a mail to the student but am skeptical whether they got the message.

  • 28
    FWIW, being unable to define OOP isn't actually that bad. It's a complex subject involving a lot of subtopics, and it's difficult to define succinctly and well. If they really know nothing about computer programming, not knowing about function arguments or returns might be a better example. – Nic Hartley Mar 2 at 1:37
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    "(Imagine a computer scientist not knowing what object-oriented programming is.)" Yeah, FWIW, I like to think I know a thing or two about my trade, but I probably couldn't give you an academic-level definition of OOP (nor do I really care to, if I'm being honest) – Lightness Races in Orbit Mar 2 at 2:37
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    Next time, you may want to consider including their advisor in the cc. list when you reply. IMHO, this is a good practice that the student should really get used to have in the first place. The advisor can still ignore conversations when he is not interested about them or if he trusts the student enough. At the same time, he can keep an eye on how the student approaches his own colleagues, the scientific problem at hand and how he works in general - if needed. – Patrick Trentin Mar 2 at 4:11
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    Unless I missed something, one piece of vital information is missing: How long has this individual been a PhD student? If they've been at it for a good year or two, then the student should know better by now, and perhaps these red flags and alarm bells are rightfully being waved and sounded. However, if this student has only been at it for a couple months, this could be a good opportunity for some informal mentoring. – J.R. Mar 2 at 15:43
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    When I started my PhD in computational fluid dynamics, I couldn't solve a differential equation to save my life. But things seems to be turning reasonably well. – lvella Mar 5 at 22:06

14 Answers 14

up vote 21 down vote accepted

Reporting your concerns to the student directly is probably your best option, for reasons beyond those already mentioned.

  1. Contacting the supervisor escalates the situation dramatically. Dealing with any ensuing situation might take away time and energy you need for your job. Do not borrow trouble.

  2. The student asked for your help and will likely benefit from your feedback.

    • From the question, we do not know whether the student has already reached candidacy.

      • If not, they would benefit from hearing directly that they need to improve their skills.
      • If so, they may need to review the material, be less lazy, or have a reality check about their path. They can recognize which option is relevant for them, more than you can, or even than their supervisor can.
      • Either way, an appropriate response might include: "The questions you're asking can be answered by applying core knowledge from [key subfield--especially if this is a subfield that usually has its own qualifying or comprehensive exam]. Please check with your supervisor about these points, and she can contact me with further technical questions."
    • A central problem seems to be professional communication, and you could address that directly with the student.

  3. The question did not specify that the student and supervisor are at the author's institution.

    • If they are not co-located, this would complicate the idea of informally chatting with the supervisor and would likely force the conversation to be through email.
      • Under U.S. law, this email becomes an "education record" for the student, which would be turned up in the (hopefully unlikely) event that the student is acrimoniously parted from the program and has a competent lawyer.
      • Other jurisdictions may not have the same law, but emails can be forwarded and may still drag you into a mess or reflect poorly on you out of context.
    • Feedback from an outsider may have a larger impact on the supervisor's judgment of the student than the author anticipates.
      • More prominent academics are often more distant supervisors, and this supervisor may have had very little contact with the student to compare this with. By Bayesian updating, your assessment would loom large in the supervisor's mind.
      • If the author and supervisor are in different countries or at institutions of different status, the supervisor may feel ashamed that the student attracted your negative attention.
  4. Finally, if you communicate about this with anyone, do not say anything remotely like: "I am pretty confident that this student will not finish their degree (by honest means)." (You stated this as an assumption, but it is not clear to me whether this would be part of your intended message.)

    • If I received a message saying this about a student I supervised, it would sound like you suspect academic dishonesty, an extremely serious charge.
      • If you have such a suspicion, it is worth approaching an ethical advisor (an ombudsperson?) at your institution and/or the student's institution, beginning with hypothetical questions.
      • If you are merely worried about the student's competence, do not appear to impugn their ethics.
    • Whether a student will finish is a very difficult judgment to make accurately.
      • Since your contact with the student appears to be limited to this unflattering correspondence, you may not see the student's countervailing strengths.
      • There are many different doctoral student trajectories. Traits like taking initiative (as demonstrated by cold-emailing the author of a paper) and perseverance help students who are behind academically make up their deficits and finish.
      • Let's assume you could accurately peg the student's odds of graduating at 25%. Stating your conclusion that the student is unlikely to graduate and is a poor target for resources (even if phrased as a "worry" or otherwise softened) will draw everyone's attention far more than the specific details you have to offer. Whomever you communicate with about this, recognize that the base of your evidence is limited and refrain from extrapolating.
  • 3
    I agree and I also think the op should consider how unflattering it would be for the OP should his concerns be unfounded. – scrappedcola Mar 1 at 18:44

Emailing the supervisor and saying "this student is incompetent and you should get rid of him/her" would come across badly, for a few reasons:

  • You lack the information to make a holistic assessment of the student.

  • Even if you're right and the student is weak, weak students can improve.

  • The supervisor and their institution undoubtedly have their own methods of quality control.

  • Most importantly, it's not really any of your business.

It's nice that you made a good faith effort to answer the student's questions, but if the exchange has become annoying for you, your best recourse is to simply stop responding and forget the student exists.

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    In general I agree, but personally if I were the student I'd prefer to be told the other party is terminating the conversation rather than be ignored. – Allure Feb 28 at 20:37
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    @Allure Fair point. I suppose it depends on where the exchange stands. I was imagining a "help vampire" situation, based on OP's "do my work for me" comment. But you're right, politely getting out of the conversation is better. – user37208 Feb 28 at 21:58
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    @Allure I very much agree, being a student myself. It's aggravating if people that are "better" than you (because they're older, in a higher position etc.) don't even feel the need to be somewhat polite to you. That said, I am no do-my-work-for-me kind of student, so maybe in such a situation ignoring him is fine. Still, if you want to make the student understand that he is being annoying, telling him quickly with a sentence is better than just ignoring. – RimaNari Mar 1 at 11:54
  • I remember when I tried to hint my supervisor about not taking someone as PhD student. He did not want to talk about that (I understand that completely because I was not in the position to give advice), and the student dropped out after 7 years without PhD. – J. Fabian Meier Mar 1 at 13:32
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    +1 Just for the second bullet point: there are many students that seemed very weak to me at first, but turned out to do a competent or even good job (both at the undergraduate and graduate level). I find we're often not very good judges of academic competency. – Kimball Mar 1 at 15:09

This is unethical and unprofessional. It is simply none of your business. You are not in a position to evaluate the student. Writing to his supervisor will make you look bad. It is an insult to his supervisor.

The Ph.D. degree can not be awarded to someone incompetent. If this happens, it is going to be shown sooner or later. Let future employers and assigned assessors who are in a position to evaluate him say this, but not you. Judging a Ph.D. student requires external assessors. Let him take his time. If he is incompetent, it will be revealed sooner or later. But every student has the right to take his own time and attempts. Even the Ph.D. examination process allow several attempts before reaching such a conclusion, simply because such conclusion destroys a human's future.

If he is annoying you, you can refuse answering him. He might be wasting your time but how did you judge he is wasting other people's time? You can tell him that his questions are not reflecting the basic required knowledge and he should first build solid foundation in XYZ then come ask you. Otherwise you can not afford helping him.

Finally, we are all learning all the time. You are knowledgable in this topic he is asking but in someone's eyes ignorant in that someone's topic. You also have been ignorant about your paper's topic until you learned gradually. The world would be more peaceful if we remembered that we have not been born scientists and we learned through other noble people who gave us a hand to help us rather than a hand to destroy us, even when we have not been asked about our opinion.

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    "Phd. degree can not be awarded to someone incompetent"- Empirically speaking, I think that the reproducibility crisis has conclusively demonstrated that PhD's are awarded to incompetent researchers. – Nat Mar 1 at 0:42
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    Phd. degree can not be awarded to someone incompetent.Of course they can! The only true prerequisite for a PhD is to convince four faculty to sign a piece of paper saying that you deserve a PhD (and perhaps a little theater). You're not assuming that all faculty are competent, ethical, and well rested, are you? – JeffE Mar 1 at 2:05
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    Phd. degree can not be awarded to someone incompetent. OMG. Thanks for the laugh! – Eric Duminil Mar 1 at 14:31
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    @None I reallly wish you were right, but I've seen too many incompetent PhD holders, some of whom are now faculty and (horror of horrors) supervising PhD students. Sadly, neither intelligence nor competence are always prerequisites for getting a PhD degree. Sometimes, all it takes is persistence. – terdon Mar 1 at 16:09
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    @nsheff not so: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Singular_they – Dr. Thomas C. King Mar 5 at 15:36

NOTE: this answer was based on the assumption that OP works at the same institution and on the same campus as the supervisor in question. OP has since clarified that is not the case. I will leave the answer to stand in case it is helpful to those in a similar situation - see meta discussion.

At the risk of sounding like an old man: does no one talk to their colleagues any more? This sounds like the ideal situation for an informal chat with the supervisor. Even if you don't know them, surely there's a chance to start up a conversation after a departmental seminar or something.

Hey, your student X has been contacting me recently about their work. Sounds like an interesting project...

And play it by ear from there. It should become obvious whether the supervisor has a high opinion of their student or not. If they seem receptive, drop in that you think the student seemed to be struggling in this area. Don't charge straight in accusing student of being incompetent. If the discussion opens up then great, you can give more detail. If not, you tried, you can't force the issue.

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    Do really people use Hey in conversations? I find it plain irritating. – Rui F Ribeiro Mar 1 at 0:34
  • @RuiFRibeiro Do you prefer more formal salutations or simply to omit 'em? – Nat Mar 1 at 0:35
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    Hey! I always use hey :) I hear it extremely commonly around me. You would get very irritated living in the US. It's pretty minor though. Not enough to spend your energy actually being irritated, right? – user78960 Mar 1 at 2:03
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    Do we know that everyone in this story is at the same institution? I assumed not. – user37208 Mar 1 at 3:00
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    @user37208 That is an excellent point and one that I had not considered. I have added a note regarding my own assumption. – user2390246 Mar 1 at 10:04

I'll propose a variant of the answer written by @user88253.

Email the student, with a cc to his/her advisor, encouraging him/her to work on the topic(s) with his/her advisor. Invite the student to let you know how it goes, and invite the professor to draw on you as a resource. Starter text (which you can edit and make your own of course), where A is the student and X is the advisor.

Dear A and X,

A - I'm glad you're interested in (name of paper) which covers (such-and-so) topic. It's a worthwhile area to delve into, especially since it provides a fruitful opportunity to apply a number of basic concepts which will stand you in good stead in your study of (field). I would encourage you to work with your advisor to review the basic techniques that provide the underpinning of this paper.

X - Let me know if I can be of assistance.

Advantages of this variant over the original:

  1. The "quite busy" excuse, which could be hurtful to read, has been eliminated.

  2. The "Basic questions" phrase, which could come across as offensive, is avoided.

  3. This variant tries to be upbeat and encouraging. Still, it politely sets up a boundary (without getting annoyed, frustrated or angry), and hands off to the person who should be helping the student.

Similar to the original, bridges are not burned.

Please note, there is no need to embarrass the student by including the chain of previous emails.

  • I like this suggestion but would omit the word 'basic' in the phrase 'a fruitful opportunity to apply a number of basic concepts' – Yvonne Aburrow Mar 5 at 14:44
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    +1, this is the way to go OP. It puts the burden of the (perceived) problem on the shoulders of the person who should have them - the student's supervisor. If they don't do anything after some time, it's more likely that either you misjudged the student, or the university needs to seriously re-evaluate their admission standards and the standards to which supervisors hold their students – galois Mar 5 at 19:00

No, and you're very possibly misjudging the student

I'd like to buttress @user37208's answer and counter some of your factual claims, OP.

The student had a blatant lack of basic knowledge and techniques of their field. (Imagine a computer scientist not knowing what object-oriented programming is.)

I know more than a couple of computer scientists who don't know what OOP is, or at least - "know" that it's "programing with objects", but have barely ever programmed anything, if at all, and not with objects. At least one of them is a very esteemed professor.

The student should be able to answer some of the questions with very little work.

Maybe he misunderstood the question, or misunderstood your assumption that he was supposed to do work?

Initially, the student did not give me even remotely the information I needed to answer their question in a useful manner.

Do you know how many times this happens to me with people who ask me for things? If I thought those people were incompetent I'd think everyone is incompetent. Now, I suppose you could make an argument that this is the case, but then you have nothing to complain about, do you? ...

The student seemed utterly overwhelmed with their project.

Being overwhelmed with something can make one not bring one's competence to bear.

There were strong hints of a “do my work for me” attitude.

Ah, now this is an ethical failing. Unfortunately, sometimes it's exactly those people who manipulate others into doing work for them that get ahead in academia, i.e. some people would regard this scrupulousness is a merit. I wouldn't. But - that only weakly correlates with incompetence.

Now, it could very well be that I'd get the exact same impression as you if I'd actually read the email exchange. But if that's what you were to "accuse" the student of - your case is pretty weak.

  • 6
    Maybe relevant to your first point: I'm a math PhD who has written code off and on for many years (Basic, Pascal, and Fortran years ago; C++ and Perl more recently) and I don't really know what object-oriented programming is, in any more than the very vaguest sense. Now maybe a computer scientist should know what object-oriented programming is. I don't call myself a computer scientist. But it's conceivable that someone in an area adjacent to computer science might try to have a meaningful conversation with a computer scientist about a specific algorithm, while not knowing what OOP is. – idmercer Mar 1 at 18:45
  • I think your logic is problematic. Just because that some of my individual observations can be explained by exceptional circumstances (which I do not dispute the slightest), doesn’t mean that my overall conclusion is likely wrong. Also when I said “not even remotely”, this was not rhetorical emphasis. As an SE regular I am familiar with the all the difficulties of asking good questions, but the question in case could be compared to “My code isn’t working; what am I doing wrong?” (without any additional information). – Wrzlprmft Mar 2 at 13:22
  • @Wrzlprmft: And is he a PhD candidate in the equivalent of software engineering? – einpoklum Mar 3 at 0:17
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    @einpoklum does that really matter? Remember what PhD stands for, he's supposed to love thinking; the expectation he has to fulfill is trying to find ways to solve his problems that do not rely on others doing his work. So I argue that the actual background doesn't matter, as long as it's vaguely technical or scientific. – Marcus Müller Mar 3 at 0:47
  • @MarcusMüller: Yes, it really does matter, because you might have a perception bias of his behavior (plus - very small sample). Maybe he's a flunkie, but - you're not in a position to make that argument to his advisor IMHO. – einpoklum Mar 3 at 1:01

In general, I do not provide unsolicited negative opinions. So I would wait until the student's supervisor asks me for my opinion. I anticipate that the supervisor will never ask me - and I am OK with that.

On the other hand, it is good practice to praise generously and publicly. If and when you are impressed with a student then make sure his/her supervisor knows about it.

I agree with all the answers that say not to contact the supervisor.

I'd make one exception to that: If the student's questions indicated that they may be putting animals or people in danger, I'd find some way to flag this to the supervisor. I'd do this as tactfully as possible, but if a student is unintentionally causing unnecessary animal or human suffering I'd definitely try to intervene.

Otherwise, I'd go under the assumption that the supervisor is more familiar with the student that I am and already is aware of any weaknesses I perceive.

I would approach the situation differently. If you are a faculty member in the same department as the student with the same rank as, or higher than, the supervisor, you can swing by the supervisor's office and have a closed door conversation about how unimpressed you are with the student. Under no circumstances would I want a written/email record of the conversation. I would try and avoid doing it over the phone because face-to-face is more personal.

If you are a faculty member with a lower rank, depending on departmental culture, you might need to tread more carefully. If you are a post-doc or not in the department, instead of telling the supervisor that in your opinion the student is incompetent, I would provide the evidence that you have and allow the supervisor to come to that conclusion on their own.

I would send an email to both the student and supervisor that includes the entire email conversation. You could provide some textbook suggestions or very simple answers to the easy questions and suggest that the do it for me stuff would require a collaborative effort (if you want to work with the supervisor you can offer yourself up, or just say you do not have time to collaborate).

Personally, I don't see what you're suggesting as being as bad as other commentators are making out (and I note from your explanation that this is not a matter of annoyance, but concern). I note from your profile that you are a post-doc, which essentially makes you a member of the academic class, and so you are effectively a fellow colleague to the supervisor (albeit a lower-ranking colleague), not a fellow student to the student in question.

Rather than communicating your concern to the supervisor explicitly, perhaps you could obtain the same effect in an entirely different manner. You could send the supervisor an email advising that you have been providing some assistance to the student, and for his/her information, you are including the email chain in question below. Make no negative comment on the capacities of the student, and leave it to the supervisor to review the correspondence that caused you concern, and make his/her own professional assessment. That way, you are doing nothing more that being helpful by sending an email query from the student to the supervisor. If this still seems a big presumptuous/rude, you could even lighten it further, by seeking the supervisor's guidance for how to provide clearer help.

Here is an example of what I mean:


Dear Prof. [Name]

I am a post-doc in [area] at your university. I just thought I'd write to let you know that I have been attempting to provide some assistance to your PhD student [Student name]. This relates to an initial query about [subject] and we have been corresponding on the matter to try to figure out the best way to proceed (see email chain below). I'm not sure if I'm doing the best job explaining this stuff, so perhaps you could give me some guidance for how to provide clearer help.

I hope I am not stepping on any toes by giving outside assistance. If you would prefer to assist the student directly, please let me know.

Thanks,

[Your Name]


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    Without knowing the department culture, I would never suggest that a post-doc assume they are an equal colleague to a faculty member. In ideal departments that is the case, but in reality, that can get you in a lot of trouble in a lot of places. – StrongBad Feb 28 at 23:53
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    @None outside the classroom, there is not a sense of privacy. I wouldn't think twice about forwarding on a research related email to another colleague unless the the original email suggested something was confidential. – StrongBad Feb 28 at 23:55
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    @StrongBad: I have edited to make clear that I am not suggesting that a postdoc is an equal colleague to a prof, but still a colleague. – Ben Mar 1 at 0:03
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    @SSimon That would be insane. Think about it for a moment. – pipe Mar 1 at 11:23
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    @Mico: No worries. I always assume any down-votes on my posts are accidental. ; ) – Ben Jul 30 at 22:12

Rather than doing something like that behind student's back,1 I would send a blunt and frank email to the student. Like, judging by your questions, I don't see any effort on your part, and don't understand how you can be competent in this field. Please don't waste my time. Etc.

If I was confident in my assessment, I wouldn't even spare student's feelings that much. Sometimes it can be deserved. I find it creates a healthier culture than being nice upfront but making decisions behind the back. While being a student, I would certainly prefer it that way.


1 Note I don't imply, like some, that this is inherently unethical. Situations differ. There are fields where turning a blind eye creates an even more unethical (or even outright dangerous) situation overall.

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    I actually already sent such an email to them (being as frank, but less blunt); I am skeptical whether they got the message though. – Wrzlprmft Mar 1 at 10:41
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    @Wrzlprmft I think you did right. Personally, I'd ignore further emails from that student. Only don't be hasty judging him. Some of the most incompetent and lazy end up being quite good at the end of the PhD, provided they get their wake up call soon enough. – user21264 Mar 1 at 15:07

Perhaps it will help if you will e-mail the student and tell him that you are quite busy and do not have time to answer his basic questions. However, you suggest the student to e-mail his supervisor with same questions and add you as cc (and request his supervisor to send you also his answers), and if a more advanced question will arise, you will try to briefly explain what you know on the subject.

I suggest you read this "....." or do research on these techniques "...." then you should be able to answer questions 2,3, and 8 on your own. Also, it should help you ask better questions which include all the information I need to answer them. I don't have enough information to answer the other questions, I need the following information. "........".

me

The student will then have to do the research.

I understand the intellectual and moral challenge, and plenty of thoughtful answers have been given here.

I would suggest first do no harm as first guiding principle, and then hard on facts, soft on people as a second-line guideline.

In my perception, beside the do-nothing option, the safest strategy is to offer to the student your availability to establish a connection with his/her supervisor. What happens then becomes a matter for other posts.

A risk not to oversee is that the supervisor is no better than the student. The proof of the pudding is in the eating.

protected by StrongBad Mar 1 at 15:39

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