This question contains this:

  1. After months of work as an RA in a research group, at the end of the semester, my adviser informed me that he was not satisfied with my research and would not continue to fund me.

I am just curious, how do supervisors determine that a phd student is not doing great? What factors do they consider?

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    It's not quite clear to me whether this is a rhetorical question -- what factors do you think matter when evaluating someone's job performance? It's not like professors consider some hidden oracle about this, but they judge their new employees in much the same way as most employers would. – Wolfgang Bangerth Apr 2 '18 at 21:27
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    I consider this a useful question. Academia is extremely opaque compared to most workplaces; students are by definition still learning; and few professors have any management training whatsoever. – cactus_pardner Apr 3 '18 at 4:48

As a postdoc, I have supervised only Master's students. To determine how they are doing, I typically pay attention to three different aspects:

  • Ability to learn. Can students learn new skills (experimental or computational techniques)? The more advanced a student is, the more independence I'd expect here.

  • Understanding of subject matter. Does the student understand how their research fits in the broader research field, and why they are using the techniques they are using? Can the student come up with better ways of answering their research question/come up with a better question to answer/find the good question to ask?

  • Ability to prioritise. How easily does the student identify and work on the most important sub-question to answer? As a project comes close to being finished, can the student keep up a strong pace to deliver final results as quickly as possible?

I don't have a rule to determine when someone isn't doing good enough - I have never had to make that decision. Probably that decision would come when I find that, despite feedback, someone isn't improving on these aspects as I think they should.


Professors are not always the best mentors yet a good one is a good people manager who has had training in Positive Reinforcement by Dr. Aubrey Daniels as we all did at work in the 80's. The process involves setting objects, measuring results and getting constructive feedback with consequences for negative results after retry.

Start by writing your own measureable objectives following guidelines from your boss, review with him/her with a timeline and testable criteria, # of critical problems, and performance metrics etc.

Measured accompishments, can be self-rated and compared with boss for discussion on defining clear expectations , refining goals and strategies for improvement.

It can be simplified into Time , Performance (multi-tasking), Quality and Cost Savings for a performance expected that is expected with some level of experience... or exceeded in more than one significant way

Then there are soft skills such as being; reliable , self-reliant, innovative, creative and networking in a way to save time yet not over-burdening , being resourceful, positive attitude towards self and others.

Learning how to learn is the hardest for some to accomplish. yet this is the main goal in Univ, as in industry the practise becomes more diverse and also more focused. e.g. learning how to condut a business plan or lab report or Design Specifications with a Design Validation Test plan and report using structured concise yet simple results to prove validity of the specs and accuracy of the results.

A perfect design is one that only meets "all of the necessary specs" such as Cost, performance, quality and reliability under any environment expected. Climatic, Mechanical, Electrical, Chemical. etc. ; benign or to extreme.

Yet with a faster learning curve gained from experience of failures of others and self by learning solutions and constant reading. This is the fastest way to grow under pressure.

I suggest to request 15 minutes of your bosses time to discuss expectations and you return with this understanding in writing in measureable concise results.

You may also solicit colleague review feedback as everyone is your customer as you are to them for information. Having it in writing for your own learning process is a tool for self improvement.

If it is worth doing, it is worth documenting, but critical issues should always been done in person.

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    yet a good one is a good people manager who has had training in Positive Reinforcement by Dr. Aubrey Daniels as we all did at work in the 80's -- How do advisors, who have not had this training, determine that a PhD student is not doing great? (I suspect that not a lot of academic advisors have had this training, my former advisor and myself, included.) – Mad Jack Apr 3 '18 at 1:10
  • Follow my outline and get the book otherwise, it may be a subjective analysis rather than objective with measureable results. This is pretty common everywhere with Human resource management in many industries. There is no harm is sharing this method with your boss as long as the KISS approach is used, or don't ... – Tony Stewart Sunnyskyguy EE75 Apr 3 '18 at 1:40