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I have a phd student that is very smart. They had a small baby a few months before starting the PhD in a foreign country and then moved to do the PhD with their family in the UK.

It has been 7 months now and the PhD student is not performing well. We have weekly meetings and I try hard to guide and help (more than I normally do). The student sometimes disappears for 1-2 weeks without answering emails and comes back offering no excuse rather vague "family-issues". The funding is fixed for 3 years without the possibility of extending or freezing. Also, the uni is rigid on students submitting at 3 years. We have discussed several times and I have suggested asking the university for help. Didn't happen yet.

At the end of the first year, PhD students have a mini-viva called transfer. The examiner is another professor from the department. With the current work, failure is almost certain, unless I appeal to that professor on behalf of the student (which I've never done before, I find it morally wrong, and don't even know if it would work).

On academic performance, the situation is clear, the student would fail. I only find myself in dilemma because of the family situation (small baby, new country, no relatives, low salary). The official guidelines state my suggestion should only be based on the academic performance. This is advisory since the examiner will make the final decision. Nevertheless, how can I do this knowing the student will lose their funding and visa and have to go back with their family?

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. @electrique: Please try to edit your question to address requests for clarification. – Wrzlprmft Jun 18 '18 at 21:06
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Have you communicated with the student clearly about the situation? It's easy to softball negative news so they might not realize just how dire their situation is. Sit them down and straightforwardly tell them that their options are ask for help or get sent home soon, like you have in this post.

Currently, since you (and the future examiner) have no insight into the reasons for the low performance, you have no indications that it would get any better soon or that the student would be capable of catching up in time to defend their thesis. Therefore the transfer is working as intended: to catch these cases early so that the student does not waste another two years to no end. It will feel harsh in the moment, but it is not in the student's best interest to stretch out their failure for another two years (I imagine they don't feel great about their work either).

If they can explain what went wrong, establish a plan for stopping it from happening in the future, and demonstrate improvement by the time of the deadline, only then would I consider pleading for leniency with the examiner or administration. Essentially, inspire yourself from standard management techniques and put the student on a performance improvement plan.

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    Thanks. I was very clear about the situation. We had the "chat" in the presence of another colleague who is the co-advisor. After the meeting, I sent a follow up email stressing the severity of the situation and what we discussed. – electrique Jun 16 '18 at 15:44
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    At this point, it sounds like you did what you could. Looks like the student is just not in the right situation for a PhD at the moment. Rather than letting them officially fail, would there be a possibility of them interrupting their studies and going back home for a while, then take up their PhD again in a year or two when they have a better grip of family life? – nengel Jun 17 '18 at 2:49
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    @electrique since you mentioned the UK, please bear in mind that the British way of delivering bad news is often misinterpreted by foreigners. I am a native speaker of English but I grew up in Greece. When I was in uni in the UK, it took me a long time to figure out that when my professor told me my work was "OK", he actually meant it was crap. I say this only so you consider the possibility that what to you may have sounded like being very clear, may have come across as much more ambiguous to someone from another culture. – terdon Jun 18 '18 at 10:12
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    @terdon +1. British "Some might say" as a way of delivering critisism is lost on me. "Too bad for them. Let's move on since all you others agree." silence – winny Jun 18 '18 at 15:30
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    On that topic, I think this answer deserves a mention. – Mehrdad Jun 19 '18 at 7:15
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The previous answers are excellent, and so I'd like to only add that it is worthwhile putting things in text. In case you have an in-person "heart to heart" in which you lay out the options and have a discussion with the student, sit down later on and summarize the discussion in an email that you send to the student. If you want to do it the other way around, that's fine as well -- sometimes a student needs to see written down and have time to digest something before they understand the gravity of the situation.

I suggest this for two reasons:

  • For some students, especially if English is not their first language and/or if they come from cultures where the culture is so that they say "yes" and nod to everything a professor says, having things written down provides a different level of reality than just hear someone say something. It also gives them a way to go over it again a couple of times to really understand what you are saying, if necessary with a dictionary.

  • For you, it gives you something you can point at if push eventually does come to shove. You can now reference an email or memo that can be looked at and that has a concrete date, in case you need to write the student about not performing the tasks you had laid out previously, or if you are asked by administration later on if you can back up your claim that the student has consistently underperformed.

I've been in your situation before, and at the time put the student on academic probation for two semesters after having struggled with the student for a year or more. That got her attention, and in the end she wrote an excellent thesis, independently and on a topic of her own choice. I admit that that was one of the worst things I had to do as a PhD adviser -- our students are our kids too, in some sense. But at the same time, dragging them along is also not a solution: they need to pull themselves out by their bootstrap, because (i) we can't just give them a degree, and (ii) there is a better student somewhere who could be admitted if we let students who don't do well go.

  • why is writing thesis on topic of own choice, horrible? – SSimon Jun 17 '18 at 4:17
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    @SSimon I think Wolfgang meant putting her in academic probation was horrible. – electrique Jun 17 '18 at 20:16
  • @electrique is correct. – Wolfgang Bangerth Jun 22 '18 at 6:17
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AFAICS no-one has mentioned clinical depression (can be triggered by lack of sleep or of course other reasons). The unexplained disappearances make me wonder. Is your student properly hooked into a medical system? I am not an academic, but when I was a student the Uni had a duty of care in this regard. This might justify an intervention even though they are adults.

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    I know the student is in touch with the student union and the international student office (which usually provide support). Also the university has a lot of structures to provide support. I am not trained to detect and surely address these issues, so I suggested to the student to talk to the aupport office. I cannot force them to do anything they don't want. – electrique Jun 17 '18 at 20:14
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    I apologise if I was not clear - I did not intend to suggest that an intervention was your responsibility, though it may be somebody's, and you might want to alert that person/agency. You obviously care about your student (as I would) and alerting the appropriate agency might help. Beyond that you may have to take refuge in tough love. – Shannock9 Jun 17 '18 at 23:13
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    @electrique: Maybe you’ve already done this, but it’s worth checking that the student is aware of the support resources. I had a period of serious psychological block on research during my PhD, and at some point my advisor just mentioned the names of the available resources (“Student Counselling Service” and so on), without pressuring me at all or suggesting any assumptions about what was going on with me. It was both practically helpful — I’d known they existed in principle but had been procrastinating looking them up — and also heartening to know that he was sympathetic to such issues. – PLL Jun 18 '18 at 10:07
  • Hi. Welcome to academia.SE. How does this answer the question? – user9646 Jun 19 '18 at 1:50
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Have you had a heart to heart with the student? I'd tell them they will fail after the first year on their current trajectory. I'd say this nicely but firmly. If performance doesn't immediately improve, there isn't much you can do. If performance does quickly improve, then I'd consider intervening on their behalf if they still haven't quite made it up to snuff for the year review.

Regarding your core question "...how can I do this knowing the student will lose their funding and visa and have to go back with their family?" remember that the student is there to learn and become an expert in their field. If they are not accomplishing that, they should not continue in the program (hard as that may be for you given the student's external situation).

  • how did they accept him in frist place? – SSimon Jun 16 '18 at 15:35
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    @SSimon I don't understand this question. The student is smart and had very good academic background. The interview was very good. – electrique Jun 16 '18 at 17:33
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Having worked through an MA and PhD myself, while not only starting a family but also simultaneously working freelance and undertaking sessional teaching, I know that life is not easy in this situation.

So many things can, and do, go wrong from the birth forwards. Mothers need the support of fathers. When childcare falls through, or a child is ill, then it is up to the person studying and working from home, with the most flexible schedule, upon whom everything falls. This is because they can catch up the work. Or so it is supposed. In reality, having had a first baby who struggled to feed and therefore to sleep, I found that exhaustion very quickly took over. The extra hours available to me were very few. I had to work through the night to keep everything going. Every few hours our child would awaken, needing me again, and I would try and let my wife rest and recover as much as possible.

The quality of my work suffered, and I felt trapped by the PhD. I thought many times about simply walking away from it, and all the stress. The one thing I didn't want to do was to make excuses based on my family situation, because explaining that nappy changing, parent and child groups, hospital appointments, bronchiolitis, chicken pox, asthma attacks, even conditions involving ambulances and overnight stays in hospital, might have interfered with a deadline was almost shameful to me given my work ethos.

So in all but the most extreme cases, I tried to maintain the illusion of normality while my brain was just sometimes so tired I couldn't converse, and I felt delirious almost constantly. This might be the reason you are not given fuller reasons; your student might fear being seen as lame in their excuses, and at the same time be only barely functioning.

It's a cliche but if you haven't had children of your own (you don't say whether you have or not), then just how much work they involve is unimaginable. As is the way in which time slips through a parent's fingers. At the same time, children in the long term force people to manage their time much more effectively than if everything is free floating and time is undefined by the needs of routine. So please don't give up on this person, try and find a way to help them, they are likely over-stretching themselves to meet everyone's needs and demands. To be the one who takes into account the human in the highly-pressured academic environment is to be an absolute hero. If you can set a precedent to help people with families, then everyone will in the long-term benefit I have no doubt.

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    Thanks for the answer. I do have small children and my wife did her PhD while having our baby. I have been in most (if not all) of the situations you mentioned above. That is the main reason, I believe, why I am discounting my academic standards (what I expect from my students) and putting so much effort into this. At what point, though, does it become unfair to other PhD students? I have another student with a 3 year-old and a 9-month old and same situation (international, no family, etc.) -- their performance is exemplar. – electrique Jun 17 '18 at 16:53
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    I'm so pleased to see that you are willing to consider the wider circumstances and I think you are absolutely right to raise these points for consideration within your department and the wider academic community. Of course, there are situations where you give every kind of assistance you can and people aren't willing to help themselves, but there are then those who are between the ideal and the awful who with the help can succeed. Ultimately the decision will be made over what to do by those in a position to do so, as you write, but at least you can be confident that you did your best. – sketchyTech Jun 18 '18 at 11:00
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They had a small baby a few months before starting the PhD... It has been 7 months now

So the baby is just around 1 year now? You are so kind to put a effort in finding a way for the student, instead of choosing the easy way to fail them.

You didn't mention in your question, but I guess your student is the mom. If this is the case, I would hope that you give your student another chance to improve.

Sorry to say the obvious, but during the first year:

  • Many babies will not sleep through the night, and they need to be fed every 3 hours. If the mom is breastfeeding them, she will not have much sleep.
  • Most women will suffer from some level of postnatal depression. In the extreme cases, many women killed their babies because of depression. So a PhD is nothing compare to this.
  • ...

The list goes on. It is not surprised that your student doesn't perform well.

But after a year, things start getting better. The baby sleeps through the night, depression may already go way, the parents have more experience, etc.

It may be the time that she can start making progress. So I hope you can give her a month or two to improve.


By the way, in my field (Computer Science), even at the top universities in the UK like Oxbridge, Imperial, UCL etc, most students cannot submit their thesis within 3 years. As this means only 2.5 years to do research, and 0.5 years for writing. How this is possible?

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    I agree with most of what you write here, but I wouldn't jump to the assumption of the student being the mother. The birth of a child can impact heavily on the partner as well as the mother, because the partner is the one supporting and providing opportunities for the mother to rest and recuperate, while also trying to carry on with their work and/or education commitments, which leaves very little time for themselves. The pressure of performing as normal combined with sleep deprivation in this situation can take people to the very edges of their sanity. – sketchyTech Jun 19 '18 at 10:29
  • @sketchyTech Having a baby is stressful for both parents. But in there are many particular things that make life much harder for a mum: breastfeeding, postnatal depression. Luckily, men (like me) don't have to suffer those things. – qsp Jun 19 '18 at 18:27
  • Of course, I'm not looking to take away from how hard childbirth and motherhood are, I'm simply thinking of my own situation where my wife was lucky to have a year of maternity leave to get back on her feet whilst my life became a juggling act from day one because I was simultaneously researching for a PhD, working freelance, trying to get stuff published, going to conferences, sessional teaching, etc., all the things that doctorate students need to do if they hope to have an academic career afterwards, but I was doing this with no more than two hours of unbroken sleep at a time. – sketchyTech Jun 20 '18 at 12:57
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I don't have an account but the question caught my eye as I was browsing other stack forums. It caught my eye because I went through the situation of the student and ended failing the PhD.

In my opinion you should be crystal clear with the student about what you wrote in your first post. Specially remark these three points:

  • Lack of results.
  • Deadline for the examination.
  • In case of failure of the examination the scholarship will be terminated, no excuses! Also, make sure he understands the final decision won't be up to you!.

If you really care you should help him as much as you can on getting better or sufficient results to pass the deadline, but before that, you should sit down with him and have long and calmed talk about what is going wrong.

That said not everybody is a decent person, you are trying to help him but may be he is trying to take advantage of the situation. Also, the first time he was absent for weeks and you didn't take measures you failed him as a supervisor.

In my case the language barrier was determinant, my professor wasn't able to properly to communicate in english and he didn't really wanted to supervise me because of that. I am also to blame as I didn't take the proper measures, partly because I was afraid of the consequences, and partly because I still hoped that the problem was going to be solved at some point. On a personal level I have a very good opinion about my supervisor but it didn't work in the end.

In short:

  • Wishful thinking doesn't usually works very well.
  • Expose the situation clearly and with conviction.
  • If you care enough help him with the deadline and his personal problems.

Finally, failing the PhD is not the end of the world, it is a hard blow but he will continue with his life. As someone that went trough the same problem and understand how stressful it can be I wish you both all the best

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