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I am a PhD candidate and I have recently received an undergraduate (Bachelor degree student) to work for a short duration. For purpose of discussion, the work is mainly mathematical in this project.

I have chosen this student based on the classes he has taken and works he has done. They were prerequisites for the work that should be done for me. So, he has the knowledge required. However, since he has started working on the project, I see that he makes very "silly" mistakes or takes too long to perform some calculation. I have told him several times to check his math and I am suspecting that he does not put enough effort into the project. My friends have told me that it may be that I expect too much and not all people understand stuff as quickly as I do, given that I have been working in this field for so long. I took their approach and started detailing everything to the student. I gave him small lectures, codes that I have written, and told him to come to me every-time he has a problem. However, I see that my lectures come to deaf ears. When I discuss with him about material covered, he still cannot answer. When confronted about it, he told me two years have passed since he has taken the prerequisite courses (which is true) and that he has hard time to get back on track. Still, the knowledge is there and he should be able to use it.

We are almost half-way through the project, so I cannot dismiss him. However, my biggest questions:

Is he just being lazy or is the topic too difficult for his level of skill?

I suspect that he is being lazy and giving up because he may be overwhelmed.

If anyone has any idea on how to encourage the student or make sure that he puts more effort without lowering his motivation. The followings are options I am considering now:

  1. Use fear. I will let him know somehow that he got to put more work and I am not impressed with what he has done so far. Hence, anything that he does now will be reflected in my future references for him.

  2. I have already told him to send me some works that he has done previously to this project. I told him that I want to see the level of math he is used to.

  3. Stop helping him. I will stop supervising his progress and if he needs help he will come to me. Otherwise, it is as if I do not care about the output of his project. When he will come to meet with my supervisor about his progress (we have weekly meetings), my supervisor will be able to see what I am seeing. However, this approach does not suit me as I do not want to involve my superior in this mess.

Any comment is appreciated.

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    Oh boy, you seem really underwhelmed by your student. However, please bear in mind that bachelor students are very young and might lack the attitude for such projects. Try to see yourself more as the guy who has to teach them how to approach such big projects. This needs a lot of patience. But it will make the difference for him between "I learned nothing during my thesis" and "My supervisor really showed me how to do this". – Ian Jun 21 '18 at 14:58
  • @Ian Yes I do agree with that. However, I do not want to be taken advantage of. If he is really struggling, I will do my best to show him the way. However, he is getting paid for the work (not by me, but by a scholarship of a sort) and I think he may just be freeloading... I will admit, it is hard for me to tell "incompetence" and "freeloading attitude" apart. – Snifkes Jun 21 '18 at 15:08
  • I feel it is good that you are aware of that shortcoming as a supervisor. Being able to tell when a person lacks a certain skill to be successful versus lacks the motivation to be successful will allow you to better rectify the situation as a supervisor. – JWH2006 Jun 21 '18 at 15:53
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    Is the undergrad being paid to do research? (I have found that paying undergrads to do research is not as effective as one would hope it to be.) – Mad Jack Jun 21 '18 at 16:33
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    I agree with Mad Jack, I have seen many undergrads paid for working in a certain project in a laboratory, and they just went there to get some money for wasting and a couple of months later gave up, not a good incentive, for undergrads "credit for effort" is the best way I guess or simply better grade in a certain course. – user91300 Jun 21 '18 at 17:57
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A poor workman blames his tools. You picked him. Did you interview him or just pick the resume? The point is you're the manager here. If you hired someone who couldn't do the job, that's on you, not your employee.

So, step one is to take responsibility. This is your mess.

Step two is to fix it. Students often show up with transcripts that suggest they should know things they don't. Railing against this is unhelpful. The adult response is to decide, okay, you're the teacher, you think they need certain knowledge and skills, so teach them! If you can't do that, perhaps you need to be a better teacher.

Sure, it's possible this student simply isn't capable of the work you want done. Not everyone has the same gifts. So back to step one, take responsibility for your mistake in hiring, try to make the relationship as productive as you can, and learn from your experience.

  • I appreciate your comment and I do see it that way too. I guess if made a mistake in my evaluation it is up to me at the end. But there do exist times where a student simply does not put the effort. And this is what I am trying to differentiate. I want to know for sure that it is me exclusively. – Snifkes Jun 21 '18 at 15:44
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Is he just being lazy or is the topic too difficult for his level of skill?

There's no way we can answer that question without being the student. What is required is a talk with the student and tell him ths issues you're seeing in his work and then create a plan to resolve the issue.

I wanted to address some of your comments:

...I have recently received an undergraduate (Bachelor degree student) to work for a short duration.

The situation of how he came to work with you could matter on his motivation. Is he doing this as part of a course requirement? Did he approach your professor and ask to take part in research? If he took the initiative to help, then you can be fairly certain he wants to be there and that his mistakes are likely from lack of experience. If he's required to assist you as part of coursework, he could be not invested in the work and only submitting what's required to receive the grade. Many undergraduates at my school who take part in research fall into those two catagories.

They were prerequisites for the work that should be done for me. So, he has the knowledge required.

I would also take into account that passing a course, even with a good grade, does not always translate into a person understanding the material. There are courses where someone can pass by rote memorization of formulas, values, etc without understanding the core concept.

If anyone has any idea on how to encourage the student or make sure that he puts more effort without lowering his motivation.

Again, I encourage you to sit down with this student and talk about what you're seeing in his work. Find the reason he's working with you and come up with a plan together to improve his work.

  • Very helpful! he took initiative to come to me but, at the same time, it is a program that pays undergrads. So I am still not sure about his true motivations. I think I will follow your last advice in any case. – Snifkes Jun 21 '18 at 15:47
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So I think I can chime in here. I did research as an undergraduate sophomore while pursuing my Bachelors Degree.

I think something you should realize is that research is very different from academic schoolwork. I was extremely overwhelmed when I started doing research. Instead of finding an answer in a few minutes on stackoverflow or a tutorial on a website: I was working in such a niche field that I could not find any resources online to aid me. Apart from getting help from my grad student (who was very forgiving and understanding and guided me well)- I felt like I was completely alone and the stress definitely got to me.

Chances are the student you got is quite smart- but is not prepared for research. Schoolwork does not really prepare one for research.

Use fear. I will let him know somehow that he got to put more work and I am not impressed with what he has done so far. Hence, anything that he does now will be reflected in my future references for him.

Using fear will most likely result in less progress because you will be stressing out the student. You can hint at wanting more work to be done but by demanding more work and saying that you're literally not impressed: I don't think anything good will come from that.

I have already told him to send me some works that he has done previously to this project. I told him that I want to see the level of math he is used to.

Previous school work does not mean that they will be super capable of applying that knowledge to research. Have they done prior research before? If so you can ask to see that. If not- then they are not used to the research setting which helps explain why they aren't being as competent as you hoped.

Stop helping him. I will stop supervising his progress and if he needs help he will come to me. Otherwise, it is as if I do not care about the output of his project. When he will come to meet with my supervisor about his progress (we have weekly meetings), my supervisor will be able to see what I am seeing. However, this approach does not suit me as I do not want to involve my superior in this mess.

This will not only make the undergraduate student frustrated with you but it may cause them to stop pursuing research if their view of higher level academic research is one of a toxic community where they cannot receive help.

You should not be looking at opportunities to criticize an undergraduate student whenever you can. They are new to research. You should be guiding them on the right path- helping them as needed- giving them that extra push in the right direction. If you are not willing to do this then you should not be in charge of an undergraduate student- learning how to work well with people who have a lower skill set than yourself is a vital skill and I suggest you work on improving that skill rather than blaming the student.

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    made a wonderful connection that is often forgot. Classroom ability is correlated with research skills but not in the absolute. A student who makes an A in an advanced course is likely a better research candidate than someone who failed. That said, being a good student does not equate to being a good researcher. – JWH2006 Jun 21 '18 at 15:51
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I always err on the side of patience with undergraduates.

I am concerned about your relationship with the student, and its ongoing climate due to your instinct on using fear and assuming the student is lazy. This seems like a very inappropriate use of your authority over a much more junior scholar. I worked with a group of undergraduates on a technical project wherein the background knowledge of the undergraduates extended to only their prereq classes. I think, that as experts in our respective fields, we can forget the periods in our academic careers when things were not so clear. For example, I have forgotten that to someone who has never used R, setting up your WD and reading in a data file can be a daunting endeavor. For me, it is something that is trivial that I do not put thought towards.

My options were, when the undergraduates struggled with basic programming tasks, was to either ignore them, abuse my position of authority (e.g. use fear), or take the time to work with them.

In the end, I found that setting aside some time to assess their abilities and then put them into tasks where they could be successful based on that assessment was a far more productive use of my time and their time throughout the semester.

In summary-

  1. you are the senior academic, you hold the power, and thus the responsibility. You can either abuse your position by belittling the student or you can own up to your own shortcomings as a supervisor and work to rectify what seems to be a worsening relationship.
  2. assess the students abilities and give them tasks that they can be successful in. In you were "had" and the student is not fit for the tasks you have in mind, then so be it. Gaining a reputation as a phd student who is abusive to undergraduates put in their charge is a quick way to not have the responsibility of overseeing an undergraduate again.

Again, I cannot stress how you need to reflect upon your own actions as a supervisor and the importance of this in being a good supervisor.

  • Thank you. Well, so far I did mention to my student that I am expecting him not to make the kind of mistakes he did and that he should pay more attention to his mathematics. Except of that, I am quite lenient. Although, I do not want him to think that he can do whatever he wants because I am not more demanding. – Snifkes Jun 21 '18 at 20:01
  • Perhaps the student does not have the conceptual understanding of what you are asking the student to do? I am still very confused by what you mean by lenient? Do you mean that you do not always have tasks awaiting for the student? – JWH2006 Jun 22 '18 at 13:06
  • By lenient I mean that I am trying to be easy. I understand mistakes may happen and I am not bothered with explaining stuff to a deeper extent if required. However, from the experience of his work in other institutions (he did have a couple of research-related jobs before coming to work in my lab), some mistakes are just too weird to gloss over. There are always tasks for the student, and I do not require a specific pace. – Snifkes Jun 23 '18 at 4:19

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