I am a postdoc and currently co-supervising a novel PhD student who works very very slow and needs to be spoon-fed most of the time (which is reasonable considering she's in early stages of her PhD). We are working on a very hot topic and have defined a research problem to work on. She has been working on it for 2 months, but I'm afraid we are going to miss out on publication due to her slow pace. I, however, can see where the work is going and can do it on my own very quickly and maybe get it published right way. This work is an incremental research on something I did before, but for the student to climb the learning curve, it will take a considerable time.

Thinking about this, I have two options:

  1. Let her take her time and do research as any usual PhD student but push her to be quicker (not sure how).
  2. Do the research work myself and get it published much sooner than pursuing option 1 above, and list her as a co-author.

Now option 1 gives the student a fair-go in risk of missing out to another research group that may be doing similar research. Even under this option, I'm not sure if the student will really do a fantastic job eventually. Option 2 seems unethical to me because a student should have his/her time to learn and experiment, but will allow her to learn the publication process and contribute to the production of the paper.

What do you think I should do?

  • 9
    You are "co-supervising", which means you are not to make this decision on your own. Talk to the other advisor (a more senior professor I assume?) before deciding what to do.
    – Dirk
    Jul 10, 2018 at 7:16
  • 11
    PhD students will always be slower than more experienced researchers. A (co)supervisors role is to teach them, not to (only) benefit from their work. If you have a hot topic that you want to work on fast, don't assign it to the student. If you do, be patient, lenient, and provide guidance. If you assigned to a student a topic that you'd like to work on alone - that looks like a supervising mistake you have to live with. Either take the project away from the student (I don't recommend; it also reflects poorly on you), or accept it will take time.
    – user68958
    Jul 10, 2018 at 7:30
  • 1
    Is your field down to a single research topic? If not it really seems like your efforts could be directed to another, more difficult problem that is not something you can do very quickly.
    – Bryan Krause
    Jul 10, 2018 at 20:57
  • @DirkLiebhold, yes obviously.
    – Pioneer83
    Jul 11, 2018 at 23:38

2 Answers 2


If you have taken on the responsibility of shepherding this student to her doctorate then you have an ethical constraint that overwhelms most other considerations. The only exception to that, that I can see, is if the research is actually life saving in some way.

I a lot of supervisor-supervisee relationships the advisor can do the work on her/his own without the student. But that doesn't ever imply that the student should be left behind. The supervisor has more experience in field and in research in nearly all cases, so the student requiring a (possibly long) learning curve is pretty typical.

The "hotness" of the research topic doesn't change your ethical responsibilities. If you don't want to honor that you shouldn't take on advisor roles.

However as aeismail suggests, the student needs a suitable problem, not necessarily this problem. If she is at the beginning of the process it might be reasonable to morph her participation into a different problem.

But, your assessment of her overall ability may also be wrong. She may, in fact, have a breakthrough moment in which things fall into place. And if the problem is that she lacks key background elements for some reason, you could make it go faster by finding ways for her to quickly come up to speed on those.

Finally, it isn't uncommon in many fields, including mathematics, for an advisor to give some hints to the student, pointing out the direction to be explored, if not more.


If she’s truly in the beginning phase of her PhD, it would be entirely appropriate not to wait, unless you have specifically defined the tasks she needs to do as an explicit part of her thesis research. In that case, you must proceed with extreme caution, because you are fundamentally changing things after everyone has agreed on a plan.

Otherwise, if she has already made some contributions, incorporating them into ongoing research and including her in the publication process would be a good way to help her develop her skills and motivate her to make further contributions because she can see directly what can be done with it. You can also mention that other results she gets in the near future could also be used.

However, as mentioned by others, if you are a subordinate co-supervisor, you are not able to follow this advice unilaterally and should consult with the principal supervisor to make sure you are in agreement on this strategy.

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