I'm a junior faculty in academia and I was asked to take a PhD student several months ago.

I was not involved in the hiring process, hence I did not have a chance to evaluate his abilities before joining the program. Indeed, this was the student of someone senior (full professor), but he was transferred to me because the senior person was too busy.

The student is in his first year, and I know he has a lot to learn. However, in these few months the student has not been able to make any progress. I am always the one who needs to keep emailing him and asking him what is happening with X or Y. I have to ask him to come for meetings and sometimes he doesn't show up.

During data collection, he was not even able to put together two columns in Excel. Since then I realized that he does not have the abilities, curiosity, and self-learning capabilities for a PhD. I talked about this with the senior person and told him that I was very concerned that the student will not be able to make it as he is not even capable of managing two columns of data. The senior person suggested me to lightly advice and see if the student could perform. Meanwhile, I hired someone to help with the data (with my own grant), which can be used for other projects if this one doesn't come to fruition.

I asked the student to do a literature review and after literally following him for two months, he submitted something and it is the worst literature review that I have ever seen (I have also worked with undergrads as RAs and they have done far better jobs for data management and literature reviews). I have sent the student several examples, commented on his review, revised it, but still the outcome is horrible.

I asked him to write the theory and he just copied verbatim from other papers. At this point, I don't know what to do. The senior person is pissed off that the student is not making progress, but the student is just not capable and I had discussed that with the senior person before.

Now the question is what to do? I don't want to write the paper for him and take him for a free ride. I don't believe on gifting papers, specially to someone incapable. What I am afraid of are the "political" consequences. There are not many PhD students around here and just because of that they may want to keep him. I am a junior and have several other projects to work on and this student is just draining my time with terrible outputs. How should I deal with the issue?


I appreciate the kind advice of everyone. I had a lengthy talk with the student, he admitted that his work is not up to the standard and that he is not putting in enough effort. He is literally taking this time as vacation by enjoying his days beside the pool (we do have a nice pool in campus btw). He just graduated from an undergraduate degree and doesn't know how to function in the adult world, or so to say. His parents always did everything for him and he has never had the need to make any effort to "earn" anything (the student said this himself; I am not making any assumptions, putting my bias, etc. just giving some background information.).

I implemented several actions to make him report his progress daily and we are meeting twice a week. We are getting connected in an online working platform and he can let me know about any issues immediately. I gave him all the materials I used myself during my PhD, which I had to self-learn and I expect him to do the same. He had taken all the basic courses (including how to write theory and do literature reviews) that our school offers, so it is not like he was "left" alone.

I also told him that he needs to fulfill our work plan with the deadlines that we established together. If he is not willing to put the hours to make it happen he has either to look for a new advisor or drop the program. I was just very honest with him.

As a side note, the student and I do not have any issues or wrong perceptions and I am not denying my responsibility. Some have also assumed that I am not willing to put in the time, which is not true. I am putting more time in than other faculty does with other students. As I mentioned in my original post, I am constantly reviewing his work, meeting with him, giving him feedback and materials.

This is just the most I could do for him. Unfortunately, I am not in a good position to devote my entire time to him. I also have to fulfill my own tenure requirements, maybe if I had tenure and more stable job conditions, I could sit with him and teach him how to use the most basic, even Word and Excel (which he is not proficient with).

I hope this works. If you have any other suggestions on how to improve the situation, feel free to post them.

  • 3
    Have you told the student he needs to improve? Does he understand he is on “probation,” so to speak?
    – Dawn
    Commented Jul 24, 2018 at 12:27
  • 8
    Clear, documented expectations and progress reviews (also documented), together with clear consequences of not being able/willing to deliver.
    – Jon Custer
    Commented Jul 24, 2018 at 14:16
  • 48
    I don't have time to write a full answer (busy looking after PhD students and associated departmental paperwork) but I would just like to say that my own take is more sympathetic to your difficulties than some of the remarks in the answers below, and I disagree strongly with the opinion voiced below that "[dropping the student] is as much your fault as theirs and that you will strive to do better with future students"
    – Yemon Choi
    Commented Jul 24, 2018 at 15:09
  • 3
    Is this student taking classes? (Many PhD programs start out with a year or two of classes before students jump into research in a big way, which might affect both their knowledge & skill base and how much time they have available.)
    – 1006a
    Commented Jul 24, 2018 at 16:19
  • 18
    You may want to ask after the mental well being of the student. Many students get depression during their PhD studies, particularly after events like changing advisers. I went through it myself and I began to believe I was a terrible student and then lived up to my low expectations. Once I got myself mentally in order, I ended up having a very successful PhD.
    – Barker
    Commented Jul 24, 2018 at 22:39

13 Answers 13


Let's go with the assumption that this student is genuinely unsuited for a PhD. Such people do exist, they do get into graduate programs, and it is not doing them, their advisor, or the field any favors to string them along and waste their time. What should the advisor do with them?

There are two critical things: Communicate, and document.

Communicate with the department chair, with the dean, with the head of the graduate program, and anyone else who is involved with administration. Explain that you are concerned about this student's progress and potential, assure them that you are going to treat the student fairly, and ask them to help you set up a program to monitor the student's progress. Keep communicating with these people during this program. Prepare and send regular updates (at least quarterly, probably more).

Document the student's progress. To do this, you'll need to communicate with the student. Set clear, objective, unambiguous targets. These targets should be achievable by a PhD student without stress or difficulty; they are not stretch goals, they are the minimum that a PhD student should be able to perform. Set multiple goals, a realistic time apart, so that over a period of say a year a minimally competent student would be able to hit each goal on schedule.

Communicate these goals with your chair, grad student advisor, etc, and make sure everyone is on board. Communicate with the student. Explain to the student (ideally in the presence of the grad student coordinator, the departmental chair, the dean, etc) that he or she must hit each of these goals or they will be removed from the PhD program. This goes in writing, signed by you and the student and probably some or all administrators, and you store the document where you can refer to it repeatedly.

Each goal has a target date. Document whether the student did or did not achieve that goal. It will be a temptation to say that the student almost made it, or to decide that the goal was too hard and move the goalposts down. Don't do this. You set these goals so they're the minimum a PhD student should do; if the student doesn't completely achieve each goal, they are not a minimally acceptable PhD student.

If they don't reach every one of the goals, then it's up to the administration. The traditional solution at this point is to offer the student the choice of "Mastering out" (taking a MSc instead of a PhD and moving on), dropping out, or finding another advisor; the latter usually comes with warnings that they are on thin ice if they do.

Is this a lot of work? It sure is, and it should be; this is a major life decision for everyone concerned, and it shouldn't be the easy way out. But there are times when the best way forward for a student is to get out of a program, and there are ways to help them to that conclusion.

  • 8
    I think this is very good specific advice on how to move forwards (rather than taking the OP to task for their assessment/opinion of the student)
    – Yemon Choi
    Commented Jul 24, 2018 at 20:44
  • 2
    Isnt this hard way? I agree with you iayort, but this process you describe will take a lot of time
    – SSimon
    Commented Jul 25, 2018 at 7:47
  • 2
    @SSimon: As stated in the last paragraph, Is this a lot of work? It sure is, and it should be; this is a major life decision for everyone concerned, and it shouldn't be the easy way out.
    – tonysdg
    Commented Jul 25, 2018 at 16:06
  • 6
    @SSimon: Not to be rude, but what makes you think dropping a student quickly (without the methodical approach described in the answer) will look better to the tenure committee? This is about as close to a no-win-scenario as you can get, so the best answer is to do everything by-the-book and minimize your losses.
    – tonysdg
    Commented Jul 25, 2018 at 16:55
  • 2
    This is a so-called Performance Improvement Plan (PIP) and is usually used to reduce the fallout for the superior before the employee is terminated. Although it's goals are theoretically to help the employee demonstrate their worth, in practice it's usually an umbrella to document excessively and to include a number of senior people so that nobody can claim that the termination was the whim of the direct superior. Being as it is, I would consider this the nuclear option. First, I doubt OP is experienced enough to set "clear, objective, unambiguous targets" for the student. (1/2) Commented Jul 26, 2018 at 6:50

I will share my perspective. To give a little background, I went from being the doctoral student you described above to being a postdoc with a strong publication rate at a prestigious university. I suppose my major professor was feeling very much the way you are. I know this because I was put on probation after my first year in my phd program. Suffice to say, though, I was completely unprepared to conduct research at a PhD level, even for a first year.

I was put under a junior faculty member to RA by my major professor during my first year and its interesting that what you refer to are the same problems I had. I even produced a terrible literature review as well! I imagine I was more of a hindrance than a help. My second semester was spent doing clerical/inventory work out of the way of the rest of the lab. My major professor and the junior faculty member told me that I was unfit for PhD.

So what changed for me?

I had a senior faculty member take interest in me and take me under his wing. He was closer to retirement and I imagine had more time for mentoring. He was patient with me, took time to talk with me, and took an active interest in me. Slowly and surely I started to turn things around and ended up graduating with a strong publication record that included multiple first authored journal articles and numerous conference proceedings.

In my reflection on my phd career I realize that my core issue was facing the reality of my unpreparedness and then emotionally retreating. This created a spiral of negativity that only kept making things worse and worse. I performed a task poorly, then was chastised, then my motivation declined, then I performed a task even more poorly, then was further chastised, then my motivation declined even further, etc, etc, etc.

For me, the best thing that happened was for my supervisor and the junior faculty member to let another faculty member mentor me. I realize that the relationship I had with the junior faculty member was likely poisoned as she perceived the issues relating to my work as character deficiencies and general inadequacy of abilities.

It seems that you are in this place with your graduate student. You view their performance due to character deficiencies (laziness) and inadequate abilities. It is likely that this will color your perception of any positive progress that the student might make.

If you feel that you can not make a clean start with the student, then perhaps letting someone else mentor them might be best. It was for me.

I will strongly caution you though in making judgments about their character, potential, and abilities. The core issue might be the relationship between you and the student rather than some inherent problem with the student.

  • 2
    unfortunately, this is true, and there is also scientific evidence that confirms this answer. Thank you JWH2006 for writing this.
    – SSimon
    Commented Jul 25, 2018 at 7:49
  • You are welcome, I hope that my perspective might give the OP a little insight to a possible explanation for their situation. My personal guess is that the issue is the relationship between the OP and their student. This relationship is likely a negative influence on the patience/understanding of the OP and motivation of the student. But, again, i am probably very biased in this regard.
    – JWH2006
    Commented Jul 25, 2018 at 14:01
  • actually OP stated in a comment below that this is the fault of Program, they hire student bcs there was lack of one. Now he needs to deal with him, I hope he can understand-
    – SSimon
    Commented Jul 25, 2018 at 14:32
  • Very good answer; shows how much difference better mentoring can make.
    – Konrad
    Commented Jul 26, 2018 at 15:38

First, I think you were abused if you were forced to take on a student other than by mutual agreement. I feel bad for your situation. But you gave some level of buy in to it, even if under duress. This gives you responsibilities to the student that are no different than if your relationship had been more traditionally arranged. He is a person, not an artifact.

I think your responsibilities are clear. You must teach him what he needs to know. No professor can ever expect that a student is so well trained/educated in the past that nothing is expected of themselves and that all will be well. If that were true there would be no need for you in the first place.

Teach him how to do data collection. Teach him how to do a lit review. Don't complain about him or compare him to others. He isn't them. His background is different. If it is deficient that isn't your fault, of course, but someone has failed him and you have taken on the responsibility to mentor him.

If you are incapable of that then you need to find a way to sever the relationship in an equitable way. I don't know if that is possible here.

Note that this isn't a rant. I've been in similar situations with unprepared and (seemingly) unmotivated students. It was a royal pain but through a lot of work and coaching, the students I have in mind ended up at the very top of their class. But my office hours were always occupied by these students. At first they don't understand anything and require constant repetition. By the end, they are explaining things to me - correctly, it turns out. Easy? NO. Required. Well, that is the job description of a professor, really.

I'm sorry for your situation, but you need to either fulfill the responsibilities or find a way out. Letting the student naturally fail shouldn't be one of the options.

I include this addendum due to new information from the OP. While I still believe that the solution I stated above is the correct one (teach the student what he needs to know), there are ethical issues for the University itself as well as for its faculty. In fact, my view is that "the University" IS "the faculty".

It is not unethical for a university to accept unprepared students. It may be commendable, in fact. However if it also puts its head in the sand and refuses to see what it is doing and account for it then it is acting unethically. However, if it also wants to organize itself so that such unprepared students are given the specific help they need to be successful, then I congratulate them. Otherwise, however, they are acting unethically.

In the particular case, it seems that the student was admitted with no compensating help. Everything was simply thrown on the student. Sink or Swim, not my problem. Of course, such a student can't do a literature search effectively the first time. Neither can they swim two laps the first time they are pushed into the pool.

However, it isn't completely the responsibility (or shouldn't be) of the OP, here. I think it is equally unethical for a university (and especially a full professor) to push problematic/marginal students off on junior (read inexperienced) faculty. Such faculty typically don't know how to effectively handle such cases since they are, themselves in the pool for the first time.

So, either the university need to uphold stated standards or must find a way to equitably compensate when they don't. And it needs to be equitable for all concerned, both students and (junior) faculty.

But, to be doubly clear, the university and its faculty doesn't owe the candidate a degree. But it does, IMO, owe him all the support he needs. And that doesn't include lowering standards of performance or writing their papers for them. Support and encouragement.

As to advice to the OP, if at all possible, I hope you are looking for a better situation, in which you can more fairly do your own job and work more gradually into the advising game.

  • 1
    The discussion about the student’s suitability and who is to blame has been has been moved to chat. Please read this FAQ before posting any new comments.
    – Wrzlprmft
    Commented Jul 25, 2018 at 12:57

In my academic department all faculty who advise graduate students meet once a year and discuss, in detail, each student in turn. It is a gruelling meeting, but it's incredibly useful. In your career you may only have a handful of graduate students, but the department as a whole has had many more, and has probably seen your problems before. They also may interact with your student (in classes, at talks, etc.) and may have information you do not. For example, a student who just isn't performing in your lab is a different situation than one who is also struggling in classes, unable to give talks, etc.

I don't know how to make a department do this if it has not been happening, as it's quite an uncomfortable process. Maybe you could start by asking for a meeting with senior people in your department, if they are any you trust. Be sure to respect your institutional rules on confidentiality.

I will close by saying that I was this grad student myself. My advisor said very pointedly to me late in my second year "You aren't getting anything done; are you in the wrong place?" I blurted out, "My project isn't working and I have no faith it will ever work, for technical reasons X and Y." She responded, "It's good that you know this; now, what are you going to do about it?"

By being pushy in this way, she got me to admit to myself that the project was a failure, and got me moving on finding a new project. I might have sat there for years doing nothing, otherwise.

I have also been the labmate of a struggling student whose advisor just let him skate along. He skated for ten years, doing nothing for the last four (we didn't even see him) and then was informed that the University would discharge him without a degree, at which point he rallied and finished it. I am fairly sure this was a mental health issue, and I have come to feel we did the student no favors by letting him skate for so long; a confrontation would have been better. Ten years is a big chunk of a person's life.


I'm just an undergrad myself, but I felt compelled to give my two cents. It seems to me that this student is severely lacking in some foundational skills and courses. Can you not recommend remedial classes? Tell him what your expectations are for deadlines and quality on his work, and that if they aren't met, you expect him to enroll in undergraduate courses to get up to speed. While looking at grad schools I often saw programs that stated students with insufficient background in the subject matter would be required to make up undergraduate courses. It seems reasonable for you to expect the same. Also make it clear that it is incredibly unprofessional for him to make you chase after him for updates-- that's ridiculous. That's unacceptable for a 17-year-old where I come from, much less an adult. Set up a schedule for his progress and checking-in, and if he fails to keep it, have consequences ready. As someone who often struggles with executive functioning-related tasks like these, I sympathize with him. But, if the quality of his work is so low, I don't see how he will be an asset to the department longterm unless it improves.


Either you (1) help or (2) sever ties. Your two options have the same characteristic: you have to fully commit to the situation. You have a moral and professional responsibility to fully commit to this decision. From your question, it seems like (1) is not readily available.

The failure here was taking the student before realizing that (1) was not an option.

oh, and this students future is far more important than anything else you are going to produce as a scientist (from an integrity, 'sleep at night' point of view). how many people are going to read your paper? vs. how many people are going to judge your new protege?

  • 2
    "this students future is far more important than anything else you are going to produce as a scientist" That is debatable. Are you aware that there are scientists working on extremely important (objectively, think cure for cancer as an example) research questions?
    – user9482
    Commented Jul 26, 2018 at 7:05
  • 2
    Roland, are you aware this student will be potentially working "on extremely important (objectively, think cure for cancer as an example) research questions"? and if this new faculty can find his groove, that perhaps even TWO of his students might be potentially working on extremely important (objectively, think cure for cancer as an example) research questions?? but thats just the kool aid talking. its FAR MORE LIKELY that the faculty's contribution to humanity will not be his scientific work, but his influence on his students lives
    – user96140
    Commented Jul 26, 2018 at 11:53

If you want to continue helping the student (or are going to help students in the future), I would stress the importance of communication with the student. Being merely a student myself, I always appreciate it if teachers (at any level) take the time to explain or discuss what they expect.

In your case, you mention that the literature study took 2 months and didn't meet your expectations. I don't know how regularly you were in contact with the student, but I believe that if you maintained proper communication this wouldn't have gone on for so long. The reason for that is that you and your student need to know what you want from each other.

At the start of the literature review, you should have a meeting with the student in which you make clear your expectations (try being as specific as possible) and tell them that you are open to communication (this should take no more than 30 minutes, I think). That means that if the student thinks they have a problem or are unsure about something then they contact you. You can even tell them that you rather have a request you have to reject ('you have to figure that out yourself') than to have no communication for (a) week(s) and then finding out the work isn't good enough. This also makes the student feel at ease, they know they aren't in it alone.

Then, in the same meeting, you discuss with the student if they think they can meet those expectations. Ask them how they are going to approach this. Ask them what they think might be problems they will come across and discuss those to give the student some ideas (and boost their confidence).

At the end of the meeting you stress that they can contact you if they have questions or if they think they are going to (have to) diverge from the approach discussed in that meeting. Tell them that you have time (I'm assuming you have) to meet in person to discuss new problems or if approaches don't work.

If you really want to push them to do work ('following him' as you say), tell them to send (by email or in person) a weekly progress update. Tell them to be brief (this should take them at most 15 minutes per week), but informative. You expect to be kept in the loop, make sure the student knows that and that it's their task to do so. That way, reaching out becomes their task, not yours.

By implementing this, you don't give the student any unfair advantage, however, you encourage them to make the most of the project. Now, as one mentor said to his pupil: now, the ball is in your court. ;)


There is a rather fine line that divides what students are expected to know before entering a program and what they are expected to learn. That is relevant at any educational level really, not only exclusive to grad school.

@Buffy's answer focuses on your own competence / willingness to shape your student into a PhD candidate. There is another line there. Sure, you could drop this student and wait for another, then, if he doesn't perform either, drop him too. At some point you will run out of students, and/or the job, as there simply aren't enough high level people out there. On the other hand, you could also invest a tremendous amount of time in a student's career until they realize that that isn't their career of choice and quit. You have again lost a student, admittedly through no fault of your own, but at a cost of your career. As a professor, you are expected to be able to assess whether a student is cut out for the challenge or not.

This is not something that can be initially done at an interview, as it seems you are worried about the student being "forced on you". It is bad practice, but for other reasons. Most of the time, it takes time to get to know the student, their work dynamic, capabilities, strengths and weaknesses. Some students take a longer time to start producing results.

On the other hand you need to pay your part of the bill. As the question reads, I'm getting the feeling that you are not willing to put in the time to actually see whether the student makes any progress. It is their first year, a few months in, yet you are complaining that they produced the worst literature review (I'm assuming their first also) and that they are unable to handle two columns of data. The first occurrence is on you. It is your job to teach them how to write a paper, literature review, thesis, etc. Sure, grad students are expected to show a degree of independence, but the mentor is still critical primarily in those "academic" crafts. The second is in my opinion rather irrelevant. I've met distinguished professors (computer scientists at that) who were unable to restart a PowerPoint presentation. The good thing is, these skills are much easier to learn and be taught than the ones above. If you don't want to invest a few minutes to show how the columns are formatted, at least instruct them to google it and let them figure it out themselves.

The bottom line is, it is easy to dismiss students as incompetent and a waste of time / resources, but doing so reflects badly on you as a person and as a mentor. First and foremost you should ask yourself and perhaps someone senior what you can do to improve the student's performance. Then, if that proves insufficient, you can talk with the student in an effort to identify problems. If all fails, you should consider dropping the student, with the understanding that that is as much your fault as theirs and that you will strive to do better with future students.

  • 1
    I think this answer may be getting at some important points, but the style of writing is a bit hard to follow in paragraphs 2-4.
    – Dawn
    Commented Jul 24, 2018 at 18:03

Other answers here have already discussed the role of the adviser in the scientific and personal growth of a PhD student and advised you against being too eager in negatively judging your student. On the basis of my experience, I totally agree with them. Here, I want to suggest a possible last resort, as implemented in some PhD programmes at my university. Indeed, its applicability depends on your university rules, but let me stress that it's an extreme solution and that the final decision should be that of a whole committee, not just yours.

When a student is really not able to make any progress after the first or second year (e.g. out of laziness), the PhD committee can give a six-months probation period after which either the student has shown some progress (at least in the commitment) or they are expelled from the programme. After six months, the committee reexamines the situation and takes the decision.

  • 4
    I think that a meeting with the candidate and a probation period is perfectly acceptable, even commendable. The student has notice, and, I hope, a plan for success that he can accept or not. But I note for the record, that many students stumble early on for reasons completely unrelated to "laziness". But a suitable meeting should bring that out.
    – Buffy
    Commented Jul 24, 2018 at 21:22
  • This can even be the default way of things, evaluation after one year and maybe after approx. half-time. Commented Jul 29, 2018 at 11:06
  • @mathreadler We actually evaluate the students each year, but probation is a strong warning. Commented Jul 29, 2018 at 11:08
  • @MassimoOrtolano So why not connect it to the yearly evaluations? Commented Jul 29, 2018 at 11:09
  • @mathreadler In fact, it is connected to the yearly evaluations, when the PhD committee meets to discuss students' evaluations. In these occasions an adviser can present critical cases and ask if they can be put on probation. As I said, however, probation is not the norm and is given only in rather extreme cases (< 1%, I'd say). Commented Jul 29, 2018 at 11:14

Just a partial answer addressing the question how to end the advisor–advisee relationship in a way that reduces political repercussions: Is there any chance that the student quits the PhD on their own account, so you would not have to be the one that fires him? They must be somehow aware that they are doing badly and are probably not happy, so it may only need a nudge to dissolve some gridlocked thought patterns.

For example, you could ask him (honestly) why he is still clinging to the PhD programme despite all his troubles. (Such a question may also help to uncover some underlying problems such as psychiatric issues, family troubles, mastering out, etc. that you may help to address.)


  • I assume the case that the student has no realistic chance of finishing his PhD.

  • I do not suggest to talk or even push the student into quitting – just bring up the option.

  • Wrzlprmft, OP wrote in comments, that Program accepted this student. I think they should deal with it, bcs it would look negative in his file that student didnt success to finish. Not good idea fro tenure
    – SSimon
    Commented Jul 25, 2018 at 14:34
  • 1
    @SSimon: As written in my first note, this answer covers the case that it is clear that the student will not successfully finish either way.
    – Wrzlprmft
    Commented Jul 25, 2018 at 16:01
  • 2
    this response is a deferment of responsibility on behalf of the question asker. whether he likes it or not, he is a leader now, and it is time to act like it.
    – user96140
    Commented Jul 25, 2018 at 19:10

Since then I realised that he does not have the abilities, curiosity, and self-learning capabilities for a PhD

  • Lack of abilities: this can be improved with time
  • Lack of self-learning capabilities: this can be improved with a lot a lot of time.
  • Lack of curiosity: this will lead to lack of motivation and determination. Drop him.

No matter how slow one is, (s)he can still move forward if they have the determination. On the other hand, no matter how fast one is, he cannot move forward without determination. Doing a PhD requires a lot a lot of determination.

  • 1
    You are completely right, people can mature and get insight several years after a course or a conference. The problem is that a PhD degree is in many cases time-limited connected to a funded project that leaps not much longer than same amound of time. If no other funding can be found then it will crash and burn. Commented Jul 29, 2018 at 11:03


The way you describe this student sounds like there is a reasonable possibility they are struggling with depression. Remember, grad school isn't the easy choice. It is much easier to just get a job out of undergrad and it pays way better than grad school. If the student didn't have a passion for the research, they most likely wouldn't have applied to grad school in the first place. Something happened that is causing this student to feel like their passion isn't worth it any more.

Many PhD students experience feelings of inadequacy while in grad school. Learning how to do good research, keeping up with classes and TA activities you might have, and getting used to the more adult lifestyle of a graduate student is hard. When you look around though, no one else looks like it they are struggling as much as you. At my university, we called this Stanford Duck Syndrome because of the way when viewed from the surface ducks seem to be calmly gliding along, but under the water their feet are paddling like crazy. It is related to Impostor Syndrome where the individual feels like they got where they are based on luck and people will eventually realize they are a "fraud".

The situation you have described sounds like a prime candidate to cause Stanford Duck Syndrome. Being forced to change advisers can make a student feel like a failure and unwanted. Also, I am sure that some of your frustration is coming through as you are trying to encourage your student to improve their performance. It is important you investigate your student's mental well being because they could be in danger. I am good friends with the Vice Provost of Graduate Education at Stanford, and every single quarter he has to use an emergency entry into the grad student housing and hospitalize students who have not left their room in months or tried to harm themselves.

One of the ironies of this syndrome is that the best students are more likely to get it because they are used to standing out as the best. When they get to an environment like grad school where everyone is one of the top people from where ever they came from, even if they are still above average, they feel like they are doing worse than they should be. Once they start feeling bad, their performance drops and it becomes and ugly cycle.

Now it isn't your job to fix this, but as their adviser, you should try to get them to seek help. Many universities offer psychological counseling, so getting them in contact with those services is a good place to start. Talking with some of the more senior facility or your department head is another avenue as your department may have policies in place for dealing with students at risk for depression. The last thing you want is to ignore this or write the student off and then later discover that they came to self harm. Even if it turns out that this student is fine and grad school really just isn't a good fit for them, a counselor may be able to help them realize that and decide to move on.

  • "If the student didn't have a passion for the research, they most likely wouldn't have applied to grad school in the first place" - I think that this is an admirable view of human nature and current realities but I am not sure this should be taken as an axiom. (Speaking as someone who has supervised students and seen others' students) Your rationalisation of choosing grad school rather than a job also makes implicit assumptions about where the student is from, what the sources are for their financial support, where they are studying, etc
    – Yemon Choi
    Commented Jul 25, 2018 at 20:17
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    @YemonChoi The words "most likely" were in there for a reason. I am not saying there are no students who go to grad school for the wrong reason. However in my experience (and in the experience of my Vice Provost friend) there are way more who get labeled as bad fits for grad school and are actually having psychological issues. Also, most students who actually just don't care decide to leave on their own when they see how much work it is. Either way, investigating the possibility of mental health problems is the safe way to go.
    – Barker
    Commented Jul 25, 2018 at 20:33
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    I appreciate your intent, but I think you are presuming an awful lot about what the situation is of the OP's student, and not really taking account of the specific details that the OP gives. It is certainly very important that students get mental health support; I am not convinced that a lengthy answer about this aspect is really addressing what the OP is describing. Anyway, I don't wish to argue and I don't doubt your sincerity, so we'll just let the upvoting decide :-)
    – Yemon Choi
    Commented Jul 26, 2018 at 2:14

If I understand it correctly, he is just a Bachelor student and he is enrolled as a PhD student now? In my opinion this should only be offered to extremely gifted students and the norm should be to get the Master first, because of exactly the problems you describe. I would switch him to a Masters degree and tell him to apply again when he is finished with that.

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    Depending on place/subject, going from Bachelors straight to Ph.D. (and possibly not even picking up a Masters along the way) is standard; e.g. in mathematics in the USA. Commented Jul 27, 2018 at 19:51
  • This is correct. Today's bachelors and masters programmes are so much suckier than just 30 years ago that you (in general) neither have the maturity nor the required knowledge for academic research after just a BSc. Commented Jul 29, 2018 at 11:08

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