I know it is slightly controversial, but I am supervising a student who started with the right attitude, but is now less and less engaged with the research. We are at a point where there's no end in sight, and the student still wants to finish within unmanageable time limits.

The context is peculiar (but I would like to keep it detached from the generality of the question): he's a part-time student, he's paying his own fees (as opposed to a PhD funded by a project), and he's after the PhD "title" more than the research that he has to put in for the title itself.

All these factors make it more difficult to dissuade him from his PhD choice: the endless excuses of putting more work when there will be time (he's a part time student); and the fact that I am proactively chasing him to arrange meetings are all things that are taking their toll.

My (general) question is therefore: how do I dissuade a PhD student from wasting his time and money, when it's clear that she is not PhD-material?

  • 10
    If only my advisor had given up on me...I completed my PhD in 6 years. I was a part-time student, had a young family, was working full time, settling in a new country... the list goes on. Talk to him; not make a decision for him. Aug 5, 2013 at 8:22
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    If there is a time limit, wait until the limit expires. If no limit, why not let him continue? How do you know he will never finish?
    – Nobody
    Aug 5, 2013 at 9:03
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    ignore him; admit new students to work on what you want until he get motivated again and comes to your office.
    – seteropere
    Aug 5, 2013 at 13:07
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    @ElCid: "he's after the PhD title more than the research" is subjectiv, maybe you should remove that. If you want to add context, please tell if time management is the only problem. But in my opinion you should remove the whole context to make it a fit for StackExchange and then go to a traditional forum to ask for opinions about this particular case.
    – user8050
    Aug 5, 2013 at 15:33
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    As a supervisor, it's none of your business. Instead of trying to dissuade somebody from reaching their goal, you should support them. It's often a person that motivates people (like an inspiring lecturer). If you do not want to work with the student, you could suggest to switch the supervisor.
    – reggie
    Apr 8, 2015 at 16:35

2 Answers 2


Do you want to dissuade the student from continuing because

  1. You think the student is not capable because of a lack of ability,
  2. You think the student might be capable, but just isn't engaging in the work,
  3. You don't see the student is worth investing your time in,
  4. You think the student is wasting his/her money?

If (1), then a frank discussion might be the best way. I have seen other PhD supervisors directly let their PhD students know that they think a research career is not for them.

If (2), you ought to move from dissuasion to a frank discussion in which you try and figure out the reason for the downturn in engagement. Is all well at home? Is it just the usual mid (?) thesis malaise? Has the student lost the big picture and therefore the drive to do the research? Why did the student start the research in the first place? Has the situation changed - e.g. has the life goals been redefined/changed?

If (3) and/or (4), if the student is paying for themselves, then it's their money they are potentially wasting so I wouldn't concern yourself on how other people spend their money. However, the money is presumably paying your salary in part so your obligations to the student remain in that regard. In return however, you can set reasonable expectations on your student. If you make it clear that you expect your student to achieve reasonable goal A by reasonable deadline Z, and the student doesn't, then that opens up another opportunity for a frank discussion along the lines of the need for effective prioritisation of research work and for-money work.

EDIT: To bring this answer into line with the edited question, I would set out an agreed plan of work - and behaviour (esp. showing up to meetings) - with deadlines for the next 2/6/12 months. You might want to work with your Head of Department/School on this to ensure that your requirements are reasonable. It appears that you have already said to the student that in your opinion the student isn't PhD material. In setting out your agreed workplan, you are giving - formally - the opportunity for the student to show that he or she is capable of working to an agreed standard. If, as you say, the student isn't capable, then the student will fail and you can reasonably excuse yourself as his PhD supervisor.

I am suggesting this cautious approach, as I am sure your Faculty will want to know why things went this way, and that you offered the best opportunity for your student (or fee-paying client) to succeed, before you ceased to be his supervisor.

  • in the 1) scenario, I had endless conversations with the individual, but it's not acceptable for me that I have to call him to meet.
    – ElCid
    Aug 5, 2013 at 13:45
  • In the 2) scenario, the student is well off, and just wants the title, so I know his motivation exactly
    – ElCid
    Aug 5, 2013 at 13:46
  • in the 3) and 4) I am slightly worried by what you say: even if they're wasting their money, they're also wasting my time, so setting hard, checkable deadlines might be the only solution
    – ElCid
    Aug 5, 2013 at 13:47
  • @ElCid: I've edited my answer to make it more in line with the edited question.
    – Nicholas
    Aug 5, 2013 at 15:42
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    I wouldn't concern yourself on how other people spend their money. — But he's not just waiting his own money; he's also wasting his advisor's time and attention. In that case, the best approach is to tell the student, respectfully but directly, that you are no longer willing to be his advisor.
    – JeffE
    Aug 5, 2013 at 20:56

There is a lot of context missing from this question, so I'll provide some leading questions.

First, is the student working independently, or are you/ your group counting on their results for some other project? If it's the latter, then you should have a conversation setting out clear and realistic time frames for the work that needs to be done.

If the student is basically operating independently, then how you respond depends on what their goals are. Maybe the student just wants a Ph. D for their own personal satisfaction, and isn't worried about how long it takes. Maybe they want an academic job afterwards, in which case your concerns are valid. You should first aim to understand the student's goals, and then you can suggest whether the way things are going are reasonable to achieve those goals.

If the student didn't have their own funding, there is the additional question of whether it is worth spending your resources to support them, but this doesn't apply here - your student is an adult and can decide if the costs in time and money are worth it for themselves.

Summary: ask your student what they want, and then advise accordingly.

  • The student is self-funded, and part-time. His motivation is to have a PhD as quickly as possible to apply to a better job with the "dr" title. But the question is more general than this specific context: how does an advisor opt out a student when they're clearly not PhD-material?
    – ElCid
    Aug 5, 2013 at 12:36
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    @ElCid: Both the parties involved are adults in a consensual relationship. No one's forcing either of you to stay in the relationship. You say you've had several conversations with the student and let him know that he is not PhD material. At this point you've done your duty. It's the student's prerogative, as an adult, to do whatever the hell he wants with his money, including paying for a degree that he may not be suited for. It's your prerogative to opt out of the relationship by informing him that you are no longer willing to be his advisor.
    – debray
    Aug 5, 2013 at 14:33
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    @debray the relationship may well be consensual, but it is also contractual. The student has provided consideration (his fees) and for that consideration, expects by contract to receive the services of his supervisor. I'd advise against not fulfilling your end of the contract arbitrarily without taking the advice of your line manager. IT IS QUITE POSSIBLE that the student has not met their side of the bargain (e.g. reasonable effort/engagement/progress), but you want to be sure of this before just dropping the student. See also my edited answer.
    – Nicholas
    Aug 5, 2013 at 15:36
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    @Nicholas: I agree that the student's fees entitle him to help and guidance from an advisor; I disagree that that advisor must necessarily be ElCid. Unless ElCid's employment contract explicitly mentions mentoring this particular student, it seems to me that the problem of finding him (the student) an advisor is not ElCid's (maybe the Dept Head or Director of Graduate Studies?).
    – debray
    Aug 5, 2013 at 16:12
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    In the event that the O.P. wanted to follow debray's advice, but was worried about the contractual issues brought up by Nicholas, one might also consider helping the student find another advisor if he insists on keeping on. Maybe someone else in the department might be willing to take him, despite the less-than-glowing reviews from the O.P. It would be a nice gesture from the O.P., before saying sayonara.
    – J.R.
    Aug 5, 2013 at 17:29

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