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I have met a strange situation with one of my 2nd-year PhD students. During the past year, their progress was minimum. They implement and retest existing literature material but haven't been able to develop new contributions based on their research plan (although the ideas are there). I set up a monitoring scheme with biweekly written updates and feedback, sent multiple (written) warnings and talked to the student many times (in the presence of other faculty).

At the annual review, the student was warned that they are endangering to fail their PhD. The student then complained that they believe I have "unrealistic requirements" from them, that I should judge them based on the "minimum requirements" for a PhD. They provided an example of other students from different groups (not my group) that are doing worse than the student.

The minimum requirements of the university are "a thesis with evidence of original work and independent critical ability considered suitable for publication". So, the student claims that my requests for submitting conference/journal publications during the PhD are unrealistic.

  • Have you ever met this situation before? How do you deal with this?
  • I have no control over the student's funding stream (external). The only thing I can do is to make a suggestion at the School level. But this will become a "what about" discussion.
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    You don't mention whether the student is operating under some constraint that makes anything else impossible.
    – Buffy
    Dec 3 '19 at 12:40
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    Which incentive would a non-tenured supervisor have without any publication, in europe afair mandatory Dec 3 '19 at 13:22
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    It sounds to me like this student doesn’t really want a PhD in this field if they aren’t interested in doing new research or presenting at conferences, etc. Maybe the most helpful thing you could do as an advisor is to try to understand what the student might actually enjoy doing and then help them to see that there are other options (e.g., switching advisors, switching departments, or dropping out of grad school altogether). I imagine the student may be feeling rather “stuck” in the PhD program and may not realize that changing that wouldn’t be the end of the world
    – J. Tylka
    Dec 3 '19 at 13:41
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    What exactly is the problem you're concerned about? The student is satisfying university requirements, they have their own funding, and their career goals are their business. So what's your goal here? Dec 3 '19 at 16:34
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    The best evidence that you've produced work "suitable for publication" is to actually publish it. If they can't even submit anything for publication, there's a decent argument to be made that they haven't accomplished the minimum - not only do they not have work "suitable for publication", they don't even have work that is suitable to be considered for publication. Dec 3 '19 at 18:12
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There should be some university rules which state what the student has to do in order to obtain the phd. Treat them as a contract -- do they state exactly some minimum requirements to obtain the phd? Then, a student satisfying thoss requirements should obtain the phd. If (what is more likely) they say something about you being able to state more requirements, then you can give more requirements (maybe after writing them down formally). (Or maybe the rules allow you to remove the student? If yes, you might want to think if you want and can do this.)

Please be also aware that you may be requesting too much. Some instructors were always the best in research and may be biased when supervising.

If the student meets the minimum requirements, they should of course be granted the phd. Not doing more might or might not be a problem for the student's future. You should warn them that (e.g.) an academic career might be a problem afterwards, but, depending on the student's goals, receiving a "minimum phd" might be not at all a problem.

Many people in the world do only the minimum required for their job/studies. If the mimimum is defined well, this should not be a problem.

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    -1 This answer doesn't really address the problem. It's tautological -- if if you meet the minimum requirements for a PhD you should be granted a PhD. That is the definition of (minimum) requirements. The problem is that the minimum requirements may not be entirely well-defined and ultimately this attitude is very frustrating for the student's advisor.
    – Thomas
    Dec 4 '19 at 21:34
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While I agree with the sentiment of the answer of Jeffrey J Weimer, I think there is a simpler solution.

The student needs to demonstrate the criteria in the university's rules to someone's satisfaction. This means to your satisfaction, primarily, if you are being called on to approve of granting a degree.

The student, it seems, is trying to capitalize a bit (or more) on your reputation without meeting your standards. So, I'd put it back on them:

Stand And Deliver. Either produce enough in properly refereed journals or conferences to meet the standard or produce enough that I can independently affirm is of the required quality. Failing that, you, the student, should find another advisor.

But, if the student can write enough papers vetted by reviewers and accepted for publication, then they have met the criteria. Not every one needs to publish before graduation (in some fields), so, in those cases where it isn't required, the judgement is up to the advisor and the committee.

It doesn't meet the criteria just because the student claims it does. It requires external validation in all cases. If a student wants to work with an advisor with high expectations they should, themselves, be prepared to meet those expectations.

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  • Shorter and perhaps sweeter than what I said. :-) Dec 4 '19 at 18:38
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The minimum requirements of the university are "a thesis with evidence of original work and independent critical ability considered suitable for publication"

Try having them use this as an argument with the department head for not meeting the department's course requirements.

In other words, that's only the requirement expected at the university level. The department then has the right to impose additional requirements in terms of things like course requirements, teaching requirements, presenting requirements. For example, every PhD student in my department is required to acquire a certain level of teaching experience and give an exit seminar prior to graduating. These are not university level requirements, and as such, may not be required in other departments.

Then, in addition to university and department requirements, you have the right to impose your own requirements, as long as they don't conflict the department's or university's rules and requirements, and are otherwise not unethical or unrealistic. This includes taking specific classes, doing specific research tasks, doing lab chores, giving lab presentations, assisting fellow lab members, etc. Ideally you want to be as upfront as possible about these requirements. By asking to work with you, a student is agreeing to these terms. If doesn't matter what other students are doing in other labs; if they don't like your requirements, then they can switch advisors.

I have no control over the student's funding stream (external)

Congratulations, they should have no problem finding another advisor, and you don't have to feel bad about making them unemployed.

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The minimum requirements of the university are "a thesis with evidence of original work and independent critical ability considered suitable for publication". So, the student claims that my requests for submitting conference/journal publications during the PhD are unrealistic.

First, this statement must not (and indeed cannot) be enforced on any side as a contract (i.e. between the university and the student). A contract would be written thus: We (the university) guarantee to give you (the student) this (a PhD) degree after you give us this (a thesis with ...). The statement is a performance metric. The university has established that students will not EARN a PhD unless they fulfill at least this requirement.

Here are ways to enforce this view to all concerned:

  • Ask the student to produce a document that has been signed by both the university and the student that explicitly states that he/she is guaranteed to be given a PhD when he/she submits the minimum requirement. This will be impossible.

  • Ask the student to research and write a treatise on the fundamental differences between the language in legally binding contracts versus that used in performance metric standards.

Secondly, this is a minimum metric at the university level. This leaves open the option that colleges, departments, and faculty set their own performance metrics to reach this minimum. By example, in a Biology Department in a liberal arts college, the metric may be determined to be met when the student develops a new analysis method for confocal microscopy whereas in a Physics Department in a Tier 1 university, the metric may be determined to be met only when the student has designed, built, calibrated, and proven the fundamental operation of an entirely new type of confocal microscope.

The above option carries down to the individual faculty in any given department. What you demand as an assurance toward the minimum performance metric can be entirely different from what your colleague demands.

In this regard and with respect to the opening statement of contracts versus metrics, you, as the primary faculty advisor, have the right and certainly also the obligation to set the terms of the contract that you demand between you and the student to work in your team.

You can formalize the distinction between contracts and performance metrics in various ways.

  • Establish a requirement that students must pass a Dissertation Proposal within an established time period.

  • Establish a requirement that students must complete all of their required coursework with at least a minimum grade to start working in your group.

  • Establish a requirement that students must present their research work to at least one (regional, national, or international) conference as a poster within an established time period after starting their work.

The above are a combination of contracts and metrics. To be respected, they should be established in the sense of saying "when you (the student) do not complete this, you cannot continue on this".

Have you ever met this situation before? How do you deal with this?

I have. Students want to believe that a graduate degree is a process akin to buying a rug at an Indian bazaar or filling their plate at an open buffet. They believe that they can negotiate the terms or they can pick and choose their options.

I deal with it as above. I have refused to take students who have yet to complete a minimum of the required coursework first. I require the defense of a thesis or dissertation proposal before a committee (even though the former is not a department requirement). I demand presentations and publications from PhD students before the dissertation can be written. And I establish (and within bounds maintain) standards for time periods to accomplish the requirements. All of this, and I would bet that my university has only a comparable statement as does yours as to what constitutes the metrics for a PhD.

I have no control over the student's funding stream (external). The only thing I can do is to make a suggestion at the School level. But this will become a "what about" discussion.

Pardon me but ... Why the heck is this even an issue? Either you have your standards, set them, and move forward; or you do not. When you are paying the bill for the student, you may believe that you have more leverage. This belief is however a false hope. It also does a serious injustice to your role as mentor and eventual colleague to the student concerned. You are not to be advising students with a financial bat at your side to knock them back into place when you think such a step is needed. You are to be advising students on the terms that you believe must be met to earn a PhD.

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My reaction to this attitude would be to ask what are the minimum requirements for me, the PhD student's advisor?

I would tell the student that my time is valuable and if they don't put in effort, I will stop meeting with them beyond the minimum required of me. If they are able to produce the minimum requirements for a PhD on their own, then they will be granted a PhD. But they are unlikely to be able to meet even the minimum requirements without help. If they want my help, I expect them to put in effort.

In most places, the requirements for the advisor are pretty minimal. You should discuss this situation with your department head or whoever is in charge of the PhD program. They can tell you what you should do and also what is required of you if you don't want to continue working with the student.

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