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I am a postdoc supervising a PhD student in Computer Science.

Unfortunately, I have a lot on my plate and I cannot help him with the solution of the technical problems (they require a lot of time to solve them). The PhD student often gives me some tasks and I execute them to help him go forward with his research.

What are the suggestions you have? Should I talk about it with my Professor and maybe find a more suitable advisor for him? Honestly, in my experience, I did not meet many PhD students who receive technical help from a Postdoc, but I could be wrong of course.

I would just like to do the best for him and for me.

Thanks for your ideas.

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    The use of "pretends" seems odd. Did you mean "needs"? – GoodDeeds May 25 at 13:55
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    You can arrange technical seminars where students from the group exchange insights, methods, ideas. You can also give him pointers. You can - once - show him how to do things, but then expect him to proceed on their own. If they are not able to do this, they may have to take courses on their own. – Captain Emacs May 25 at 14:23
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    @GoodDeeds based on false friends in other languages, I think they mean "demands" or "expects" – fqq May 25 at 16:31
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Strategically, it might be a good idea to prioritize helping the PhD student. You might gain some second authorships on papers, credit for PhD student supervision (which you will need for your next career step), and make a potential collaborator for life. It's a win-win situation.

Honestly, in my experience, I did not meet many PhD students who receive technical help from a Postdoc, but I could be wrong of course.

It's a sign of a well-managed group if PhD students have access to experienced people who can give them technical guidance. In a small group, that person can be the PI. In a big group, PIs often hire post-docs to do that job for them.

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    ... and in some groups, it's swim-or-sink. It's possible that OP's previous experiences relate more to these kinds of groups. – xLeitix May 25 at 15:13
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    Excellent answer! PS.: I was in that student situation... – AWanderingMind May 25 at 16:06
  • @xLeitix, Exactly! – AWanderingMind May 25 at 16:15
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From the perspective of a masters student, so bare that in mind. I think the question you would want to ask yourself is the following: "Does the student need your help with technical solutions or want your help with technical solutions?" Assuming it's need, and depending on the situational context, and assuming that it is not an urgent matter, then you could try to help that student by helping them to think through the technical aspects of the problem or perhaps providing a resource that you are familiar with because it sounds that you are at least familiar with the material. If the student is in the want category, then you will need to think about a way to make that student understand that expedience is not always the best path forward.

This could also be a learning opportunity for you as well to figure out how you can be a better advisor in the relationship and in this moment. It could be as simple as telling the student that, if they put some serious effort into the problem, that you believe in their capabilities to solve their problem - a boost of confidence from a peer can really go a long way for a student.

But the student-advisor is a relationship that cuts both ways, and like any relationship, requires a significant degree of communication and transparency to make things work. If you took on the responsibility to advise the student, then I believe you have an obligation to that student to communicate openly with them. But again, I think from a students perspective, the advisor is there to help students work through a struggle and adapt a researchers mentality.

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IMHO a key question here is what level of technical problems we're talking about.

  • A PhD student is fully qualified professional (via their MSc or BSc) in their field.

    • Thus, the student should be expected to solve the level of technical problems that they could also encounter in their (hypothetical) every-day-life as working professional on their own. One actually expects someone who pursues a PhD to be above average in their field.
      This does not mean that they should not ask, but they should do what is required after high-level, general guidance.

    • There may be exceptions, e.g. if delicate machinery is involved so the institute guideline is that a student will not touch the instrument without someone experienced supervising them until they have suffient experience.
      This seems not to be the situation here - but it may be worth while checking with the student whether they come from a group where they weren't allowed to do anything on their own.

    • OTOH, if we're talking interdisciplinary projects, a student cannot be expected to perform at such a level in a field that is not theirs and in which they neither have working experience.
      In such a situation there should be a plan how to get them to the level that is needed, and how much they need to be taught (and by whom) vs. how much they need to catch up by themselves. This is something that should be discussed with student and official supervisor.

    • Also many e.g. laboratory* techniques are best learned in dedicated teaching sessions. This is in no way restricted to PhD students, it's the same with experienced professionals/researchers who want to learn new techniques.
      * I'm chemist, but I'd tend to approach e.g. version control along the same lines.

  • I've occasionally encountered phD students (who no doubt will become great managers) that trained their supervising postdocs extremely well. To the point where everyone else was commenting about student's tame postdoc who'd jump as soon as student would command "jump".

    The PhD student often gives me some tasks and I execute them

    rings a bell in that respect.

    One sentence/idiom that've found helpful in avoiding to get into such a relationship is refusing to do their work with "Thinking [working] yourself is what makes you clever [experienced]."

  • (I may say, though, that I more frequently encountered shy students who did not ask and would be stuck for far too long.)


Once you know what their work is (should be), you can happily do your part but refuse to do their work. If your part is still not doable due to your overall workloady, that is something you need to bring up with your supervisor (the classical advise is when they tell you e.g. to teach the student techique xy, to acknowledge by "Sure. What other task should I postpone or drop instead?".


IMHO supervising (including teaching) PhD students is a normal part of a postdoc job.
Still, discussing what in detail is expected of you in that respect is something you can and should discuss with your professor, but at the moment the question does not sound to me as if the student should get some other supervisor (who'd as like as not be just as drowned in work as you are).

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    "A PhD student is fully qualified professional (via their MSc or BSc) in their field." That made me laugh, thank you. "IMHO supervising (including teaching) PhD students is a normal part of a postdoc job." Its actaully written in the job specification for many postdocs, certainly any I employ. Teaching a student well is often significantly more effort than just doing the work, but it this is a short-term fix that doesn't pay off inthe long run. – Ian Sudbery May 26 at 13:55
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As I said in one of the comments, I was in that student situation somehow. My suggestions would be:

  • Try to help the student to integrate in the group (if you're somehow part of the same research group)
  • Try to help the student with tasks that could take you a day or two, that would otherwise take him/her ages... (just because he/she doesn't have the necessary experience). It's very frustrating. This will be like a non-zero-sum game, from the game theory perspective; the student will obviously win time and confidence, but you can also gain experience (and maybe you will even understand things better), there's also the gain of the group because it should be in the group interest to have very qualified people.
  • Try to communicate with him/her. Communication is always the key. Of course you will always have a lot on your plate (and so do other people) but "teaching duties" or student supervision should not be neglected either. This should be a serios task on its own. Successfully supervising a student shows that you can manage your time properly, that you understand your field, that you can take responsabilities.
  • Try to leave your personal problems at home (husband/wife/kids related issues). It's simply not professional not to be able to separate the job problems from family problems.
  • Try to discuss with your Professor to find someone else (maybe more prepared or maybe not that busy as you) to replace you if you think you cannot handle the situation. Definitely it's not okay to just leave the student drown; otherwise I am definitely sure that the student will just leave the group in the end anyway.

Of course all I am saying is valid only if the student demands are reasonable. You should not do his/her work, you should just help him/her here and there with some advice, some details.

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