Here is the thing. I am working in an lab under a new assistant professor of HCI and our lab itself is just two years old. We had an masters student graduating earlier and I am the second masters student from the lab to have finished my dissertation. We also have an PhD Candidate working in there. So at present we are just two GRAs in the lab.

To help us out with some programming, we hired two students on an hourly basis. My advisor is not into micromanagement; hiring students and asking for an update just a week before deadline and placing a heavy trust on those students and till now it has worked fine.

I was asked to manage this student who is severely incompetent to say the least. They had developed, with 4 other students, an undergrad project which was shown to demonstrate the necessary skills, although I highly doubt that they did any work on that project. When we asked them to program an app, they could not do it so they went to another lab and made the GRAs there develop the app for them. The code was so horrible that I had to rewrite the whole program just before the deadline. I brought this to my advisor's attention and the response was they will fire both of them and asked me to stay back for one semester to help out with transition.

I am pretty good at what I do and have a stellar reputation in my department. Despite multiple requests from my advisor, I said I don't want to spend one more semester in the lab since I can earn much more by getting an industry job.

What my advisor doesn't know is that when the new student was working, instead of developing the app on the tablet, he installed games on it and kept the tablet in his home for a month. This caused some hardships to the other new hire in the lab who could not complete the programs on time. Whenever I asked for the return of the tablet, the reply was that they came to lab but nobody was there. We were actually there in the lab during the whole time it was claimed to have attempted to return it. I was busy with interviews so I never bothered to tell my advisor about this.

At end of December, out of desperation she hired the student she said she would fire and sensing desperation they asked for GRA, saying they are interested in having a dissertation. My advisor agreed reluctantly. I came to know about this only last week when I called to find out what they were doing in the break. They sheepishly told me that my advisor was a fool and they were not really interested in a thesis but only in getting a free ride through college though being a GRA.

I am worried they will not do any work and pay other people to write programs and a dissertation for them. One bad apple can destroy the work environment in a lab. So I finally emailed my advisor and asked if they can promise me an full time job by April, I will stay back and help out in the research. I have also asked for an appointment to discuss an important matter of the new student.

I think my advisor has already given him the commitment, but how can I convince them to drop this student? I have worked in my lab for a year and a half. I deeply care about the lab, and I don't want that student in there. What will be best way to approach my advisor about this?


I spoke with my advisor yesterday and said in no uncertain terms that they are not into micromanagement and this student will screw up her lab after I leave, they will never realize it and the will pay somebody else to write their thesis and the advisor's career will be on the hook. I promised that if the advisor find me the best student from class, I will teach them how to do basics of programming so that there will be smooth transition once I leave. According to that new student, she asked them to meet and said that she has no funding and it will be difficult for them to do a thesis without funding and suggested trying other departments, and asked to meet after a further week. Kind of indirectly telling them to leave.

What I am not able to understand is when I asked my adviser yesterday it was said to me that it was never offered for the student to do a thesis with but I am pretty sure it was agreed to work with that student when with them before the break. The new student was super confident about the fact that he will get funding for a thesis.

So can anybody please enlighten me as to why my advisor would lie to me here? Why would the advisor lie to me that they didn't offer a thesis when I see they pretty well did, I mean I am just an student, right? Are they embarrassed by their mistake and that's why they're not admitting it?

  • 12
    i had to rewrite the whole program just before the deadline — Don't do that!
    – JeffE
    Jan 3, 2014 at 1:21
  • 7
    Is she embarrassed by her mistake and that's why not admitting it? — Could be. On the other hand, maybe you're mistaken. Or maybe it's none of your business.
    – JeffE
    Jan 15, 2014 at 5:15
  • 4
    "So can anybody please enlighten me as to why my advisor would lie to me here?" No, we can't. We don't know her and anything we could say would be pure speculation. Feb 20, 2014 at 10:51
  • 13
    How do you know she lied? Don't you think it's more likely that the person who you know is unscrupulous, and has lied to you in the past (about coming in to surrender the tablet), was lying to you? "Because the new guy super confident about this part(that he will get funding and thesis)." He said he was super confident. He is an established liar. And you suspect your advisor?
    – msouth
    Mar 31, 2015 at 22:16
  • 2
    @Boncek35 how did this turn out? Feb 25, 2019 at 16:21

5 Answers 5


It's a good question touching multiple points. Most of us have had to work with incompetents in both academia and industry.

Here is my take:

To help us out with some programming, "we" hired 2 students on an hourly basis.

Really, you didn't hire them. Your supervisor did. She doesn't know how to manage unmotivated people requiring close attention (and even if she did she will be too busy in the tenure ratrace for the next ~7 years), so she dumped (ahem:delegated) that responsibility on you. He messed up his first assignment and you very unwisely saved his bacon by rewriting his work before the deadline (a) don't ever do that again b) document to her before you do it, that he asked you to do it, and how much time it will take, and ask should you drop your regular work).

My advisor is not into micromanagement. She hires the students and asks for an update just a week before deadline and places heavy trust on people working for her and till now it has worked fine.

This hands-off management style works fine with motivated competent people who show initiative. You just have to make sure that's who you're hiring.

said she will fire both of them and asked me to stay back for one semester to help her out with transition.

So you got what you want. (Probably you would have gotten it sooner if you hadn't rescued him. Lesson learned). It's not your business how she handles it, it doesn't matter what her style is.

What i am not able to understand is when asked my adviser yesterday she told me that she never offered asked the guy to do thesis with her but i am pretty sure she did agree to work with that guy when she spoke to him before break.Because the new guy super confident about this part(that he will get funding and thesis).

The guy is a known liar and incompetent; most likely he's playing mind games with you and the other students (and everyone else in his life). Don't play his stupid games. Don't let him sow distrust between you and your supervisor, let alone fool you into accusing her of imaginary things. Don't even talk to him. Totally ignore him and get on with your own career. Lesson learned: there will always be people like that (until it's your company or you get the power to fire people).

Lessons learned:

  1. Always try to insist on veto power in interviewing and hiring coworkers you will work with (and managers too if possible). If not, you have little or no power.
  2. Learn to estimate the hidden cost of managing bad or mediocre people, and the corresponding process requirements (e.g. biweekly group meetings, written status reports). The worse they are, the more this will eat into your productivity. Also, it will annoy you. Try to timebox parts of your schedule to limit this ("red time/green time", headphones, Pomodoro, whatever).
  3. You learned something important about yourself from this, namely that it aggravates you intensely to work with dishonest incompetent untrustworthy unmotivated people. So don't ever get into a manager or supervisor position wrt such people again. Or if you must, clearly define expectations, progress tracking, deliverables, dependencies, reviews etc. Read about different management styles and identify which ones you like/ dislike/ thrive under.
  4. Surface problems with coworkers early, in a professional way. In this case, when he messed up his first task. Don't cover for them. (Don't throw them under the bus, necessarily, but definitely don't cover for them).
  5. Some people specialize in mind games, and if you react that damages your image. Avoid them and don't play their stupid games. Document what they get up to. But don't let yourself be distracted or lose your composure. People like that are smart enough to manipulate, lie and cultivate perceptions and relationships, that's how they survive so long (or get promoted).
  6. If the situation had become intolerable and she hadn't agreed to fire him, then you would have had to quit, politely explaining what he'd done (but not the stuff you merely suspect he would do) and why it was damaging her department.
  7. You keep getting hung up on a sense of unfairness ("What if he bribes people to write his programs, dissertation?") Put that out of your mind, you can't control it. Somewhere down the line, he will get what's coming to him - whether that's next week or in ten years - you can't control the timing - this is the Zen of Working with Incompetents. Do not let him distract your mental energies.
  8. Put him out of your mind. Eliminate all interaction with him. Don't reply to his emails or questions. Or walk out of the lab if he walks in. Buy a bottle of sparkling white wine (or whatever) and keep in the fridge. Open it after he gets fired. Shouldn't be long now. Then celebrate and get back to your work 110%.
  9. We have to assume your supervisor duly learned her lesson about cutting corners in hiring, not writing a job ad, checking references etc. You suspect she might have taken the guy as a political favor. But if you think she didn't, offer to write the job ad for her next time.

The way you can broach the subject is exactly as you've laid it out in your comment. The student mentioned that he will take on a GRA position in the group. However, you're concerned that he is not actually qualified to do the research in the group, and that will give you an opportunity to lay out the case. You should have evidence that is stronger than hearsay, however, if you want to make a convincing case.

You might also suggest some questions that the advisor can ask the student that will prove that he is not qualified to do the research. However, if your advisor is in fact "desperate" for help, it may not be enough to sway your advisor's mind. If your school offers "provisional" contracts to new graduate students, you may want to ask her if she can make a short-term commitment before guaranteeing longer-term funding.

  • i have the tablet with me showing notifications showing games have been installed during the time the tablet was with him. I dont have written proof for anything else. I can convince her i can find an better student ,train him to replace me when i leave but i am afraid it will not convince her to rescind her offer to this new guy. I think i need a better way to handle this.
    – Boncek35
    Jan 2, 2014 at 22:09
  • 2
    For starters, if you can get an email from the colleagues who "wrote" the application for him—as well as change logs for the code you had to rewrite (you were using version control for that, right?)—that would bolster your arguments immensely.
    – aeismail
    Jan 2, 2014 at 22:12
  • i dont have any contacts in that lab. This guy himself told me they wrote the program for him.
    – Boncek35
    Jan 2, 2014 at 22:19
  • 1
    @Boncek35 The fact that you have the tablet showing installations .... doesn't really help here. The other student will just say he turned it in and someone else installed the software; who has the tablet now? why you do, you must have installed them.
    – CGCampbell
    Jul 10, 2015 at 19:34
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    For that matter, installing games doesn't imply running them on paid time. Unless there's an explicit rule about using only approved software, that's null evidence.
    – keshlam
    Jul 11, 2015 at 15:54

OK. I'm actually surprised at the range of answers here, so I'm going to write down my take on your issue. It's possible that I'm doing things completely wrong, but I also feel like what I am about to write down is the normal graduate student response to situations like this in academia.

I honestly feel that there is absolutely no merit to yourself to talk badly about your fellow labmate to your supervisor. From your supervisor's perspective, it is possible that your labmate is terrible, but it is also possible that you just hate this guy (it's clear from your writing that this is not the case, but as a supervisor she might not know for sure).

If I were you, I would probably take a more passive-aggressive approach by just refusing to help your labmate beyond what is expected normally, and just let his doom take its natural course. If he is that bad, he is bound to fail at some point. Why bother myself with it, and why get worked up about it? The only time where I would be more proactive is if my advisor asked me to collaborate with him. Then I would tell her that I would prefer not working with him, because of his previous actions.

Otherwise, telling on your labmate could be viewed as inappropriate in my opinion, as it could just be interpreted as jealousy on your part, and reflect negatively on yourself.

Let me emphasize that I am actually unsure of whether this is the right course of action, but since everyone feels so strongly about this issue, I figured that I would chip in. This is one of those cases where academia differs from real-life jobs, and there are quite a bit of non-academics on this forum, so I am not sure if they are the only ones who have posted so far.

Your academic career depends hugely on how your advisor views you, and if for some unfortunate reason she perceives you as a jealous person, that could reflect on her letters. It's different from the industry from what I've heard, where getting the job done matters more than how your direct supervisor might view you.

I would welcome comments from people, but please specify your ties (are you a grad student? professor? not in academia?) to academia in your comments. It would be interesting to hear the different opinions, and know where they come from.

  • 1
    I am pretty sure he will pay somebody to write thesis and programs for him. What if people figure this out after his thesis is published . This is what i want to point out to my advisor. And i want to point it out gracefully.
    – Boncek35
    Jan 3, 2014 at 6:27
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    @Boncek35 As I said earlier, I'm talking about my personal choice of action. To be honest, I couldn't care less about whether this guy gets a master's or not. If people find out after he gets a master's, then he'll probably get his master's degree revoked. Whether he gets a master's or not seems like a completely independent event from your life, from my point of view.
    – user10269
    Jan 3, 2014 at 6:48
  • 1
    @Boncek35 I think there is no "graceful" way to tattle on your fellow labmate. If you choose to go down that road, it won't be pretty. He might even report to your supervisor on what you've been doing wrong, and then it'll get messy real quick. I guess I prefer not to get dragged into such things, but I also have never felt so strongly about my labmates.
    – user10269
    Jan 3, 2014 at 6:49
  • 4
    If I'm an advisor and thinking about hiring someone who has worked in the group part-time, one of the first things I'm going to do is talk to the members of my group who are actually working with that person to get their opinions. That the OP's advisor hasn't done this is surprising.
    – aeismail
    Jan 3, 2014 at 6:50
  • 3
    As for working in industry, you still rise and fall according to your direct supervisor's impressions. If he or she doesn't understand or recognize the quality of your work, does it really matter how well you get the job done. (After all, who do you think does your "performance reviews?") Maybe if you're in a startup this isn't an issue, but in any sort of company with a substantial management chain, you're very much dependent on your manager's opinions (and their manager's opinions, and so on).
    – aeismail
    Jan 3, 2014 at 6:53

I agree with user14449 above. While you may have the best intentions in outing this person's incompetence and negative attitude, it could very well backfire on you.

I say this because I have a very hard time believing that the lab supervisor was just so super desperate that she had no choice to hire the guy she had just promised to fire. All it takes to replace an undergrad in the lab is a job posting on the campus network and within a week you have a new person. Chances are that she did have the intention of firing him but subsequently found out that the kid's parents are academics too and/or big university honchos she didn't want to anger.

I think the only two viable options are to leave for a job in the "real" world or make him fall on his own sword. As user14449 said, sooner or later his incompetence will come to light. Since your supervisor already granted him funding, you can take your cue from her and give him even more responsibility. Include him in meetings, ask him to explain his work and ask him for suggestions of where the project should go next. (Obviously don't tell him ahead of time that you will be putting him on the spot in meetings).

If you don't want to engage in this kind of skulduggery, just find a job elsewhere and leave. I personally can never understand why people fight tooth and nail for academic jobs in these kinds of environments. What's so great about this situation that makes this thing worthwhile? Why is this worth fighting for rather than exiting graciously? Your supervisor can promise you a job and just as easily renege on that promise like she did with the firing of the student.

As a student who has worked both in academia and outside it, I much prefer the gloves-off approach of the real-world. No employer and/or team in the "real" world treated me as shabbily and exploitatively as grad students and professors. It's soured me on grad school, and if I ever do decide to apply it will be for a professional program where I don't have to deal with any of this baloney.

  • oh he was desperate , he pleaded with me asking me to stay back atleast 5-6 times and i was kind of stupid to not listen to him. He hired this guy in last week of sem because he was the only guy to have approached him. Now it seems he hired this guy for 20 hrs a week part time and asked him to choose a thesis topic he likes this sem and offered him GRA next sem. So there is still no unbreakable contract as such.Advisor can always tell him funding has run out and ask him to screw off.
    – Boncek35
    Jan 3, 2014 at 7:30
  • 3
    So your supervisor wasn't "desperate" so much as too lazy to post a job ad and read some resumes. It's your prerogative to stay and work in this lab. If you are confident in your skills and your network, you should be able to get another job in a less toxic environment. I don't really see the point of hanging on here, just because you put in 1.5 years already. Those years are gone no matter what you do, and nobody is going to "appreciate" your commitment to an idiotic situation.
    – user10433
    Jan 3, 2014 at 12:53

What i am not able to understand is when asked my adviser yesterday she told me that she never offered asked the guy to do thesis with her but i am pretty sure she did agree to work with that guy when she spoke to him before break.Because the new guy super confident about this part(that he will get funding and thesis).

It may very well be that everyone was completely honest. People never recall a conversation correctly, but an interpretation depending on their expectations, assumed context, cultural background, degree of politeness and many other things. A question like "Can I do a Ph.D.?" can mean a lot of different things, including "Do you give me funding?" or "Do you think I am good enough?". Also "I will see what I can do for you" can be anything between a polite refusal and an almost certain acceptance.

Your labmate might be lying, and your professor might be lying, but you don't have to assume bad faith when quite common misunderstandings suffice to explain the situation. On the other even if everyone was acting in good faith you should remember that your professor might be prone to misunderstandings. You can try to reduce such situations by e.g. summarizing the content of a discussion at the end.

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