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I've seen several questions from students about bad supervisor references but this is on the other side.

I have a PhD student whose priority during their PhD was family (had two children in 3 years) and social life. They are smart but simply did the minimum for the PhD. We had a talk some time ago and they were clear that their target was the minimum requirements set by the school and nothing more. Which is fine by me, since that what they want.

They've now asked me to write a reference letter for a very prestigious ECR fellowship. I personally know many members of the committee. The reference guidelines ask me to address the candidate's ability to work well under pressure, attract funding, take initiative, work independently, etc.

I am conflicted. My options as I see are:

  1. I write a statement of facts. Worked in the group from X to Y, published N papers, etc. However, this will basically signal that I cannot support their candidacy since I don't address the specific guidelines.
  2. I tell the student I cannot give a support letter. However, given they haven't worked with any other professor or group, it will leave them in bad place.

Any other options?

Update: Some more information based on questions/comments below.

  • The student was clear after the first year of their PhD (pre-COVID) that they want to do the minimum. For example, the requirement set by the university is to have "publishable" work and not to have published. So, the student did not want to go through the publication process except for "easy" conferences (2). All of my other PhDs until now have had 1 journal accepted and at least 1 submitted by the submission date.
  • The fact that they focus on family is the positive aspect for me. E.g., if they did the minimum because they were lazy, I wouldn't have problem to say I don't provide a reference letter. I don't know how many hours they actually put since I don't keep monitor (also, last 9 months have been remotely due to COVID).
  • I don't believe I can truthfully say that they comply with what I'm asked to comment on. E.g., good organizational skills: they have missed multiple deadlines, missed meetings, missed report submissions for their own funding which has a fixed yearly date (!). The excuse is always family or technical problems, but for the 3 years of joint work, I cannot truthfully say they have good organizational skills. I'll not extend to other aspects, but similar picture.

11 Answers 11

47

I'd think you should have a candid discussion with the student about what they think you should write.

Yes, (as in another reasonable answer here), university administrations will never tell you you'd done enough, nor will funding agencies, nor even will departments when it comes time for salary raise consideration. Right, so one should avoid being driven by external approval, in some regards.

At the same time, the/one ideal of academic function is self-direction, and taking lots of initiative, regardless of bureaucratic pushes. Not "sacrificing family life", necessarily. But, also, not necessarily forgetting about everything after a 40-hour work-week, either. Much more amorphous. (Fortunately, my own family is fairly indulgent of my endless distraction [sic] by math stuff... partly, because I do manage to pay attention to them and participate, in a complicated way of integrating family-and-math.)

As a sort of diagnostic, you could ask the student to "persuade you", on a professional level. If they can give cogent reasons that everyone benefits from their choices about life/work balance, then it's a winning situation. If their notion of "balance" is more of a negative about the work part, you can/should point out that they are failing to offer a good exchange for such fellowships... and much other funding.

Btw, for my own PhD students, I certainly do not try to micro-manage their schedules or time allotted. If they say that they don't have time to do something for a day or two, I believe them. If they say that a family vacation will take them away from work for some days, I believe them and it's fine. Fortunately (for me and for them) no one has ever said to me that they definitely wanted to aim to limit their interaction with the mathematics, somehow thinking that "thinking about math" is in conflict with "being a good parent/partner/friend". I myself honestly do not see this supposed distinction as genuine.

Perhaps you can provoke your student to think a little about a less naive conception of "work-life balance", and then ask them why they think you should write a (helpful/supportive) letter for them?

EDIT: In addition to myriad other complicating issues, we should definitely note that (at least) the NSF currently cares about "broader impacts" and such. It's not literally about work/life balance, but is about impacts of one's work outside one's office/classroom and so on.

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    Thank you for the alternative answer, and for leaving room for debate. I do not agree with everything that you write, but you are entitled to shape your work how you see fit. Personally, I tell all my PhD students that I do not expect them to work more than the 40-hour week, and I do expect them to take the full leave days allocation provided by local government (a whopping 41 days per year, which is a serious secondary job benefit). I think that this policy makes the students more efficient, but I lack data to support that, and I appreciate that other reasonable policies could exist. – Wetenschaap Sep 23 at 22:12
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    @Wetenschaap, thanks... I should really have been even clearer, namely, that I simply don't ask or tell about any ideas about work-week or hours or evening-work or weekend-work. In a sense, to know my students' attitudes would be "TMI" (too much info) ... that I do not want to have. I pretend that all I care about is "outcomes", but there is ambiguity there, too, if we look at a broader sense of that... – paul garrett Sep 23 at 22:33
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    @paulgarrett I think as a supervisor you should be having those conversations, and setting reasonable expectations. That is the only way the culture can begin to change, is by senior people explicitly guiding behavior. – Azor Ahai -- he him Sep 24 at 15:27
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A student who did the minimum during their PhD has very little chance of getting a prestigious fellowship. In the sciences, you must have publications to get prestigious fellowships; a student who did the minimum will not. Your role as a mentor is to guide students to attempt things they might succeed in. Tell the student they will not succeed in this application. Tell them to compare their record to past successful applicants.

You should not write the letter. It will not help the student and it can hurt your reputation. But you should have told the student that they would not get a letter for prestigious fellowships when you discussed their goals for completing their PhD.

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    This may simply not be what people want to hear. Academia is highly competitive, and while doing the minimum necessary will allow you to get a Ph.D., you will simply not be able to compete at high levels with people who do more. This is simply a fact of life. (And of course it also holds in other areas, like industry - many people do what they are paid to do and have a decent career, but they will simply not move up very far. If that is what you want, great. But it doesn't make sense to complain.) – Stephan Kolassa Sep 24 at 6:20
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    +1. This answer is spot on. The student is fully entitled to prioritize family life over academic career but if they explicitly made it clear that "they WANT to do the minimum" then the prestigious fellowship is simply not for them. It's a valuable and competitive springboard for very keen people who want to do a lot more than the minimum, and achieve greatness. It's not a parking spot. Embellishing the reference letter is dishonest and would rob a more deserving candidate of the hard-to-get fellowship. The OP is the student's mentor and their role includes managing the student's expectations. – st01 Sep 24 at 6:51
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    @user2768 No downvote, but: While the first sentence is unfortunately true, a PhD student who raised kids may still have very high potential, they were just not able to realize it yet. The point of a letter of recommendation is to testify to such potential, thereby giving a more complete evaluation than one based only on publications. (I'm not saying the student in question has such potential. I'm saying that a LoR that merely states "student has great publications" is useless.) The only sound reason given in this answer for not writing a LoR is reputation. But this needs elaboration. – henning -- reinstate Monica Sep 24 at 9:28
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    @henning--reinstateMonica I absolutely agree, a PhD student who raised kids may still have very high potential. The student in question doesn't seem to have demonstrated that though. Of course, it's a catch-22. – user2768 Sep 24 at 9:58
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    @Trunk I'm sympathetic to that, but this is part of the job of advising. This is absolutely a professional problem, and the right answer is clear (if not pleasant to enact). – Noah Schweber Sep 26 at 5:42
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My reading of your question is that you don't think that you can actually recommend the student to your colleagues. It is a separate discussion whether we think that the student was right or wrong prioritizing family, so I'm simply going to address the question of the recommendation, devoid of whatever reason you might have for not wanting to recommend them.

The problem ultimately comes down to where your allegiance lies or should lie. You're stuck between your professional ethics to only write letters that are truthful, and your personal allegiance to your former student. That is an uncomfortable position to be in, but one every faculty knows. My take is that your professional ethics provide the overriding objective for the same reason as we would expect a professional engineer to not sign off on a bridge design they know is faulty, even if their employer is generously paying them (or even if the CEO of the company is the spouse of the engineer). What respect would we, as a profession, command if we had no ethics?

So, then, how do you find a way to do the professionally right thing in a confidential way? The usual approach is to write a letter that is short and says nothing. We have all seen such letters and we know what they mean.

Now, that is ethically correct but personally not satisfying. The solution to that is probably to have a candid conversation with the student about the fact that you cannot unconditionally recommend them for the position and that they might be better off asking someone else for a letter. I've had to have these conversations, and they're not pleasant, but students in this situation generally know that they might not be the best qualified ones, and respect the ethical argument.

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    +1 for your professional ethics provide the overriding objective...write a letter that is short and says nothing... have a candid conversation with the student about the fact that you cannot unconditionally recommend them for the position and that they might be better off asking someone else for a letter With regards My reading of your question is that you don't actually want to recommend the student, I think they do, but feel they cannot. – user2768 Sep 24 at 6:04
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    There is no possible substitute for a reference letter from the PhD adviser. The absence of such a letter is even more of a red flag than a letter that doesn''t really say anything. – mmeent Sep 24 at 6:31
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    @mment I am not sure of that. "No letter" could mean the student and the advisor had a strained relationship at the end of the PhD, which is fairly common and rarely 100% the student's fault. OTOH there is no good explanation for a poor letter. – UJM Sep 24 at 7:11
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    @user2768 Yes, language is ambiguous. I did mean to say something along the lines of "feeling unable to recommend the student to the letter writer's colleague". I think I clarified. – Wolfgang Bangerth Sep 24 at 13:29
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    @mmeent I do not know the solution to the problem, but if what you said was absolutely true then any PhD with a deceased adviser would have no possibility of an academic career. – emory Sep 25 at 14:25
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I'm on the side of the PhD student here.

I'm tenured faculty. I too continuously have to battle with university management to ensure that I can free up enough time to also have a family life outside of the university. This is not an attempt to do the bare minimum, but if you don't fight back against management's natural impulses, you end up with an 80-hour working week, and that is incompatible with a family life.

Having children is a human right, also for a PhD student. If one of my students has two children during their PhD, good on them! There should be appropriate governmental remuneration to allow for this happenstance. If there isn't, this is the fault of the corresponding government, not the PhD student. This may not necessarily align with my primary research objectives, but it is a fact of life that is implicit in dealing with human beings, especially those of PhD student age.

Right now, you have the option to choose on which side of the debate you want to be. Do you want to propagate the opinion that an academic career is incompatible with a private life? Then write the student a cold, factual letter or none at all (basically the two options you outline). Do you want to support a healthy work-life balance for junior people on the academic career ladder? Then do better. The choice is yours.

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    Can you clarify what "do better" would entail? – lighthouse keeper Sep 23 at 21:48
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    OP makes it clear that he had talked with the student, and the student explicitly said that he intended to do the bare minimum to graduate with their PhD. Now they're looking to get a prestigious fellowship. Is it not reasonable that getting one of those might require more than the bare minimum? – Ben Barden Sep 23 at 22:21
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    "OP's main complaint seems to be that the PhD student's main priority was their family and their social life." I don't think so, OP is just wondering how to write a letter for this student whose work was weak. OP doesn't even have a complaint, he just doesn't know how to handle the letter. It sounds like OP was pretty supportive about allowing this student to have a work / life balance. – littleO Sep 23 at 22:56
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    I have to admit that I don't get this answer. Of course you're entitled to make choices about how you want to spend your life, but you're not entitled to be considered as well qualified as someone else who might have made different choices. If LeBron James spends 60 hours a week practicing his shots and I decide that I want to do that for only 40 hours a week, should I be entitled to the same contract that he has? – Wolfgang Bangerth Sep 24 at 1:31
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    I am on the student's side and I support their right to family. I struggled to get an extension of their visa, get them extension of funding, just because I believe in their right and the mechanisms are not there from the government. However, I am asked to comment on specific traits of the student which I don't believe they have developed because they had other priorities. Is a reference letter supposed to reflect my objective opinion or a subjective personal relationship-based story? If the latter, what is the credibility of that reference for the recruiting committee? – electrique Sep 24 at 6:00
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I think there are multiple different strands to this issue, and it is helpful to try and disentangle them and think about each separately.

  1. Ignoring any matters of 'how they got here', where does the student stand today?

What does their portfolio of achievements look like (results, papers, presentations, service to the community, external recognition, etc...). How does this compare to other students at this point in their careers? This may be something you can usefully discuss with other colleagues in your institution for a somewhat 'external' opinion. Is the candidate's CV realistically competitive for the fellowship? What positive things could you write in a reference?

  1. What is the student's attitude to research?

Because of the way your original question was phrased, much of the discussion here has hinged on the reasonableness of students prioritising family. However, it sounds to me as though this is a red herring. The real issue is an apparent lack of engagement with the realities of academic life, e.g. a stated unwillingness to try and publish any papers. This is at best only loosely-connected to circumstances in the student's personal life.

I think it is reasonable to take this attitude into account when writing a reference. In any job, there are people who do the minimum required for their paycheck. There is nothing inherently wrong with that as an approach -- and their work may be entirely competent -- but it is generally accepted that the people who get promoted are (or at least, should be) those who perform above the baseline.

  1. What conversation should you have with the student? What should you write?

You probably need to be frank with the student about (a) your answers to the above questions, and (b) what you are, and are not, able to write in their support. There are surely some positive things you can say, even if there are other areas where your silence might be deafening.

In reality, it seems to me that you may be overthinking your dilemma as regards this fellowship. If students typically have 1-2 papers by the time they graduate, excellent students probably have more. Is anyone going to look twice at your students' application?

The more concerning issue is that the student appears to have ambitions that are not matched by their current profile. This is perhaps a more useful focus of discussion: what does the student really want? Where do they want to be in 5 years? How do they see themselves in comparison to their peers? This may be an uncomfortable conversation to have - but personally I'd rather be told if I'm wasting my time and energy pursuing something not (currently) realistic.

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I really don't understand what the question is here.

The student has openly said they only want to do the bare minimum of work.

They have indeed only done the bare minimum.

They are now either sufficiently stupid, or sufficiently brass-necked, to ask you to write a recommendation letter for them.

Just write a statement of the facts (as in paragraphs 2 and 3) and let them take the consequences of their own lifestyle choice.

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    I wouldn't be as harsh as you in how to put it but I think that the PhD's supervisor ought discourage him/her from applying for the aforesaid type of fellowship in favor of something more suited to his/her work-life balance. I suspect the fellowship in question has attracted the PhD because of its location and/or salary rather than any desire to do cutting edge work in an intense environment. It may, of course, be one of the few current vacancies for PhDs in the given field of research and there is a need for a parent to find some job somewhere, suitable or not . . .Supervisor may know this. – Trunk Sep 24 at 19:51
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    I'm seeing a troubling trend in this thread that is being particularly brutal in the evaluation of the student, and completely discounting the effect an advisor has on the student's development. What is the point of going through a PhD program if there are zero expectations of mentorship from advisors? Jeez. – Well... Sep 24 at 19:53
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    @Well... it is not how I read this: rather it seems the supervisor respects the choice of the student, but that the student has expectations that are not in line with the competitive nature of some scholarship processes. – ZeroTheHero Sep 25 at 2:37
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    @ZeroTheHero The fact that the student's expectations are so misguided, to me, points to bad mentorship. If the advisor had a passing interest in the student's goals after completing the PhD, they could have responded to the student's plan of doing the bare minimum by explaining the drawbacks to that method (it's basically sorting yourself out of an academic career, not selecting into a less ambitious one). Not all students are in the know about how all of this works, and part of the job of the advisor is to mentor, at least a little bit, meaning to inform about the realities of academia. – Well... Sep 25 at 9:21
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    Also the fact that this is the accepted answer kind of confirms my suspicions. This answer says basically the same thing as other, more upvoted, answers, but also manages to call the student stupid and brass-necked. Interesting that OP reacted positively to this. – Well... Sep 25 at 11:41
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Get the student to bullet-point their positive qualities and pass the list to you. If it is accurate you can put it in your own style and write it in good conscience

Give them the guidelines! Ask them to give concrete justifications and instances for each positive point they make about themselves.

If there is any inaccuracy then you can say that you are not convinced - could they provide more evidence.

When the student has provided you with their ideal set of bullet points and you have ascertained that every part of it is true, then you can write the letter in good conscience. It will be up to ECR to decide whether this is sufficient.

Example

  • I have demonstrated my organisational skills by successful pursuing my studies whilst simultaneously bringing up a family of n children.

  • I made the following contributions at the following conferences ...

  • I have always maintained a good relationship with my supervisor.

  • I satisfy the following requirements of the post because ...

  • Etc.

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    Hmm. Careful, though. There's some debate around this practice. academia.stackexchange.com/questions/86859/… – henning -- reinstate Monica Sep 24 at 10:18
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    @henning -- reinstate Monica - Thanks for that, it's a very useful discussion. I think that maybe the "bullet points with justification and examples" route is the way to go. This can then be shaped into the standard form that the supervisor uses. At the very least it will make the student reflect on how suitable they really are for the new position. If the best recommendation they can write for themselves is merely lukewarm, they may wish to reconsider the application. – chasly - supports Monica Sep 24 at 10:24
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    @henning - I have edited my post as a response to your comment. – chasly - supports Monica Sep 24 at 11:15
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In my past experience several of my endorsers asked me to send them a draft, in order to spare them the trouble of recollecting all the details.

You could ask him to do the same and then have a frank, true-to-the-facts, face-to-face discussion on the statements contained in it. So you can position yourself in spoken words first, and then move on to the final version, which you sign, without compromising your standards.

If the candidate has a fair sense of self and fair recollections, you get a helping hand, at no embarrassment. If he is attempting to drop names (yours), it will be easy for you to recall the milestones of your shared work experience and bring the necessary nuances into the draft, without further justification at the point of editing.

There could be better candidates with a poor supervisor who then get a reference biased downwards. If he gets a reference biased upwards, the system of reference letters ends up twice as unfair upon producing both false positives and false negatives. Lower sensitivity, lower specificity. So your concerns are justified. The prestige of the grant and reviewers is a secondary consideration here.

My two cents.

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1

It seems to me both options 1 and 2 that you propose are perfectly ethical, and both also leave your student in a bad place.

If you're looking for a third option, I'm not sure one exists this late in the game.

You probably should have told the PhD student earlier that their choices about doing the bare minimum would hurt them specifically in this kind of way later down the road. Part of your job as an advisor is to give advice. Just because a student expresses choices doesn't mean those choices are informed. This is especially true for folks underrepresented in academia, and someone with children in a PhD program is a minority any way you slice it (people with children in the common PhD age range have less contact with academia than average, and PhD students, particularly women, are unlikely to have children and the complexities that arise around this).

Also the comment about organization may be perfectly valid, but it does give me some pause. Academia tends to be accommodating to disorganized people (think the absent-minded professor trope). It's traditionally women who are penalized for being disorganized, and men who are forgiven, so if your PhD student is a woman I would rethink a lot of this language for any recommendation you write her (the prompt isn't helping much here, but we can still work to undo bias). What other talents and skills did this student show? Being smart is pretty vague.

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    If OP could have read the student's mind, he might have had a chance to give them better advice indeed. It's clearly delusional to target the bare minimum requirements on the one hand, and think that one has a shot at a prestigious fellowship on the other hand. – lighthouse keeper Sep 24 at 10:24
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    Clearly delusional to you, maybe, but obviously the student didn't realize these were incompatible. That points to the student being out of touch with the norms of the field, a trait commonly associated with bad mentorship. – Well... Sep 24 at 13:49
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    Also I'm not so sure that it takes mind reading to react to the student shooting for the bare minimum by saying, "what are you planning to use this PhD for? Let's make sure you're doing at least the minimum to accomplish your goals." – Well... Sep 24 at 13:52
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    If the student planned to stay in academia and apply for prestigious grants (we don't know if that is actually the case), her communication was misleading according to the rules of common sense. In no professional field is a bare-minimum effort an entry ticket to accolades. – lighthouse keeper Sep 24 at 14:15
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    Communication is a two-way street, no? Should we put the onus of bad communication on the person with the least experience and power in this situation? Maybe the situation was misleading, but a passing interest in the student's future would have cleared up any misunderstanding. To me that's the bare minimum expected of advisors. – Well... Sep 24 at 17:02
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Before you write anything you should talk to the ex-student. And speak very clearly and frankly. Acknowledge his/her intelligence and consistent commitment within the limits of the priorities that were set at the beginning of the programme. But make it clear that you can't write in the terms necessary to win this fellowship (e.g. 'excellent', 'outstanding', 'dedicated', 'avid team player', 'very obliging colleague', etc) of someone whose commitment level was always indexed to an acceptable standard plus a bit more. To write otherwise in a letter would be untrue and unfair to the selection panel for the fellowship.

I would advise that you do NOT allude in any way to the amoral argument, i.e. that, if you did recommend someone for the fellowship and they disappointed their new employer, your bum-steer would be held against you by that institution. Any such reference would likely make you sound like an influence peddler rather than the independent-minded and ethical professional that you should be - and that we trust you really are.

So, in fairness to the student, he/she is entitled to a reference for any job that needs testimony of his/her abilities during the PhD programme. But make it clear that your reference must fairly reflect the limits as well as the strengths of his/her past commitment - and for this particular appointment your reference is unlikely to help in him/her being selected.

EDIT

The OP has not mentioned this explicitly but it may well be the fact that few current vacancies exist for new PhDs in certain fields and this man/woman with 2 children has to put food on the table. This would create an inhibition on the ex-supervisor's part in "laying down the law" to the PhD: it might be presented to other staff-members as overly harsh or insensitive to the PhD's human responsibilities. Academics are often sensitive to how their opinions and actions are perceived, however reasonable or correct such opinions or actions may be. This elite fellowship may be one of the few available in this particular field right now and a job is a job . . .

I'd like to say otherwise but I think this possible situation is all the more reason for a frank exchange, one-on-one (no spouses or colleagues allowed in, all behind locked doors with no casual entrants able to bust in) in the supervisor's university office. I think a phone call would be a two-against-one as the PhD's spouse may be nearby and this would encourage playing the offended party when disappointed. None of us has the right in any sense to preferential consideration for a job based on our family responsibilities - no legal right, no moral right. The PhD made a choice at the start of the programme. Now he/she has to man/woman up to the consequences of their limited commitment. Going back to their supervisor and tacitly (sort of asking with their eyes rather than uttering the shameful words) expecting consideration of their parental necessities when drafting a reference for a fellowship beyond their merit is plain beyond the line. And a supervisor so asked has to be unambiguous in the response. And in the reasons why.

I would advise you to rehearse your lines before meeting the PhD. It makes it easier to say them on the day. We are all with you in spirit.

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You had a talk with the candidate when the candidate clearly stated about their desire to meet the bare minimum. You can have a similar talk now along the lines - ‘The bare minimum doers cannot be recommended by me for this scholarship since it has a very high bar.’

The fact that the candidate may not get a good recommendation from you is not really a matter of discussion today. It got implicitly decided long back when you had the first discussion where the candidate decided to meet the bare minimum.


Caveat:

It is possible that while the scholarship sets a very high bar but does not really follow up with it. In that case there may be people who have also done bare minimum just like your student but they will get the scholarship because their guide is not as strict about the rules. If that’s the situation, then it is up to you to decide whether you want to conform to common standards or you want to stick to your guns.

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