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I am a PhD student and I have to supervise two BSc students in conducting their thesis. Unfortunately, I am very (very!) frustrated with one of them.

First of all, this specific student doesn't show up in our arranged Skype meetings (without prior notice). The first time we (finally!) managed to discuss his project he seemed to have no idea of what he needs to do. I asked him his ideas about possible projects and obviously, he had not bothered to devote some time to this (please note that our first meeting took place two months after the beginning of the semester which is plenty of time to decide on a research subject). I advised him to choose a subject he likes and read a lot of papers to develop his research questions and he asked me what a research question is!

But the worst thing is that he shows no motivation to work on his project. For example, he expects ME to develop the subject as well as the research questions. I certainly don't want to tell him what to do. However, I am worried that a possible failure in his project will indicate that I am an incompetent supervisor.

What should I do with this lazy student?

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    He may just be lost, not lazy. – Buffy Nov 24 '20 at 17:26
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    Did you read the learning objectives of his project? It might be that he never learned what a research question is and that it is something he is supposed to learn - then it is your task to teach him. He's just a bachelor student, can't know everything.. (this of course doesn't excuse not showing up to meetings and other problems) – Mark Nov 24 '20 at 17:27
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    They're a BSc student (thus probably have no or very little experience at how to begin a research project, let alone complete one) and we're all struggling through a global pandemic. I think a little compassion could go a long way with this student. – astronat Nov 24 '20 at 17:38
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    I would argue that choosing a research question is the hardest stage of research. – Bryan Krause Nov 24 '20 at 17:46
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    "he expects ME to develop the subject as well as the research questions" A lot of students may be used to doing projects for professors, where they don't have a lot of leeway to create their own project. – Azor Ahai -him- Nov 24 '20 at 19:21
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Things like that happen. (Also, as mentioned in the comments, you might be wrong on the reason of their behaviour.)

Close mentoring

  1. Assign meetings, say, weekly.
  2. Make it very clear, you want to see some progress each meeting.
  3. Steer the student in the right direction in each meeting.

You'd need to define their topic, the extent of work, etc. early on. No freedom, no "choose your own topic" – it's already too late for this. Pick one, make sure the student is Ok with it, say "go".

What I also tend to do after the topic definition: Elaborate on the amount of work. "If you do this, this, this, and this, it's an A", "if you do only this, it's an F, I need at least that and this additionally to let you pass." Notice, that "having written the actual thesis at least okay'isch" is one of those things they need to pass. Do not forget to mention it!

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    This, when i did my M.Sc. I just went to my supervisor and said "Look, I know myself. If we don't set up weekly or fortnightly meetings to discuss how the work is going I'm just going to get lost and do almost nothing". Everyone wants to be independent and do everything on their own but some people just can't manage to do it, me included (I can work alone, I just need to set up clear goals and deadlines but that is difficult to do when you aren't fully in control of your thesis and have the pressure of graduating). Luckily I had an understanding supervisor so I went on to graduate successfully – John Doe Nov 25 '20 at 10:15
  • At the very least, this protects you, especially if you assign meetings by email. If the student simply fails to turn up, you've done your duty, but it also helps to have records of dates if you need to involve someone more senior (the academic in charge of the projects module perhaps). I had one of these students last year - he simply didn't reply to emails, from me or subsequently anyone else. He was on the way to dropping out – Chris H Nov 25 '20 at 16:47
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    You can only lead a horse to water. I would be cautious about expending a lot of effort to help someone who was actually just a lazy, deadbeat student. That's an easy way to burn yourself out for absolutely no benefit at all. OP needs to carefully evaluate whether this student is making an honest effort or not. Bleeding yourself for a vampire is not generally productive. – J... Nov 25 '20 at 18:24
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    Expecting independent research (including developing their own research question) from a bachelor student is just unrealistic. I have seen PhD students struggle with that. Keep in mind that the primary purpose of a PhD is to proof that you are able to do independent research. – Roland Nov 26 '20 at 7:00
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    @ChrisH Not being told in detail what to do and developing your own research questions are very different. – Roland Nov 26 '20 at 8:26
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This brings to mind the old chestnut about how you can lead a horse to water, but you can't make him drink.

First, get clarity on what your duties and expectations as an advisor are. You're a student yourself; ask someone who coordinates the undergraduate thesis program for advice. I'm certain you're not the first undergraduate supervisor to deal with this.

Second, make sure you provide help and advice without taking ownership of the thesis (unless that's actually what the department wants you to do, which seems unlikely). It's one thing if the student doesn't know how to proceed and needs help; it's an entirely different matter if they don't do any work or attend any meetings. Try to break down the steps the student should follow to get started in an email, along with guidance on how to do it and where to get more information. Maybe provide examples. If the student just needs help getting underway, this will guide them. If they really aren't going to do any work at all, regardless of what you do, this will serve as evidence of your efforts. It can also be an effective motivator to write something like "On this email from X date I suggested you try a thing. It's been two weeks, and I want to check in on your progress."

You can also talk to them about why they aren't progressing. Find out if there's an obstacle that they aren't vocalizing. We all know 2020 has thrown plenty of obstacles.

If things continue to go badly you might want to reach out to your own supervisor sooner rather than later.

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    Jeff thanks a lot for your answer. Actually, I have followed the majority of the steps that you propose. I send him emails (e.g. for possible research subjects) and I cc my supervisor. These emails would act as a proof of my trials to engage him in the research process. However he does not even answer me. So, now I am in a difficult position as the deadline for ethics form submission approaches and I really don't know what subject he is going to choose. – Kassiopi Nov 25 '20 at 14:11
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I suggest you:

  1. Clarify with your advisor exactly what is expected of you as a supervisor.

  2. Clarify (again with your advisor) what is expected of the BSc student working on this project.

  3. Communicate with your advisor about the difficulties you are having with this student. I suggest framing it as "this student seems underprepared for successfully completing this project, and also may be unmotivated" rather than assuming that laziness is the problem here.

  4. Follow your advisor's advice about what to do with this student.

From my understanding of your question, I would paraphrase the problem this way:

I am supervising a student who is doing many things that I am unpleasantly surprised by and not doing many things I would expect and prefer. So far I have been unsuccessful in getting this student's behavior to change. I am worried this student's behavior will reflect poorly on me or otherwise make it harder for me to achieve my own professional goals.

My suggestions are based on two observations: First, it can be very difficult to change another persons behavior. Second, it sounds like there are multiple other issues that you can address regardless of the BSc student's behavior, and addressing these issues may reduce or eliminate the need to try to change the BSc's student behavior (making it easier to solve the problems you face).

1. Clarify with your advisor exactly what is expected of you as a supervisor.

I am worried that a possible failure in his project will indicate that I am an incompetent supervisor.

This comment suggests to me that you are trying to solve your problem without a clear sense of what a solution looks like. Note, your goal here is success for yourself, and your success as a PhD student-level supervisor may not be contingent upon the success of the BSc student. You should clarify with your advisor (or your department, or whoever has assigned you to supervise these BSc students) exactly what they expect from you as a supervisor.

What is expected of you may be independent of whether the BSc student successfully writes a thesis. For example, if your advisor clarifies that you are only expected to available for short, weekly/biweekly meetings when the BSc student requests them and to pay attention and give constructive comments in those meetings, then it is very easy to meet your advisor's expectations, regardless of whether the student succeeds or not. (Potentially even regardless of whether the student schedules or attends these meetings.) Or, for example, if your advisor clarifies that yes, you were expected to choose a research question for this student to do, then (even if you do not want to do this) you now know what tasks you must accomplish to achieve what is expected of you.

Your advisor's expectations could be ill-defined or unreasonable, or they could be straightforward and far less of a time and energy burden than what you are experiencing with your current approach. Your uncertainty and concern about how the BSc student's success or failure reflects on you suggests you do not know these expectations, and I suspect this is contributing more to your frustration with the BSc student than you might realize. Clarifying the expectations of you is a problem that you can concretely solve without depending on this student to change his behavior.

(If you have already consulted your advisor, and know what is expected of you, then I recommend editing your question to provide that context.)

2. Clarify what is expected of the BSc student working on this project.

he expects ME to develop the subject as well as the research questions. I certainly don't want to tell him what to do.

Again, you can consult with your advisor (or whoever assigned you to supervise) to clarify what the student is expected to do. Is the student expected to meet with you a certain number of times during the project? Is the student expected to come up with a research question independently? Was he told these expectations? (Is there a syllabus, or a list of learning objectives for the thesis, as mentioned by user @Mark ?) Clarifying what the student is actually expected to do can put clear limits on how much effort you are expected to expend on this student, and will also be useful for talking to the student about his behavior.

3. Communicate with your advisor about the difficulties you are having with this student.

Let's go back to a hypothetical example: your advisor expects the student to come up with a research question independently and only expects you to be available for meetings and to pay attention and provide constructive feedback. In this case, you could share with your advisor that the student does not appear to be meeting the expectation of coming up with an independent research question, and that you have been consistently available for meetings but the student has not be attending them. Your advisor might then have suggestions for how to encourage the student to develop a topic, what resources might be useful teaching tools for the student, or perhaps explicitly tell you that you have done what you can and you don't need to spend even more time chasing this student down.

On the other hand, if you were expected to provide the research question, or demonstrate to the student how to choose a research question, then you know that the difficulty to communicate to your advisor about is the student's skipping scheduled meetings and otherwise not doing tasks that the student should be doing (while you get working on the tasks you did not realize you were expected to do).

Communicate about this student using more neutral descriptions of the student's behavior than you have used in this question.

When you communicate about the problems with this student, I suggest framing it as "this student seems underprepared for successfully completing this project, and also may be unmotivated for reasons that are unclear to me" rather than saying "this student is lazy."

An interpretation of laziness is "disinclination to activity or exertion despite having the ability to act or to exert oneself. It is often used as a pejorative..." Wikipedia. Because lazy is often used as a perjorative, when I hear a supervisor/mentor call their supervisee/mentee lazy, I (personally) consider it an unnecessarily unkind evaluation (adding a perjorative to what could have been an objective evaluation: "this student did not put effort into completing the project"). It makes me wonder if the supervisor/mentor is unkind to their supervisee/mentee in other ways, and that line of thinking damages their reputation in my eyes. Your advisor may not share my opinion (I've gotten the impression that decent number of people consider calling students lazy perfectly reasonable), but if you are uncertain about your reputation, I suggest erring on the side of using more neutral descriptions of the student's behavior.

Additionally, note that the definition of laziness is continent upon someone "having the ability to act or exert oneself", and the evidence you have provided does not convince me that this student currently has the ability to accomplish what is expected of him. To be clear, the evidence does not convince me that this student doesn't have the capability, just that I did not get enough evidence to convince me either way. Why is that?

he seemed to have no idea of what he needs to do...he asked me what a research question is

You mention in a comment that "Actually he DOES know how to conduct a research project since he has organised and conducted similar projects during his previous years in college (small scale research projects though)." This makes it all the more surprising that he asked you "what is a research question?" However, I attended a teaching workshop on helping students develop "mastery", and the lecturers discussed the issue of students needing to both learn a skill and also learn when (i.e., in what conditions) to use that skill.

So an alternative explanation to "laziness" is that he thinks that choosing a research question for a BSc thesis is a different, more stringent process than how he chose research questions for previous, smaller scale projects, and that he has to do things differently for the BSc. He might have expected you to teach him this "new" approach, or to do it for him, if you are an expert relative to him, and was surprised and uncomfortable when you made clear that you expected him to accomplish this task without additional instruction or assistance from you. If this student does not recognize that his previous skills and activities apply here, then the perhaps an important and helpful way to supervise him is to have a short conversation pointing out that yes, those previous skills apply, he should use them, and he should regularly bring his work to you and make the changes you suggest to slightly size up the project for BSc thesis-level expectations.

Second, your inferences about the student's capability should take into account that there could many factors unseen by you that affect this student's capability. As user @astronat mentioned, we are currently in a global pandemic, and many students are facing financial constraints, illness or death among their family or friends, loneliness, disruptions to productive routines, or general mental health strains that are making it difficult for them to work. Perhaps one or more of these issues are hindering the BSc student's ability to apply himself to this thesis. All of these issues could also be occurring even if we were not facing a pandemic. Either way, you do not know, and it will not help you to assume that this student is lazy based on the limited information you can see. I say it will not help you, because you have framed this problem as "how do I change this student's behavior," when there could be much more powerful forces leading the student to behave this way, and trying to push back against them could be an unsuccessful use of your time and energy and cause you even more frustration than you have already endured.

4. Follow your advisor's advice about what to do with this student.

This returns to step #1. Let's say you clarify your advisor's expectations of you, what the student is expected to do, communicate the difficulties you've considered, and then your advisor tells you that they do not expect you to change this student's behavior. That they expect you to be available if the student asks to meet for feedback and to document the student's progress, then you have a clear solution and now you can spend more time focusing on your own research, instead of spending time worrying that this student's lack of progress will hurt your academic reputation.

If your advisor expects more from you, then you will also have opened up the conversation to receive advice from your advisor about how to solve the problem, which can help improve your academic reputation as someone who seeks out and considers advice for how to improve your own performance (you've demonstrated it here with your question, but your reputation will be better helped if you advisor gets to see this, too). You may even be able to recruit your advisor to help with this student, rather than hold you completely accountable for a difficult situation. If you end up not liking your advisor's advice, or thinking it is wrong, then I'm sure many other answers here will give you alternative ideas. But knowing what is and is not expected of you sounds like the highest priority problem to solve, rather than hitting your head against the metaphorical wall of "getting the student to change his behavior."

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  • Another source of information might also be the supervisors of the student's past (successful) projects. It's possible that they actually picked out the topics and research questions, so it would be good to know that before assuming that past projects prepared the student for this. Also, they might have some hints about managing this student, maybe even some material they could share (a nicely formatted checklist of "steps for research project", maybe). – user3067860 Nov 26 '20 at 13:59
  • @rs528491 thank you a lot for your detailed comment! – Kassiopi Nov 29 '20 at 12:55

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