TLDR: PhD student mentoring an undergrad in super competitive field. Undergrad has an amazing non-research CV, but no research experience. He says he's motivated but got very little done in 8 months. I will have to write him a letter of recommendation in the Fall and if things continue, it won't be good. What should I do now to avoid this without pressuring him too much into doing work?
I'm an international PhD student doing Machine Learning at a top-4 US university. Last Summer I started mentoring 3 great students from my home university trying to create a win-win: I teach them about research and ML and help them get a paper to have a chance at entering a good grad school (ML is so hot it's now super hard), and I get help from top, motivated students and improve my mentoring skills. Before that, I had already mentored 10 students from the US university with the full range of success: from students that stopped coming after a couple of months, and 3 others that published with me, applied to grad school, and got into another top-4.
The plan with these 3 students was to work virtually (everything is virtual in 2020-21) and I would try to bring them as visiting students once we could show something to my PIs. Out of the 3 students, one is doing amazing work and we invited him to come this summer and another realized he didn't like research and quickly dropped out. In a way, both are good endings.
The third student is essentially the perfect undergrad: won gold medals in multiple national olympiads, top 1-3 in his promotion while doing 2 separate degrees in Math and CS, and winning international CS competitions in undergrad. However, you now need research to get into a top university in ML.
- During the Summer, the student and I were meeting 5x per week and he did a bit of progress, but much less than I expected and a bit below the average of the students I've mentored. In particular, I gave him a concrete project which I was hoping to submit on a September deadline and it's now February. I avoided telling him anything because he's doing it for free: no credits, no money, just for the CV. He didn't realize he hadn't performed well during the Summer until I told him much later.
- In the Fall he got close to nothing done even though we were meeting 3 times a week. In November I told him: "Hey, we're not making progress, maybe we should stop working together. We're losing our time and I would like the project to be completed since ML moves very fast.". He told me he's very motivated and he'd put more hours in. Didn't happen.
- In January the subdepartment of my home university where I studied contacted me: I had previously convinced my PIs to bring one student to do a final degree project. This subdepartment has gained an international reputation and now has lots of spots all over top places for students to go. They do a matching so that students with the highest GPA get to choose where they go first. Because the non-working student has a top GPA he got to choose me. So next Fall he's coming to do paid full-time research with me. This also "guarantees" that one of my PIs will write him a letter based on my first draft.
- In February, he asked me for a letter for a fellowship. I told him I couldn't write him a very good letter. He said he hadn't really understood that getting into grad school implied having good research, not just good GPA and Scientific extra-curriculars, where he was indeed investing a lot of time. So we agreed I would write that he had lots of potential, but he hadn't had much time because of all his academic commitments. This was indeed 100% true and maaaybe good enough for the fellowship, but it's not going to cut it for grad school. He told me he realized that he hadn't done much and he would now devote 20h/week. Spoiler alert: hasn't happened. In the meantime, the idea I gave him is stuck, terrible in a rapidly moving field, and it's increasingly likely he won't have anything published by the grad application deadline.
Having now mentored 15 students, I'm pretty confident I'm giving him reasonably easy work. I've kept simplifying and concretizing and for the last few months, it involved just something slightly more complicated than the introductory 1h Deep Learning tutorial. I once tried myself to make progress on what I was asking him and got more done in 2h than him in 2 months.
I believe he thinks that because the subdepartment has many students in top places, and he's one of the best in GPA, that he'll get accepted. But, having helped with ML admissions, he doesn't stand a chance with zero papers. More importantly, right now my opinion of him isn't good and a sincere letter (which I 100% intend to write) would have to convey this. However, I've read in this community that you shouldn't write a negative letter.
Given that there are 8 months left, some of which he'll be working full time, there is time for a change. What can I do to maximize the chances of a good outcome? Some solutions involve being extremely pushy. However, I have seen what exploitative advisors can do to some friends of mine and I don't want to be such a PI. Finally, not sure if relevant context, but I'll be applying for professor myself next Fall.