I have never seen this happen in other research labs in my university and I am trying to get into the mind of my advisor and understand what his intentions are! We are an HCI lab of two people. In last year, we have hired and fired seven people. They get hired, work for a month or two, my advisor is not satisfied them and removes them from the team.

My professor is new to the lab, it was given to her upon joining in Summer 2012. Another PhD student and myself have been working since beginning of the lab before the professor. We are the only permanent fixtures.

I am the defacto programmer and I program all the projects in lab. I had asked my advisor for PhD last week, as I completed my thesis defense last year, but she said she needs to check her funding and will get back to me. At same time she is putting out a word to other professors that she needs good RAs.

In the interim, an established tenure professor in our department in operations research had asked me to join his lab as PhD student for a project in data mining. He said I am very good at Computer Science and he needs my skills for his projects. I had asked him if its common in his lab to change people constantly and he told me there were only four people working in his lab for past 5 years and he said always asks for input from his own students in lab before contacting anybody for RAs.

The professor I am currently working with has never asked me or the other PhD student for advice before taking on people or firing them. It puts an uncomfortable pressure on me as I feel that she is not happy with my work and looking for replacement. I really don't like working with new people every two months. So why is my advisor doing this?

How frequently do you hire and fire people in your labs?

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    Additionally, and this may sound nit-picky, but it's important: practice your writing skills, even for these small types of posts. If you ever want to be a serious academic, all of your writing should be clear. The only way that happens is by practice. Rambling, weasel words ("kind of"), punctuation issues (this?How), and inconsistency (PHD, PhD, Phd) are your enemies. You improve by practicing constantly, not just when writing a key paper.
    – Namey
    Feb 14, 2014 at 18:51
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    Also, is this the same advisor from your prior posts? If that is the case, why are you even still in this lab?
    – Namey
    Feb 14, 2014 at 18:53
  • @Namey well we have one more faculty joining our lab soon and there is a very good chance i can work under him directly.Hoping for everything to work out fine now.
    – james234
    Feb 14, 2014 at 19:14

4 Answers 4


First, it is uncommon to hire and fire people that quickly in almost any context. Evaluating and hiring good people takes time. Training people to do anything useful takes time: usually more than two months of time. What you're describing is incredibly inefficient and, as you note, bad for morale. It's also bad hiring practice in a small lab to not conduct a group interview with the potential coworkers. To be frank, your adviser does not seem very good at the HR aspects of running a lab.

However, as a counterpoint, it depends very much on the funding situation. A new professor, unless they're particularly lucky, may not have very much funding on-hand. Especially if their funding agencies pay out the award in installments, they may literally have to let people go because the funding has run dry. To be quite honest, a new professor supporting 2 full-time PhD students and their own summer salary is already looking at an annual outlay of $100k-$150, at least in the US (most of which is tuition, since they're supporting two students through grad school). Many grant agencies (e.g., NSF) typically award $100k-150k per anum grants. So they could be scraping very low on their funding and have to cycle through people for that reason (e.g., can afford them for the summer, have to dump them in the fall due to tuition costs). Funding has been particularly tough the last few years.

Secondly, if they are not sure if they can cover your tuition, but the other professor certainly will? It's possibly time to jump ship to the other guy. Currently, having just finished your masters and early in your PhD, this is the best time to do so. If I were you, I would do the following:

  1. Talk to the tenured professor to ensure this is a serious offer, backed by grant or internal money. Inquire about how long currently awarded funds are likely to last.
  2. If the situation sounds good, ask if it would cause any political problems to talk it over with your adviser. Ideally, you want to do this (they are a reference), but not if it might sink the sure offer.
  3. If it won't ruin the new opportunity, tell your current adviser the situation and ask the same questions (is there money, how long).
  4. If they're comparable, choose the one that seems like a better fit for your interests and your academic security.
  5. If it's lopsided, go for the funding security and find a way to work your research into what you are doing. To be frank, I would avoid any PhD that you can't get funded for. If there's not enough money in the area to train you, why would there be enough to hire you when you finish?

Finally, if your adviser takes it personally that you are exploring other opportunities when they can't assure you funding next semester? Jump ship. A boss who takes things personally is a bad boss. I had a great programming intern last summer, who we would have loved to keep as an RA. Unfortunately, a big chunk of funding was delayed due to Congress playing chicken. A company affiliated with the university offered four years worth of tuition and stipend, guaranteed. We do work he is more interested in and we could almost certainly cover him over that whole period. But the key word is "almost." I told him that I would not blame him at all if he took their offer (which he did). I hope he's doing great over there. If your adviser doesn't have that attitude, it's time to go.

  • most of the people my adviser hires for programming (By the way we are in HCI which is part of industrial and human factors engineering)take help of other PHD students in CS and get their work done. I have repeatedly pointed it out to my adviser and he lets them go.He gets gamed by students a lot. My issue is i want to be in HCI and the other prof. offered me PHD in Operations Research. The other prof. is highly established and has won the Frank Edelman Award in OR but its not my field. Also ,my adviser said has no funding for my PHD,but asks other prof's for RAs.IDK what the hell is going on
    – james234
    Feb 13, 2014 at 23:44
  • and baffling thing is i never took a course with the other prof. He was on my thesis defense committee and this is first time in 5 years he is taking a PHd Student(me).I had asked my advisor for her advice on switching to other prof, but he advised against it saying his research is crap (literally). But everybody in university knows the Prof. is very good. So i asked my adviser directly for PHD and he said he has no funding and will let me know in future.
    – james234
    Feb 13, 2014 at 23:51
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    I have to be frank, I would be wary of a professor that trashes other professors and has no funding. Even if it is not your main area, you could still use your dissertation to integrate both HCI and OR. OR is applying statistics to help people make decisions. HCI focuses in interfacing humans and computers. Visualizing and navigating stats and metrics for decision-making spans both, as do a few other topics. I certainly wouldn't go $100k out of pocket in tuition to avoid a little cross-disciplinary research.
    – Namey
    Feb 14, 2014 at 18:06
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    Besides, if you ever become a PI for yourself, half of science is being able to pitch a grant that finds the intersection between your interests/strengths and what the program officers want to see done. Balancing OR and HCI might be good practice. ;)
    – Namey
    Feb 14, 2014 at 18:07

The scenario you describe is not uncommon in my lab. Let me explain why:

In my department, we get some funding for RA work for M.S. students "free" (i.e. out of department/university funds, not research grants). The rationale behind this is that is valuable for M.S. students to get some research experience, so the department/university wants to make it possible for more students to get these positions.

We therefore have a fairly low threshold for hiring students for these positions. We obviously prefer to hire talented students - we ask other faculty to recommend students to us from their classes, etc. But since the money is "free", we're not as selective as we would be in hiring for positions that are paid out of our grant money.

As a result, there is a lot of turnover in these positions - we hire a few students, try them out for a semester. If they don't work out very well, we don't hire them again the next semester so someone else can have a chance. If they are talented and hard-working, then we hire them back, and also offer additional support out of research grants on top of the department-money stipend they're already getting.

Not all labs in the department do this. Some feel like it's worth it to use the department funds to cast a wide net, in hopes of picking up someone good, and to give many students a chance to gain experience. Others will hire very selectively because they don't want to waste time and energy on random M.S. students, many of whom won't work out.

Perhaps something like this is going on in your lab?

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    By the way the people he is looking for is not for research.We are HCI group in Industrial Engineering and Human Factors. He is looking for programmers (so CS students) whom he can hire on 20hrs pay per week . So he is not really looking for researchers ,he is looking for part time help.
    – james234
    Feb 14, 2014 at 13:49
  • @james234 The M.S. students funded by my department are 20 hours/week, too, as that's the limit permitted for international students in the U.S. And they are generally hired to do things like programming, collecting measurements, etc. to support the research in the lab.
    – ff524
    Feb 14, 2014 at 15:06
  • @james234: You seem to be mistaking how students are employed in academia. Programming for a research lab is research experience. Even if they only touch code, they're still researchers. Ideally, there should be more mentoring/balance, but you can learn a lot by working with the guts of a research system if you're savvy.
    – Namey
    Feb 14, 2014 at 18:10

It may be uncommon to have high turnover, but so what? You don't know the circumstances of those hires -- perhaps they were favors or trial runs that were likely to fail. Or maybe your advisor has high standards, or just got unlucky.

You might not enjoy the high turnover, but that should be a small factor as compared to your own degree, future job prospects, and own job security. If you're worried about these, you should address these issues directly with your advisor (and not the indirect issue of lab turnover).

  • Please see my comment on ff524 thread.
    – james234
    Feb 14, 2014 at 13:50

This certainly isn't normal - when people complain about the high turnover in academia they're normally talking about contracts of one or two years rather than a couple of months. However, as @vadim123 says, perhaps there are reasons.

IMHO the most important thing is whether your adviser and fellow group members are people you feel comfortable working with, and whether they are giving you the support you need for your research. If not then you'll end up being miserable and producing bad work.

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