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I am an assistant professor at a research institute (engineering discipline) in Eastern Europe. In our institute we operate a doctoral school. While our PhD students are required to complete coursework and earn credits, our program is mostly based on research and publishing articles. Last year, we got a PhD student from an Asian country who is assigned to work on a project for which I serve as the principal investigator (PI). While he has demonstrated proficiency in his coursework and exams, his performance in research is slow and lacks engagement. Since his recruitment, he has made minimal progress on his project and dedicates most of his time reading articles and going deep into the details (at the level which is not necessary at all). Despite multiple discussions and requests to expedite his work, he does not appear to be following my guidance. Our PhD program spans four years, and he will undergo a mid-term assessment next year. Given his current approach, I am concerned that he may struggle to meet requirements of this assessment.

Furthermore, he is now going to take a five-week vacation and go back to his country, which is permitted according to our doctoral school rules. I know that this break will slow his overall progress even more and upon his return he will need additional time to catch up to his current status.

I would greatly appreciate any advice or recommendations you can offer in this situation. How can I put him on the research track?

P.S. I know that as a foreigner life might be difficult per se, so I do not want to stress him out by consistently pushing him to follow my guidance.

Update

After the first year evaluation, he was officially informed by the doctoral school committee that he needs to speed up and produce his own results.

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    Try to understand the root cause of his slow progress. Is it a lack of motivation, unclear research direction, or difficulty grasping the project's concepts? Providing guidance without understanding the root cause of the issue can be less effective or even counterproductive. Identifying the underlying reasons for a student's slow progress is essential because it allows you to tailor your guidance and support more accurately.
    – Timmetje
    Sep 22, 2023 at 8:59
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    My intuition is that what exactly was said during the "multiple discussions" is quite important. Have you asked the student how he himself sees his progress, how he plans to go on, and what his reasons are for apparently not following your guidance? Have you told him him: "Given your current approach, I am concerned that you may struggle to meet requirements of this assessment"? If so, what did he say? Sep 22, 2023 at 10:13
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    You should keep his vacation out of the equation, which is his legal right. The issue you should focus on is that he doesn't work properly in the time he's paid to work. Sep 22, 2023 at 12:10
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    @lighthousekeeper: I think it's also worthwhile to add the following to your point: trying to "speed up" work which is perceived as too slow by taking away people's free time or options for relaxation, is very unlikely to work out well in the long run (to put it mildly). Sep 23, 2023 at 15:54
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    How much flexibility is there when it comes to the project topic? Maybe if the student goes "too deeply" into the material, this can be exploited in some way to add to the project, if maybe in unforeseen ways (such as writing a review paper). I have a student who goes deeper into the literature than I'd have thought, and it slows him down somewhat, but we learn a lot from this and it's ultimately valuable, if somewhat difficult to "use" in the project. Sep 24, 2023 at 10:27

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You have already given him advice and guidance and you have communicated to him that his progress is behind expectations. He has also been given a warning at his first-year review. You cannot force the student to meet the required standard for the candidature --- your primary role as a supervisor is to give him a candid evaluation of his work and offer academic support and guidance where needed.

It is difficult to see if you have already done anything effective, because all you have told us is that you have given some (unspecified) guidance and that you have had multiple meetings to this effect. In any case, one thing that might be helpful here is to have the student create a scheduled plan for what he will achieve by the time of his next review, and meet with him regularly to get updates on progress. You should ask the student to set out his own plan and schedule to achieve relevant research outcomes and construct a Gantt chart setting out the schedule (you may need to give guidance on this). Be inquisitive about the student's own expectations and goals. How does he see his progress so far? What things would he like to achieve and by when? How will his plan and schedule manifest in successful completion of his PhD candidature? Is his plan realistic? Has he included sufficient time for each part of research? Will he be ready for the relevant milestones? What does he plan to achieve by the time of the next review milestone?

Another thing that is worth considering is whether you might want to involve another academic to review present advice/actions and give their own perspective. If you are giving the same guidance over and over and this is not being actioned then it is probably worth bringing in a "second opinion" from another academic. Either this other academic will regard your advice as accurate and will reiterate this to the student, or they might come up with some other ideas that could potentially help the progress of the student. Don't be afraid to lean on your colleagues when dealing with hard cases.

Furthermore, he is now going to take a five-week vacation and go back to his country, which is permitted according to our doctoral school rules. I know that this break will slow his overall progress even more and upon his return he will need additional time to catch up to his current status.

If the student is taking approved leave under the rules of the school then this should not be considered to "slow" his progress. Leave always necessitates a period of catching-up when one returns (e.g., actioning emails, etc.) and this is part of the normal activities that surround the taking of leave. The expected schedule for progress should take account of the fact that students will take approved leave and that this will necessitate certain catch-up activities on return. If this is not properly taken into account then it is a managerial failure, not a deficiency in the student.

I know that as a foreigner life might be difficult per se, so I do not want to stress him out by consistently pushing him to follow my guidance.

Declining to give the student candid feedback and proper expectations for progress will not reduce stress in the long-term --- it will just set the student up for failure later, which will induce stress at that time. It is generally a bad idea to try to calibrate your scholarly guidance to account for the presumed effects of some exogenous circumstance you don't understand well. Either your guidance is giving good advice or it is not. If it is good advice then it should be delivered irrespective of whether this student has a difficult life. If it is not good advice then it should be altered accordingly. As to "pushing him" to follow your guidance, this also overstates your role. PhD students are adults who are capable of considering what guidance to follow and what guidace to ignore. The student has been warned that he is behind expectations and he has been given guidance for what to do to catch up. That is a sufficient amount of information for the student to make an informed decision of how to proceed.

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    This answer is quite complete and mature. Thanks
    – KratosMath
    Sep 27, 2023 at 9:16
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Here is a different possible take: - you are telling the student that they aren't doing it right - over and over - and in response they *are trying - by going harder and deeper... in the wrong areas/ways. Perhaps this student doesn't have a good sense of / can't respond to the framing of progress/success? Might some explicit / worked examples of your perspective of 'good work' and discussion of how they might get there help? There is a gentle book called Stepping Stones to Achieving your Doctorate (Trafford & Leshem) that might assist (depending on the issues at hand) too if the student needs more scaffolding.

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I have been that kind of student all along my doctorate, my problem was that I was lacking understanding of some concepts that were essential to proceed e with my research. I didn't fail any PhD course, because they weren't exactly aligned with my research and no one cared about my ability to learn while working on them, moreover I think my supervisor wasn’t well informed about the content of the courses. The guidelines of my PhD were confused and the faculty environment not exactly "kind". So what happened was that by the time I could understand something I was disengaged. Plus, the faculty started to put pressure on me to achieved results, which made me feel like I needed to fake assurance, and made me feel powerless.

So, this is the bad part of it, but there is a good news. Maybe you only need to check that your student really has the basic knowledge required to progress, both in term of hard knowledge, both in term of understanding of what is a Research gap, and what are the step necessary to conduct a good research. Maybe he is stuck o some point of his work, and he only need an external perspective. But please, first check that the the basics are there, you never know the background of your students (especially if they come from an another country).

It might also be that by this time he has lost interest in research and he stays there for the scholarship. Nothing bad, how many people do it on the work place? A PhD is not different.

So, just ask. That's my advice. When these things happen there is no time for regret or hate, sometimes it is only the way life goes.

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As with all interpersonal issues - you should ask questions. "It seems to me like your progress has been slow. Do you see it this way? If so, why has your progress been slow and what can we do together to help? If not, can you help me understand what you accomplished that I'm not seeing?"

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Perhaps I can be this student. I really like to goo deep in details. So I think here the best advice is, give to him a couple of papers and work over those paper to produce his first results. Also write a review paper. He won't change his mind, he is in that Way.

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