Ok so first off a bit of background. I've been working professionally three years in a software engineer position after my BSc. in Mathematics and Physics. At some point I realized I missed doing true research so I enrolled in Masters in Financial Mathematics, which seemed to me the ideal trade off between maths, programming and well finance which is quite interesting.

So now, here I am, first year, with full time lectures. My first reaction was to be disappointed by the amount of team work, since in my BSc days all homeworks were individually graded. For some mathematics courses it's fine, since there's a single good answer. However, there are some instances where it's definitely more research-like, almost like a lab report actually.

What however is unnerving is that I'm stuck with teammates with whom I don't exactly share the same work ethic. For instance, I had to insist on writing formal proofs. Anyway, I just feel that if it wasn't for me we'd keep to the bare minimum. AFAIK this is quite different from the industry where, if a team screws up, then either someone is going to get fired or at least the team is going to be split by the management. Here, the prof just won't care and will assign a global grade and go on to the next team.

So I'm not sure what's the right path. On one side, I really want to make sure our team performs well, this is quite a big move I made here, but on the other side, I just don't want be bossy with them, yet here I am writing emails where I detail clearly what I'm awaiting from each of us. Also, well, I haven't talked openly with them about this issue, I'm not certain how I can bring it.

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    "AFAIK this is quite different from the industry". AFAIK, this happens in industry everywhere and all the time. I personally had this situation countless times. My suggestion to you, have an open talk with your teammates.
    – Nobody
    Commented Oct 17, 2014 at 4:40

3 Answers 3


As scaaahu commented: This happens ALL the time in industry (one could say it is the rule, not the exception). We do not always get to pick our teams and it is common for high-performers to be stuck with those who do not really care about the quality of their work. Will someone get fired in industry? Maybe...maybe not (complex issue).

The thing you must understand is the difference between management, where someone has formal authority based on their position in the organization, and leadership, where someone's authority basically comes from the followers.

If your team is fill with under-performers you need to figure out if you can use some leadership skills to motivate them to do better. This is the same when studying and when working. If you cannot motivate them then you must decide if someone else can (perhaps you need to encourage someone else to act as the leader). If it seems the team simply cannot be motivated, then you should do your best to find another team.

A team can only be successful if the team feels like a team and that means, in part, that everyone believes in the same goal and are willing to sacrifice to achieve that goal.

The solution is to develop some leadership skills and have a direct talk with the team about what they hope to achieve.


I had the same thing happen to me during my MBA; it was heavy in group projects.

I was trying to keep a perfect GPA and my team mates just cared about passing. There is no really way to complain or rant. I just couldn’t trust them to do anything. I would take over the project, assign them a BS part and do the lion work and writing and editing and all.

Yes it is not fair to do the work of 6 and letting others profit from your work but you do get something from it. Besides you can’t teach a donkey to fly.

You do learn a lot more than your classmates. You get more out of your degree. You learn to handle bigger multipart projects. You learn to manage a group effort by pretending that everyone is contributing. You learn to bypass sponges by pretending they don’t exist. You learn to bite the bullet. Etc.

Also, at the end of the day, they do know who did the real work and most likely the teacher does too.


I've faced the same situation in the past. And that was during a semester-long project. At the time I was stuck in a team of 4, where I ended-up doing over 70% of the work.

The problem in such setup is that, no matter that you try to voice your concerns, the other party will only hear what is convenient to them and not more. So to say, they may nod their head as if they care about your concerns but it is hardly that something else will be done in practice. If you are lucky in your team might be another person who barely shares the same work ethic with you, and that person may show some effort to provide some help.

My situation was different from yours in the sense that the grades were assigned individually and there were supervisors who monitored the situation actively. They could tell who has done what by the style of writing and the activity during meetings.

I don't know if you have a supervisor, or if you have a flat hierarchy in the group. First talk to the other members of the team and make a separation of concerns by assigning tasks. In this stage do not tell explicitly that you expect each one of them to work hard, but say it implicitly that everyone is thrilled for this group-work and you are all looking for great results. Also it would be nice if you establish a hierarchy since the beginning. Assuming you are the "best" make yourself the head of the group.

During the separation of tasks, do not assign tasks to the others, let them choose themselves, so they don't blame later that the task was too hard for them.

Establish weekly meetings where everyone will tell about the progress he has done with his task.

At some point (lets say 3-4 weeks) you will see that things aren't going as expected (assuming from the description you provided). In that case make a new emergency meeting where you will voice your concerns explicitly. Also make sure to have a mild talk with your supervisor (if you have one) about this problem.

In 1-2 weeks if you see no improvement overall, have a serious talk with the supervisor, and consider if you should stay in such a group (for many reasons). Eventually, you will be investing much more time that you are supposed to on that group (both for organizational overhead and completing the tasks), on top of that you might be frustrated all the time and even worse have health-issues afterwards.

Bear in mind that I have made some hard assumptions in this answer, however I believe you are smart enough to modify the suggestions to fit your situation. Also, do not forget that studies are meant to teach you scientific stuff but also intangibles, such as learning when to say "I'm not going to do this anymore", raise your voice nicely etc.

If you wonder what happened with my case, well I got the top grade, but my supervisors blamed me for not raising the concerns much earlier. I learned the hard way...

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