In our university there are a lot of great researchers and a very competent people in general. I've discovered today that one of our researchers is intentionally employing people who are totally incompetent. I think that he's doing this to appear as a great teacher and supervisor, because, as far as I know, he was a supervisor for all of them in the past.

I personally know some of these incompetent researchers, since their first year of undergraduate studies. They were those people who find it incredibly hard to pass every course, especially maths. I've been giving one of them remedial lessons to make him able to pass a database course. He finally made it on the 3rd attempt. His other courses weren't much better - he failed literally EVERY maths course until the last possible attempt.

Today, I discovered that he and several people similar to him are employed as researchers. Some of them were there even before completing their B.S (which is usually not allowed even for the most talented students).

What should I do to notify others of this situation and without worsening my position in my colleagues' eyes?

The researcher is a man of a great reputation (or at least, much greater than I am as a postgraduate :-) ), so I'm afraid of being just considered malicious and jealous man. On the other hand I'm pretty angry about all this, because there are some very expensive international projects, where money for these people are completely wasted and a research progress is much slower than it has to be. Those positions could be occupied by really talented and competent people and not just by somebody, who was supervised by one specific man.

  • Have you talked to colleagues or your advisor/supervisor about this? Do they share your views?
    – Raphael
    Commented Jul 14, 2015 at 6:40
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    clarifying question: 'researcher' is not a student, and more of a staff position dedicated for research? (as a research scientist or postdoc?)
    – Memming
    Commented Jul 14, 2015 at 8:48
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    @Memming Yes, "the researcher" is a research scientist, who rather concentrates on research than lecturing.
    – Eenoku
    Commented Jul 14, 2015 at 9:46
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    how do you know the professor is well-intentioned but simply doesn't know how to hire? or that they're actually good researchers by whatever measure, just not good at coursework? because research and coursework are different skills. Commented Jul 14, 2015 at 19:19
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    @Guest: Maybe they were hired for their people and communication skills?
    – gnasher729
    Commented Jul 15, 2015 at 11:49

4 Answers 4


My suggestion is that you let it go for three reasons:

  1. This is hardly the last time you'll come across this problem, inside or outside of academia.
  2. There are factors here you might not be considering or know nothing about. Maybe the person you're tutoring in math has excellent people skills, or is the instructor's nephew, or the Dean's. Whatever the reasons they're really not any of your business.
  3. As you say, you will indeed end up being considered a malicious and jealous man.

If it really bothers you you should probably find somewhere else to work where this isn't a problem, but then see point #1, above.

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    Unfortunately, this is probably the best answer I'm going to receive, even if I'm not very glad to hear this :-( Nevertheless, thank you.
    – Eenoku
    Commented Jul 13, 2015 at 22:28
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    "Whatever the reasons they're really not any of your business." -- I disagree. If funds are wasted, that's a problem for the whole department. It's the job of faculty to ensure that is not the case, though, probably not a post-doc's.
    – Raphael
    Commented Jul 14, 2015 at 6:40
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    But Raphael if the funds are wasted that will be evident by the failed proposals and failure to produce results. If the team is able to produce results, even via unorthodox means, the funds aren't being wasted.
    – corsiKa
    Commented Jul 14, 2015 at 17:40
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    @Raphael I've jousted with that dragon more times than I can count and never once have I won the battle. We had an admin assistant who was stealing equipment from the incoming mail and we couldn't get her fired. And that's a completely objective offense. When you get to things like "competent," that's highly subjective and debatable and does not mean anywhere near as much as it probably should in the context of academia.
    – Raydot
    Commented Jul 14, 2015 at 18:36

Like others here, I am supremely sceptical of your reasoning that the prof. is hiring bad people to look better. I think it is indeed a pretty universal concept that professors hire good people because it makes them seem good. Never have I heard of a case where somebody was actively looking for terrible people because they can be taught more.

Hence, I would look for other reasons why those "incompetent people" are employed in this lab. The ones that seem most likely to me are:

  • The better students may not be interested. In Austria and Germany, for instance, many of the best advanced students already work part-time jobs outside of academia. It is simply not possible to always hire the "best-in-class" for some student jobs, simply because they have other, better-paying jobs, and may not be interested. No matter what the concrete circumstances are, I would not by default assume that every student is always interested in each job.
  • It may be more work to find better students. Even if there are better students that may be interested, sometimes bachelor- and master-student hiring is very low on the priority list of the professor, and he simply does not care enough to go out of his way to find the best people if he has somebody at hand that he thinks will at least be adequate. This is close to your reasoning, but it's not the same.
  • Maybe the professor is looking for other qualities than you. You go very hard on those students because they sucked at their math courses. Maybe the professor does not care about this, because the job is foremost a programming job? Maybe they are in fact not incompetent in the specific skill that the job needs?
  • Maybe they simply improved. Relatedly, maybe they simply learned and are not incompetent anymore?
  • Maybe it's simply nepotism. No exactly a good reason, but still much more likely than the reasoning you proposed - maybe those incompetent students are somehow related to the professor, or to friends of the professor. This is, I think, the only case from my list where you should really be angry, but even in this case I foresee only hard times for you if you go on a mission to change the professor's behavior.
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    I'm surprised you left confirmation bias off of your list-- assuming that "simply nepotism" implies conscious bias. If the professor saw great potential in them earlier then he will, unless he's aware and compensating, almost certainly have a strong bias toward continuing to assess them highly now. That's not to say that it's the sole or even an important factor, and it's not really nefarious--just part of being human.
    – Philip
    Commented Jul 14, 2015 at 5:47
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    I can confirm that people that seem incompetent to a researcher in one subfield/group can successfully graduate with a PhD in another subfield/group. (Any interpretation of this fact is dangerous, as long as we have no objective measure of "competence".) Required skill sets, abstraction vs application levels and research culture differ. (<heresy>There are harder and softer subfields to any academic discipline, aren't there?</heresy>)
    – Raphael
    Commented Jul 14, 2015 at 6:36

Your perception of them being bad seems to be based on what your past experiences where with them. Their past performance is not necessarily a good indicator of their present performance. The professor that hired them saw something in them. One of the best researchers I know did not pass his bachelor's with flying colors. The remark that the professor hired them to look good himself is also doubtful. There is only one way a student makes his professor look good, and that is by doing good research. In the competitive research world the professor would likely only spend more money on people he believes in.

Like @DaveKey already said, don't get involved. It is none of your business. Focus on your own work and not on your emotions surrounding the work of others.

  • For undergrads, it is a bit of a different though. Some grants will provide money specifically for them, and some professors do not care at all about who they hire for such jobs because they expect nothing to begin with.
    – user8001
    Commented Jul 13, 2015 at 22:52
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    @user8001 if the money is specifically for one person, the complaint of the OP that better people could use it is moot. In addition, if some professor really does not care, the complaint of the OP will also likely not help. I would although find it strange a professor does not care who he works with. Undergraduate research is a great way to spot talent for graduate research. Good graduate research is vital, especially for non-tenured professors. Commented Jul 13, 2015 at 22:57
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    @guest but why hire incompetent people. If the professor wants to get something useful out of the project he'll hire people he can trust to do something useful.Likely the professor does not agree with your assessment of the people he hired. Commented Jul 13, 2015 at 23:07
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    Again, he could hire two competent people in stead of one bad and one good. I think the professor thinks they bring something to the table. And if he really does not care, your complaints will be useless and likely piss him off. Complaining is really a lose lose here. Commented Jul 13, 2015 at 23:12
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    "It is none of your business." -- I disagree. If funds are wasted, that's a problem for the whole department. It's the job of faculty to ensure that is not the case, though, probably not a post-doc's.
    – Raphael
    Commented Jul 14, 2015 at 6:39

Your story reminds me of my (painful) student time in Italy, but I (and my friends) were the bad, incompetent guys :)

Back then we were 3 Asians doing Master in Software Engineering in Trento. There, they offered one of the most theoretical Master programs that I've ever known. The mandatory courses for Software Engineering included Computability (lambda calculus etc), Computational Complexity, Concurrency Theory (pi calculus etc) etc. And we all sucked.

I got 0 in Computability in the first semester, I decided not to retake the exam in the second semester since I understood nothing, and I managed to pass it in the third semester. My friends X and Y went to the Dean and told him they could not finish this program unless he let them to pass Computability :D

I and X graduated after 5 semesters (the standard is 4), Y needed 3 years to do that. Our GPA were less than mediocre, and there were several courses that we needed to take the exams several times. So if you, the OP, says we were incompetent students, I agree. My friends may also agree.

But if you say we are incompetent researchers, we will not agree. We sucked at math stuffs like Computability, but there are still many things that we can do research on. I have just finished my PhD in the UK, and I'm going to start my post doc in the US this month. X also submitted his PhD thesis in Canada, and already has a post doc offer from a top school in the same country. Y stayed at Trento for PhD, and already started his post doc with a US government agency early this month.

We may be mediocre researchers, but not incompetent. Because our PhD advisors have been happy with us. Maybe you are right, the people in your department are really incompetent. However, if our advisors evaluated us merely based on our GPAs and performances in class, we would never have a chance.

  • 2
    I don't know you or your friends and I'm definitely not saying that one cannot improve his performance drastically. I'm not even trying to wreck someone's career. The point was, that I know those people in person for several years, so I know pretty much about their abilities, maths was just the most distinctive example. Of course, they could've improved without me noticing it. My question was targeting the case they haven't. And congrats for your career and improvement, it's pretty energizing to hear such stories :-)
    – Eenoku
    Commented Jul 14, 2015 at 12:18

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