I'm supervising an undergraduate research assistant this summer, who I hired for a full time position. There are several other full time research assistants in the lab, who work about 35-45 hours a week (specific hours of their choice).

This one student works about 25. He isn't unusually productive, either, and doesn't seem to be learning as much as the students who are actually working approximately full time. He isn't terribly behind, but I am sure he would make more progress on his project and have a better chance of finishing it by the end of the summer if he actually worked full time. (I designed the project so that it could reasonably be expected to be completed over the course of the summer by an undergrad working about 35-40 hours a week.)

Should I have a conversation with him about his working hours? If so, how to do it without sounding like a jerk?

  • 14
    Why telling someone to work as much as he agreed and is paid to do, will make you sound like a jerk?
    – Alexandros
    Jul 21, 2015 at 17:38
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    @Alexandros Because the general culture in academia tends to be more like, "Work as many or as few hours as you want as long as you get your work done."
    – ff524
    Jul 21, 2015 at 17:40
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    @MadJack Actually the high school students come to me through a very competitive application process. They tend to be extremely talented and more productive than our undergrads.
    – ff524
    Jul 21, 2015 at 17:52
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    He gets paid for fulltime. And I think the expectations and motivations of an undergrad are very different from a postdoc, so I don't find the analogy to be especially convincing.
    – ff524
    Jul 21, 2015 at 17:53
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    "Work as many or as few hours as you want as long as you get your work done" ... man, I wish that would have been my academic experience :D
    – Bart
    Jul 21, 2015 at 20:01

3 Answers 3


Should I have a conversation with him about his working hours?

Yes! He gets paid to do a job. He doesn't do the job. You need to talk to him, even though it's an uncomfortable situation. Also, you say in a comment:

Because the general culture in academia tends to be more like, "Work as many or as few hours as you want as long as you get your work done."

This is true, but you say that he does not get his job done. Frankly, if he only works like 25 hours, even if he would be supremely productive I would still talk to him about his work ethics if he puts in so much less hours than his peers... and if he is not it's all the more reason to make sure that he at least tries as hard as the others.

If you don't, the problem is going to be that sooner rather than later many of the 45-hours students are going to wonder why the heck they are actually not enjoying the summer. I have seen in my current group that various bad habits have a tendency to spread like wildfire if the students have the impression that not doing your job isn't in any way frowned upon anyway.

If so, how to do it without sounding like a jerk?

In private, without getting emotional or accusatory. Tell him that you have the impression that he works considerably below the amount that was agreed upon, and that you have to ask him to change this. Tell him that you have the impression that his project is not progressing fast enough, and what will happen if he can't get it done in time (you have some course of action in this case, right?). Be prepared that he may counter with some sort of attack against you. For instance, this is a classic in such situations: "Well, since you never have time for me, I don't know what to do half of the time anyway - so rather than just sit around I leave". Make sure that you have a good answer in this case.

  • 6
    Thanks, I did this. I followed your recommendations and I did not feel like a jerk.
    – ff524
    Jul 21, 2015 at 22:41
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    @ff524: How did your student respond?
    – user541686
    Jul 22, 2015 at 8:42
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    @Mehrdad He seems to understand that it's a problem, hopefully he will keep his promise to change his habits...
    – ff524
    Jul 22, 2015 at 23:30

From the perspective of an undergrad student, I think you should address this issue. He might be unaware of the problem you are having with him since as you said, he is not behind in his work but you feel he could be more productive. He might even appreciate you telling him this if framed correctly, allowing him to pinpoint where he can improve and knowing that his advisor not only notices his performance but believes he can do better.

Mention that it is a paid full-time position and because of that there are expectations, despite the culture you mentioned in one of your comments. He might be able to get work done in the amount of hours a week he works, but increasing his hours not only ensures his work is done, it also shows his dedication. Also mention that the project is designed for someone to work 35 to 40 hours a week. He is not especially productive during his 25 hours a week, so it's not like he can get away with doing less than expected.

Sounding like a jerk would only be a problem, I think, if you don't explain your reasoning for talking to him about this. It might be best to address this in an informal setting outside of the lab, but that is more about where you personally think the conversation would be least confrontational. The way you approached the wording of the question definitely made you sound well intentioned and not jerk-ish in the slightest, so you shouldn't worry too much about your tone.

I would suggest asking him if he is only working 25 or so hours a week because he has other things going on in his personal life. It's a good place to start the conversation as it is coming from a place of concern and allows for you to get to your main problems with him as well. I'm assuming that the schedule is somewhat flexible, and if that is true, remind him of that and that you're willing to work with his schedule to some extent.


I am an undergraduate (in electrical engineering) doing undergraduate research, so I'll answer based on my own situation and what I would want if I were in the same situation.

It's possible, if he isn't putting in his full effort, that he isn't very interested in the research project (maybe he had misconceptions as to what research was like in general, or found out that he isn't as interested in the field as he thought he was). I'm not sure if there's a lot you could do there. Perhaps he's lost sight of how his particular project fits into the big picture. I had that problem before, and feeling like I was an insignificant cog in the research machine certainly didn't help my performance (I found it helpful to discuss the research with my professor to revitalize my interest in the project and to get a better understanding of how my work fit in and was useful to the team).

On the other hand, it's possible that he is having some difficulties that are holding him back with his work that are discouraging him. Is it possible that there would be unforeseen issues with his project that would make it take more time than you thought? (Admittedly this is more unlikely--I and many of my coworkers would be inclined to work more hours at this point, but it can be disheartening I suppose).

If you want to avoid directly telling him to work more hours, consider increasing the frequency at which the students report their progress to you if necessary. Perhaps have them do a mini presentation every week on what they've accomplished. Some people find it difficult to keep slacking off if they feel like their slacking is making them look like they don't have much to show.

If you do choose to speak to him directly about his work hours, just be honest--he's being paid for full time work, so he needs to work full time. That's really not something a student who wants to learn would be offended by (perhaps he'd take a hit on his pride, but that's hardly your fault).

If you want to be less "in your face", perhaps you could get this point across by emphasizing that the summer is almost over, and so he should be giving it his all in the last few weeks. This should be especially easy if you plan on having one-on-one time with the students to discuss their progress. It could be something as simple as

"Hi there [student]. Based on your current progress with your project, I would strongly encourage you to spend more time working in the coming weeks to ensure that you're able to finish."

Emphasize that he's working on the project to grow as a researcher as well as help out, so he may need encouragement to put in more effort than he deems appropriate.

Finally, there could be nothing you can do at all. Perhaps he has things going on in his personal life that distract him from work. Perhaps he's just not interested in the research and only wants to do the bare minimum, and is only interested in working as many hours as he needs to do his work. If there is a way to fix that, it seems a direct, frank talk would be the only way to do so.

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