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It's the first time I'm recruiting for a PhD student. I advertised the position and have received a dozen applications and there are still 2 weeks left on the 4 week announcement.

What caught my eye is that I have two applicants who are already PhD students at other (lower ranking) universities. They both have very strong CVs and even some good publications. However, they haven't included any references from their current university or the reason they want to leave from there. One is a second year PhD and the other a third year. Both have similar topics to the one I'm advertising for.

  • Is it OK if I ask them directly why they want to leave and why they haven't included any references from the place they have been for 2-3 years?

  • Should I try contacting their current supervisor and ask for info? I even know one of them personally. I don't know if I should (could land the student in trouble).

  • In these situations, don't you feel that this person could suddenly leave if he/she finds a better position? Can I really trust him/her to stick through a 4-year project?

P.S.: My wife switched to another supervisor 6 months into her PhD because she really couldn't get along with her 1st supervisor, so I understand these things happen. I want to give these candidates a fair chance, but I want to cover my bases as well.

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To get a feel for this situation from the student's point of view, I suggest reading questions such as Changing PhD programs: should I submit a recommendation letter from my old advisor if it's not purely positive?, Incompatibility with the PhD advisor, Switch PhD program: how to contact possible PhD advisors when already enrolled in PhD program?, and many others.

The decision to try to switch programs is a difficult one for the student. They may be worried about harming their relationship with the current advisor if the move does not work out. From this point of view, contacting the advisor, rather than the student, would be like calling a job applicant's current employer.

Although if they asked here they would probably be advised against it, there may be a temptation to just not mention the current PhD program other than to the extent that they have worked as a research assistant.


The key question you need to ask both the students and yourself is "What would be different about my project compared to your current one?". Of course, there are no guarantees, except that you will not be able to get through a reasonably interesting life without embarrassment.

For example, see How to explain in PhD interview about leaving current PhD due to lack of funding?. If you have good funding, and the student is switching because of lack of funding, there is no reason to expect them to be particularly likely to leave.

The OP for that question wrote "I did not mention my current PhD in CV, and just wrote about my working experience in the last 1.5 year.". I have no idea why students do that, but it seems to be a common urge. Many questions either discuss the advisability of not mentioning incomplete degrees when applying for a PhD program, or are trying to deal afterwards with the consequences of not mentioning them.

  • I understand the side of the student all too well (my wife went through the same hard decision). However, this is the first time I'm forced to see it from the other side. My fear is that I'll hire someone to work on my 4-year long, EU-funded, project and he/she might decide that he/she doesn't like the project or myself and leave. If this happens during the 1st year, I can understand it and I might salvage the situation. Nevertheless, 2-3 years into the PhD, it could create a big issue and embarrassment. – electrique Dec 26 '15 at 11:29
  • @electrique I have edited into my answer some thoughts inspired by your comment. – Patricia Shanahan Dec 26 '15 at 22:43
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I would contact the students directly for answers before contacting the supervisors. This way, you can get some feedback and further information before deciding if you want to contact the supervisors.

However, I would in any case not take a student from the lab of an acquaintance without the "blessing" of the acquaintance. Otherwise you risk setting up an unnecessarily antagonistic relationship between you and the other advisor.

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    Well, the problem is that the candidates themselves have listed their time spent there as research assistant. Only when I looked on the lab's website did I realise they were listed also as PhD students. So, asking the student directly is acceptable by you? I should go with: "Btw, I see that in addition to research assistant, you are also a PhD student in that lab. Why are you searching for another position? Why haven't you listed Prof. X as a reference?" – electrique Dec 25 '15 at 1:03
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    Yes, you can definitely ask a student those questions. – aeismail Dec 25 '15 at 3:34
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Like others have written, there may be uncomplicated reasons that motivate the student to leave (like lack of funding, or a position that was advertised as PhD position but is incompatible with a PhD due to the work-load).

But let's suppose it's a problem with the supervisor:

  1. Ask students? Yes, ask, but it's a touchy subject. After all, bad supervisors do exist, and some are surprisingly "good" colleagues. Criticizing a supervisor is usually seen as disloyal (talking among PhD students in a bar excluded). Which is a problem if the loyalty is one-sided and the supervisor is exploitative or abusive. (Then again, there are students who have rather strange ideas what a supervisor should do for them so things aren't always clear-cut.) So I'd ask for their reasons for leaving (Funding? Did things get tough and the grass looks greener here? Do they want a higher-status position?). And if it's an issue with the supervisor, I'd go for a student who states it rationally, sees the interaction as two-sided (even if the other person is a jerk), and -- above all -- maintains a basic level of respect (as a sign of maturity).
  2. Ask the supervisor? Like others have written and you suspected, ask the student first. Yes, it's better if things happen in the open, after all, that's the polite thing to do and Academia is small (well, the respective sub-domain is). But there is also a power-imbalance at work here. Here I'd simply ask why they did not include any references (might have been an oversight), and if it's a problem with a specific person, whether there are other people who can be contacted (not being able to work with a supervisor is one thing, not being able to work with the whole department another).
  3. Are they quitters? Depends on their reasons for leaving. Actually, I think it's a sign of competence if a person leaves a bad position. The worst situation you can be in is when you are exploited/abused with no chance of establishing yourself as a scientist, yet feeling unable to leave due to escalating commitment/one-sided obligation. So, it is an accomplishment to leave a dysfunctional environment, esp. if you naturally feel a strong commitment to a position.

But yeah, in every hire there is risk, and there are concerns. But I would look at the qualifications and treat the history as one factor (dispassionately, you are not responsible for their situation and they have to fit in your environment). I'd also ask the following questions:

  1. What did they learn so far?
  2. What do they think they need to finish their PhD successfully (and is that realistic)?
  3. Are the habits they have acquired helpful?
  4. Can I work with them?
  5. What are their plans for the future?
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    Thank you very much. You have provided me with good questions I should ask myself/them! – electrique Jan 2 '16 at 10:16
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I think I am in the exact same situation with these two individuals.

I work as a research assistant(!) and PhD student in Turkey and I have applied many positions across Europe.

The exclamation mark indicates that my title is research assistant, but what I do is simply proctoring and assisting the courses. No one expects me to conduct research, and more importantly, I am only as valuable as I carry on proctoring.

Therefore, as any human being would do, I want to work as a happier person and do something that I enjoy in my life.

Regarding to your questions:

Is it OK if I ask them directly why they want to leave and why they haven't included any references from the place they have been for 2-3 years?

Cannot argue about that. This is a fair point.

Should I try contacting their current supervisor and ask for info? I even know one of them personally. I don't know if I should (could land the student in trouble).

I think it is always better to know the applicant better, if you have any chance. Maybe there will be no positive feedback, but at least you may understand why the student wants to leave, based on the response of his/her supervisor.

In these situations, don't you feel that this person could suddenly leave if he/she finds a better position? Can I really trust him/her to stick through a 4-year project?

I certainly do not. In my situation, what I want to do is pure research. If I somehow get a position that I have a lot of time to do my actual job (research assistantship), I would not risk with a so said better university. So, that person might have some reasons to leave, and if these reasons are gone, they probably will not even think about quitting.

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Is it OK if I ask them directly why they want to leave and why they haven't included any references from the place they have been for 2-3 years?

I think the most important thing to get clarity on is what kind of work environment the student expects. You don't want to end up taking in a student who may later quit for the exact same reasons. Expectations of students in academia can vary wildly (and honestly, many research groups, even highly successful ones may not be bastions of even good management practices!).

As to why they include no references from the current position, I mean the fact that they are willing to transfer (and delay their PhD completion time) suggests that they are unhappy with the work environment, and may additionally fear retaliation if their current PI is contacted. I would suspect that they have a conflict with the PI or working environment, and that this isn't just over funding (over which I think most PIs might even help their students find new positions).

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