I have a good friend who is in his first year as an assistant professor right now, having earned his PhD last year.

He is frustrated because in his new department, standards for graduate student research seem to be lower than what he was used to in his PhD department. Some PhD students in his new department graduate without ever publishing anything (which is not usual in our field). The theses that students in his new department produce would be considered at the level of a good bachelor's thesis in his old department. The graduate students all work fewer hours and are less productive during their working time than what he is used to.

I suspect this is a common problem, since many people who land tenure-track academic jobs end up in a department that's ranked lower than the one where they earned their PhD.

Assuming the graduate students he supervises are actually capable of more, how can he motivate his students to work harder and produce better work when other students in the program don't? Is it realistic to even try?

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    This can also be a recruiting problem. Mar 11, 2016 at 4:40
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    Replace this with "employees" and you'll find it's one of the age-old questions of performance management. How do I maximize productivity from my employees?
    – corsiKa
    Mar 11, 2016 at 21:53
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    @corsiKa Except the threat of being fired is much more real in that scenario.
    – ff524
    Mar 11, 2016 at 21:55
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    Not really. If someone is only working out of fear of getting fired, they're going to be producing the bare minimum productivity to avoid getting fired. People in the corporate jungle don't get fired because they aren't the top performers at their firm, only for being at the absolute bottom of the scale. Maximizing their productivity has the same challenges as described here, and as maximizing that of a typical worker.
    – corsiKa
    Mar 11, 2016 at 21:59

7 Answers 7


This is, as you say, a common problem. It certainly is realistic to try to get more out of your students than the other faculty. However, depending on how substantial the gap is between the norm and your expectations, getting into a better school may turn out to be the only realistic and sustainable way of aligning goals and reality. If the statement that the PhD theses in the new school are like bachelor theses in the old school is not just hyperbole, this may certainly turn out to be the case for your friend.

how can he motivate his students to work harder and produce better work when other students in the program don't?

Step 1 is certainly to figure out why they should work harder than their peers (who still graduate!) in the first place. It's likely that your friend never really gave this much thought, because in his old school, working your ass off was simply what PhD students do. Here it isn't, so he needs to find a motivator that works for them. The two solutions offered by Brian (tell them that they won't find an academic job if they don't publish, and show them what cool things they could be doing) are good, but they will work only if they actually have aspirations to stay in academia, or respectively have substantial internal drive to do good research. Both may have been a given in the old school, but not necessarily so in the new one. Other potential motivators may include:

  • Getting to see nice conference venues (don't laugh - this works much better than you think as a motivator)
  • Serving as a stepping stone for a cool industry internship, e.g., at Microsoft.
  • Finding a problem that they personally really want to solve, i.e., real curiosity-driven research.
  • Bonuses! Most likely difficult to implement in many universities, but depending on his financial capabilities, there should be some goodies that he can offer in exchange for going beyond the work of peers. It does not need to be a super-formal, but knowing that the students that work hard and get published are also the ones that get new laptops first is certainly a motivator for some students.

The most important step is really to start giving it a thought why they should be working hard in the first place, rather than lamenting why they don't.

Step 2, and strongly connected to Step 1, is then to find the right students. This was again something he has maybe not given too much thought, as in his old school most students were good to excellent. In his new school, there are almost certainly also people for which some of the above motivators will work and compel them to produce good research, but he will need to identify and actively recruit them to his cause. The most important part of this is to make clear that things in his lab are different than in the rest of the department. Students are not graduating without papers. Students are expected to work on their research X hours a week, for whatever a realistic X is, and so on. If this is the message that your friend is communicating plausibly, most of the students will stay far away from working with him, but that is ok - he does not want those students anyway. However, even at a weaker school, there are likely going to be students who are dissatisfied with the status quo and who are actually going to be appealed by your friend's less lenient approach to PhD school, especially once he builds up a track record of students actually going beyond the norm in the school.

Step 3 is going to be the most difficult, but maybe the most important, step. He then needs to meet his students half-way. Despite all of the above, he is still not going to be working at a top-tier research university. That means he will need to re-evaluate his expectations on his students and the papers they produce. This may include both, quality and quantity of results. He needs to realise that it actually is much harder for his students to produce good work in this environment than what it was for him. He likely had a stimulating and high-competition environment to work in. They just have him, and maybe one or two other more ambitious students. All the other students (who plan to graduate without papers) are frankly more of a distraction than support for them. All the other faculty are simply of not much help. At the end, he may be ok with his students not, or not immediately, submitting to the very best venues. Instead, he needs to ease them into it (without teaching them bad practices). In computer science, a good way may be to initially submit to workshops at the top conferences. This is allows students to go to the top conferences and see what the work is like that is published there, but getting a paper accepted at those workshops is achievable for most students given a little supervision. Really, the core in this step is to get away from the mindset that is common at top schools that only the very best publication venues are good enough.

What is also important in this step is the right kind of expectation management. Telling stories about your friend's old lab may be a good way to reframe the expectations his students have on how a PhD works, but he needs to pick his time and place. For instance, when his first student gets a paper in the major conference of the field, this is a big deal and should be celebrated as such. This is certainly not the right time to let everyone know that in his old lab they had papers in this conference every year for the last decade.

Finally, Step 4 is to make alliances within the faculty. It is likely that there are other (younger?) faculty in the department that are also not happy with how the department currently operates. They won't be able to turn the department as a whole around, but it will certainly be easier to improve their own labs if they share their experiences. From a motivational point of view, it is also a good idea to try to socially align the labs of the higher-aspiration professors more tightly - if your students are friends primarily with the students of the other faculty who expect their students to actually work, it will be much easier for your students to keep up motivation. Ways to achieve this include joint social events or retreats, joint talk series, and of course, if possible, joint research and publications.

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    Step 5, related to step 4: be careful not to tread on the toes of the other faculty, who apparently liked the status quo and may resent a newcomer upturning it and making them look bad. Mar 11, 2016 at 7:31
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    Even if the conference venue is not nice, the city that hosts the conference might be a nice place to visit, and the possibility of getting funded trips is a really hook-line-sinker for the wanderlust-prone. Mar 11, 2016 at 12:35
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    Regarding Step 2, he could formalize his expectations into a written document. For instance, on my website, I have a page explaining what my students should expect from me and what I will expect from them. At least one student became interested in working with me in part because of reading that.
    – Kimball
    Mar 12, 2016 at 13:34
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    it actually is much harder for his students to produce good work in this environment can definitely be true. I went from starting a CS/IS degree at a school with an excellent mathematics and CS department to one with little in the way of either (due to health reasons) and have found myself constantly needing to re-adjust how I evaluate peers and juniors - who were simply not able to attend the level or types of classes I did before because they do not exist here. Mar 12, 2016 at 19:04
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    It could also help to send the students on research visits to high-ranked institutions, to "absorb" some of the academic culture in those places. The professor could exploit his ties to his old institution in order to achieve that.
    – Miguel
    Mar 13, 2016 at 22:43

In my experience, one of the best ways consists in leading by example. He can try and publish excellent work on a regular basis, and he can require high standards for any publication from his team. He can say that it is a matter of reputation and even point out the importance of international competition in the field. After a while, I bet that there will be at least one student who would like to be part of this "excellence" group and show that his or her work is worthy of the requested high quality. This could become a positive upward spiral, since other students in the team won't like to be left behind.

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    Absolutely: make the research exciting, paint a picture of the relevance of research, give it meaning. Bonuses, future employability etc. are all nice and good, but the inner meaning of research is what actually gets good stuff done. Of course, the #1 criterion: be selective which students you pick. Mar 11, 2016 at 9:46
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    I don't think "selectivity in picking students" is as important as "setting clear standards, starting from day 1". In my experience most "new starters" make an honest (and usually successful) attempt to do what they think is expected of them. I've learned from experience in industry that if you let some interns loose on a problem that "everybody knows" is unsolvable, but don't tell them it's unsolvable, you often get a solution, or something close enough to be useful in practice. But if you ask them to sort out the office filing, the most you will get is some tidier filing cabinets.
    – alephzero
    Mar 11, 2016 at 18:13

One strategy would be to explain to the students that their success on the job market after graduation will depend greatly on the quality of the research that they've done as graduate students.

Another strategy would be to expose the students to high quality research being conducted by students at other universities (e.g. by taking them to conferences) so that they can see beyond the provincial confines of their department.

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    This does not work if the PHd is only needed to get a unrelated job. E.g some companies like to have all the sales people being "Dr" as the clients then are more likely to talk to them.
    – Ian
    Mar 12, 2016 at 12:27

I am providing this answer as a graduate student who is NOT in a program with perceived underachievers - in fact I am in a well-ranked biology-related program at a public university that vies with Ivy Leagues for students. I am very impressed with my cohort, many of whom work long hours and are very passionate about their research. So perhaps I can provide a graduate student's perspective.

I joined my lab with a great deal of enthusiasm, worked long hours, and found quite a lot of success immediately. However, as time has worn on, I have realized that most of my lab mates are not quite as enthusiastic. They do not always keep up with literature, they do the minimum that they are told, they are generally poor lab citizens, and can even be passive aggressive if not openly antagonistic. My advisor is very hands off and rarely creates or enforces policies to ideally prevent but minimally remediate bad behavior. This has affected my productivity quite negatively. The point of this anecdote is to highlight that the local environment can be just as important as the global climate. I often feel intellectually isolated, and while my advisor is very capable of carrying stimulating discussions and cares a lot, he is not yet tenured, so he's very busy, and cannot be the only one in the group with a passion for science.

Thus, based on my perspective as a graduate student on the other side of this question, I will share what I think your friend can do, as well as open with the note that I am largely corroborating and elaborating the good suggestions that xLeitix provided above.

The goals:

1) Create a stimulating and organized local environment with lab/group members who care deeply and will support each other intellectually and culturally in spite of the global research climate. The late nights, stress, and social isolation need to be offset if depression and/or absenteeism are to be avoided. My own enthusiasm has suffered because of isolation, lack of organization, and lack of accountability. Maybe this also means putting extra time into mentoring to make the student feel special. If one does not want students to treat a PhD like a j.o.b., then it is necessary although maybe not sufficient that students not be treated like employees.

Your friend should also be honest with himself about whether he has the personality traits to create and maintain a stimulating environment that will not be corrupted by poor organization. If he cannot do this, then he might hire someone who can. In the experimental sciences, we have "lab managers" or "project scientists" who often play the role of "bad cop" and "foreman" since faculty do not have the time or will to wear these hats. Perhaps there is something analogous in your friend's case.

2) Related to (1), without the right people, goal (1) is difficult to unattainable. Therefore your friend should try to be as picky as possible with who he recruits, both in terms of students, but also any other members of the lab regardless of their role (e.g. post-doc, admin, technicians, etc...). This can be difficult as a junior faculty member because there is little to no managerial training and little formal framework for more experienced faculty mentoring younger faculty. Nothing in his career up to that point formally prepared him to essentially run a small intellectual business, identify early signs of high achievement based on a 1-2 hour meeting or email/call to a reference, or motivate humans to achieve. This leads to (3).

3) He should seek the help and guidance of more experienced faculty where appropriate. They would be more able to ferret out good recruits as well as provide advice on effective management strategies to motivate people.

To summarize, many PhD students have the requisite curiosity and intellect to do great research, but at a minimum the local culture needs to facilitate this as much as possible, especially if the overall culture in the program is one of underachievement, which your friend has limited power to alter. In my case, I am surrounded by brilliant students, but am hampered by a crummy local environment. I hope this helps, and maybe other students can support or counterpoint my arguments. Good luck!


Adding to xLeitix answer; specifically step 3 "For instance, when his first student gets a paper in the major conference of the field, this is a big deal and should be celebrated as such." Find out how long it has been, if ever, for the department or even university and celebrate accordingly. If it is the first ever then throw a party with him/her as the guest of honour and after cutting the cake present him/her with a brand new laptop or similar gift. If the university wont fund this but does not object he may want to fully or partially fund the purchase.

He could also see if there are any suitable rivalries with other universities he could use as encouragement.

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    I can agree with throwing a party and cutting a cake for celebration. But, a brand new laptop as a gift seems to be a big deal to me.
    – Nobody
    Mar 13, 2016 at 7:22
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    That's the point. If the current and past standard has not been great then a grand prise for the first to do so can inspire others to greatness as well. I have seen prises gifted to the best before but they were often poor and/or unrelated and provided little if any incentive to the students. Obviously this would not be handed out every time. The aim is to ignite the fire and encourage the student to raise the bar themselves.
    – rom016
    Mar 13, 2016 at 7:39
  • To me, my name on the wall of the department office is more of a grand prize than a laptop. Your idea works in industry, but may or may not work in Academia.
    – Nobody
    Mar 13, 2016 at 7:50
  • But we are not talking about you we are talking about a group of people some will certainly be motivated by such a prise and then others will be motivated because they want to be the best, or because they don't want to be the worst. This is about shifting a groups perception rather than an individuals.
    – rom016
    Mar 13, 2016 at 8:09

In my view as a supervisor, everything comes back to the supervisors. If the level of the students is lower than you, you should try harder in your courses and in the process of the supervision. In my department, many colleagues are discussing this issue regularly and compare the current students to themselves. But the point I've seen is that if you have an average student and give a good idea and a correct milestone, He (she) surely succeeded in the research process. The important fact is that many researchers are not great supervisors and just try to imitate the behaviours of their supervisors from the top universities (that is a different story). My suggestion is to do following works to produce more research results even from average students,

  1. Course planning carefully and beginning the research process from it by working on current research works and topics
  2. The discipline in your programs and weekly or biweekly sessions with students are very important issues.
  3. Begin with simple ideas with your students than the hard and difficult ones
  4. You should study more than the students in the research and show them that you are courageous enough to the academics work.

I am a PhD student and thereby not qualified to answer the question in the intended spirit of the OP. Still I feel an urge to express my opinions in a general context since I find no logical explanation that negate the following. Assuming that the student is interested in the subject, I would advise an enthusiastic student that there are 3 major ways that you would loose your motivation.

1. Anxieties of the Past.

Thinking about something negative happened in the past and worrying that it will happen again. E.g. I had failed to understand General relativity even though I tried 3 times. I am going to fail again.

2. Anxieties of the Future.

Thinking of what to say in my Nobel prize speech in the middle of a Gaussian curve fit.

3. Anxieties of the Present.

Thinking of the numerous parameters to be given for the fitting function, leaving the data untouched from morning to afternoon. After noon, its lunch and I need some rest.

I would advise my student to block these while doing your work, think of what need to be done now, never lose your energy thinking of the results that are yet to come in the future and concentrate all your efforts for the single piece of work that you are doing and thus results will be excellent.

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    -1 I am sorry but this is a reasonable answer to a completely different question.
    – xLeitix
    Mar 11, 2016 at 16:12

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