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I'm a postdoctoral researcher. My professor recently asked me to co-supervise one of her doctoral students, whom she also employed full-time as a research scientist. Since I had no prior experience advising at the doctoral level, I gladly accepted. Unfortunately, the guy turned out to be a phenomenally poor researcher. He was habitually late for work, took absences without leave, lacked subject-matter knowledge that we expect even of undergraduate students, and had extremely poor oral and written communication skills. I worked my best to help him, and we even managed to get a paper published (though I had to completely rewrite his draft, many parts of which were completely nonsensical or even plagiarised). However, his bad work habits continued, and despite my tutelage he remained unwilling or unable to fill the gaps in his knowledge. After about six months of my co-supervision, my professor decided to dismiss him from the doctoral programme and from employment.

I'm currently seeking employment, including tenure-track positions. My question is whether and how I should list this failed student on my CV. On the one hand, I think it would be helpful to show that I have at least some experience advising at the doctoral level. But I don't want it to reflect poorly on me that the only such experience I had was ultimately a failure. Should I list him or not? And if so, what explanation, if any, should I include in the CV as to why the supervision didn't continue past six months?

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    I would give the facts in my CV: "co-supervised a PhD student for six months, resulting in one co-authored publication". – Roland Jan 2 '17 at 13:37
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    @Roland. That's an answer, not a comment! Please consider re-posting it as an answer. – Dilip Sarwate Jan 2 '17 at 15:49
  • the fact you got some student shafted doesn't make you any more attractive as a professor, quite the contrary. your professors decision to dismiss may actually be the result of your failure (perceived or otherwise). i'm not the only person who thinks this way. this is the best constructive criticism i can offer; i would not mention it on a CV, i would not offer it freely during an interview, this isn't a selling point if that's what you were thinking. personally, I would steer clear of this candidate -- if only because s/he doesn't yet realize the goal was to teach, and not to judge. – Shaun Wilson Jan 3 '17 at 23:36
  • @ShaunWilson how did OP get a student shafted? – tilper Jan 4 '17 at 1:51
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    the goal was to teach, and not to judge — Incorrect; repeat after me: a PhD and an undergraduate degree are two completely different beasts. @ShaunWilson – Mad Jack Jan 4 '17 at 2:42
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One thing to keep in mind is that tenure-track faculty generally do not list failed PhD students on their CVs. One might argue that they should actually, since -- unlike a non-academic resume -- a CV is supposed to be a factual, comprehensive record of one's academic career, but nevertheless academic culture doesn't cut this way.

The next thing I will say is that in my experience at least, "co-advisor" refers to a member of a group of more than one faculty member -- usually, though not absolutely always, tenure-track faculty members -- who jointly share the role of advising. You seem to be using the term as a kind of "lieutenant advisor," but that could be misunderstood. When the student's other advisor is your PI, it is likely that your advising duties are less official and more subsidiary. In particular, you write "[M]y professor decided to dismiss him from the doctoral programme and from employment," not we decided...Nor did you hire the student, fund him and so forth. However, from the sound of it, you played a large intellectual role in supervising the student.

So: I would not recommend you put a line on your cv which says "co-supervised a PhD student." If potential employers are interested in that, they are likely to ask you about it, and when they find out that the student didn't graduate, I think that sounds bad...in particular, it sounds not completely forthcoming. On the other hand, "co-supervised a PhD student who did not finish [or however you want to put it]" also sounds bad, as I mentioned above.

I would suggest instead that you put a line on your CV saying that you mentored a PhD student and that mentoring relationship resulted in a joint paper. That's a successful mentoring relationship. The student was not ultimately successful in the PhD program, but I claim that you're not on the hook for that: you didn't hire him and you didn't fire him. If they ask for more information about the PhD student, you should of course be completely forthcoming about the fact that he was dismissed after six months, as well as all the help you gave him. If/when this additional information comes to light, it does not undermine what you said before in any way. Since you are not claiming the PhD student as your own, his fate is not your responsibility (which is true!), and so your involvement in the situation looks (and was, based on your description) entirely positive.

  • +1. the fact that the student you assisted failed is no reflection on you, and I daresay everybody in academia knows a million stories like this. it's actually to your credit that you tried to help a loser. – user61996 Jan 2 '17 at 21:49
  • Where I work, only professors are legally permitted to admit, dismiss, and "advise"/"supervise" graduate students. But in practice, my professor delegates much of the advising work to senior research staff. We hold weekly one-on-one research meetings with the students, review or coauthor their papers, and (at least for the Master's level) ghost-write the professor's review of the thesis. Maybe at other institutions this is called mentoring, but we always call it "co-supervision" or "secondary supervision". – user67171 Jan 3 '17 at 13:45
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    @user6171: It may well be that I have given advice that is more centered on my academic field and geographic location (mathematics, US) than yours (unspecified!). In my field it is rare for postdocs to be advisors, but when they do they step up to get full credit for it. I think the term "secondary supervision" is more clear than "co-supervision". I also think that "mentoring" describes better your experience with this student: six months is a reasonable amount of time to mentor a PhD student, less so to advise them.... – Pete L. Clark Jan 3 '17 at 14:04
  • ...But if the term "mentoring" is not commonly used in your field, I would avoid using it on your CV. I still think that if your one supervising experience is with a student who got dismissed in six months (in my field at least, that is alarmingly fast), then you are going to have a hard time getting credit for your advisorly skills. Perhaps you should use a yet more neutral term: e.g. "worked with a PhD student." Anyway, what does your PI think about this? Or you know, your co-PI/secondary-PI/whoever is actually mentoring you... – Pete L. Clark Jan 3 '17 at 14:11
  • +1 because this is about an early career CV going to apply to an academic position document .The reason to figure out a way to document it in CV is to show that one has already been credibly learning and spending time mentoring students. (Not so much whether the student failed or succeeded, but that the postdoc has been learning how to mentor). Sure, a mid-career faculty member who has been supporting postdocs and students and has several successful PhD's and MS students is likely not going to bother including shaky newbie mentoring experiences, but this is early career situation. – Carol Jan 4 '17 at 23:08
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This could be a great opportunity to show off your people and managing skills.

You had to balance all kinds of priorities. Your own project, his project, teaching him something, letting him figure things out himself. Then, as he showed to be weak, you had to balance letting him fail and getting a publication out of it despite his incompetence. I assume he wasn't booted from the program without notice, so you can tell that while you were taking steps to get him out you also kept a good working relationship, resulting in a paper. Your guidance resulted in some (good) results from a weak student. It also showed that you can work with people that are obviously not pulling their own weight, and that you are strong enough to fail students when they're not up to par.

I'd say this is probably a really nice starting point to tell a lot of stories in your CV or during an interview. "Guided failing phd student, still got a paper out of it" sounds good to me.

To write this in CV-speak you could do something like (apparently also already suggested in a comment): "co-supervised a phd student for 6 months resulting in one publication"

  • Thanks for the discussion, but this doesn't really answer my question. I know that once I get an interview, I'll have the opportunity to explain everything on my CV, including the bit about this student (if I list him). My question is really about how to list the failed supervision on my CV (i.e., before I get an interview) in such a way that it doesn't reflect poorly on me. – user67171 Jan 2 '17 at 13:05
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    You could just list the inclusive dates of the co-supervision (i.e., March 2015 - Sep 2015) without mentioning the dismissal, and explain the circumstances during the interview. – Inde Jan 2 '17 at 13:53
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    There is no failed supervision. Your prof was the supervisor. You were the co-supervisor. List the period of time and the subject. You don't have to title is as failed or not.How do you define a successful supervision...? – BioGeo Jan 2 '17 at 15:46
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    @BioGeo: I don't know any academic that would use the term "successful supervision" for a student who was dismissed from the program. You're right that the supervision was not clearly a failure either, and I agree that using any such terminology is probably not helpful here. – Pete L. Clark Jan 2 '17 at 16:21
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    ""Guided failing phd student, still got a paper out of it" sounds good to me." Less so to me, honestly. – Pete L. Clark Jan 2 '17 at 16:22
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A disadvantage of mentioning it in your CV would be that if you do, chances are good that there would be some amount of follow-up conversation about it in the interview. But who wants to talk about six months of frustration and an unhappy final outcome in an interview? What a downer. Better to focus on the positive in the interview.

The advantages of mentioning it do not seem to me to outweigh the disadvantages, since the paper that came out of it will appear elsewhere in your CV, and since the paper was mostly, or entirely, your work anyway.

The turtle writes some of her memories on the rocks on the beach, to remember forever. Others, she writes on the sand, for the tide to wash gradually away. This sounds like one for the sand.

  • chances are good that there would be some amount of follow-up conversation about it in the interview — The validity of this claim could very well depend on the field, but in my data-point-of-1 experience: on faculty interviews, nobody asked me about the several students I listed as co-supervising on my CV (most of the questions I fielded were about my proposed research program and how I planned to obtain funding). Listing these supervised students on my CV may well have helped my application in some small way, but I don't think it was something that required a lot of followup. – Mad Jack Jan 3 '17 at 21:59

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