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What should a faculty supervisor do about a PhD student who does not seem to be trying to make their work better? Let's assume the supervisor has given detailed and specific instructions, which the student agrees to follow. But the student either does not finish the instructions or includes many errors. The supervisor points out the errors. This process has been repeated for several years, affecting both the student's research and job search. The student is from a different country, and has not adjusted to academic communication practices, despite being aware of the need to do so. The student has done a lot of things, but continues to have poor quality execution and pace.

Typically the supervisor does not wish to kick students out of the group. What is the right course of action?

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    Can you be more specific about "academic communication practices" the student has not adjusted to? – einpoklum - reinstate Monica May 28 '17 at 12:33
  • Which is the concrete problem, that is, who are the persons or groups damaged for this situation ? (granted studies or public university, quota admissions ... ). – pasaba por aqui May 29 '17 at 15:50
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    Typically the supervisor does not wish to kick students out of the group. What is the right course of action? — Assuming you've made a good faith effort at other options first, kick the student out of the group. And not after "several" years. – JeffE May 29 '17 at 19:14
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Dealing with wayward students comes with the territory of being an academic. Not every student will be successful and, unfortunately, you have to be prepared to deal with that.

It sounds like the situation has gotten out of hand, as it has gone on for years. Expectations need to be set early and often, so that, if things do go off track, the problems are addressed as soon as possible.

The other answers offer good suggestions, but your comments suggest that you [I'm assuming you are the student's supervisor] are worried about how it affects you. So I will offer a different suggestion:

Involve other (more senior) faculty from your department.

If you involve other faculty, they will share the responsibility for the outcome (thereby reducing the possible damage to your reputation) and, more importantly, they will be able to give you better advice than random people on the internet.

Where I did my PhD, there were established procedures to involve other faculty: Early in the PhD, each student had to pass an oral qualifying exam involving several faculty, which helped identify struggling students and provide feedback. Also, there was an annual student review in which the entire department met to discuss the PhD students one-by-one, which allowed their supervisors to raise issues and get input from others. Finally, each student's dissertation committee was officially a standing committee (although for most students it only convened for the defense). That is, for problematic students, the dissertation committee would convene regularly to assess progress and set goals for the student. The committee thus shared responsibility for "kicking out" students.

Does your department have similar procedures? If so, follow them. If not, suggest that such procedures be implemented and informally approach other faculty in your department for help.

Remember that it is in no one's interest for a student to continue on a bad trajectory (including the student's).

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For simplicity, I assume OP is the supervisor.

The ground rules need to be set early on. I will be quite tolerant of a student who clearly puts in effort to improve and develop themselves, even if it does not work immediately (learning takes time).

But it must be very clear what is expected (from me) and very clear that they put in effort (from them). If this has not been done early on, it is almost impossible to change them.

You say it has been going on for several years, so the pattern is unfortunately already burned in. To try to change this, you could try to make a drastic policy change with a clear-cut test period and consequences if there is no visible improvement. But your message must be believable in that, if they do not apply themselves, you won't be able to supervise them any further, or they won't change.

Even so, consider the chances to be low for this; they will be moderately better if there is serious willpower behind it (even then it is very hard to change ingrained behaviour and it takes long time).

The quote comes to mind "Insanity is repeating the same mistakes and expecting different results."

There is wisdom in the saying: if you expect a change in the situation, you must change the circumstances in some respect. If you expect a drastic change, you must change the circumstances drastically. Unfortunately, switching modes may be hard for you to do if you already have an amicable relation with the student; perhaps adding a second supervisor acting as "bad cop" might help here.

  • What consequences do you suggest? – Anonymous Physicist May 29 '17 at 0:04
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    Envisaging a termination of the PhD supervision if not significant improvements are seen in a fixed period (say, 4-6 weeks, or even 3-6 months if that sounds more practical - only, it should be a given and limited period). By dragging it out you do not help the student and neither yourself. Or else, one could drag this student for 6-7 years without result. I wouldn't consider that an option. – Captain Emacs May 29 '17 at 0:23
  • That's a consequence that hurts the supervisor. That is not ideal. – Anonymous Physicist May 29 '17 at 0:25
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    I see your responses to every suggestion here - and you like none. All of them seem sensible to me, emphasising different aspects. I am afraid, the student you describe does not permit a good solution. The student should not have been taken on board, but since they have, you do not have many choices. You cannot eat the cake and have it. Either you force a decision, or you will drag the issue out for a long time. Without a drastic reorientation (which may or may not succeed), I do not see a good ending for the situation. – Captain Emacs May 29 '17 at 0:31
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    There are no good solutions. What did you expect, some magical answer where suddenly the student's habits are fixed and everyone is happy? Almost certainly at this point the student and the mentor have both been irreparably harmed. The only way forward is to choose the least bad solution. – iayork May 30 '17 at 12:22
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Get the chair of your department and the appropriate dean(s) involved. They will help you begin a process that will (or could) end up with the student being removed from the program. Deans and Chairs know how to do this properly, with paper trails and specific goals and documentable targets that the student will have to achieve in order to continue in the program.

Probably you'll end up sitting down with the student, the advising committee, and the Chair, and set a series of specific things that the student will need to do, by specific dates, in order to stay in the program. Document the goals, and set them to be realistic and achievable by a good student -- in other words, you can't set the student up to fail with impossible goals, but it's fine if the goals are impossible for them; that's the point, that they can't achieve reasonable goals.

Make sure the student is aware that they need to meet these goals or they are out.

Document, document, document. Record the progress the student has made so far and what they have failed to achieve. Hold weekly meetings with the student and note progress, or lack of it. If after six months (or whatever the committee recommended) the student has not met the goals, don't revise the goals or say "Oh, pretty close, we'll give you another two weeks". If the student didn't meet the goals you agreed on, they should be out of the program, and this is not something you can do, it's up to Deans and administrators, so you need to be communicating with them throughout.

If the student does achieve the goals, set a new series of goals for the next six months with exactly the same documentation and aims.

The most likely thing that that the administration will find a moderately face-saving solution for everyone involved. Most often, the student will be given an option to "Master out" -- everyone will agree that they've met the qualifications for a Master's degree, not a Ph.D., here's your diploma, good luck, don't let the door hit you on the way out.

Does this sound like a lot of work? Probably -- but it's not much more than you should be doing for all your students anyway. Setting goals, holding meetings to ensure progress, holding people accountable for their actions and progress, are all routine processes for managers, which is what you are (among many other things). Unfortunately most academic supervisors aren't trained in management and have to learn it the hard way, screwing up at least one student's life and their own in the process.

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You could task (with no specific timeframe) the PhD student to get a paper published.

This way, part of the "bad cop" role will be (a) anonymized and (b) outsourced to the community. Even better: (c) even if you might currently be under a misapprehension about the quality of the student's work, it'll show this way, too, in a nice and useful way - you both may think of it as free external assessment!

Be ready to support with this task by allowing room for it, offer your expertise if and when needed, but don't force it. But make clear without ambiguity, that it's paramount to the PhD student's job not only to do own research, but to communicate about it, too.

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    This strategy poses risks to the supervisor's reputation. – Anonymous Physicist May 29 '17 at 0:01
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    @AnonymousPhysicist You accepted those risks when you accepted the student into your group. – JeffE May 29 '17 at 19:18
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The best thing which you can do is: let the student carry his responsibility. Having a PHD thesis compliant to the norms of the place where the students wants to do it is his task. A PHD student is (supposedly) not a 16year old high-schooler. If he does not prioritize this very important evaluation of his life appropriately, the he should not have a PHD title. To do this work is his obligation and interest, not yours.

Remark: i dont advise to throw him out but rather not waste time on him. Plainly wait if he does the tasks or not.

  • So you recommend doing nothing? Dubiously ethical. – Anonymous Physicist May 29 '17 at 0:06
  • I do not see an "ethical" oblication here beyond providing feedback in a repeated form. Supporting somebody to do his thesis right is the thing which the supervisor signed up for. Holding a gun to somebodies head to get him writing probably not. One could try with a mild deadline (i have seen that this helped sometimes). – Sascha May 29 '17 at 9:35
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    @AnonymousPhysicist: Arguably it's also dubiously ethical for the adviser to "carry" the student through their supposedly independent PhD work. – Daniel R. Collins May 29 '17 at 15:40
  • Well. it's obviously a fine line. The Supervisor should make a decision if he believes that letting the student in the group will rather help him or not. Then he should have a conversation with the student. Ideally the student makes a decision: improve his efforts or leave. – Sascha May 29 '17 at 17:07
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    Downvoted. — I do not see an "ethical" oblication here beyond providing feedback in a repeated form — If a student is clearly not heading for successful completion of their degree, letting them continue is giving them dishonest feedback. – JeffE May 29 '17 at 19:16
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The phrasing of your question suggests that you are treating this PhD candidate either as just a student - like an advanced undergrad, or alternatively, like an employee who gets tasks from his boss and is supposed to faithfully execute them. This is a misconception (or rather, this should not be the case). A PhD is a period in which a young academic should experience conducting supervised, but mostly independent, research.

An important aspect of this is having his/her own motivation, plans and goals. While these should certainly be worked out together - it seems like in your student's case that's all kind of external to him/her. Does s/he even want to do what s/he's doing? Being told to do?

Also, you mention 'errors', but also having "done a lot of things" and an issue with pace. So, is it that s/he doesn't advance enough on any one thing because of being involved with too many activities? Has this PhD candidate decided what his/her PhD is about?

Finally, does s/he confide in you (= his/her supervisor) as a friend? If not, and you're essentially the person who keeps tell him/her how he's done poorly and committed many errors, perhaps you should try finding a third party - either informal, such as a friend of his/hers who you can approach, or formal, such a PhD program counsellor, to try to initiate some indirect communication about the way s/he views things. I would not be entirely surprised if there are certain hardships, difficulties, challenges your PhD candidate is not sharing with you considering the dynamic you described.

The bottom line is that I suggest you find out the answers to these questions; the answers will likely be a far better guide than our suggestions here based only on our limited information. In Proverbs 22:6 (of the Bible) it says "Train the youth by his own path, and he shall not stray from it even to old age."

  • I agree, but I'm not sure this is an answer. Definitely the PhD student faces some challenges, but there could be more they have not disclosed. How would you suggest encouraging greater independence? – Anonymous Physicist May 29 '17 at 0:08
  • @AnonymousPhysicist: See edit. And - sorry for quoting a religious source but it seemed appropriate. – einpoklum - reinstate Monica May 29 '17 at 15:19

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