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I'm thinking of bringing a new student in the lab. His theory background is seriously lacking. He didn't take enough math and physics classes, and has insignificant programming experience. He has a permanent position as a technician at my institution and he wants to get a PhD.

I'm in serious need of manpower (or woman power), as what I'm doing requires a lot of computer simulations. The question is what should I do to involve this student early enough in research and keep him motivated until he understands enough to become curious? I have the feeling he wants the PhD more as a way to improve his position within the institution.

Edit: To clarify: I want the student to do all the PhD work that is required, i.e. learn the techniques, write papers, conduct independent research. I don't know how to get him over the steep learning curve at the beginning without losing him.

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    To speak plainly: You consider trading the PhD degree for cheap, relatively unqualified labor. My guess is that you will get mostly worthless labor, and the student will get mostly worthless degree. – Boris Bukh Jul 24 '17 at 9:33
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    Sorry if I misunderstood. You speak about this student in very damning terms (unprepared, academically not motivated); to get them up the level, you would need to somehow change their motivation and prepare them. Even if the motivation bit works out somehow, are you budgeting extra couple of years of PhD funding and your own time to bring the student up to the level? Are you sure that the amount of manpower that you need to invest to bring this person to your level is less than the amount of manpower saved? – Boris Bukh Jul 24 '17 at 9:39
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    @BorisBukh If I could get an enthusiastic undergraduate, or even high schooler, I would not hesitate. Even if I know for sure they would leave once they got their degrees. – user21264 Jul 24 '17 at 10:01
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    Is there a shot that the student can get through your admissions committee? If this isn't realistic, you need to be up front with the student about his chances. Your intentions may be admirable, but unless you are the decision maker for admission, maybe unrealistic. – Scott Seidman Jul 24 '17 at 19:20
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    I'm going to go with Either hire someone more qualified or change the project. It sounds like it will take a couple of years before this student can meaningfully contribute to your current project. – JeffE Jul 24 '17 at 20:24
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If you tell him bluntly that he is lacking in several regards (as you have emphasized in the post), it can work both ways. It is possible that he may feel you are running him down, and that will likely backfire as far as your expectations of making him come up to your level are concerned. On the other hand, he can take it up as a challenge, and work hard to prove his worth to you, but even if it is successful, that's still going to be a hard PhD experience for him.

I think a better idea is to use a different strategy: Be very encouraging at every step. Praise him for what he is capable of doing. Assign some small tasks first up, that he can efficiently take care of. Then, soon enough, assign him a problem only slightly above his level in terms of theory/programming. He will struggle, and very likely fall short. Then maybe, you can encourage him by saying something of the tune of

"Well, I think it will be easier for you to stumble across this roadblock if you read this article first. It can't be very hard to get across this efficiently, for someone who is as good as you. I mean, you've pretty much handled everything I've assigned to you thus far, reasonably well. Read this, tell me what do you understand out of this, and is that able to solve the problem."

Infusing confidence is positive mentoring. While you do that, keep upping the ante progressively. It will be a slow process, and will take a lot of time and effort on your part, but that's probably the only way of "making him curious".

Thus, in nutshell, the approach suggested is -

Small tasks, only slightly above his level, so that he keep working his way up without getting bogged down, and gradually taking it to higher and higher difficulty level. A sudden exposure to a very difficult problem will likely put out the fire, so please don't do that. And please be very encouraging at every step.


PS - Having said that, I'm afraid I agree with Boris Bukh's original comment: If he isn't prepared to handle PhD level problems, I wouldn't have very high expectations in terms of the work quality. But still, if there are no alternatives, and the only choice available with you is to mentor this bloke, the hard, slow method suggested in the post looks like the only viable method to me.

Hope that helps :)

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    It does help. I had been thinking along these lines, but things weren't very clear to me. I'll try to be patient and not scare him (something my own academic advisers didn't do). – user21264 Jul 24 '17 at 16:51
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You suggest the individual is not 'already curious' by which I assume you mean 'not passionate'. Lack of experience can be overlooked if a student is passionate because they will work hard for the reward of learning. If the student lacks interest, it will probably be a constant struggle.

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