Attitude and Aptitude. Alas

Graduate students come with a range of technical backgrounds/levels of preparation, a range of natural aptitudes/talent, and a range of attitudes toward gradate school (comprising the willingness to work hard, coachability, etc.). There are other relevant axes if excellence, but for now let’s focus on these three.

Ideally, a student has a great aptitude, background, and attitude. It’s also common to have someone with a good background and aptitude, but less than ideal attitude; with some (or a lot) advisor irritation, these students often produce good work. Sometimes the student’s attitude improves when they switch groups to one better aligned with what they want to do,.

In the past,  I’ve had students who were poor along all of three axes, and those usually left with a Master’s.

A good attitude can compensate for a lot of deficiency in background and aptitude. A LOT. Perhaps all. But perhaps not.

A few years ago, I had a student who had the right attitude (StuOne), but StuOne’s background and aptitude for what we do in the group were not high. Moreover, while StuOne worked hard and was coachable, I think StuOne’s sights were always on a software development job for which, to be honest, one generally does not have to have a PhD (except in the generic “I know how to think analytically and troubleshoot complex problems” sense) and definitely not a PhD in my field. I tried a bunch of projects with StuOne, but StuOne just couldn’t do them, even with plenty of hand-holding. We had talks of StuOne leaving because it was starting to seem highly unlikely that StuOne could complete any work in my group. Eventually, and probably 3-4 yrs into StuOne’s PhD, I found one project that StuOne could do, which was on the small side and much more focused on code development than on physics; StuOne ended up doing well on it. StuOne received what I would call a fairly minimal PhD compared to what I expect in my group, but definitely enough by my department’s standards. StuOne  went on to get a well-paying job with a household-name company.

I faced a similar advising situation more recently and it’s one that saddens me. This student (StuTwo) has a great attitude, does everything asked of them, pours their heart and soul into all they do, and is the group’s social glue. But StuTwo’s aptitude for the work we do in the group is average at best and their Bachelor’s preparation was woefully inadequate. StuTwo has spent three years taking coursework but, perhaps because their aptitude isn’t very high, they don’t seem to be getting as much from their coursework as they could and should. Things aren’t sinking in well and they aren’t able to make the higher-level connections I need them to make. Also, StuTwo suffers from anxiety (I didn’t diagnose them; they told me). The normal course of what happens in academic science — someone graduates and leaves, and others in the group have to pick up their slack; funding doesn’t come through, a person has to switch from one project to something else — appears to greatly stress out StuTwo.

StuTwo is now done with coursework and is hopefully about to ramp up in their research. I have qualms about StuTwo’s ability to complete the project they started on, because it’s a very challenging one, but StuTwo is really into it and wants to keep working on it. The prospect of not having data when my grant-renewal time comes is really stressing me out.

Anyway, StuTwo’s PhD program moved to requiring dissertation proposals earlier during the student’s time than before, so StuTwo had to do it this summer. Despite several dry runs and PPT checks, it did not go well. AT ALL. One committee member (my longtime collaborator) basically said StuTwo should be kicked out of the program altogether; that they are too slow on the uptake, and that there’s no way they could complete a PhD in my group; this committee member hasn’t said anything that I haven’t thought myself at one point or another. Others chimed in with their stories. They shared that sometimes they would get a student to a PhD with great effort, which they regretted. One committee member revealed that they never regretted letting an underperforming student go, but they always regretted not having done it. The dissertation proposal paperwork wasn’t signed. Several committee members were in favor of chewing everything down into small, bite-sized pieces and providing a super-detailed outline of what is to be done in the near future, then revisiting. We can do that; I have a lot of mixed feelings, though.

On the one hand, I am resentful that such bite-sized pieces are needed. Graduate students are not kids; this is not middle school (seriously, I wish my kid’s middle school provided sufficient guidance on their projects; it’s all crazy and up in the air). This isn’t undergrad, either. Bite-sized pieces shouldn’t be required in the course of a PhD. The chunks should be larger and the student should be able to cut them up on their own or tear them off smaller ones with their incisors and basically figure out how to best swallow them without choking. The best PhD students never require micromanagement; they take broad direction and just run with it.

On the other hand, I think I can get this student to graduation, but it will be with a great investment of time and energy on my part. If there are intellectually nontrivial issues, I will likely have to be the one to solve them, which is what happened with StuOne. But maybe that’s OK. In the words of a colleague, faculty are usually the best people in their groups.

I feel like I owe it to this student to see them through, in part because they are such a good member of the group and have such a great attitude. In part because they’re three years in. One committee member feels my loyalty is misguided and is perhaps correct.

I met with the student after the dissertation-proposal fiasco and we discussed what comes next. I tried to convey the committee’s concerns as tactfully as I could. I mentioned the possibility of mastering out (they’re also getting a Master’s in another related field, so those would be two MS degrees). StuTwo felt this was unfair, that they were just about to ramp up (which is true) and that they weren’t able to do much work because of coursework (which is fine, but they demonstrated very poor absorption of concepts from coursework) and then went on to talk about how their anxiety was going up because of past deadlines: StuTwo gave a very thin talk at a recent conference on what should have been much more preliminary work; StuTwo was also sent to a Summer School to learn some cool stuff, but this was apparently all too much. StuTwo needs a very structured schedule and low-to-moderate demands on their time, otherwise their anxiety flares up. To be honest, I’m not sure how StuTwo will work in corporate America, but at least I can try to get them to a PhD with reduced stress and hand-holding. Unfortunately, I don’t think I can make all the stress go away completely.

Btw, a whole bunch of people whom I had in my fall graduate class have either mastered out and left or changed their original groups. I count four who seemed fine in my class, but have since left their research groups completely, and three who swapped groups. One of the group-swappers joined my group and is kicking ass; he’s on par with the best students I’ve ever had had. But there’s something going on in how we recruit students or maybe the funding demands are so high that we can’t tolerate the natural learning curves of PhD students, but so many people mastering out or leaving groups is bad for everyone’s morale. This is one more reason why I am reluctant to kick this student out; StuTwo is a well liked in the group, so their departure would likely be hugely disruptive to others.

But, note to self: I need to be much more selective when I recruit in the near future and I don’t think I will ever again recruit from StuTwo’s PhD program.

What say you, blogosphere? Thoughts? Shouts and murmurs? Related anectdotes? 


  1. Does the student need a PhD for their chosen career path? My MS advisor said he seldom recommended a PhD to begin with unless the student really was clear on where they were going and what they needed it for. It is entirely possible that this student doesn’t know what else to do and is anxious about leaving the school environment, in which case a PhD is unnecessary as well as unnecessarily painful. If they really need the PhD, then maybe you could talk about what milestones they need to fulfill? Unfortunately, I can imagine that having a talk with them about this may be anxiety inducing for them, as well.

    Obviously I say this as someone who doesn’t work with grad students. YMMV.

  2. It looks like your program has the option of allowing underperforming or unsuccessful Ph.D. students go with a “consolation prize” Master’s- as you say, “mastering out.” That does provide a legitimate exit valve.
    At my institution, that is not an option: a student who enters a Ph.D. program either successfully achieves the doctorate, or gets nothing. (They technically could officially drop out of the doctoral program, then re-apply for a Master’s program in competition with all of the other Master’s applicants in a cohort, which would take at least half a year to even formally enter a M.S. program, plus required two semesters minimum to take at least a few courses and write a thesis even if it was work they already did in their attempt at a Ph.D.- so it would basically take a minimum of 1.5 years after ending a doctoral quest to get the Master’s). I think a lot of institutions are moving towards this all-or-nothing PhD route. In such cases, the pressure to eventually see a student- once accepted into a doctoral program- through to completion, even with bite-size steps and hand-holding, is huge, because the governing board does not like doctoral programs with “low completion rates” and there are adverse consequences.
    I have learned now after decades as a professor that you can be as selective as you want in recruiting Ph.D. students, but even so, “things will happen” (student gets serious health problem, divorce, death of family member, student gets dream job offer from private sector, wins lottery, etc.) and will leave, quit, or lose motivation or desire to complete a Ph.D. – so you make your best choice and live with it, knowing some will work out and some won’t.

  3. How are StuTwo’s writing skills? On the axes of technical skills and writing skills, I’d love to have students high on both, but that’s not always the case. I can deal with students that have one or the other. I don’t mind rounds of editing when the technical content is strong and I can get in to the nitty gritty technical details if the student can write well. The latter scenario is certainly rare though. If graduate students lack both technical and writing skills, it’s tough.

    Being the social glue of the group, does StuTwo have any special sets of skills, writing or otherwise, e.g., coding or extricating teenagers from Paris, that you could leverage to improve the group? If your university allows manuscript/staple theses, that might help with breaking StuTwo’s path in to bite-sized chunks moving forward.

    If you think you can get the student through the Ph.D., then keep on going!

  4. Is StuTwo seeing someone for anxiety? I strongly recommend cognitive behavioral therapy (which I did in graduate school and is definitely available in your town– my measured ability in grad school went waaaay up after I did it, though I was most happy about not having panic attacks anymore). CBT provides the tools for StuTwo to manage their own anxiety, which makes it easier to focus and to demonstrate skills instead of freezing.

  5. nicoleandmaggie: Yes, StuTwo does see someone, or so they’ve told me. They only told me yesterday they had anxiety as a diagnosis, but I could notice on occasion they would get extremely ruffled (red face; eyes welling up). I am not a therapist, so I am wary of recommending that someone go see a therapist; some people get insulted by such recommendations. We do have regular mental-health seminars for our grad students. I know CBT is quite effective, but I honestly worry that me recommending it would be problematic because I don’t have appropriate training, plus I am honestly not sure how much I, as a PhD advisor, am even supposed to know about students’ health, mental or otherwise.

    I have another student who is excellent all around, but who went through a period of very erratic behavior. Doing much better now, apparently on SSRI meds plus work with a shrink and lifestyle changes (getting out of house early in the day, no alcohol, regular sleep, exercise, etc.)

  6. That’s weird—our university training all says do not try to deal with their mental health problems, tell them to see a professional. So I wouldn’t be thinking about how to get around a student’s anxiety (other than things I do for all students like hold review sessions, etc) but I’ve got a university provided list of resources to give to students. This was also a thing when I was a resident assistant in graduate school. I have something similar for students who might have learning disabilities. It’s what the administration tells us to do. Because even in the psychology department it is not the department’s job to deal with mental health. I have referred so many students (I teach a scary first semester math class and seem maternal so I get confidences). I never try to take on their issues myself. Anxiety usually means CBT or drugs. Drugs can be problematic if given by a GP rather than a psychiatrist.

  7. @nicoleandmaggie: To be honest, I wish I knew way less about my group members’ personal lives and struggles than I do. I don’t think they’d be quite so eager to share if I were a guy.

  8. Ooof… that’s tricky. I have anxiety myself, but developed a bunch of strategies to handle it in grad school so it didn’t (typically) interfere too much with work and was motivational vs detrimental. It sounds to me like StuTwo needs a therapist who can help them trouble shoot and strategize & maybe their current one isn’t cutting it. Meds might also help. So if StuTwo is bound and determined to finish, and you’re willing to support them, some reassessment of the anxiety piece and coping mechanisms is step one.

    The sticky wicket here of course is intellectual capacity… I had a good friend and fellow labmate in grad school who mastered out. She just couldn’t make the high-level connections for PhD-level work and failed round one of preliminary exams. She did do well with lab work/collecting data (I’m finishing up analysis on one of her datasets at the moment). Nonetheless, she was clearly not a doctoral-level thinker, even with a lot of hand-holding. Fortunately, our boss had an easy out b/c labmate’s fiance really wanted her to go back to her home country and marry him sooner rather than later.

    So if this were me, I think I’d address it with StuTwo that I know they haven’t had much time to work full time on research, so you’re going to give them six months to prove themselves and step up, and if they can’t turn things around, thy will need to master out (include some clear-cut metrics for turning it around). I’d also say something along the lines of that a high proportion of academics deal with mental health issues, and if StuTwo believes anxiety is really affecting their work, they need to seriously think about finding more effective coping mechanisms w/ their therapist or finding a new therapist. (Maybe find a way to say this more nicely).

    This situation is really hard all around…

  9. @xyk – Managing the “TMI” vs “Keep me updated about what is a problem in your progress” line has been way, way harder than I expected. I’d be curious about ways you cue students one way vs another here. I’ve been very tempted to say, “I don’t need to know that much” but decided that was a thing it was easier to say than to un-say, and left it alone.

  10. Oh, the anxiety! I see this so often, and it’s so hard to know how to deal with it. As Rheophile says above, it’s a fine line. I tend to be very matter-of-fact, and if the student discloses mental health status to me I try to communicate the following points:
    – Thanks for trusting me enough to talk to me about it
    – Mental health issues are common and nothing to be ashamed of
    – I do not have the training to help, but I can help point you to resources
    – I’ve heard students say that it can be hard to get an appointment with campus mental health, but I know they are working on it, so please give it a try
    – The best thing you can do right now is address this problem rather than let it fester
    – Depending on the situation, I might ask them to promise me that they will do x thing by y date, where x thing might be some baby step towards getting help: walking down to campus mental health, or calling their phone number (which I will look up while they are sitting in the room and write down for them). I might even brainstorm with them what information they should give about their problem or sort of quasi-role-play how to make the call. Yes, it’s hand-holding, but I work at a liberal arts college with undergrads who are basically big teenagers, so hand-holding is in my job description more than yours. And my students have often never made their own doctor’s appointment before so when they’re already anxious, making an “official” phone call like that can feel overwhelming.

    No advice about the rest of it — I struggle with the same issues. But again, as a PUI prof, my job is much more to make lemonade out of whatever lemons arrive on my doorstep. We get great students, but at the undergrad level, they are always going to be uneven in some way, whether it’s maturity or math skills. I’ve given my students a lot more rope to hang themselves on as I’ve gone along the tenure track, though — I have a colleague who often reminds me that a class or even an undergrad thesis is a relatively safe place for failure, and it’s not a kindness in the long run to drag a student over the finish line if they can’t get there on their own power.

  11. Supposing you carry StuTwo across the finish line—what kind of future do you imagine for them? Will you be able to write a letter so they can get a quality postdoc? Any postdoc? Will they go straight into industry?

    I’m a computer scientist, and many of our PhD graduates go straight into developer positions in industry. But these are fairly high-level positions, and the employers who hire them are expecting people who can operate fairly independently, and who tear big chunks off of problems, not just bite-sized pieces.

    We also have a fair number of students who “master out” into industry positions—some voluntarily, some not. There are many we don’t hear from, but those we do hear from say, in retrospect, that they are better off not having gotten a PhD. Even though a PhD is what they had wished for.

    Managing the anxiety seems important, but I’m not sure that’s primarily your responsibility. You’re the research supervisor. What’s in StuTwo’s best interest?

  12. I can think of some industry jobs that have very structured schedules and if not low demands on a person’s time, at least predictable demands on their time. These tend to be peripheral to research – things like compliance management, some informatics jobs in large companies, some technical writing jobs. They’re good jobs, but they don’t require a PhD. Does your student have a career goal? I didn’t at that point – I maybe vaguely thought I’d become a professor or do research in industry. I’m not doing either of those things now! I think a lot of grad students would see my job as “settling” (I don’t!) and would almost certainly see the jobs I mentioned as settling, but they are good, important jobs. Is there a career counseling service at your university that could help StuTwo think through what they actually want in a career?

  13. Cloud, all good points. StuTwo is socially gifted and has a knack for organizing their space/environment. They are passable as a writer, but I wouldn’t call it a particular strength. They might be good compliance management or certain informatics jobs (e.g., I would have them communicate with customers rather than put them on code scientific-computing code development). I think I need to send them to career counseling ASAP.

  14. nrnrnr, you raise important points. StuTwo is definitely not postdoc material; I am not convinced they’re even PhD material for my group. I don’t even think they would be good at a job where they develop new technical software in my field. They would probably be great at a job that involves a lot of communication with users of said technical software. They might also enjoy web development, though, but that’s a different education track.

  15. @Rheophile — that’s been my attitude, too. I’d rather cringe internally over TMI than have a situation where something serious and potentially dangerous is going on but the student is too scared to tell me.

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