Should I report a PhD student’s incompetence to their supervisor?



I had a short exchange of mails with a PhD student who wished to ask some questions about a paper of mine, which was troublesome in many respects:

  • The student had a blatant lack of basic knowledge and techniques of their field. (Imagine a computer scientist not knowing what object-oriented programming is, a mathematician not knowing what fields are, etc. They did not change fields for the PhD.)

  • The student should be able to answer some of the questions with very little work.

  • Initially, the student did not give me even remotely the information I needed to answer their question in a useful manner.

  • The student seemed utterly overwhelmed with their project.

  • There were strong hints of a “do my work for me” attitude.

For the purpose of this question, assume that I am very likely correct in my assessment. Going into details about why I arrived at this conclusion would be beyond the scope of this question and be disclosing too much. I also wish to make clear that I am not annoyed by the questions or similar, I am just worried about the situation.

I am now wondering whether I should write a mail to their supervisor (whom I don’t know and who is not at my institution) informing them about this incident. My considerations so far are:

  • I am pretty confident that this student will not finish their degree (by honest means). As long as they continue with this, they waste time and resources: their own, their supervisor’s, and other researchers’ whom they are emailing.

  • If I were this student’s supervisor, this is something I would like to know since it can prevent me from wasting my time and resources on them. On the other hand, I hope that I would quickly notice these qualities in a PhD student.

  • This problem will likely escalate soon anyway.

  • It’s the supervisor’s job to talk to the student and give them the possibility to clarify in case I misjudged them. However, if I am wrong, my information may wrongfully harm the student if the supervisor overreacts or the student’s image is tainted subconsciously.

  • Depending on the situation, such a communication as mine may allow the supervisor to smoothly get rid of the student – which is good if I am right and the student is incompetent, but bad if I am wrong.

My question is this: Is there anything else I should take into account when making this decision? (I know that, at the end of the day, I have to weigh the arguments myself.) Note that I already sent a mail to the student but am skeptical whether they got the message.


Posted 2018-02-28T20:05:03.467

Reputation: 28 917

Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.

– StrongBad – 2018-03-01T18:11:11.627

28FWIW, being unable to define OOP isn't actually that bad. It's a complex subject involving a lot of subtopics, and it's difficult to define succinctly and well. If they really know nothing about computer programming, not knowing about function arguments or returns might be a better example. – Nic Hartley – 2018-03-02T01:37:57.390

39"(Imagine a computer scientist not knowing what object-oriented programming is.)" Yeah, FWIW, I like to think I know a thing or two about my trade, but I probably couldn't give you an academic-level definition of OOP (nor do I really care to, if I'm being honest) – Lightness Races in Orbit – 2018-03-02T02:37:18.187

7Next time, you may want to consider including their advisor in the cc. list when you reply. IMHO, this is a good practice that the student should really get used to have in the first place. The advisor can still ignore conversations when he is not interested about them or if he trusts the student enough. At the same time, he can keep an eye on how the student approaches his own colleagues, the scientific problem at hand and how he works in general - if needed. – Patrick Trentin – 2018-03-02T04:11:52.453

Perhaps a warning that certain aspects of the student’s communication could result in “someone else” making an unfavorable report to the advisor? In other words, you’re being “nice” by being silent, but someone else might not be as kind. – WGroleau – 2018-03-02T12:29:08.923

I would ask a lawyer before proceeding. An adversely affected student could sue for libel/slander. Truth is a defense, but the court - not you - gets to decide what is true. – emory – 2018-03-02T13:31:12.553

12Unless I missed something, one piece of vital information is missing: How long has this individual been a PhD student? If they've been at it for a good year or two, then the student should know better by now, and perhaps these red flags and alarm bells are rightfully being waved and sounded. However, if this student has only been at it for a couple months, this could be a good opportunity for some informal mentoring. – J.R. – 2018-03-02T15:43:57.560

@J.R.: I do not know, but I do not think it matters that much. You do not start a PhD at zero after all, but after you already acquired a certain knowledge about your field and scientific working. What they are lacking is (mostly) not something they should be acquiring at their stage of the career, but something they should have acquired earlier or much earlier. – Wrzlprmft – 2018-03-03T07:40:33.303

2Wrzlprmft, even though in principle I agree with you, I think you definitely overestimate the average PhD student. – Massimo Ortolano – 2018-03-03T16:46:11.537

Never make bad-looking anybody in the eyes of others, even if you think it is justified! – peterh – 2018-03-05T00:48:28.233

1Why wouldn't you e-mail the student, not the supervisor? PhD students are adults and we should be able to appreciate feedback, even very harsh. I'd e-mail the student explaining why you think there's a problem and suggest discussing it with their supervisor (or offering your assistance, if you're willing to help). Saying that they'll most likely not graduate isn't fair, in my opinion. Personally I started a PhD in a field I had no idea about (not even basics), so it took me a while to stop asking ridiculous questions. PhD is a process! – Paula – 2018-03-05T11:53:20.010

@Paula: Saying that they'll most likely not graduate isn't fair, in my opinion. – How can you claim this without knowing the precise situationo? Is there no level of incompetence that will ever make you arrive at such a judgement? (Also see my edit.) – Wrzlprmft – 2018-03-05T12:39:09.820

3@Wrzlprmft "How can you claim this without knowing the precise situationo? Is there no level of incompetence that will ever make you arrive at such a judgement?" - do you know the precise situation? It seems like you cannot. But, you appear to have already made up your mind. I don't think what you have described is really enough justification for you to know that the student is incompetent, especially given that PhD students sometimes and even often do lack knowledge but later turn out fine. I'm not sure any good can come out of this to yourself, the student, or their advisor. – Thomas King – 2018-03-05T14:32:43.573

5When I started my PhD in computational fluid dynamics, I couldn't solve a differential equation to save my life. But things seems to be turning reasonably well. – lvella – 2018-03-05T22:06:29.467

@ThomasKing: you appear to have already made up your mind – No, I haven’t; hence the most likely. All statements about such questions are inevitably uncertain, but that doesn’t mean we should not make them or that they are automatically unfair. However, I do have more information than you do (and I cannot share it). I also do not claim that the information I gave is sufficient for you to share my judgement (and I wrote that explicitly). – Wrzlprmft – 2018-03-05T22:56:59.557

@Wrzlprmft "However, I do have more information than you do (and I cannot share it)." - so then it seems like you cannot provide enough information for you to trust an answer that suggests you do nothing, which seems to amount to having made up your mind. – Thomas King – 2018-03-06T08:52:51.503

@ThomasKing: I do not seek for advice on my assessment (and I hope to have made that clear in the question); I seek advice on how to act upon it. – Wrzlprmft – 2018-03-06T09:02:12.137

1@Wrzlprmft but how to act upon it (in your interests, the student's and their supervisor's) depends on the reliability of your assessment! We've all seen students start from a poor intellectual state and then become good researchers, and also the reverse, and some of us have been one of those students too. We do not know what we're not seeing, for example some of the factors that can make someone look incompetent are not intellectual. – Thomas King – 2018-03-06T09:07:40.103

2This problem will likely escalate soon anyway. Why are you asking the question then? It sounds like you're eager to snitch, surely got better things to do? – JᴀʏMᴇᴇ – 2018-03-06T09:26:35.693

1I witnessed such an occurrence (a totally incompetent phd student). There was a mix of specific situations that lead to that. He was working hard and the supervisor went through with no doubts. He finally got his title and was even enrolled in another country for a post doc. Than he disappeared from academia. It is hard to say what could have been the best for him, or solve the dilemma if such a person should own a phd. The supervisor compare himself to a gardener "I try to get the best out of every plant, flowers or potatoes". – Alchimista – 2018-03-06T11:41:34.910

"This problem will likely escalate soon anyway." - then let it run its course... – Johannes Pille – 2018-03-06T19:22:54.647

1On a not so funny note, if the student is really incompetent, maybe it’s not a bad idea to report the supervisor to it’s supervisor for selecting such an incompetent student. I know people tend to disagree with medling in other’s businesses but we are talking about a PhD, which needs to mean something. Afterall, that student may have took the spot of a more competent one. – VAndrei – 2018-03-07T04:47:06.417

@Ivella, "couldn't solve a differential equation to save my life" that's why we have Lattice Boltzmann. – ThomasMcLeod – 2018-03-07T14:16:06.633

Not going to offer an answer, you have plenty, and most say "don't," which is probably for the best, but if you choose to do so anyway, do it neutrally, e.g., "Professor X-- See attached discussion with student Y. Some of it gave me slight cause for concern, but I may be misunderstanding the situation, so I will let you come to your own conclusions. --Regards, Professor Z" – Aiken Drum – 2018-03-07T16:13:40.983

Some people find it best to 'play dumb' when encountering something which is outside their field of expertise - it's a very effective way to avoid assumptions. It's also very possible that the questioner and the OP are in different fields, or are in very different specialties of the same field. There may also be a language barrier, or even a terminology barrier within the same language. It is a very hard thing to evaluate. – user3685427 – 2018-03-07T17:41:33.720



Emailing the supervisor and saying "this student is incompetent and you should get rid of him/her" would come across badly, for a few reasons:

  • You lack the information to make a holistic assessment of the student.

  • Even if you're right and the student is weak, weak students can improve.

  • The supervisor and their institution undoubtedly have their own methods of quality control.

  • Most importantly, it's not really any of your business.

It's nice that you made a good faith effort to answer the student's questions, but if the exchange has become annoying for you, your best recourse is to simply stop responding and forget the student exists.


Posted 2018-02-28T20:05:03.467

Reputation: 8 232

145In general I agree, but personally if I were the student I'd prefer to be told the other party is terminating the conversation rather than be ignored. – Allure – 2018-02-28T20:37:19.490

15@Allure Fair point. I suppose it depends on where the exchange stands. I was imagining a "help vampire" situation, based on OP's "do my work for me" comment. But you're right, politely getting out of the conversation is better. – user37208 – 2018-02-28T21:58:41.173

2@Allure I very much agree, being a student myself. It's aggravating if people that are "better" than you (because they're older, in a higher position etc.) don't even feel the need to be somewhat polite to you. That said, I am no do-my-work-for-me kind of student, so maybe in such a situation ignoring him is fine. Still, if you want to make the student understand that he is being annoying, telling him quickly with a sentence is better than just ignoring. – RimaNari – 2018-03-01T11:54:52.147

I remember when I tried to hint my supervisor about not taking someone as PhD student. He did not want to talk about that (I understand that completely because I was not in the position to give advice), and the student dropped out after 7 years without PhD. – J. Fabian Meier – 2018-03-01T13:32:03.867

20+1 Just for the second bullet point: there are many students that seemed very weak to me at first, but turned out to do a competent or even good job (both at the undergraduate and graduate level). I find we're often not very good judges of academic competency. – Kimball – 2018-03-01T15:09:38.157

Sure, but what if you don't phrase it that way? What if you mostly phrase it as "I was surprised to receive a communication from so and so, who didn't seem to know x and y", and forward or quote some of all of the email exchange to let the evidence speak for itself. Or is an email conversation assumed to be private, so sharing it with their supervisor would be problematic even without you passing judgement? Anyway, the point is to avoid saying directly any of the internal conclusions the OP mentioned in the question. I think that's obvious. But can you let others make their own conclusion? – Peter Cordes – 2018-03-03T22:46:25.963

-1 for the "It is not your business" point. Suppose this chain of events runs its course and ends up badly: the student does not finish their assignment, is left with debt, a failed dissertation on their resumé and no degree. And then comes the question: "Didn't anyone see where this was headed and did what they could to help this person?!". What do you think OP should reply then? "Well I did see it and noticed it, and even acted on it by asking on SE. But since this pseudonym user37208 said it's none of my business I did not give a hoot and assumed someone else would pick up on it", hm? – MichaelK – 2018-03-06T14:50:09.593

We don't know what is your position in academia. But you certainly are not hired to asses this student else you wouldn't ask. If you don't want to help them, don't help them. If you are concerned about the student's future, ask the supervisor informally during a coffee break. But remember you are not the one to judge this student, you are not the one to say "this student can never make it". Unless you have a proof the student has been cheating or something, then it's not your problem. – Jan Hadáček – 2018-03-08T15:12:03.377


This is unethical and unprofessional. It is simply none of your business. You are not in a position to evaluate the student. Writing to his supervisor will make you look bad. It is an insult to his supervisor.

The Ph.D. degree can not be awarded to someone incompetent. If this happens, it is going to be shown sooner or later. Let future employers and assigned assessors who are in a position to evaluate him say this, but not you. Judging a Ph.D. student requires external assessors. Let him take his time. If he is incompetent, it will be revealed sooner or later. But every student has the right to take his own time and attempts. Even the Ph.D. examination process allow several attempts before reaching such a conclusion, simply because such conclusion destroys a human's future.

If he is annoying you, you can refuse answering him. He might be wasting your time but how did you judge he is wasting other people's time? You can tell him that his questions are not reflecting the basic required knowledge and he should first build solid foundation in XYZ then come ask you. Otherwise you can not afford helping him.

Finally, we are all learning all the time. You are knowledgable in this topic he is asking but in someone's eyes ignorant in that someone's topic. You also have been ignorant about your paper's topic until you learned gradually. The world would be more peaceful if we remembered that we have not been born scientists and we learned through other noble people who gave us a hand to help us rather than a hand to destroy us, even when we have not been asked about our opinion.


Posted 2018-02-28T20:05:03.467

Reputation: 1 003

109"Phd. degree can not be awarded to someone incompetent"- Empirically speaking, I think that the reproducibility crisis has conclusively demonstrated that PhD's are awarded to incompetent researchers. – Nat – 2018-03-01T00:42:39.903

103Phd. degree can not be awarded to someone incompetent. — Of course they can! The only true prerequisite for a PhD is to convince four faculty to sign a piece of paper saying that you deserve a PhD (and perhaps a little theater). You're not assuming that all faculty are competent, ethical, and well rested, are you? – JeffE – 2018-03-01T02:05:39.537

Not only is it possible to do so, it's also possible for an incompetent Ph.D. student to finish the project and get their Ph.D. See Milena Penkowa for an example. – Clearer – 2018-03-01T09:12:08.883

2I did not say it is impossible. I said if it happened it is going to be shown sooner or later. Any competent place will assess this graduate capability. At the end, he can not get more than what he deserves. As they say: You cant fool all the people all the time. – None – 2018-03-01T09:42:08.820

38Phd. degree can not be awarded to someone incompetent. OMG. Thanks for the laugh! – Eric Duminil – 2018-03-01T14:31:12.080

34@None I reallly wish you were right, but I've seen too many incompetent PhD holders, some of whom are now faculty and (horror of horrors) supervising PhD students. Sadly, neither intelligence nor competence are always prerequisites for getting a PhD degree. Sometimes, all it takes is persistence. – terdon – 2018-03-01T16:09:49.767

@EricDuminil lol. yep that's todays laugh. – mathreadler – 2018-03-01T21:24:28.550

@EricDuminil Perhaps it was not intentional on your part, but I feel that mocking someone's answer by saying that it is laughable always comes across as unnecessary. – Carl-Fredrik – 2018-03-03T00:55:38.347

4@Carl-Fredrik: I genuinely laughed out loud while reading it. What can I do? There are a few sentences here which are quite simply and objectively 100% wrong. – Eric Duminil – 2018-03-03T09:24:47.340

1@Eric Duminil @Carl-Fredrik Complete the sentence please! If this happens, it is going to be shown sooner or later. Let future employers and assigned assessors who are in a position to evaluate him say this, but not you. It is true that if he passed unqualified, he can not fool everybody after that. He will not get the job that a competent person will. What is really funny is that an external person who does not know the student nor the supervisor in person nor worked with them, from short exchange of mails can make judgement that a phd student is incompetent and take actions. – None – 2018-03-03T10:23:03.090

3@Nat I strongly disagree that the reproducibility crisis is caused by researchers being incompetent. Rather, the problem is that the system is broken/suboptimal in a fundamental way (read Ioannidis to understand why). – kfx – 2018-03-03T13:49:34.173

@EricDuminil "What can I do?" For an excellent example of what you can do, without any hint of mockery, look at terdon's comment below your own. – Carl-Fredrik – 2018-03-03T13:51:26.273

1Please note that you have assumed that the student is male, even though no gender information is present in the OP. Assumptions like this are evidence of the gender bias we all carry, and when we don't catch these assumptions, we further perpetuate gender bias in our writing. – Greg Martin – 2018-03-03T19:21:21.637

4@Greg Martin Thanks for pointing this. I am not a native speaker but have learned English by training for a full year. As far as I know, and this is what professional English teachers have told me as well, in academic writing, if the gender is unknown, it is common and acceptable to either assume a gender (and use either he or she) or use they instead. I chose to use he but not to mean he is a male. It is to refer to unknown gender. There might be different openions though. – None – 2018-03-03T19:51:59.213

1Thanks for thinking about it! There are definitely different opinions, I won't dispute that. But the old-fashioned default-to-"he" rule is so common (and systematically biased) that I personally never choose it. I tend to go with "they". – Greg Martin – 2018-03-04T02:44:31.007

@GregMartin unfortunately, "they" is plural, whereas "he" and "she" are singular so it can't always fit. – nsheff – 2018-03-05T14:52:19.707


@nsheff not so:

– Thomas King – 2018-03-05T15:36:36.727

@None Now you are assuming the people who make those decisions in general would be any more competent than the ones they are hiring ;) – mathreadler – 2018-03-06T07:13:52.993

1It will however still show sooner or later as you say, but not to the ones who hired them, but instead to the future students who have to put up with them when they reach the higher levels. – mathreadler – 2018-03-06T07:19:46.443


NOTE: this answer was based on the assumption that OP works at the same institution and on the same campus as the supervisor in question. OP has since clarified that is not the case. I will leave the answer to stand in case it is helpful to those in a similar situation - see meta discussion.

At the risk of sounding like an old man: does no one talk to their colleagues any more? This sounds like the ideal situation for an informal chat with the supervisor. Even if you don't know them, surely there's a chance to start up a conversation after a departmental seminar or something.

Hey, your student X has been contacting me recently about their work. Sounds like an interesting project...

And play it by ear from there. It should become obvious whether the supervisor has a high opinion of their student or not. If they seem receptive, drop in that you think the student seemed to be struggling in this area. Don't charge straight in accusing student of being incompetent. If the discussion opens up then great, you can give more detail. If not, you tried, you can't force the issue.


Posted 2018-02-28T20:05:03.467

Reputation: 9 970

3Do really people use Hey in conversations? I find it plain irritating. – Rui F Ribeiro – 2018-03-01T00:34:19.283

@RuiFRibeiro Do you prefer more formal salutations or simply to omit 'em? – Nat – 2018-03-01T00:35:09.493

In this context in written form, I would prefer omitting them than seeing them probably... – Rui F Ribeiro – 2018-03-01T00:37:07.307

40Hey! I always use hey :) I hear it extremely commonly around me. You would get very irritated living in the US. It's pretty minor though. Not enough to spend your energy actually being irritated, right? – None – 2018-03-01T02:03:45.257

This seems to me the most reasonable approach. There is no reason to force anything on the supervisor, but if they open up and hint at their student struggling with the project, an honest conversation could help. – user – 2018-03-01T02:05:11.153

30Do we know that everyone in this story is at the same institution? I assumed not. – user37208 – 2018-03-01T03:00:46.723

2@user37208 That is an excellent point and one that I had not considered. I have added a note regarding my own assumption. – user2390246 – 2018-03-01T10:04:49.127

@RuiFRibeiro: Yes. – einpoklum – 2018-03-01T17:56:08.817

+1 This is the best answer in the general case if you're concerned about the competence of a Ph.D. student at your institution. If they're not at your institution, the other answers are correct that it's simply none of your business. – wavemode – 2018-03-02T17:55:17.690


I'll propose a variant of the answer written by @user88253.

Email the student, with a cc to his/her advisor, encouraging him/her to work on the topic(s) with his/her advisor. Invite the student to let you know how it goes, and invite the professor to draw on you as a resource. Starter text (which you can edit and make your own of course), where A is the student and X is the advisor.

Dear A and X,

A - I'm glad you're interested in (name of paper) which covers (such-and-so) topic. It's a worthwhile area to delve into, especially since it provides a fruitful opportunity to apply a number of basic concepts which will stand you in good stead in your study of (field). I would encourage you to work with your advisor to review the basic techniques that provide the underpinning of this paper.

X - Let me know if I can be of assistance.

Advantages of this variant over the original:

  1. The "quite busy" excuse, which could be hurtful to read, has been eliminated.

  2. The "Basic questions" phrase, which could come across as offensive, is avoided.

  3. This variant tries to be upbeat and encouraging. Still, it politely sets up a boundary (without getting annoyed, frustrated or angry), and hands off to the person who should be helping the student.

Similar to the original, bridges are not burned.

Please note, there is no need to embarrass the student by including the chain of previous emails.


Posted 2018-02-28T20:05:03.467

Reputation: 32 080

I like this suggestion but would omit the word 'basic' in the phrase 'a fruitful opportunity to apply a number of basic concepts' – Yvonne Aburrow – 2018-03-05T14:44:44.473

1+1, this is the way to go OP. It puts the burden of the (perceived) problem on the shoulders of the person who should have them - the student's supervisor. If they don't do anything after some time, it's more likely that either you misjudged the student, or the university needs to seriously re-evaluate their admission standards and the standards to which supervisors hold their students – galois – 2018-03-05T19:00:51.250


No, and you're very possibly misjudging the student

I'd like to buttress @user37208's answer and counter some of your factual claims, OP.

The student had a blatant lack of basic knowledge and techniques of their field. (Imagine a computer scientist not knowing what object-oriented programming is.)

I know more than a couple of computer scientists who don't know what OOP is, or at least - "know" that it's "programing with objects", but have barely ever programmed anything, if at all, and not with objects. At least one of them is a very esteemed professor.

The student should be able to answer some of the questions with very little work.

Maybe he misunderstood the question, or misunderstood your assumption that he was supposed to do work?

Initially, the student did not give me even remotely the information I needed to answer their question in a useful manner.

Do you know how many times this happens to me with people who ask me for things? If I thought those people were incompetent I'd think everyone is incompetent. Now, I suppose you could make an argument that this is the case, but then you have nothing to complain about, do you? ...

The student seemed utterly overwhelmed with their project.

Being overwhelmed with something can make one not bring one's competence to bear.

There were strong hints of a “do my work for me” attitude.

Ah, now this is an ethical failing. Unfortunately, sometimes it's exactly those people who manipulate others into doing work for them that get ahead in academia, i.e. some people would regard this scrupulousness is a merit. I wouldn't. But - that only weakly correlates with incompetence.

Now, it could very well be that I'd get the exact same impression as you if I'd actually read the email exchange. But if that's what you were to "accuse" the student of - your case is pretty weak.


Posted 2018-02-28T20:05:03.467

Reputation: 16 152

6Maybe relevant to your first point: I'm a math PhD who has written code off and on for many years (Basic, Pascal, and Fortran years ago; C++ and Perl more recently) and I don't really know what object-oriented programming is, in any more than the very vaguest sense.

Now maybe a computer scientist should know what object-oriented programming is. I don't call myself a computer scientist. But it's conceivable that someone in an area adjacent to computer science might try to have a meaningful conversation with a computer scientist about a specific algorithm, while not knowing what OOP is. – idmercer – 2018-03-01T18:45:21.037

I think your logic is problematic. Just because that some of my individual observations can be explained by exceptional circumstances (which I do not dispute the slightest), doesn’t mean that my overall conclusion is likely wrong. Also when I said “not even remotely”, this was not rhetorical emphasis. As an SE regular I am familiar with the all the difficulties of asking good questions, but the question in case could be compared to “My code isn’t working; what am I doing wrong?” (without any additional information). – Wrzlprmft – 2018-03-02T13:22:06.733

@Wrzlprmft: And is he a PhD candidate in the equivalent of software engineering? – einpoklum – 2018-03-03T00:17:49.413

1@einpoklum does that really matter? Remember what PhD stands for, he's supposed to love thinking; the expectation he has to fulfill is trying to find ways to solve his problems that do not rely on others doing his work. So I argue that the actual background doesn't matter, as long as it's vaguely technical or scientific. – Marcus Müller – 2018-03-03T00:47:16.760

@MarcusMüller: Yes, it really does matter, because you might have a perception bias of his behavior (plus - very small sample). Maybe he's a flunkie, but - you're not in a position to make that argument to his advisor IMHO. – einpoklum – 2018-03-03T01:01:19.743

I actually believe that experience might objectively give someone the ability to assess the abilities of an individual based on the way they ask, and what, for one's own specific area of expertise! Op is not judging someone's skills as brain surgeon, op is assessing a student's abilities on the very field he's an expert on. Sure, being an expert gives you a bias regarding simplicity of concepts that might be hard to grok for someone new to the field, but there objectively are basics to every field that even a new student would have to bring. I'm an EE, so my example comes from that world: – Marcus Müller – 2018-03-03T01:16:13.947

Assume you're an expert in the design of microscopic antennas for the detection of terahertz radiation. You obviously think antennas are easy, so that would skew your assessment when you meet a new PhD student that doesn't know much about antennas, though he should have already learned that in his master's. But now you've got this student that keeps emailing you about concepts in your bleeding edge research, but his questions betray a total lack of basic understanding of even basic antenna principles. Like, he doesn't even know what an electric field is. You really can't work with him, – Marcus Müller – 2018-03-03T01:20:03.390

Because he really can't even understand the most basic explanations that you could give. Instead of taking your hints of maybe reading a basics electricity theory textbook, he continues to ask about concepts that with his background are impossible to understand. He starts demanding you do his work, as he really stands no chance of doing it himself, and he also doesn't stand a chance of learning the basics "on the job", because he tries to still work with your very involved stuff, trying to find a shortcut around the basics. This is the situation I think op describes! – Marcus Müller – 2018-03-03T01:23:27.403

Remember, that the whole object-oriented-programming thing is just an analogy to illustrate the level of lack of knowledge. You can also imagine a physicist not knowing what a Hamiltonian is, a mathematician not knowing what a group is, or what @MarcusMüller is describing, etc. And it’s not my field they are lacking expertise (though I am under the illusion to have some expertise in this field). Finally, I never talked about making an argument to their advisor. I am at most considering informing them (and letting them act upon this information however they seem fit). – Wrzlprmft – 2018-03-03T07:23:55.603


In general, I do not provide unsolicited negative opinions. So I would wait until the student's supervisor asks me for my opinion. I anticipate that the supervisor will never ask me - and I am OK with that.

On the other hand, it is good practice to praise generously and publicly. If and when you are impressed with a student then make sure his/her supervisor knows about it.


Posted 2018-02-28T20:05:03.467

Reputation: 1 413


Reporting your concerns to the student directly is probably your best option, for reasons beyond those already mentioned.

  1. Contacting the supervisor escalates the situation dramatically. Dealing with any ensuing situation might take away time and energy you need for your job. Do not borrow trouble.

  2. The student asked for your help and will likely benefit from your feedback.

    • From the question, we do not know whether the student has already reached candidacy.

      • If not, they would benefit from hearing directly that they need to improve their skills.
      • If so, they may need to review the material, be less lazy, or have a reality check about their path. They can recognize which option is relevant for them, more than you can, or even than their supervisor can.
      • Either way, an appropriate response might include: "The questions you're asking can be answered by applying core knowledge from [key subfield--especially if this is a subfield that usually has its own qualifying or comprehensive exam]. Please check with your supervisor about these points, and she can contact me with further technical questions."
    • A central problem seems to be professional communication, and you could address that directly with the student.

  3. The question did not specify that the student and supervisor are at the author's institution.

    • If they are not co-located, this would complicate the idea of informally chatting with the supervisor and would likely force the conversation to be through email.
      • Under U.S. law, this email becomes an "education record" for the student, which would be turned up in the (hopefully unlikely) event that the student is acrimoniously parted from the program and has a competent lawyer.
      • Other jurisdictions may not have the same law, but emails can be forwarded and may still drag you into a mess or reflect poorly on you out of context.
    • Feedback from an outsider may have a larger impact on the supervisor's judgment of the student than the author anticipates.
      • More prominent academics are often more distant supervisors, and this supervisor may have had very little contact with the student to compare this with. By Bayesian updating, your assessment would loom large in the supervisor's mind.
      • If the author and supervisor are in different countries or at institutions of different status, the supervisor may feel ashamed that the student attracted your negative attention.
  4. Finally, if you communicate about this with anyone, do not say anything remotely like: "I am pretty confident that this student will not finish their degree (by honest means)." (You stated this as an assumption, but it is not clear to me whether this would be part of your intended message.)

    • If I received a message saying this about a student I supervised, it would sound like you suspect academic dishonesty, an extremely serious charge.
      • If you have such a suspicion, it is worth approaching an ethical advisor (an ombudsperson?) at your institution and/or the student's institution, beginning with hypothetical questions.
      • If you are merely worried about the student's competence, do not appear to impugn their ethics.
    • Whether a student will finish is a very difficult judgment to make accurately.
      • Since your contact with the student appears to be limited to this unflattering correspondence, you may not see the student's countervailing strengths.
      • There are many different doctoral student trajectories. Traits like taking initiative (as demonstrated by cold-emailing the author of a paper) and perseverance help students who are behind academically make up their deficits and finish.
      • Let's assume you could accurately peg the student's odds of graduating at 25%. Stating your conclusion that the student is unlikely to graduate and is a poor target for resources (even if phrased as a "worry" or otherwise softened) will draw everyone's attention far more than the specific details you have to offer. Whomever you communicate with about this, recognize that the base of your evidence is limited and refrain from extrapolating.


Posted 2018-02-28T20:05:03.467

Reputation: 460

2I agree and I also think the op should consider how unflattering it would be for the OP should his concerns be unfounded. – scrappedcola – 2018-03-01T18:44:31.277


I agree with all the answers that say not to contact the supervisor.

I'd make one exception to that: If the student's questions indicated that they may be putting animals or people in danger, I'd find some way to flag this to the supervisor. I'd do this as tactfully as possible, but if a student is unintentionally causing unnecessary animal or human suffering I'd definitely try to intervene.

Otherwise, I'd go under the assumption that the supervisor is more familiar with the student that I am and already is aware of any weaknesses I perceive.


Posted 2018-02-28T20:05:03.467

Reputation: 8 597


I would approach the situation differently. If you are a faculty member in the same department as the student with the same rank as, or higher than, the supervisor, you can swing by the supervisor's office and have a closed door conversation about how unimpressed you are with the student. Under no circumstances would I want a written/email record of the conversation. I would try and avoid doing it over the phone because face-to-face is more personal.

If you are a faculty member with a lower rank, depending on departmental culture, you might need to tread more carefully. If you are a post-doc or not in the department, instead of telling the supervisor that in your opinion the student is incompetent, I would provide the evidence that you have and allow the supervisor to come to that conclusion on their own.

I would send an email to both the student and supervisor that includes the entire email conversation. You could provide some textbook suggestions or very simple answers to the easy questions and suggest that the do it for me stuff would require a collaborative effort (if you want to work with the supervisor you can offer yourself up, or just say you do not have time to collaborate).


Posted 2018-02-28T20:05:03.467

Reputation: 74 063


Personally, I don't see what you're suggesting as being as bad as other commentators are making out (and I note from your explanation that this is not a matter of annoyance, but concern). I note from your profile that you are a post-doc, which essentially makes you a member of the academic class, and so you are effectively a fellow colleague to the supervisor (albeit a lower-ranking colleague), not a fellow student to the student in question.

Rather than communicating your concern to the supervisor explicitly, perhaps you could obtain the same effect in an entirely different manner. You could send the supervisor an email advising that you have been providing some assistance to the student, and for his/her information, you are including the email chain in question below. Make no negative comment on the capacities of the student, and leave it to the supervisor to review the correspondence that caused you concern, and make his/her own professional assessment. That way, you are doing nothing more that being helpful by sending an email query from the student to the supervisor. If this still seems a big presumptuous/rude, you could even lighten it further, by seeking the supervisor's guidance for how to provide clearer help.

Here is an example of what I mean:

Dear Prof. [Name]

I am a post-doc in [area] at your university. I just thought I'd write to let you know that I have been attempting to provide some assistance to your PhD student [Student name]. This relates to an initial query about [subject] and we have been corresponding on the matter to try to figure out the best way to proceed (see email chain below). I'm not sure if I'm doing the best job explaining this stuff, so perhaps you could give me some guidance for how to provide clearer help.

I hope I am not stepping on any toes by giving outside assistance. If you would prefer to assist the student directly, please let me know.


[Your Name]


Posted 2018-02-28T20:05:03.467

Reputation: 1 024

5Without knowing the department culture, I would never suggest that a post-doc assume they are an equal colleague to a faculty member. In ideal departments that is the case, but in reality, that can get you in a lot of trouble in a lot of places. – StrongBad – 2018-02-28T23:53:52.043

4@None outside the classroom, there is not a sense of privacy. I wouldn't think twice about forwarding on a research related email to another colleague unless the the original email suggested something was confidential. – StrongBad – 2018-02-28T23:55:56.507

1@StrongBad: I have edited to make clear that I am not suggesting that a postdoc is an equal colleague to a prof, but still a colleague. – Ben – 2018-03-01T00:03:23.747

@Ben I get what you are saying. They are not at the same level as a faculty member, but they have moved up into a new tier. – None – 2018-03-01T02:23:03.770

The basic approach could work as an alternative to consider in case OP isn't able to visit the advisor in person. But I would cut down the prologue a whole lot. Specifically, I'd just remove the whole first paragraph. It's not needed. – aparente001 – 2018-03-01T04:33:58.163

Hmmm, I think what you suggest is illegal. Forwarding email without consent – SSimon – 2018-03-01T11:17:26.130

4@SSimon That would be insane. Think about it for a moment. – pipe – 2018-03-01T11:23:44.433

I like this in general. In a first exposure to a colleague, don't deprecate your explanation skills ("I'm not sure if I'm doing the best job explaining this stuff"), especially to cover for the student. At the same time, as aparente001 said in another answer, it may not be necessary to include the past exchange. – cactus_pardner – 2018-03-02T21:07:08.450

@pipe and SSimon, this is a good article which sides with Pipe, but presents both sides.

– None – 2018-03-03T18:30:01.770


Rather than doing something like that behind student's back,1 I would send a blunt and frank email to the student. Like, judging by your questions, I don't see any effort on your part, and don't understand how you can be competent in this field. Please don't waste my time. Etc.

If I was confident in my assessment, I wouldn't even spare student's feelings that much. Sometimes it can be deserved. I find it creates a healthier culture than being nice upfront but making decisions behind the back. While being a student, I would certainly prefer it that way.

1 Note I don't imply, like some, that this is inherently unethical. Situations differ. There are fields where turning a blind eye creates an even more unethical (or even outright dangerous) situation overall.


Posted 2018-02-28T20:05:03.467

Reputation: 199

5I actually already sent such an email to them (being as frank, but less blunt); I am skeptical whether they got the message though. – Wrzlprmft – 2018-03-01T10:41:10.727

4@Wrzlprmft I think you did right. Personally, I'd ignore further emails from that student. Only don't be hasty judging him. Some of the most incompetent and lazy end up being quite good at the end of the PhD, provided they get their wake up call soon enough. – Magicsowon – 2018-03-01T15:07:23.423


Perhaps it will help if you will e-mail the student and tell him that you are quite busy and do not have time to answer his basic questions. However, you suggest the student to e-mail his supervisor with same questions and add you as cc (and request his supervisor to send you also his answers), and if a more advanced question will arise, you will try to briefly explain what you know on the subject.


Posted 2018-02-28T20:05:03.467

Reputation: 71


I suggest you read this "....." or do research on these techniques "...." then you should be able to answer questions 2,3, and 8 on your own. Also, it should help you ask better questions which include all the information I need to answer them. I don't have enough information to answer the other questions, I need the following information. "........".


The student will then have to do the research.


Posted 2018-02-28T20:05:03.467

Reputation: 337


I understand the intellectual and moral challenge, and plenty of thoughtful answers have been given here.

I would suggest first do no harm as first guiding principle, and then hard on facts, soft on people as a second-line guideline.

In my perception, beside the do-nothing option, the safest strategy is to offer to the student your availability to establish a connection with his/her supervisor. What happens then becomes a matter for other posts.

A risk not to oversee is that the supervisor is no better than the student. The proof of the pudding is in the eating.


Posted 2018-02-28T20:05:03.467

Reputation: 403