Firing a lazy student

In industry, there was this great, capitalistic, recourse of “carrots” and “sticks”.  I’m sure everyone is familiar, but if you’re not then here you go (just a note-I had no idea what this was; it’s not really something that comes in my native tongue, but a year in industry and I learned).  What I’ve learned is that managing people, employees, other groups, collaborators, etc. is like managing an animal.  There’s positive and negative reinforcement.  And I choose to operate not only on the carrot side but a little on the stick side. In essence, if you have a mule pulling your wagon do you dangle a reward in front of it (the carrot), or whip the mule to keep it going (the stick)?  In industry, when someone does well you give them a nice bonus or raise and some public praise, correspondingly when someone does poorly they don’t get the raise and occasionally will get fired.  This delicate balance ensures that you, as a group leader, get what you want.  I’d love to think that all my employees were just great workers, but in actuality, I’m certain there is a drive to get paid more (the carrot) while also not losing their ability to pay their mortgage (the stick).  I’d like to think that I had a drive to just build awesome products to help people, but honestly, the largest drive was the money (the extra drive coming in or the threat of loss of employment).  One last thing of note is here in academia I have to hire immediately since I can’t take money from one year to the next.  So I end up hiring some non-desirables.  However, when I had an opening in my group in industry I could spend as much time as I wanted to find the perfect hard worker that is also as smart as hell.  A couple things have popped up recently.

Student A was an amazing producer, smart, and personable.  The past four months he has been sucking.  Bad.  His work ethic has fallen off, his intelligence is still there, but he’s also joined a ‘click’ with the neighboring lab so he’s not interacting much with his lab mates.  I reached out and asked if anything was going on, if they needed a break, etc.; trying to be the nice person I pretend to be.  Everything is fine, he just said he would work harder.  I don’t know if he’s just scared to talk to me, but let’s just assume he’s doing alright outside of the lab.  Now, when I was in industry I would give a stern talking-to to the person then put a small ding in their record that they could see, then eventually they would see their pay lagging and the risk of termination and buck up.  Even though I’ve stated I’m unhappy with him, his productivity hasn’t changed.  It’s one thing to get poor results it’s another to show up at 10am and leave at 2pm.  He’s a 3rd year so he’s too deep in to fire, but I long for the days of the stick.  I think part of this is that I also can’t offer the carrot.  I can’t give a raise.  But they can graduate sooner and with a better reference (after all, I am well-connected in the industry these students all want to enter), but that doesn’t help.  And without the real carrot, there isn’t a stick.

On the timing side of things I got a nice grant but I, like most PIs, have a year to get my first set of status reports out.  Which means I have to start working now.  Which means I need to hire a post-doc now.  In industry I could wait and wait until the perfect employee came through, but right now I’m looking for a post-doc.  And there are a lot more open post-doc positions out there than there are qualified post-docs to fill them.  I love a lot more about academics than industry, but not being able to fire people is not cool.  I know I might sound like a hard-ass, but I have no patience if someone isn’t trying.


5 thoughts on “Firing a lazy student

  1. I wanna write something coherent, but will just say, “Yeah. Same.” Although students can in principle be fired but you need proper documentation that you talked, he agreed to improve these metrics by this date, if not, then repeat, and then you usually can sever.

    A disengaged student hurts everyone in the lab. Can you kick him out with an MS if he doesn’t shape up?


    • I talked to my department head, and they were sympathetic, but not really helpful. But he did say I can threaten to kick them out of the program. My concern is that I don’t want to be known as ‘that’ advisor, and for students to not join my group for fear of being fired. And luckily the lazy student hasn’t dragged anyone down with them.

      I had a firm talk with the student today and mentioned how the project they’re working on has some industry funding and word gets around pretty quickly in the field when someone is not productive. And that this will hurt job prospects. I again reiterated that if something is going on to let me know and I’ll lay off. I said they don’t even have to tell me what it is. Just that something is going on and I’ll trust them. But nothing. If they haven’t shaped up by Spring I think I’ll target the MS approach……


      • “I don’t want to be known as ‘that’ advisor, and for students to not join my group for fear of being fired”

        You’re not going to be known as ‘that advisor’ if you fire one nonperforming student. The rest of the group might be suffering because of this guy’s attitude. It happened to me in the past that I finally let a student go, after far too many chances, and the other students said, “Well, it was about time/I’m surprised he lasted this long, he should’ve been gone sooner.”


      • You’re absolutely correct. I had lunch with two of my students and asked about this, and they said this is making the group look lazy to other groups. THIS I will not stand for! I’m starting to document my dissatisfaction and formally let him know Monday he’ll be gone if he doesn’t shape up. Apparently, he thinks he can brush me off. At least that’s what he tells other people behind my back.


  2. The productivity and attitude go hand-in-hand. At my school, this happens pretty frequently, but mostly they just end up swapping labs. So they’re still the program’s problem. What I started to implement with one student I didn’t want was failing them in their dissertation units. This put them on probation even though they didn’t have formal classes and I used this to convince them to just leave with an MS. Best decision I’ve ever made regarding personnel.


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