The Slave Driver vs. the Lazy Student


What should a graduate student do when she thinks her adviser is improperly delaying her dissertation project? This scenario explores the complicated surrounding adviser/advisee relationships.


Eileen Patton, a fourth-year engineering student, has just been denied permission by her thesis committee to begin writing her dissertation. In general, the committee considered her a strong Ph.D. candidate with good classroom and laboratory performance, but found a surprising absence of abstracts and papers. Citing this lack of publication, the committee advised her to focus on her project for at least another year before meeting again.

Patton is frustrated. She feels that she is ready to begin the dissertation, and she thinks her adviser, Dr. Laura Santiago, is a slave driver who can never be satisfied. Patton's presentations at various biotech firms have been well received and have resulted in both research money and equipment, but none of her work has been published. Abstracts of her work presented at national conferences list her adviser's name as first and presenting author. Santiago has asked her write up her results on many occasions, but she has told Patton she will not submit the work without the approval of the industrial collaborators who are sponsoring the work.

Patton knows her department usually requires Ph.D. candidates to have at least one first-author paper before a degree is granted. She feels her chances to graduate in a timely fashion and get a competitive position are severely diminished by her lack of publication. Patton and Santiago have experienced conflicts over Patton's numerous vacations and extracurricular activities, which Santiago regards as distractions and evidence of Patton's lack of dedication. In addition, Santiago has been unsuccessful in attracting new students the past two years, and Patton suspects she would like to delay her departure for as long as possible.

Santiago had an extremely successful post-doc and is the youngest person ever to receive a tenure-track position in her department. During her four years as associate professor, she has won numerous awards, and the head of her department has often publicly complimented her on her work ethic and commitment to research. Santiago's affiliation with various companies has attracted significant research funding and equipment that benefits her lab and the department as a whole.

Patton, her first graduate student, has been pushing her to submit manuscripts for publication. Santiago believes the work to date is good, but not enough has been done. If Patton would only focus on her work and put in more effort, Santiago is sure Patton could get more of the high quality data required. Santiago doesn't want to jeopardize her fine reputation and funding by submitting inferior manuscripts. If Patton wants to graduate sooner, Santiago feels she can either start working harder or try to graduate without publishing. If the committee requires it, Santiago is prepared to continue supporting Patton until the time is right to publish, which, she admits, may still be two or three years in the future.

Discussion Questions

  1. Are Santiago's standards unreasonable? Is Patton's work ethic lacking? What are some possible "objective" criteria for determining when a Ph.D. has been completed? What, if anything, can the committee members do to resolve this conflict?
  2. How could an institution prevent situations like this one? How can a department or institution encourage good adviser/student relationships?
  3. Santiago does not want to publish Patton's work because she feels that publication will not benefit her own career. What, if any, are her obligations to her students' careers?
  4. Suppose Santiago's industrial collaborators do not want the work to be made public. How does that affect Santiago? How does it affect Patton? Does Santiago's relationship to industry have priority over her relationship to her students?

Brian Schrag, ed., Research Ethics: Cases and Commentaries, Volume 5, Bloomington, Indiana: Association for Practical and Professional Ethics, 2001.

1. Are Santiago's standards unreasonable? Is Patton's work ethic lacking?

It is difficult to answer these questions without further probing. Apparently, Santiago and Patton would answer each of these questions differently. Santiago: "My standards are reasonable; Patton needs to work harder." Patton: "Santiago's standards are unreasonable. It shouldn't take me another couple of years to have a publishable paper; my work ethic is fine."

Two strategies might help resolve these differences. First, a conversation between Santiago and Patton, in which they actually discuss their differences, might be helpful. The case presents no evidence of their having such a conversation. However, for this conversation to be helpful, it cannot simply be a confrontational meeting. Santiago questions Patton's dedication (too many vacations and extracurricular activities). Patton questions Santiago's motivation (she wants Patton around longer as an assistant because she does not seem able to recruit new assistants). If Santiago is right, Patton has little basis for complaint. If Patton is right, Santiago is exploiting Patton. A meeting in which they confront each other with their suspicions is unlikely to help them move ahead constructively (at least not together). However, a meeting in which they seek a meeting of minds on how Patton might best complete her degree program could have good results and might even dissolve their mutual suspicions.

Second, at this point Patton's thesis committee is involved; perhaps committee members can play a mediating role. The committee is convinced that Patton is a strong candidate. Perhaps a meeting involving Patton, Santiago and at least one other member of the committee could help put a more constructive spin on the situation. Given their mutual suspicions, Patton and Santiago may not be able to move ahead without the mediation of others.

2. How could an institution prevent such situations? How can a department or institution encourage good adviser/student relationships?

As long as the basic communication about expectations and requirements is only one-to-one (adviser to advisee), such situations can easily occur. Meetings and workshops on program aims and requirements can help promote understanding among faculty and students alike. When students and faculty are left on their own to work out these matters one-on-one, it should be no surprise to find misunderstandings and suspicions. Does the department have any say about what reasonable standards are? Is there any discussion about how best to help students meet these standards? Are there candid discussions with students about how much work it takes to complete a program in a timely fashion? Are students fully informed about the publication restraints that accompany industrial collaboration?

3. What are Santiago's obligations to her students' careers?

I prefer to phrase this question somewhat differently: What are Santiago's obligations to help her students in the course of their degree programs? I would tie these obligations to the institution in which she is working, the quality of program her department is seeking to maintain, and the institution's and department's obligations to its students generally. Within that framework, Santiago has an obligation to provide opportunities and encouragement for Patton to do the best work she can. If Santiago does not want to publish Patton's work because she feels it will not benefit her own career, she seems to have things the wrong way around.

Santiago's basic question should be whether her standards are reasonable (and not just in her own eyes, but from the standpoint of her department), and whether Patton is satisfying them. If the bar is too high for Patton, what should be done? Perhaps the bar should be lowered. But departmental standards are for all students, not just for Patton. The question of reasonable standards should not be settled by Santiago alone, Patton alone or even Santiago and Patton together. Again, it is important that others be involved in the issue between Santiago and Patton.

4. What about the relevance of industrial collaboration to Santiago and Patton's work?

It is difficult to answer this question in the abstract. Certainly is it possible for researchers to become involved in industrial collaboration in ways that compromise their commitments to the university and/or their students. However, that problem does not require outright refusal to become involved in such collaborations. At the same time, students need to be fully informed about the limitations that will be placed on their own research should they join in such collaborations - and they should be informed about the implications of collaborative research before they agree to participate.

Author: Michael S. Pritchard, Western Michigan University.

This case is designed to highlight common conflicts between graduate students and their thesis advisers. The qualities of an effective adviser-student relationship and the responsibilities of students and faculty advisers are issues that often are not addressed until problems arise between students and advisers.

Patton should not raise questions about the research practices of her thesis adviser without thoroughly considering the possible consequences. Complaining about Santiago could be detrimental to Patton, especially given Santiago's good reputation. The reality is that students have to rely heavily on strong recommendations from their adviser and other senior faculty members. Patton needs to consider the fact that she may be perceived as lazy or as a troublemaker if she were to pursue a complaint against Santiago. Conversely, conflict with Patton could harm Santiago's reputation. Since the quality of the work in this case is not in question, Santiago's reputation probably would not be seriously affected. An institution that valued teaching might take a complaint against a young faculty member more seriously than a research-oriented institution, however.

Patton should first try to confront Santiago directly concerning graduation and publication of her work. A resolution between adviser and student is preferable to involving third parties. If Patton is not successful with Santiago's response, then she could discuss the situation with a senior faculty member who could be trusted to keep the conversation confidential. The department chair or director of graduate studies may serve such a function. In this case, the head of the department has considerable regard for Santiago, so involving him in the conflict may not be productive for Patton. However, the department chair will have no way of knowing about conflicts in his department if they are not brought to his attention. He may be able to help resolve the dispute despite his high regard for Santiago.

The issue of mutual trust is relevant in this case. Patton must trust that the process by which she is evaluated will be fair and not arbitrary or biased. Santiago must trust her students to work honestly and diligently to make sufficient progress. Both must be open to suggestions and criticisms.

This case also deals with problems of perception. Each participant perceives the other as failing to fulfill her obligations. Santiago sees Patton as distracted by other activities and not dedicated. Patton perceives Santiago as one who cannot be satisfied and who can only benefit from delaying Patton"s graduation. She suspects Santiago's refusal to publish her work is a strategy designed to keep her in the lab until more students join. Who can determine whether Santiago has impossibly high standards? Is Patton lazy, or does she simply have more varied interests than her adviser? These questions don't have answers, but they highlight issues first year students should consider when choosing an adviser.

In this case, the committee may have to evaluate the quality and quantity of Patton's work and decide whether she can graduate without publication. Since she is Santiago's first student, there is no precedent to guide the committee. Perhaps the committee, with Patton and Santiago's input, can generate a checklist of things Patton needs to accomplish before graduation. Certainly the committee cannot force Santiago to publish anything.

Question 2 is meant to focus the discussion on ways an institution can contribute to effective student-adviser relationships. The best way to improve mentoring is to stress its importance by rewarding good mentoring. Currently most institutions focus on research, and faculty could be penalized for mentoring if it takes time away from research. The NAS recommends a number of measures to monitor mentoring performance. Institutions could track the progress of former students to provide information about the career experiences of graduates. Older graduate students could complete a faculty mentoring evaluation to assess the contributions of their advisers and other faculty to their research, scholarship and general education. A sample of this form can be found at the National Research Council's website. To stimulate better mentoring, the NAS recommends providing guidance to new faculty in the form of briefings, workshops, seminars or pairing with an older faculty member to serve as mentor to the new faculty member. Abuses of power can be monitored through departmental oversight, student evaluations, time-to-degree data and student performance. Such abuses can be included as data in tenure and promotion evaluations. In Patton's case, a discussion with the head of her department may make him aware of the need to institute some or all of the recommendations mentioned.

The same report defines an effective adviser/student relationship as one that is characterized by respect, trust and understanding.(1)  Good advisers are good listeners, good observers and good problem solvers. Advisers should respect the goals and interests of good students. Santiago has an obligation to help her students through the program to the best of her ability. She is not wrong for having high standards, but not everyone can have the kind of career she has had. Clearly, by refusing to publish Patton's work Santiago is not fulfilling her job as a good mentor. She is not helping Patton experience the process of publishing in the field, nor is she helping her student's chances of employment after graduate school.

Question 3 is meant to stimulate discussion about how much time a graduate student is required to be in the lab and how much is too much, i.e., when productivity drops or burnout occurs. Advisers and students must decide for themselves how many hours are required to complete a project. This demand will vary widely based upon personal preference and the nature of the project. A discussion about what is required of a student is advisable as soon as the student joins the lab or, if possible, before the student formally commits to the lab.

Question 4 is meant to add another dimension to the case. If Patton cannot present or discuss her work, furthering her career will be difficult. The impact of one's work is often a good gauge of the importance or relevance of the work. Failure to publish her data severely limits Patton's career potential. Santiago was not a good mentor because she did not keep her student's interest in mind when assigning Patton to the project. Santiago's responsibility is to anticipate such a situation and either avoid it or have alternative projects for her students that will produce publishable data.

  • (1)National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering and Institute of Medicine. Advisor, Teacher, Role Model, Friend: On Being a Mentor to Students in Science and Engineering. Washington, D. C.: National Academy Press, 1997.