I am a postdoc helping in the supervision of a PhD student who is finishing his 2nd year now. This is in Europe, meaning the student came in with a MSc degree and these 2 years have been of research. “Helping in the supervision” actually means here that my professor is nominally appointed as supervisor but I am doing all of the actual supervision (my professor is not familiar with the details of our project, just the “big picture”).
The project is on computational physics/chemistry, and the PhD student has a background in chemistry with no prior computational knowledge. At the time of hiring we were under pressure to get the project going and complementing my physics background with someone who actually knows chemistry seemed like a good idea back then. Also the student was very motivated.
I have been spending a large amount of time teaching this student lots of physics and programming/scripting, which is needed to carry out the project. I assumed I would need to spend a lot of time at the beginning because of the background mismatch, so that was no problem. I thought things would improve with time. Unfortunately, they have not. The student is terrible at any kind of programming and has a lot of trouble learning new concepts, but what worries me the most is his attitude.
He basically is obsessed with getting results but is overlooking learning, in the form of reading books and papers and working hard on a problem for a period of time. If I tell him to “bang his head against the wall” for a couple of weeks trying to crack a problem before seeking advice from me (like we all have done during our PhDs), he gets frustrated after one or two days and starts sending me lots of desperate emails begging for me to intervene. This is a “gimme teh codez” kind of student, looking to avoid any problem which is any hard at all. I spend long meeting sessions explaining the theoretical and practical details of some approach, but he only seems interested when I write code that he can copy paste and use to get results (without even understanding the code, let alone the underlying physics).
Because of this I have to do lots of debugging and finding the same little (and large) mistakes that arise now and again because the student does not understand what he’s doing. I have discussed many times with him that he needs to focus on understanding theory and code, instead of just getting results. But this is to no avail. I get the impression the student wants to do a technician’s, rather than a scientist’s, job but still get a PhD out of it.
As a result, I find myself working personally on any part of his project which has any hint of difficulty in it, spending way too many hours a week doing supervision, and getting increasingly frustrated at the lack of progress on the project. At this point, it would be fair to say that I could myself get everything he has to do (and more) done just in the time I spent meeting with him.
I have brought some of these concerns up, but the student won’t accept they need to adjust how they work, instead claiming the tasks are too complicated (believe me, they’re not), the professor does not help enough, the project is not well organized, etc. I don’t know what to do – this student is getting easily 10 times more help than I did during my PhD (and I had a good experience).
To complicate things, I am just a postdoc so I have not a wide experience supervising different students that would tell me whether this case is common or isolated.
Am I expecting too much from my student? Is the problem I’m having a common one? How can I improve his attitude towards learning and working? How to deal with a bad research student?