A reader asks:
How long do you typically give 1st or 2nd year grad students to "pull things together" when they struggle in the beginning? Where is the line is drawn and what factors affect the judgments professors will make about their students?
I will consider only PhD students in this discussion.
I should say right away that I do not have a foolproof way of deciding when or where to draw the line on struggling students. I tend to err on the side of delusional optimism, hoping that some solution involving change in project (topics, methods), degree of supervision (more structure, specific goal-setting), or approach to writing will pull us all through the problems. Only in hindsight has it been obvious when this was a bad plan, resulting in prolonged suffering and expense. In other cases, it has worked; by "worked" I mean that the student got their PhD and therefore any difficulties were worth it, I think.
That said, when and where I draw the line depends on the specific things with which the student is struggling and how (or whether) they are making an effort to communicate about and/or deal with the problem(s).
Is the problem motivation? If a student is unproductive owing to a severe lack of interest or motivation in any reasonable research project they can do with me as adviser, that is something that should be quite clear in the second year, if not the first. (though I have had students who started out very energetic in the first year but whose motivation was completely extinguished in the second by the reality of what research and/or working with me involves)
Is the problem that the student lacks the information or skills necessary to do the research? That can be fixed in many cases, and should be dealt with by the end of the second year. The student should be as proactive as possible about learning what they need to know to do their research.
Is the problem the adviser? Is this something that could be fixed by discussing the situation or is it something that can't be changed? If the latter, the student has a decision to make about whether to continue with that adviser. Although it is possible that, with time, the student may understand better what seems like irrational or unkind behavior, it is likely that the adviser won't become more sane or nice with time.
Is the problem beyond the student's control? Examples: Access to facilities? A complex and difficult research project that may proceed in a non-linear way? Lack of clear direction? Research that takes a long time to produce interpretable results? I am impressed by students who find ways to deal with obstacles like these.
In fact, a student who feels like they are struggling, perhaps because they are too critical when comparing themselves with others, may not be struggling in the eyes of the adviser and other faculty.
Other problems, such as those involving finishing a project or writing, may not manifest themselves until later (after the first two years).
In the first two years, it is not too late to change course in a possibly dramatic way, including deciding that there is no point in continuing in the graduate program. There have been a few cases in which I decided in the first or second year that there was no point in advising a student for a PhD; these students got an MS instead. There has to be an obvious, major reason for going this route, though -- e.g., failed classes or lack of productivity owing to extreme lack of effort.
Will a student who has a slow (but not catastrophic) first year or two be at a permanent disadvantage? I suppose this depends on the adviser, but in my opinion, a student who struggles with something in the first year or two, but who eventually surmounts the obstacles and succeeds, should not be at a disadvantage later. In fact, few arrive in graduate school perfectly prepared to leap into the perfect project that goes perfectly from Day One.
If you had asked any of my graduate advisers or committee members what they thought of me in my first or second years of graduate school, the responses would have ranged from a derisive snort to a polite but sympathetic chuckle at my likely future career as a cat sitter. That changed a few years later once I started getting results and writing papers, and my slow start didn't harm my career.
If you (mostly) like what you are doing, and at times possibly even love what you are doing, and you want to keep going with your research, despite initial problems, my advice, summarized, is: Stay focused, know what your goals are (short-range, intermediate-range, long-range), communicate with your adviser and others, if you feel stuck at least make some progress step-by-step (even if the steps seem small), and don't worry so much.
9 years ago