I work in a university and do my phd there. In our office is another phd student which seems to struggle a lot with essentially everything and I am wondering if there is anything I can do about it without doing everything for him.

The workers in our office are from various cultural backgrounds and have different first languages. We thus use English as main language. This is where the problem starts, his English is quite bad and it is not like he is much better in reading/understanding things. If it is programming, writing papers or figuring out conceptual flaws/challenges he makes no progress. By now he has fallen far behind in producing research results not to mention making publications.

At a first glance it looks like he doesn't care although I don't quite believe that anymore. His difficulties with programming are surprising though because he studied computer science. So, he does not have just one problem but rather several ones which are all more or less strongly coupled to his poor language ability. Another issue might be that he is coming from a different technical subject and was given the opportunity to do a phd in Europa as a support for this home country (3rd world country). He probably does not even care much about our technical subject and really only came for the "fancy" degree.

Conversations with him end quite quickly because he cannot follow you for long when things get abstract i.e. you hit the language barrier and end up all the time adapting to him in the sense of simplifying your language e.g. slowing doing and avoiding complicated words.

He has been with us for almost 18 month now and the mood in the office became quite awkward while he is around or you at least notice a huge difference when he is not around.

In the end I couldn't care less about him, but I though I ask the crowd bevor I give him up for good. Are there any thoughts or ideas how to do something for him? I think he is very unhappy with his situation, but no help provided seems to help.

Thanks for opinions on that.

  • It sounds that the first thing would be an intensive English course, so that he can switch to a career in retail, or in the fast food industry. – gnasher729 Apr 3 '16 at 21:12
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    he comes from a third World country probably on scholarship... he's a Ministers son or something, he's just there for a holiday, nothing you can do about it... he doesn't care. He was in over his head to start with, his existing credentials aren't worth the paper they're written on. I am in a third World country, many of our Uni grads are barely literate. – Kilisi Apr 3 '16 at 22:09

To be brutally honest, unless he accepts help or seeks to improve, you won't be able to help your coworker. This is why forced drug rehabilitation has low rates of success; if the person will not put forth the effort to change, there is only so much an outsider can do.

As outlined in this article:

Research tells us that intrinsically motivated addicts will be most successful in rehab. If you have to force your loved one to get help, her odds of success are automatically lowered.

As @gnasher729 mentioned in the comments, the first step is an intensive English course. If his communication skills improve, he will have an easier time assimilating information which will help him with his other problems.

But how to help him with his language problems?

  • Reach out to him on a ground he is comfortable in. Would you be willing to learn a little of his native language to make him feel comfortable? If you start trying his language, it could help build a connection between you and give him a reason to try harder in learning English.
  • Ask if he wants to watch a TV show. Not only that, see if the TV show has subtitles in his native language. I have friends who use this technique to improve their English comprehension and I find it effective myself when trying to improve my Chinese listening comprehension. Having a ready source of translation helps pair what you hear to what you read in your native language.
  • Recommend the local ESL (English as a second language) group on campus as a place to practice his English. Most universities with a high number of foreign students have an established ESL group. There, your coworker can practice English with other students similarly struggling. Most importantly, it establishes the fact that he is not alone with struggling to learn English.

These are the examples I can think of off-hand. Remember, even if you try hard to help him, he needs to intrinsically want to help himself.


My recommendation is to have one on one with him and talk frankly with him ( if needed take permission of whoever before talking ). Maybe someone needs to sit him down and tell him the reality for him to take his job seriously. Once this is done , you might notice a change in his attitude. If this happens , you can guide him in whatever he is lacking in a methodical way.


From what it sounds like in your description, the first thing he needs before anything else is an intensive english language course, followed by alot of work on his programming. There is only so much you can do to help him if he is not interested in putting effort in, but you can try anyways.

I recommend beeing honest to him. Tell him that he is currently far behind, and failing. Recommend him to take an intensive language course first.

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