Dislikable

I miss FSP. I wish she’d post more, and I am sure I am not alone in this sentiment. One question I remember her asking is:

Do you actually have to like your students? Or  is it at least important not to dislike them?

What if there is a student who really pushes your buttons? Perhaps they are not even doing it on purpose, maybe it’s cluelessness, or just a bad match. I certainly have experience with irritating people right off the bat, without actually having done anything. (I am sure some readers are going to come and tell me that this never happens to them and everybody who meets them loves them instantaneously; my DH is one of those people. Let’s just agree that some people are just universally lovable and some are universally irritating. I am not universally lovable. Kudos to you if you are.)

We professors are human, and I can attest that there are plenty of temperamental professors; also, there are plenty of even-keeled ones. While being calm and acting dispassionately can be learned, and with practice in advising you become better at dealing with common advising issues, if you have a temper you might get really irritated. Even if you don’t show it, you know it and you feel it.

I would say that I really like the vast majority of my students. I feel responsible for and protective of them. I make sure they are not just productive, but that they seem balanced, happy, and healthy. I guess (hope?) that most faculty feel the same about most of their advisees.

But, very rarely, there is a student who just pushes all your buttons. All the interactions are accompanied by friction, there is an underlying current of mismatch, of irritation. You start dreading meeting the student. You find that you scold the student in front of peers once or twice, which you don’t want to do. It’s particularly unsettling if the student is actually reasonably productive. Then you feel like a total douche for constantly butting heads with them over minutiae, but it is getting on your nerves that the student is the only one who insists on using a graphics software/presentation software/presentation templates/text processor/compiler/operating system  different from the rest of the group because that’s just what they are used to and don’t want to use anything else (I hate software snobs). You want to be permissive, accommodating, but it is in the way of actually doing work the way you want to in your group, it creates problems with sharing of material, it undermines your authority with the group because you are constantly butting heads, and it seems like the student just cannot pick up on the normal clues that things are wrong or to generalize from recent conflicting situations; you have to be unpleasantly explicit with stupid minutiae all the time, over and over again. The student seems to barely notice; your veins are about to pop.

Then you know that you really truly dislike the student.

The question is whether you should continue advising them. For you and for them. If the only one irritated is you and you have plenty of Tums on hand, while they seem to be happy in oblivion, does it matter? Are you really an effective advisor if they get on your nerves? If they switch advisors, there is no guarantee that they wouldn’t irritate the next person similarly, especially if the stubbornness and general social cluelessness are truly an issue.

I think working with a student who really pushes your buttons is different than having a coworker who does so, because of the power differential. I don’t know that one can be a good advisor to a student they don’t like, just like I can’t believe you can be a good parent to a child you don’t like (plenty of examples say the latter is an awful predicament for the child).

But isn’t it shallow and frivolous to sever an advising relationship with a student basically saying “This is not working out. I think you might be happier elsewhere,” which is the advising version of “It’s not you, it’s me,” the ultimate bullshit. What you really mean is “You get on my freakin’ nerves, all the time. Why do I constantly have to fight with you about every single little thing about how things are done in this group? Why can’t you get it through your head that not everything is up for debate, not everything is up for negotiation, and you don’t know everything better than everyone else. Learn some respect and show some deference, because you think once you start working in industry anyone’s going to give a $hit about your personal software preferences? You think you will be able to install anything on your work computer? Get a home computer and install whatever the hell you want on it, I don’t care. Why is it that you are the only one everything has to be spelled out for, while everyone else seems to take it in stride? Why is it that you are the only one whose figures I have to ask be corrected 10 times, while everyone else just does it after I ask the first time? YOU. DON’T. KNOW. EVERYTHING. ALREADY. Shut up and try to learn.”

Phew.

Anyways…

Advisors are human. If you think they are infallible and immovable, that’s only because  they are pretending, to a degree, and some are better than others at it. Some let unbelievable shit slide. Others do too, then write irritated posts on the web under a pseudonym. But if you are a douche, they notice. If you think they are looking like they are fuming around you, that’s because they are. Listen to what they are saying. Their blood pressure may be dangerously high as a result of your stubborn-a$$ cluelessness. YOU. DON’T. KNOW. EVERYTHING. Shut up. Listen.

I wonder if professorial dudes ever experience these annoying examples of disrespect, of do just us professorial womenfolk have such precious gift bestowed upon us?

(N.B. This is usually a cue for CPP to come tell me that I am an awful human being and an even worse advisor, because he never has any problems with any of his awesome students at his elite institution, so don’t be alarmed.)

25 comments

  1. I continued advising a student with a similar terrible attitude despite his disruptiveness in the lab, and was relieved when he graduated two years ago. Now he wants a letter of recommendation for a faculty position. He was a scientifically good student and I have no doubt will be able to lead the science, but will be poor as a mentor and as a colleague. What does one do in this situation? It seems late to take a stand against his attitude now, but if I were hiring I would want to know.

  2. I’ve definitely observed that sort of disrespect aimed at my old white guy advisor from students who ultimately changed groups and subfields entirely.

  3. This, and your previous post, make me more sure than ever that my advisor’s policy of making every student write up a MSc before formally entering the PhD program was a good one. He expected people to be done in 18 months. He then decided whether he kept you on for a PhD. I felt at the time that it gave him too much power – unlike the comprehensive exams, the judging was done solely by him. Two people who started at around the same time as I did were not kept on for whatever reason he decided. Who was he to decide who had potential as a researcher, based on whatever quirky criteria he applied? Except that quality control is not the only purpose of the culling – he also saved himself and the rest of the group years of butting heads, but the culled students left with a qualification that could be useful.

  4. Anon, that’s a great question. People say that you are never supposed to put anything negative in a letter, as you can in principle be sued for defamation. The question really is how do you convey that this person has something seriously wrong with them, which I am sure your colleagues at different institutions would really want to know. (Although I know a couple of institutions that seem to take pride in having faculty who are all highly egomaniacal and insufferable, so it might not be a deal breaker.)

    I am not sure what the right answer is. You can always not write the letter, which will raise red flags. Or you can do what many people do, which is write the letter and highlight the positives while conspicuously avoid mentioning the negatives; search committees do tend to read between the lines. Or mention the negatives in a very faint non-damning light: e.g. “I have reservations about his ability to be a collegial member of your faculty,” but then the question is why, unless you elaborate, and elaborating can be a legal can of worms. Or you can put in the letter “If you would like to discuss this candidate further, feel free to contact me over the phone or email.” If it’s a small number of schools he’s applying to, you can make sure to tell someone at each school that they should very careful.

    In most places, someone who is a jerk will not get tenured. The guy who started at the same time as me was let go after year 3. He was awful to students, awful to staff, and on top of everything got it in his head that he alone didn’t have to apply for grants. I hope that even if he had applied for grants successfully he would have been let go on account of everyone thinking he was just a horrible human being. The problem is that many of the worst people are perfectly nice to those in power or those from whom they benefit, while they can be awful to those whom they perceive as lowly (women faculty, staff members, students) and that can poison the whole department, lead other people to leave, etc.

    I personally would opt for either not writing or for writing about having reservations about his abilities to be a good colleague and mentor.

  5. I miss FSP, too.

    I’ve been lucky and never had to supervise anyone I actively dislike. That would be very difficult. I’ll have to poke around and see if anyone has written about how to do it.

    The case of a student is even harder, because you will have to handle requests for recommendations, etc. I have never been in this situation, so what follows is pure thought experiment: I wonder if you could sit the student down and tell him that behaviors X, Y, and Z are very difficult for you to handle because A. B, and C (they’re disrespectful, disrupting the lab environment, etc, etc), and then say if he can work on stopping those behaviors, you’re happy to keep advising him, but that if he can’t, it would be in his best interest to find an adviser who is a better fit. Like I say- that is pure conjecture, but I have found that difficult topics w/people I supervise are usually best handled directly.

    Good luck keeping your blood pressure down. 🙂

  6. To anon,

    I think people with universally BAD ATTITUDES like the one described by the OP are likely to make that plain to everyone they meet. It’s going to be obvious in the interview. These aren’t people that are intentionally evil, manipulative, and conniving we’re talking about, these are people that are just plain difficult to get along with. Don’t bother writing a letter. If it’s a place where a combative difficult nature is prized, then they’ll fit in well. If it’s a place where they are expected to be collegieal, they won’t get the job.

    Leave it out of the letter. Personal matters are best settled in person, unless we are talking about ethical issues, discrimination, or activities that actually do intentional and direct harm. But, since that’s not what we’re talking about I don’t think it’s anyone’s place to comment on personality.

  7. i meant to say, don’t bother mentioning their personality in the letter – do write one, about the things they do well.

  8. I miss FSP 4th.

    I had a grad student who I fundamentally didn’t get along with, but it came to be clear that a big component of the conflict came from his need to be the Big Man On Campus. I tried to push through the personality things and penis jokes, but when he started doing things to assert his dominance (like changing the software I use in my teaching lab) I ended his career with me very quickly.

    Did you correctly guess that I am a woman? Because women are supposed to get along with everyone, and it’s our JOB to do the emotional work, right? And I’m pre-tenure so it was a very difficult choice to eject him, and I still worry that it reflects poorly on me.

    It was the right thing for the lab, though.

  9. Looking at this from the other side, I wonder how tolerant advisors/profs are of certain personality traits in men vs. women. I participate in a large project within my institution, and it’s been eye-opening to see what things the guys can get away with in meetings and what I, as a woman, have to limit myself to. There is one (old white) prof in particular who seems to have no trouble being told he’s wrong in so many words by male grad students, but if I do the same, I get “friendly” advice on how he just feels that sometimes I’m not such a pleasant person to work with, and it interferes with his ability to be creative in meetings. (And what I want to say is, “Well, if you’re intimidated by me, that’s your problem not mine,” but of course I don’t….)

  10. Anon, there is definitely a difference in how people treat male and female students. So that may be at play with the old white prof you mention.

    However…

    I am meaning this remark in the friendliest possible spirit: based on the past several comments you left here, I can see that you might rub people the wrong way (I didn’t know you were a woman until you just said it, but it was pretty clear you were a graduate student or perhaps a postdoc). Every single one of the past three comments you left is obnoxious to some degree; I don’t know if you intended them to be or not, but you sound like you have all the answers (although as a student you clearly don’t, even though you may think you do, because you haven’t been in an advising role). People don’t like being condescended to, and if they are your scientific elders, they may be particularly unwilling to tolerate condescension. And yes, they are even less likely to tolerate it when it comes from a woman. As a woman, you unfortunately have a lower bar for acceptable level of condescension. I know because I often inadvertently cross it myself.

    I don’t think I have ever felt intimidated by a student. I have felt irritated a lot of times, and the problem is that as a professor and a professional you can’t tell the person what you really think, for instance when they are being an a$$ to a fellow student or just interrupting or showing off. As a professor, I always have to temper things down and then discuss after the fact. (I can’t give my honest reaction, because it would involve swearing and yelling.) There are ways of disagreeing and pointing out that someone is wrong that are palatable, and then there are ways that are just annoying. Unfortunately, as a woman, you are indeed expected to show less aggression and more sugarcoating than your male counterparts. It’s not easy. We are all socialized to these expectations and they are hard to shake.

    And as for the old male prof. In a group, there needs to be a culture of respect, which is necessary for productive brainstorming. People, including elders, need to be free to say the things that pop into their heads, some of which are wrong and many of which are half-baked, without anyone else jumping to put them down and cut them down to size. This requires no obnoxious big egos, from students or faculty; one annoying student throws off the whole balance and makes nobody want to speak up.

  11. Hi me,

    When he started doing things to assert his dominance (like changing the software I use in my teaching lab)

    This really resonated with me. I am always floored by how much gall and how little clue of the hierarchy some people have. Did he think you wouldn’t kick him out after all? Or he thought you were too dumb to notice? Some of these students do think their advisors really dimwitted. Plenty of underlying misogyny there…

  12. “However… I am meaning this remark in the friendliest possible spirit: based on the past several comments you left here, I can see that you might rub people the wrong way….”

    Ahahahaha! That is really something … and I mean this in the friendliest possible spirit … coming from you.

  13. What exactly are you trying to achieve with these comments, Anon?
    This now appears to be garden-variety trolling, in which case I’m done talking to you.

  14. I am glad you are blogging daily in Nov. I had a similar situation w a student & it drove me nuts. Student ended up finishing a ms in my lab (not the very cool project s/he was brought on to do but a lesser project that s/he chose). Most of the conflicts were over the student *always* knowing much more than me and not following any of my advice. Student actually finished on time and published 2 papers, but I ended up in a similar place as anon where even though on paper the student was good I couldn’t give an enthusiastic recommendation.

    In hindsight I should have had a frank conversation with the student about choosing a new advisor and why I didn’t want them in my lab. But being pretenure, the conflict was more than I wanted to take on.

  15. I like all of my students and don’t have students who are disrespectful but that doesn’t mean none of them annoy me. Some students are less motivated or less together than others and I find that annoying and some people just have annoying personalities (for me it’s the very passive students that make me crazy, some folks can’t seem to get excited about anything and it kind of creeps me out). I hope to get them all to a good place scientifically and professionally but some students are just easier than others. I think I can still be a good adviser (we’ll see I’m 2 years in and haven’t graduated anyone yet) because my relationship with them is professional, not really personal. This is a somewhat different issue than what you’re talking about (butting heads and conflict) but in my case I can’t imagine asking them to leave because I think we can work together, we’ll just never be ‘buds’.
    I miss FSP too!

  16. “When he started doing things to assert his dominance (like changing the software I use in my … lab) ”

    I had an UNDERGRAD do this. He was on loan from a co-PI and was respectful to her but treated all the female RAs including the graduate student RAs as if he was boss. They hated him. The changing the software mid-experiment without telling anybody was the last straw. Another co-PI (male) chewed him out and sent strong words to his actual boss. We stopped finding hours for him to run participants and he was phased out.

    I also fired an undergrad who came into work drunk. At 8am.

  17. xyk, I think the point anon is making is that you don’t seem to shy about doing things that might rub others the wrong way.

    I’m not criticizing you for this. My own two cents is that some people who I thought were rather obnoxious have gone on to do quite well. I felt some of these people were unnecessarily risking their neck by aggravating people who were senior to themselves, but it somehow worked out. Might be dumb luck, might be something more. A certain level of obliviousness and a lack of shame sometimes seems to be helpful.

    So I guess my point is, live and let live, even if letting live means letting some shenanigans go on that I would never participate in. And do not succumb to the temptation of making everybody act just like me, even though it’s obvious that my way is the best way. 😛

  18. I’m a long time lurker. This is my first time commenting, I’m a big fan!

    As someone who does not get along with one of my supervisors I spend a lot of time reflecting on what may have gone wrong. I’m a tad stubborn in general but certainly recognize that I am a student and obviously lower in the hierarchy. I always treat my PI with deference and respect, especially in public, I do not bad mouth them to peers or anyone I am associated with professionally. However my PI turns the professional relationship on and off when it suits them. They show up to graduate student parties (once at my house, they were not invited), make very crass comments to me, and ask far too personal questions. It is really confusing on my part, I’ve never heard specific complaints but the PI has told multiple graduate students they do not like me.

    This has put a major damper on an otherwise enjoyable and productive PhD. Do you think it could just be that we don’t mesh? Or have I likely done something I’m unaware of? I’m a successful graduate student (self funded, I will graduate early with the most publications and awards in my department). This PI has also asked me to stay on as a postdoc and wants to co-supervise future students. I have declined this offer (graciously, I hope) which seems to have set them off even more. The signals are constantly mixed, I understand that everyone is human, but this situation is trying.

    My question to you: Is there anything I can do to remedy the situation this far in? I’m very close to graduating.

  19. ABD, thanks for commenting. Welcome!

    Your situation sounds very difficult.

    However my PI turns the professional relationship on and off when it suits them. They show up to graduate student parties (once at my house, they were not invited), make very crass comments to me, and ask far too personal questions.

    I don’t think that the PI asking personal questions or showing up at students’ parties can in any way be your fault. This is really weird. And creepy.

    It does sound like the PI may have issues with boundaries. It could be skeeviness and/or inexperience. Is the PI young and/or unattached? There be some weird sexual attraction thing going on there (not that any of it is your fault or your responsibility), but it could explain some of the weirdness.

    This situation sounds like it is very unpleasant to you, and you don’t owe it to the PI or anyone else to stay in it for the postdoc. You and everyone else deserve to be calm and comfortable at work. And I don’t think there’s anything that you can do at this point, it’s too late and might make whatever is going on worse. Also, the PI crashing parties uninvited and invading privacy cannot possibly be your fault. But it would be good to ensure that you are getting a strong letter of support from them, because it seems you deserve it. Is there anyone else, another professor on your committee or a collaborator, who could ask and see whether you can count on a good letter from the PI?

    I can put your email up for discussion as a separate post, if you’d like, so we can get a broader range of opinions.

  20. Thank you for the response, it is really nice to read that you think this is weird as well. No need for a separate post :), it feels great to get acknowledgement from a professor that this is indeed strange behavior. You also confirmed my suspicions that it’s too late, I certainly don’t want to make things worse.

    I think that these boundary problems occurred because they were very young and inexperienced when I started. While I sympathize that they don’t appear to have a great social network, I think it was inappropriate they tried to/somewhat continue to try to establish one with their graduate students and post docs. There are no attraction issues.

    We’ve both since matured, and their behavior has become somewhat more reasonable with time. Unfortunately we will never have the positive relationship I have with my other supervisors and this PI has with their students that followed me. It’s just very frustrating because I try really hard to be professional. Luckily I have other super strong references and although this PI’s reference letters are not stellar, they are not deal breaking either, hopefully.

    Thanks for your reply!

  21. Xyk, your description of the irritating student is so similar to one of my former grad students, it is just uncanny. At the time, I didn’t know if their button-pushing was deliberate or not, and I was constantly second-guessing my own behavior. (In retrospect, it was *clearly* deliberate). I finally had the “it’s not you, it’s me” talk, and felt like a complete insincere toad. But after they left — no, five minutes after the talk — a huge weight lifted off my shoulders. My mood improved dramatically. I was all but skipping down the halls. I’m free, I’m free, I’m free. That student killed any interest I had in being in the lab, and everyone suffered. My only regret is that I didn’t boot them out sooner.

    But in answer to your question, I don’t think it’s necessary to like your students. But if you actively dislike them? That’s a big problem for everyone.

  22. I need to like my students, or at least not to dislike them. I had one early on that constantly drove me crazy and it was only due to my inexperience at the time that I did not kick them out…and it should have been “It’s not me, it’s you”, with no BS. Water under the bridge now, thankfully, and now I know better.

    @ABD: Of course this is weird! I cannot think of anyone who would think otherwise! Unfortunately, you will depend on your advisor to write letters for you, so you have to be careful…since you are very close to graduating, it does not make sense to do anything but stay professional, graduate quickly and get out of there.

  23. It is perfectly okay for two normal people to not get along with each other; for whatever reason — no big deal. Life is short, so why continue on a path that makes everyone unhappy? Especially when you have tenure, and you can and will have better alternatives.

    I am in an early stage of my career and have to live with whatever I get, but if you are in a position to dictate reasonable terms, then why not…

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