Day: November 23, 2016

Relieved Rather than Sad

Usually, when a graduate student is about to defend their dissertation, I feel very proud of them and a little sad to see them leave.

But, occasionally, I am vastly more relieved than sad, mostly because I no longer have to patiently endure the friction, the head-butting, and the jabs (whether intentional or not; I’d like to think that people who are socially clueless outnumber the a$$holes, but I may be hopelessly naive).


You cannot make someone respect you.

I have had a very good working relationship with nearly all of my graduate students, past and present. I don’t know everything and am not always right, and I definitely expect them to be a better expert than me in their particular subject by the time they are done with their PhD. But the key is respect. Respect, on both sides, is needed in order to work well together. Both the student and I have to feel comfortable exchanging ideas — especially the stupid ones! — and speaking one’s mind freely requires a belief that the other party is intelligent, thoughtful, and capable of contributing something worthwhile, and confidence that they hold you in esteem, too.

But, on occasion, I have a student with whom the relationship is so tense and weird and uncomfortable and antagonistic that I have no other explanation other than that they think I am stupid, unqualified to advise them, and that I should butt out of their business because they know best and I have nothing of value to offer them (while I should presumably continue to pay them off my grants).

Here are some examples. When I edit students’ papers/theses/presentations, I often make comments such as, “This is unclear”or “I have no idea what you wanted to say here.” Most students take that to mean that the wording needs to be clarified and they simply rewrite the sentence. But the difficult student comes back to argue about it with me, and lecture me on some very basic technical concepts. It doesn’t occur to them (or they don’t accept the implication in my comment) that the writing is unclear; they think that I find the writing to be unclear because I don’t get things, so naturally things need to be explained to me. Now, why does the student default to me being the problem? Lack of respect, possibly alongside some major issues with introspection.

(One can be charitable and argue that it’s a language or cultural barrier, which is why, to one student, I had to explicitly say — more than once, for it doesn’t stick — “When I say that something is unclear, that does not mean that I don’t know what you are doing. It means that it needs to be written differently so that someone who is not me, or you, or even another member of this group who’s heard you present your work many times would still be able to understand and appreciate what you wanted to say.” To this same student I would say things such as, “Can you do this or that to your figure?” to which the student would always respond, “Of course I can, that is trivial to do.” I eventually had to say, “When I ask if you can do this or that, I am not actually asking you if you can; I know you can. I am actually politely telling you to go do it.”)


What do you as advisor do — let the student go or try to push them to graduation as soon as possible (and breathe a big sigh of relief)?
First, it’s not just about the advisor and the difficult student, but about the whole group: firing someone who is perceived competent by their peers and has spent some time with the group is really bad for morale; on the other hand, when students witness friction or the advisor loses their cool, it erodes the advisor’s authority and thus hurts the operation of the entire team. Second, for the difficult student’s benefit, unless I am confident that I can keep calm and patient and continue to be effective as advisor to them, it is best to part ways.  Really, deciding what to do really depends on the degree of irritation and the sunk cost. If the irritation is high and neither the student nor I have invested much time yet, then it’s definitely best to sever the relationship sooner rather than later and give them a chance to find a new advisor; the same holds when the student just doesn’t have enough motivation, interest, aptitude, or background for the work we do in the group. But once I have invested some time and energy in advising and the student is generally capable (and not being nasty to other students), then it’s often better to stick with them to graduation. As I have gained experience with advising, it has become easier to manage irritation by communicating as much as possible via email and highly structuring face-to-face interactions (e.g., always scheduling meetings in advance and for a specific amount of time to be as psychologically prepared as I can so I can keep my cool). But I am definitely more relieved than sad when certain students graduate… Which I suppose it a little sad in itself.