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.

8 comments

  1. Thanks for sharing your feelings about this. I know I am one of those students who, at times, couldn’t have been easy to deal with. It’s nice to know what the thought process is like from the other side. Happy Thanksgiving!

  2. Students are like teenagers – as they grow up, they eventually will chafe at your instruction. I just try to take it as a good sign they have grown and developed as scientists, although I agree it is hard to take some times.

    I have also found that, when these students visit or call and talk with me in later years, or when they talk to other people about their graduate training they gradually regain respect for me and even rewrite their history so I end up in a starring role in their memory as the wise hero graduate advisor person who was always right etc. Kind of surprising!

    I think it was Mark Twain who said that his father was an idiot when Mark Twain was 18 years old, but it was amazing how the old guy got smarter over the years. Apparently it is the same for grad students…!

  3. Ive been on the student-side of those conversations and once or twice I’ve misunderstood my advisor as not understanding the point I was trying to make. We pretty quickly found our pace though, and I had a very harmonic “upbringing”. But, even after I understood that my advisor is being rhetorical we would frequently do the same exercise, simply for me to practice how to explain things clearly.

    To an outsider I’m sure it must have sounded like I was explaining some very basic stuff to my advisor but he never perceived it as condescension and any frustration I felt was with my own inability to be clear. I’m not saying you misunderstood your student, but I’d be a little worried what would happen if I was starting as your student right after an a$$hole.

  4. I’m curious whether you’ve ever been able to pick out warning signs that this dynamic might crop up? Retrospectively, I mean, as in “if only I’d noticed ___ from the beginning” ?

    I (new assistant professor, female) am about to start recruiting my first students, and when I look back on relationships with other colleagues and the (not so strong) correlation between first impressions and how things actually went once I was working with someone on a regular basis, it concerns me that it’ll be hard to judge whether I can work well with a given student. And as you say, this isn’t a situation where one can easily dissolve the relationship if it isn’t going well.

    One thing I’ve seen is that it’s usually possible to pick out the rare few colleagues who exhibit respect even before I’ve ‘earned’ it/proven myself, but it’s harder sometimes to tell who will be perfectly reasonable and respectful once they’ve seen for themselves that I do good work, and who will never take me seriously. Especially for the ones who would be offended to realize I think they don’t take me seriously. And, in some cases, the difference between respect for me personally vs respect for me as the spokesperson of the day for my well-known advisor isn’t always obvious at first.
    So, given that I’m already not good at figuring this kind of thing out quickly, I assume it will get harder once a potential advisor/student relationship is added to the mix!

    (p. s. Longtime follower and lurker; not sure when, if ever, I’ve commented before. I’ve found your book quite helpful in preparing for my new job, so I wanted to thank you for creating this terrific resource.)

  5. RFon, it’s one of those things where, if you think you are an example of a problem I am describing, you are probably much more self-aware than the person actually involved in the problem and thus likely not a participant in a similar problem. For instance, with most students we certainly boil things down to the essentials when we discuss papers or presentations, and neither they nor I have a problem with that, because it’s apparent that everyone involved is trying to think out loud for the sake of clarity.

    I am not sure how to best describe the situation, but most of the time breaking things down to the basics is a good thing and I most definitely do not perceive condescension. But, with a rare student I do, because I am pretty sure it’s there — in the tone, word choice, body language, and a whole history of antagonistic interactions. (Specifically, what I refer to has happened with two students, a former one from Eastern Europe and a current one from Western Europe, both male.)

    And it’s really not the usual friction that all students display to some degree when they are itching to leave (what Artnscience discusses). It’s something that’s there from the get-go and doesn’t change. Both these students were/are technically competent but, if I am being charitable, socially clueless/lacking a filter/inappropriately blunt, and if I am being less charitable — a$$holes.

    The second one (Western Europe) I think means well, but is remarkably socially clueless, at least within the context of US culture, but I think even more broadly; knowing that it’s likely not intentional a$$holishness doesn’t make him any easier to tolerate, though. Here’s an example. Another group member gives a talk in a group meeting and says he used some software to do something, to which the Difficult Student says out loud that everyone who uses that software is misguided or dumb or something along those lines. Everyone in the group — and I have people from all over the world — rolls their eyes or raises their eyebrows at this comment but says nothing, and I don’t think the Difficult Student has any idea that he has just offended his group mate. I have to talk with him after the group meeting along the lines, “Are you aware that you just offended X?” and he gets embarrassed. He’s also the kind of person who says in front of me that all academics have ridiculously huge egos (which is not far from the truth, but he is basically telling me that I have a huge ego, and is either clueless or an a$$hole or a bit of both, and even if you think that about your advisor, feel free to think it, but it’s not the best thing to say it in their freakin’ face). He’s managed to offend various group members at various times (someone offers him a ride to somewhere, to which he responds with a tirade about cars polluting the air or something like that — well, eff you, thought the person who offered the ride), but I think most are used to him now. (I have a colleague like that, who offended me really badly once or twice years ago, but now I think of him as a foot-in-mouth guy and it’s easier to brush off when he says something stupid, which he also does less often now, as he seems to be less nervous around me).

    To a great degree, it’s really the blunt, no-filter, completely insensitive stuff from the Difficult Student that that’s become really tiresome to deal with (read: swallow), along with the fact that he’s actually quite thin-skinned when receiving critique, and fights me tooth and nail over every edit and every comment on his writing. Maybe his condescension is just overkill when he’s fighting against what he thinks is a personal attack from me — it’s not, I am just giving goddamn feedback on writing. While I don’t hate the student and I do wish him well — he has been a competent and productive student and I will write him a good recommendation and support him as I do anyone who graduates with me — he has also been just a drain to work with and I have had to brace myself every time before meeting with him, so I will be relieved to see him go. For example, group meetings can be very challenging with him around, because he spouts stupid $hit that really should be shot down, and I have to always be super diplomatic and not lose my cool in front of other students. For instance, most of my students teach a little bit (as in, not 20 hrs/wk but less) on and off, that helps spread the RA funds further and helps break up their day and give structure to their week (which helps productivity). Difficult Student has been getting on my nerves by complaining bitterly about grading, like somebody has had him chained in the salt mines, FFS. All other students do the same and no one whines. I guarantee I grade more than him any week of any school year. My true response would be “Shut the hell up! Stop whining already. The little teaching and grading that you do is not a cruel and unusual punishment.” But I have to be very tactful and restrained in the face of these over-the-top comments, and it gets old fast.

  6. another quantum mechanic, congrats on your new job! I am really happy that the book has helped you in preparation for it!

    I’m curious whether you’ve ever been able to pick out warning signs that this dynamic might crop up? Retrospectively, I mean, as in “if only I’d noticed ___ from the beginning”?

    I think with experience I have definitely become better at telling that problems may arise sooner rather than later, but I am also more confident that I can deal with a wide range of difficulties (personalities, lack of student background, etc.). All I can tell you that you will get better at recruiting, but also with dealing with near-failures in recruiting. That’s sort-of-silver-ish lining, I guess.

    One thing I’ve seen is that it’s usually possible to pick out the rare few colleagues who exhibit respect even before I’ve ‘earned’ it/proven myself, but it’s harder sometimes to tell who will be perfectly reasonable and respectful once they’ve seen for themselves that I do good work, and who will never take me seriously. Especially for the ones who would be offended to realize I think they don’t take me seriously. And, in some cases, the difference between respect for me personally vs respect for me as the spokesperson of the day for my well-known advisor isn’t always obvious at first.

    I wish I could tell you that there is an easy formula. I, too, have colleagues with whom the early interactions were weird, only for them to become trusted collaborators and my great supporters later on. There are some who have thought I was awesome from the get-go. There are those who I believed thought more of me than they actually do, which I only found out when someone told me that the letters of support received from them were lukewarm.

    I can tell you that most who think of you as an extension of your advisor, one way or another, will likely never really consider you truly worthwhile as your own person (or it may take a very long time). Interactions with senior folks can be really weird. I was joking around with my PhD advisor at a conference, and one senior faculty came to tell me I was being disrespectful (!). It seems that women are never old enough to be immune to other people’s weirdness.

    So, given that I’m already not good at figuring this kind of thing out quickly, I assume it will get harder once a potential advisor/student relationship is added to the mix!

    I am going to say to cut yourself some slack. Women tend to take on too much blame as advisors when advisor–advisee relationships fail; I see my junior male colleagues, I don’t think they question the appropriateness or harshness of their actions anywhere near to what I or many women faculty I know from the blogosphere and IRL do.

    I have a junior male colleague who routinely meets with students 6-10 pm and even later because he doesn’t come in until late in the day. I don’t think it occurs to him there’s anything wrong with that. Now I would looooove to see the reactions I would get here if I posted that I have students meet with me in the evenings or on the weekends.

    Two pieces of advice (and I wish I would embrace the first one myself):

    1) Do what you want to do, and if necessary ask for forgiveness (rather than asking for permission). Do what you want, what you think is best, and be bold. Suppress your inner “good little girl” whose first impetus is that everyone must like her (every woman has to fight this). Do what is best for your career; it is okay, necessary, and desirable to be self-centered, especially on the tenure track. Whoever tells you that you are being selfish is not your friend.

    2) When starting out as advisor of students or postdocs, put everything in writing. As you recruit new group members, get into the habit of writing summaries and emailing them to the student and yourself after every individual meeting. This is especially important if you start suspecting something funky. The paper trail will ensure that everyone is clear about what needs to be done before the next meeting, and, if it comes to sacking someone, you will have evidence that you gave them plenty of instructions and time/chances for improvement, and that you are in the right to let them go.

    Good luck! Most students are great to work with. But yeah, once bitten, 3826 times shy.

  7. Eek, he sounds like a handful.

    I helped supervise one student with a certain degree of autism. He struggled with social issues made it one of the hardest projects Ive been involved in. Halfway through he got the idea that I was not happy with his progress which sort of froze him up so he couldn’t think clearly and he would spend the entire rest of the project (and every occasion we’d meet several years after) apologizing. Some people are hard to understand.

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