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Author Topic: Advice for resolving conflict between advisor and student  (Read 24326 times)
itried
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« on: September 16, 2011, 2:18:04 PM »

I'm a new department Chair and could use some advice for effectively resolving a serious issue between a faculty member and one of his/her graduate student advisees. I have a meeting scheduled in two weeks with both parties to discuss the matter and hopefully to resolve the communication and trust issues between them, which have escalated in recent months.

Background: the faculty member has put tremendous energy into this student by securing funding to support the student's work and connecting hu with a vibrant, high-caliber research group with which the faculty member has been working for many years. The student came onto the project and immediately started flexing his/her muscles, often undermining the faculty member's authority and even openly criticizing the faculty member in widely-broadcast e-mails to the faculty member's collaborators, some of whom are heavy hitters in our field. Each time the student did this, the faculty member pointed out the inappropriate communication in an attempt to correct the unprofessional behavior, and the student became increasingly defensive and aggressive.

As you can imagine, I've heard both sides and both parties are angry. Neither sees the other's position. The faculty member wishes to protect his/her professional reputation and get some return on his/her investment by seeing the student project through in an advising capacity. The student wishes to switch advisors, but I think may be open to persuasion if I facilitate the discussion strategically.

How might I approach and facilitate this discussion so that we reach a satisfactory resolution?
« Last Edit: September 16, 2011, 2:22:47 PM by itried » Logged
zharkov
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« Reply #1 on: September 16, 2011, 2:54:40 PM »


From your description, I can't really see the student's position.  Grad students make mistakes out of ignorance, which is usually OK and to be expected,  but -- the big but -- they need to remain open for guidance and correction.  So why even bother re-assigning the student if he is so closed to correction?  Advisors are there to advise, and presumably, the students listen to that advice.  If they can or won't?  Why carry them?

PS: I had a student I mentioned a week or two ago who applied to a very inappropriate TT opening, which I mentioned on another forum.  But when I pointed out the faux pas, the student agreed to withdraw the application.  So a mistake out of ignorance, but willing to listen to advice, so on we go. 
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__________
Zharkov's Razor:
Adapting Zharkov a bit to this situation, ignorance and confusion can explain a lot.
brixton
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« Reply #2 on: September 16, 2011, 3:58:06 PM »

Although it sounds like the faculty member wants to keep the student on and the student wants to change adviser.  I assume changing advisers would be difficult.  This sort of personality wouldn't be something that others (at least in my department) would want to take on.  Have you talked to the student apart from the faculty member to find out what s/he's thinking?  Sometimes a discusion about professionalism, appropriate use of email, not burning bridges, and the very real politics of departments is worthwhile.  If the student doesn't seem to listen to you, I agree, I'm not sure that s/he is long for the academic world no matter how talented s/he is.
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lizzy
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« Reply #3 on: September 16, 2011, 4:04:15 PM »


Background: the faculty member has put tremendous energy into this student by securing funding to support the student's work and connecting hu with a vibrant, high-caliber research group with which the faculty member has been working for many years. The student came onto the project and immediately started flexing his/her muscles, often undermining the faculty member's authority and even openly criticizing the faculty member in widely-broadcast e-mails to the faculty member's collaborators, some of whom are heavy hitters in our field. Each time the student did this, the faculty member pointed out the inappropriate communication in an attempt to correct the unprofessional behavior, and the student became increasingly defensive and aggressive.


To me, this sounds like the student is totally out of line. Someone (you, the DGS if there is one) needs to have a serious discussion with him/her, as Brixton suggests.
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larryc
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« Reply #4 on: September 16, 2011, 4:36:24 PM »

From your description this student needs an ass kicking.  I'd read him the riot act and make it clear that his future in your program is at stake. And if he is defiant kick him out.
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msparticularity
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« Reply #5 on: September 17, 2011, 12:55:51 AM »

Okay, so the problem is that the faculty member wants to keep this idiot so as not to have to suffer a complete loss of time and effort--but the idiot wants to move to another advisor? Is there even someone else who wants to work with this individual, and if so--why? A part of my concern would be that a faculty colleague would be willing to take on a student who had exploited another member of the department in this way!
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itried
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« Reply #6 on: September 21, 2011, 6:35:56 PM »

These are excellent perspectives -- thank you all. Yes, changing advisers would be difficult (I won't touch this student with a 10-foot pole), but the structure and culture of our department gives the student a fall-back adviser (this is difficult to explain, and doing so wouldn't further this discussion).

Your fervent and unequivocal criticism of the student's behavior has helped me see the issue more clearly; I'll approach the meeting with this in mind. Still, running the meeting so the student sees his/her inappropriate behavior without escalating hu's already-aggressive behavior will be tricky.

Thank you all again... I'll keep you posted.
« Last Edit: September 21, 2011, 6:36:43 PM by itried » Logged
shrek
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« Reply #7 on: October 09, 2011, 7:00:09 PM »

I agree the student is out of line, and the faculty member would be wise however to let them go. It's a losing proposition for the faculty member although I can understand why they want to keep them after all the time, effort, and money. However, would there be a cost to the student if they moved? Funding, access to data, the research group, the project? In my program students CAN move, but they usually can't take their projects (usually in collaboration with their major advisor) with them. They need to start over on a new project negotiated with their new advisor.

I had a similar situation (although it didn't get to the point of anger, nor was my student completely inappropriate) but where the student was seeking advice/input from other faculty on a project they were doing with me. The other faculty would give them input and the student would want to start the project all over, do the analysis differently, do a different question, etc. I finally told them that if they wanted to work with this other person they could. But, 1. I couldn't support them on my NIH project any longer, and 2. the data they were analyzing was mine. And if they left the project they left the data.
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larryc
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« Reply #8 on: October 09, 2011, 7:14:15 PM »

You can kick this student out, right?
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skeptical
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« Reply #9 on: February 03, 2012, 7:44:23 PM »

Tell the student that he or she has a choice: Immediately rectify his behavior or lose his/her position in the program. Any student who acts that way with one faculty member is likely to continue doing so with another faculty. With the scarcity of graduate student funding, it's not fair to continue to fund someone so obviously not prepared for graduate school. This is the sort of problem that is larger than the convenience of a particular faculty member.
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systeme_d_
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« Reply #10 on: February 03, 2012, 9:14:50 PM »

Yep.  I'd start the meeting by telling the student that he is damn lucky I haven't booted his raggedy ass out of the program already, and that I am willing to give him a chance to explain his sorry self.

(Please feel free to switch the gender in my comment to correspond to the student's, but I  bet you don't have to.)
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lbothwell3
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« Reply #11 on: February 04, 2012, 11:30:13 PM »

Itried: so what was the outcome? You promised to keep us posted, and that was in September. Please tell us you fully supported your faculty member and gave the student and ultimatum: clean up your act, treat your advisor with respect, or get the hell out of town.
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itried
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« Reply #12 on: February 05, 2012, 10:17:03 AM »

At our September meeting, we strongly reproached the student, and then I moved the student to a different faculty adviser. The original adviser wanted to stay on the committee, since that person has a strong investment in the outcome of the project. The student recently turned in the thesis to the new adviser, and used the Discussion section to passively-aggressively and arrogantly attack the original adviser's behavior on the project, veiling the attack as an analysis of what went wrong in the collaborative process. This catalyzed more meetings (without student this time), which resulted in our telling the student that if this behavior did not stop, we would not pass the thesis through the program and would initiate academic probation proceedings; the student backed down and revised the thesis to eliminate the veiled aggression.

In retrospect, you were all right; I should have put the student on academic probation back in September. Although I supported and continue to strongly support the original faculty adviser, I don't think I came down hard enough on the student at the outset. I learned a lesson, and will handle students like these differently in the future.
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sagit
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« Reply #13 on: February 25, 2012, 12:09:05 PM »

Yikes, itried, I hope I never have to go through that with a graduate student, either as an advisor or department chair.  What a sad situation.  It makes me wonder if this student will be able to get good recommendations when he finishes.  Who would want to hire this person?
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betterslac
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« Reply #14 on: March 02, 2012, 5:20:07 AM »

At our September meeting, we strongly reproached the student, and then I moved the student to a different faculty adviser. The original adviser wanted to stay on the committee, since that person has a strong investment in the outcome of the project. The student recently turned in the thesis to the new adviser, and used the Discussion section to passively-aggressively and arrogantly attack the original adviser's behavior on the project, veiling the attack as an analysis of what went wrong in the collaborative process. This catalyzed more meetings (without student this time), which resulted in our telling the student that if this behavior did not stop, we would not pass the thesis through the program and would initiate academic probation proceedings; the student backed down and revised the thesis to eliminate the veiled aggression.

In retrospect, you were all right; I should have put the student on academic probation back in September. Although I supported and continue to strongly support the original faculty adviser, I don't think I came down hard enough on the student at the outset. I learned a lesson, and will handle students like these differently in the future.

Yep, if a similar situation arises, I would tell the student either do everything necessary to get back into the good graces of his original advisor (and be damn glad original advisor was still willing to work with him) or they would be out of the program. I think allowing the student to go to the backup advisor was interpreted by him as a sign of weakness, which is why he felt free to include the obnoxious discussion part of the thesis.

Every grad student is going to be clueless (though this dude appears pathological), but if the initial set of prods doesn't work, then it should be come-to-Jesus time.
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