Having Tough Conversations with Your Student

Just like talking to your superiors can be tough, so too can talking to your students. 

Indeed, there are many similarities. 

As I wrote in an earlier blog, there are all kinds of expectations covering communication activities, styles, and timing. From using SMS, email or social media to communicate (or not). To taking seconds, minutes, hours, days or weeks to respond to communication. To being prepared (or not) for certain types of interactions – like discussing research work. 

As a supervisor, however, there are certain things you need to keep in mind. Although the nine-step guide I write about still holds, there’s are a few additional things that you should know as a supervisor. If you didn’t see that blog, I’ve included the nine-steps at the bottom of this article, with some tweaks for supervisors. 

And these are tough conversations. Nothing I do or write will make them easy. They’ll just be less tough.

1. Know your expectations

As a supervisor you’ve been in the game a long time. Well, certainly longer than your students. This means you’ll have expectations of what “norms” your students should follow. But do you even know what they are? If you think about different ways you communicate with your students, and the way you respond, what do you want from them? What annoys you that they do or don’t do? Those things are probably related to your expectations. Indeed, the annoyance probably occurs when your expectations are not being met. For example, you might SMS them. And they might respond via WhatsApp. Or they might email. Essentially, you start the conversation using one approach, and they continue it using another. That was something I used to get frustrated with. Now I realise that’s how many people operate. In some cases it is not even conscious. They just remember that you asked a question or had a query, and they need to respond. But there could be other things too. For example, you might expect them to pick up the phone if you call them. Or for them to call you back within 30 minutes. Or maybe you never want to be called. And they always seem to call when you’re busy.

2. Let your expectations go

Once you know what your expectations are, it is time to let them go. And that can happen in one of two ways. First, you can make them explicit. Now, the best time to make them explicit is when you and your students are calm. Not when or as you’re about to have a difficult conversations – that’ll just add fuel to the fire. The other way to let them go is to stop having those expectations. Does it really matter that they SMS in response to your email? Especially if the answers are there. Especially if the SMS comes to you in a timely manner. Does it matter if they call when you’re busy? You can put your phone on silent. You can call them back latter. At least they are making an effort. Does it matter that they never answer when you call? If they give you a response to your query soon after?

3. Know the power you have

Like it or not, you have massive power and influence over your students. In some cases, you may be their idol. The person that inspired them to continue research. In their mind, and perhaps even because of the tough conversation, they might now be thinking you convinced them to do a PhD or that you cajoled them into doing a PhD. Or that you misrepresented what would happen or take place. And, even if all of that is not true, you have the power to tell them what to do next. The power to say, “It is time to submit”. The power to say, “Your thesis is not ready yet”. The power to say, “Do one more experiment”. The power to select thesis examiners. As a student that is very daunting. Particularly as students get into the latter part of their PhD. What to you might seem as improving the quality of their PhD, students might see as you as looking for free/cheap labour. And, if you’re reading thinking “I treat my students as equals, this isn’t a problem” set that belief aside a moment and at least pretend students could feel your power over them.


4. Be open to a different solution

Times change. People change. Social norms change. As an established researcher and supervisor, you might have ideas on what should happen or how things should work. And in many cases, you are probably better placed than your PhD student to make suggestions on future courses of action. However, that does not discount their experiences. Nor does it prevent them from coming up with ideas, and options that are workable. And perhaps even more workable from their perspective.

5. Don’t wait

The easy thing to do, in many cases, is to wait until the annual performance review. Or wait until the monthly meeting. Or wait until the regular meeting with that person or about that project. Now, if those meetings happen frequently – say weekly or more – then that’s probably a good strategy. But, if they happen monthly or less often, you need to arrange your tough conversation sooner. The sooner you raise things the easier the correction will be. If they are making correctable research mistakes, an early conversation will save them time, and you money. And probably effort for both of you. If students are making other errors, they might not even know. So, it means students can more quickly understand the expectations of you and your research group.

Updated guidance on my 9 steps for supervisors having tough conversations with students

1. Build a communication framework – Consider having a standard way to have tough conversations and set that up for your entire group. That way everyone knows how things will be handled before they get tough.

2. Know what you want to say – Problem, and solution.

3. Rehearse – I know you’re a big boy or girl, but rehearsal can make these things easier for everyone.

4. Set up a time to chat – One of the biggest issues I see between supervisors, and students is about setting, and keeping meetings. Don’t cancel the meeting at short notice. Don’t cut the meeting short. It will come across as lack of care/interest in your student. And don’t just spring the conversation on them as they walk past your office. You’ll make things worse. If they start the conversation, let them know that it could be tough for you or them, and make sure you are both happy to proceed.

5. Make sure you’re happy with the setting – Some places are more or less emotional than others. Choose neutral ground. Your office is probably not the best place for a tough conversation.

6. Consider witnesses – Not people in your or their circle. Someone outside the group, department, school. The Graduate Research School is probably a good place to look.

7. Have the conversation – Like I said, don’t cancel. Even if you’ve had a brief chat, and things seem to be clearer/cleared up.

a. Hear them – It is a conversation. Therefore it has to be two way. That might mean being silent. For a long time. That’s okay. Let the silence do the lifting. Count to 3, 9, 10. Keep counting until they speak.

b. Manage your emotions – Know what you are likely to feel and experience. Try to limit your anger, outrage, and sadness. Have emotions but don’t be emotional.

c. Understand their emotions – For the most part this is probably something unknown or that the student is unaware of. And the realisation might even make them embarrassed. So, be open to the student’s emotions. Like you, they should be allowed to have their emotions but not be emotional.

8. Follow-up – Let them know what you think the tough conversation resolved.

9. Repeat – I’m guessing things won’t be sorted once or that new things will crop up. So be prepared to have more than one tough conversation.

Dr Richard Huysmans is the author of Connect the Docs: A Guide to getting industry partners for academics. He knows the challenges of implementing an awesome PhD program as well as what it takes to complete a PhD. He is passionate about the #pracademic applications of PhD training, not just the academic outcomes. He is driven by the challenge of making a PhD to in-depth knowledge and what an MBA is to Business.

To find out more, call 0412 606 178, email ([email protected]) or subscribe to the newsletter. He’s on LinkedIn (Dr Richard Huysmans), Twitter (@richardhuysmans), Instagram (@drrichardhuysmans), and Facebook (Beyond Your PhD with Dr Richard Huysmans)