Having Tough Conversations with Your Students

Just like talking to your superiors can be tough, so too can talking to your students. Here are five things you can focus on (in addition to the earlier 9 I put together):

  1. Know your expectations.
  2. Let (some of) your expectations go.
  3. Know the power you have over your students.
  4. Be open to different solutions.
  5. Don’t wait to have these conversations.


Having tough conversations with your students is never going to be easy,

and just like I wrote about having tough conversations with your supervisor aren’t going to be easy, the same is true for students. But  

here are some tips that I think might make things easier. They won’t make them less. They won’t make them easy but they’ll make them less tough perhaps.

So, the first thing is know what your expectations are. I think as supervisors as people who have been in the game for a long time, there’s a whole bunch of expectations that you have around what your students should or shouldn’t be doing. How they should be performing. How they 

should be communicating with you. So, if you know what those are, it can help you understand when your expectations aren’t being met. So that’s the first thing know what your expectations are.

The second thing is to let go of some of them, I think. So, some of them might be reasonable you know, missing or hitting deadlines. But some of them might be just different. So, it might be communication preferences. It might be ways of doing research. Ways of documenting research. Now ultimately, there are right and wrong ways of documenting your research, no doubt. But there are probably many right ways, and many wrong ways. So as long as your student is focused on one of the right ways, I think that’s okay. So, the second tip is to like I said, let go of your expectations.

The third tip maybe I should have made this first is know that you’ve got a lot of power over your students. Many students started a PhD because their supervisor said, “Come and do a PhD”. When things are going tough. When things are not going as the student might expect. When things perhaps aren’t going the way you expect with your student, that conversation rather than being an endearing one, rather than being remembered for the kind of conversation it was, it can be remembered for being tough. It could feel like the student felt like you can cajoled them into doing it. So, just be mindful of that power that you had to start, and then the power that you have ongoing is massive as well. So, students themselves might want to finish sooner. They might want to publish their research, and you have the power to say, “yes” or “no” to that. So, being aware of that power is really important when it comes to having a good tough conversation with your students. Knowing that if you say, “no” to submitting their thesis now that adds time to their thesis. That adds time till they can get employed. It adds time to how long it takes to get their job done. It can even perhaps, that make them think that it looks bad on their resume, that their thesis goes for another 2, 3, or 4 months. Or in some cases, maybe of an extra year. So, just be mindful of the power you have. 

The other thing is don’t wait for the conversation. I think sometimes, we can perhaps wait too long to have the conversation. Don’t wait for those things. Don’t wait for the 12-month review. Don’t wait for the yearly confirmation of candidature to bring these issues up. Try and do course corrections many times, and smaller ones. It’ll make the conversations much much easier if you do it that way. Then of course there are the 11 tips that I already wrote about which was to build a communication framework. Know what you want to say. Perhaps, rehearse. Set up a time to chat and make sure you have the chat. Consider having witnesses around if it’s going to be really tough, and make sure those are third-party independent witnesses. Not someone that you know or someone that they know. Certainly, don’t choose your friends, and don’t choose their friends. Obviously, have the conversation, sometimes these conversations end up being monologues. So, make sure that you speak but also make sure you give them time to speak. If they’re not speaking be comfortable in the silence. That the silence do the heavy lifting. Be cut silent for a little while. If you need to count to 3, count to 10. Maybe even you’ll need to count to 100 while it’s all silent. It’s definitely worth being silent for a little bit to let them speak. Understand that you and them will be emotional, and it’s okay to be to have emotions. Try not to let them get the better of you though, so you can you know. What if you need to cry in the setting, maybe that’s okay but don’t go off the handle. Don’t let your emotions rule your intellect.

Finally, two things that are really important. Follow up with a summary of what you agreed or a summary of what you’ll do or a summary of birth. Whatever it might be, and then be prepared to repeat. So, one tough conversation is not going to cure every single ill that you might have with your student. So, know that you might need to repeat your tough conversation. 

So, there you go. Some advice on having tough conversations with your students. I’d love to know how it goes for you, and if there’s anything I can do to help, reach out.