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Deteriorating relationship with grad student

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Deteriorating relationship with grad student

Postby A.S. » Thu Oct 25, 2012 12:38 pm

I'm watching my relationship with my PhD student spiraling out of control, and I don't know what to do to stop it. He's brilliant, and has just handed in an excellent thesis. He's got a postdoc lined up in a very competitive lab. All signs suggest he is about to embark on a strong career. We're in the UK, though, so two independent examiners are going to examine his thesis. I have no say in whether he gets his PhD.

Since handing in the PhD, he has been systematically annoying me and his examiners. He's been coming across as rather arrogant and has been making more and more accusatory statements. I have been not responding to direct attacks, as I see no need to get into arguments and I want to maintain a positive relationship. As an example, since I recognise that is vague (but I don't want this to turn into a vent): he is consistently responding to requests for information about his work with arguments about why it is not necessary to include in our paper instead of simply providing the information (not this, but on the order of "What molarity?" answered with "I don't think the molarity is important to our results because XYZ.".)

In fact, he has been so obstructive and provided such inappropriate information (i.e., inaccessible files), that if I did not know better I would being starting to worry that he has not actually done the work. However, I am confident that he has, and that his behaviour is acting out of frustration at the additional tasks I am asking from him.

We both want the same things (for him to pass his defense with flying colours and for this paper to finished as soon as possible), yet both of these are being put in danger by his behaviour. I am not sure what to do -- engaging him in arguments over whether a piece of information is relevant to the paper seems a ridiculous waste of time, yet not engaging is also wasting time as he continues to provide arguments instead of answers.

I am very aware of the stress a nearly-completed PhD candidate is under, and I do not want to "push him over the edge", especially as any acting out on his part could jeopardise, at the least, delay, his PhD (I'd rather he annoy me than the examiners!). I am not sure if I should be engaging in his arguments (e.g., "Actually, molarity is relevant because of ABC"), point out that the arguing is taking more time than providing the answer, just continue as I have been, or something else.
A.S.
 
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Re: Deteriorating relationship with grad student

Postby Rich Lemert » Thu Oct 25, 2012 5:27 pm

I think you need to have a "clearing the air" non-accusatory talk with the guy.

"I believe we've had a pretty good working relationship over the last few years, but lately we seem to be having a lot of friction. I'd hate for our relationship to deteriorate in your last couple of months in my group. Is there something going on that I should know about?"

Acknowledge his concerns. Even if you don't agree with them they are real to him, and dismissing them will just make him defensive.

You can also point out how you both have the same goal, and that your comments and suggestions are meant to improve his paper's quality and are based on your experience in your own publications. You might also point out that he's going to have the same experiences in the future, and that a cooperative attitude is going to make it a lot easier to accomplish his goals.
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Re: Deteriorating relationship with grad student

Postby P. Lues » Fri Oct 26, 2012 12:14 pm

Hi,

I have seen this type of behaviour over and over again with people who are nearly done but inevitably feel used and taken advantage of by the system (and nowadays it's almost everybody who feels this way). This might be your first student who is doing this but it won't be your last. His anger has been brewing for years and there is no easy way to deal with it. Withholding data is just his way to annoy you and piss you off.

I would simply remind him that you have been doing this for years and you have sat through many PhD examinations and both the examiners and the reviewers are going to want to see that information regardless of if it is relevant to the study, and he will be delaying his own graduation if he doesn't.

I would say everything that Rich mentioned, but perhaps leave out the "cooperative attitude" bit. A comment like that sounds perfectly innocent to a normal person, but an angry and bitter graduate student? Well he might go postal!
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Re: Deteriorating relationship with grad student

Postby P.C. » Sat Oct 27, 2012 12:20 am

Have you tried beating him with a stick yet?
Just saying....tell him to play nice in the sandbox.
Offer him the bullet or the gold... explain to him that his reputation and employability stands to suffer if he acts like a petulant passive agressive child and that his references from you could be influenced negatively by his behavior and lack of cordial cooperation.
Last edited by P.C. on Tue Oct 30, 2012 7:20 am, edited 1 time in total.
"You know I'm temperamental." "Yeah, 95% temper, 5% mental." - "Curly" & Moe Horwitz
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Re: Deteriorating relationship with grad student

Postby Jim Austin » Mon Oct 29, 2012 8:40 am

I agree it's unlikely, but don't rule out the possibility of scientific misconduct. Insist that your student provide the requested materials. Don't take 'no' or 'it's not necessary' for an answer.

I agree with other posters, though, that this is most likely just resentment over the amount of work your student has been asked to do already--and for what? The job market is very bad right now; even if a postdoc is lined up already, it's natural to be looking past it--and to realize that a good "real" job is by no means guaranteed.

I'd like to add an angle I haven't seen here yet: Yes, you need to have a free, open chat, but here's why: This guy is endangering his career and probably doesn't realize it. This kind of behavior can really turn people off (like I really need to tell YOU that? ;-). If this student were to seek a job in industry, and this attitude were to emerge during the interview, the potential employer would immediately mark him off the list.

So have that chat--but focus on the importance of maintaining the appearance of courtesy and professionalism. It's fine if, at this stressful time, he's feeling exploited. But it's very important that he learn NOT to let colleagues and potential employers see this.

Jim Austin, Editor
Science Careers
http://www.sciencecareers.org
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Re: Deteriorating relationship with grad student

Postby Andrew1 » Mon Oct 29, 2012 4:26 pm

It sounds like the kid gloves approach hasn't worked. It's time to tell him politely but firmly that these are requirements, not options, and that he won't be graduating until you are satisfied.
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Re: Deteriorating relationship with grad student

Postby J.B. » Mon Oct 29, 2012 8:40 pm

Jim Austin wrote:I'd like to add an angle I haven't seen here yet: Yes, you need to have a free, open chat, but here's why: This guy is endangering his career and probably doesn't realize it. This kind of behavior can really turn people off (like I really need to tell YOU that? ;-). If this student were to seek a job in industry, and this attitude were to emerge during the interview, the potential employer would immediately mark him off the list.

So have that chat--but focus on the importance of maintaining the appearance of courtesy and professionalism. It's fine if, at this stressful time, he's feeling exploited. But it's very important that he learn NOT to let colleagues and potential employers see this.

BINGO. My relationship with my PI soured towards the end of my PhD, but I was always very aware of the importance his recommendation carried and always did what he said, no matter what. And it's safe to say that his recommendation has been very important in me getting to the place that I am now, as well as other members of my committee.
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Re: Deteriorating relationship with grad student

Postby A.S. » Tue Oct 30, 2012 5:55 am

Thanks for the advice, everyone!

Jim Austin wrote:I'd like to add an angle I haven't seen here yet: Yes, you need to have a free, open chat, but here's why: This guy is endangering his career and probably doesn't realize it. This kind of behavior can really turn people off (like I really need to tell YOU that? ;-). If this student were to seek a job in industry, and this attitude were to emerge during the interview, the potential employer would immediately mark him off the list.


Jim, yes! It's exactly this I'm worried about. I can handle my own annoyance, but I can't stop him from shooting himself in the foot by pissing off other people.

We've had a chat -- data is slowly forthcoming, with argument, but coming, so I think the work does actually exist. He claims that he is not upset or frustrated, and appears just simply oblivious to the appearance of his actions. I wasn't quite prepared for that. I think we've diffused the immediate crisis with the examiners, as he is changing his behaviour while still protesting he doesn't understand why he has to. But I'm wondering if we need to have another chat along the lines of "you might not experience frustration, but you need to learn to recognise when other people might be disturbed". Yet, even though he claims he is not bothered, I can't help worrying that he is and don't want to press by spending time having a "meta-talk" about actions in general after I've already addressed specific instamces. Assuming we get this paper done before he defends, perhaps a chat before the defense is warranted, whem he might be more receptive to advice from me?
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Re: Deteriorating relationship with grad student

Postby Jim Austin » Tue Oct 30, 2012 6:49 am

A.S.,

Take 5 minutes. Five. It doesn't have to be a conversation. Sit him down and tell him that you think he's a fine scientist with a bright future, but that (in your opinion) he needs to pay more attention to how he's perceived. Explain to him that to superiors and colleagues he comes off as argumentative, peevish, or whatever. He needs, instead, to be perceived as happy, personable, and an enthusiastic team player. "Some of us aren't blessed with faces that communicate what we're really feeling inside. You may not even be feeling frustrated, or harried, or whatever, but that's the way it seems from the outside. So, if you want to do as well in your career as your abilities make possible, you need to fix this."

Thank you for your time. You may go.

Jim
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Re: Deteriorating relationship with grad student

Postby P. Lues » Tue Oct 30, 2012 11:23 am

I may be totally naive here but if he wasn't like this before his defense, it might not be an issue in the future. I would say this is NOT a part of his personality but a by-product of grad school stress and the natural awkwardness that comes in that PI/grad student relationship. It's very unlikely that he will ever be in a similar situation ever again (unless he decides to get a second PhD). It's still not a good idea to piss people off and you still need to have a chat with him. But I wouldn't worry about this too much. It sounds like he was never like this when he started in your lab nor for the duration of his studies there. I don't think he be like this again. He might be act like this towards you and his committee forever, and that's just unfortunate.
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