I am asking this question to seek some perspectives from graduate advisors.

My question is: what qualities of a student makes him or her difficult to supervise? It is all the more valuable if this is based on actual experience.

Note that "difficult" is open to interpretation. The student may not necessarily be a bad student or poor learner; after all, most of the people who are admitted to a graduate program has went through some rigorous examinations in their lives. Maybe a student is such a genius, that he/she won't listen to you, and hence that presents a difficulty.

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    The challenge with this question is going to be that, aside from trivialities such as a student who does not have the necessary knowledge, my "difficult to supervise student" may be your "once in a lifetime awesome student". It will very much boil down to work mode preferences. – xLeitix Oct 16 '18 at 11:12

Strange question, but here you go:

  1. Knowing better than the advisor (in reality or imagination) and hammering that point in to the advisor
  2. Knowing better than the nature of the matter at hand and continuing to hammer at it without it sinking in (thanks to Darkwing and computercarguy for the original suggestion)
  3. Being disorganised
  4. Having to be told to do the same thing repeatedly, without effect, without proposing an alternative, or without explicit (justified) refusal
  5. Being unable to write, even while having results
  6. Being a brilliant writer, making weak results look better than they are
  7. Being perfectionist to the point of ineffectiveness
  8. Being sloppy, so that everything that the student does needs to be double- and triple-checked for correctness; sometimes, reintroducing errors after they have been corrected already
  9. Being afraid of success and/or one's own greatest enemy

One thing that does not constitute a difficult to supervise student is a genius who doesn't listen, but gets results and writes them up. It may give a dent to the ego of the adviser, but, like a dent in a Jeep, it's a dent worth having.

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  • It's a good list, but re (1) I love students who know more than me, and (5) can really be a skill of its own as long as they are still willing to improve results. – xLeitix Oct 16 '18 at 11:14
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    @xLeitix Note my "dent" comment. Point 1 is not about the student being better than you (I very much prefer them to be better than me than weaker ;-), but constantly harping about that. However, most of the time, when they do so, it's their imagination that they are better, because the really brilliant ones I found not to do it. But I know from colleagues that "genius" students let them know how much superior they were - and even iff (!) that were true, it is a pain to supervise them. Why didn't they pick a supervisor that matches their ever so superior skill? And to 5 (contd.) – Captain Emacs Oct 16 '18 at 11:19
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    ... to 5. the point is that they write so brilliantly that they are in danger of falling in love with their own results. In other words, it can become very difficult to convince them that their results are not as good as they look by virtue of their grandiloquence. Of course, if they are critical enough and do not fall for their own words, great writing skills are a gift. – Captain Emacs Oct 16 '18 at 11:24
  • @CaptainEmacs As I don't want to write a new answer just for one (and a half) point, a suggestion to extend the list, if you feel it fits: "'Knowing' better than the advisor what the PhD topic should be about" and/or "Trying to focus on a very specific topic/procedure at the very beginning" (like "so if I apply that to this then I'll be done, right?!") – Frank Hopkins Oct 16 '18 at 13:28
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    @CaptainEmacs It's getting problematic if a student is too rigid, perhaps out of insecurity, defensiveness, ego or some fixation with some topic, to adapt either due to findings or due to what they are good at. Overdrawn examples "But I want to work on solving N=NP, it's way more prestigious than this little sub-problem!" "I know I've got no clue about physics and have a hard time grasping it, but the initial topic draft had application of quantum physics to solve Y in it, so I better spend the first year getting into it instead of trying to apply Z from biology, I do understand, to solve Y." – Frank Hopkins Oct 16 '18 at 14:27

Grad students who do not communicate their problems / issues in a timely and effective manner can be tough to supervise. (I include the provision of incomplete information to the advisor in this category)

With such students, the advisor has to actively "interrogate" the student to find out what's really going on, and very often this is just not feasible. It means missed deadlines, results that are not trustworthy, and delays all-round.

Note: Students can be taciturn and still communicate effectively.

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    And this is the number one problem managers have with staff... – Jon Custer Oct 16 '18 at 13:19
  • It is not obvious why checking in with your students--I'd prefer not to describe managing a student as "interrogation"--is often "just not feasible." – birch Oct 16 '18 at 15:10

The amount and time spent on asking questions is one major point.
There are students who come to your office almost every day and want to have every little detail explained to them, and there are students who you don't see for months, and if they talked to you earlier you could have told them right away not to waste their time on X.

Both extremes are problematic, and student and advisor should aim to find a middle path, e.g. agree on a fixed meeting date/time once a week.

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As Tolstoy said, every unhappy student-advisor relationship is unhappy in its own way.

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