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Last term I was supervising a very good student for his B.Sc. graduation project. Upon his request, I suggested the topic and gave a clear reading list, tasks, and a roadmap for the entire project. I know that had he followed it we would've ended up with a paper (or at least achieve some preliminary results that could become a paper later on), and he would've acquired many new skills (I've already supervised other students and done the same). But this one was very unorganized and rebellious. For example, he would repeatedly read something that is totally outside the scope of the project and wants me to discuss/explain it to him (he's interested in the field of research I'm working on), he would skip some of the weekly meetings and not write his reports with the excuse that he wanted to read more.. etc.

He's a smart student and can learn on his own, but he does not have any experience in research and he does not understand why I am managing the project like that, even though I explained it several times. Eventually, he dropped out of the term for personal reasons. Now he's contacting me to see if he can work with me again.

The student is smart as I said and I can see he is keen to do post-graduate studies in the field I work in, but I find his personality very unstable and my experience with him is very unpleasant.

How do you support such a student? Or should I do it? Or do you think it's better to avoid him?

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    Are you over-managing him? Treating him like a boss and not a teacher? See: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Good_Will_Hunting.
    – Buffy
    Aug 12 at 18:55
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    You describe an important part of this story only briefly: There seem to have been some "confrontation moments" where you explained to him why you do things the way you do. How did he respond to this (during the meeting)? Was there any hint that he understood your explanations? Was there any reason to assume that things would improve from there? Aug 12 at 19:17
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    I'm just trying to diagnose the problem from the standpoint of the student. Maybe the project wasn't hard enough and he is bored. Maybe he sees you as a very valuable resource and wants to discuss everything he finds interesting with you. Some bored-but-bright students do poorly. Some are disruptive.
    – Buffy
    Aug 12 at 19:27
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    He/she seems to have some preconceived idea of what research is, his/her own learning style or is simply a fish out of water. Our job as a supervisor is some times simply to sketch out a boundary in which they can thrash around a bit. If a material is out of scope, just say so, and say to the student that he/she can learn the materials in his/her own time. Emphasize that you have time only for relevant materials. Lastly, be patient. Their lack of research skills will come together sooner or later. Aug 12 at 19:55
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    What's wrong with the student's reading something outside the scope of the project and asking for help with it? That's part of supervising, or generally being a professor (at least, one dealing with students) rather than just teaching a class.
    – anomaly
    Aug 13 at 13:30
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The style you offer is a style that works for certain types of methodical students. You impose a quite rigid learning style on the student. For creative, fast, curious students, this may be quite a tedious process and demotivating. They need something where they can roam freely, at least at the beginning - the tricky part is to get them to converge on a concrete topic and outcome towards the end.

My recommendation is to develop a topic area with the student, brainstorm, direct them to resources, and let them define (with guidance) possible outcomes of the work. Let them run with it and be available for feedback and guidance, but do not force it. Only if the project does not go well after, say a third or half the time, you start constraining the search and impose a more constrained approach.

I would also state this upfront so the student understands that the freedom to roam freely comes at the cost that it needs to show results, the alternative being a guided project, so that the conditions of the collaboration (this is how I would treat it) are known upfront and they can decide whether or not they wish to work this way.

Smart students going off on their own can spectacularly fail (that's why you need to catch it mid-project in case you need to invoke a Plan B) or they can spectacularly succeed.

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    I like this idea, though I'd make sure the student understands the basics of what research is first. Because if that's the problem, this approach will likely fail very spectacularly.
    – bob
    Aug 13 at 14:12
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    @bob Some people intuitively understand it. It may profit from guidance, but one needs to be careful not to be too overmeticulous. Aug 13 at 14:56
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    @IanSudbery Of course, if there is a tight timeline, all my suggestions are up to debate. Aug 13 at 15:29
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    @alephzero I am not sure OP's student is "disorganized". He may just operate in a different way from OP's expectations. Disclosure: I have been often asked to help with/deal with so-called "difficult cases" and have a track record of getting (sometimes very) successful outcomes. Aug 13 at 19:20
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    @FreePawn And then he gives an example that I would not consider rebellious at all, just disorganized or overenthusiastic without direction. Interestingly, one can get even "rebellious" students to exceed their own and everybody's expectations, when one does not treat them as a "wild animal" that needs to be tamed and subdued but shows them how to hone their enthusiasm and channel their powers to achieve what they feel gives them a sense of success and "self-actualization" (boy, I hate this word, but, for a change, it actually fits here). Aug 13 at 22:39
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My answer: Set clear expectations for the working relationship, and move on if the student's expectations do not match what you can or want to provide.

I would recommend meeting with this student to discuss their goals and expectations. Why do they want to work with you? What do they expect to get out of this experience? In their opinion, what can you do to help them achieve their goals?

During this conversation, you should also express your expectations. What do you expect the student to learn? How can you help the student achieve the goals they have expressed? What are you expecting to get out of this working relationship?

If it becomes apparent that the student's expectations do not match up with yours, you can try to work towards a compromise. However, if there is no suitable compromise that you can both agree on, it is okay to move on from the relationship (provided you are not contractually obligated to keep mentoring the student for some reason).

It is important to be flexible with your mentees, because every individual has their own goals and working methods. On the other hand, mentorship is not a one-way street, and you do not have to bend to the whims of your student if they're asking for something you cannot provide.

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I'm going to interpret the unpleasantness you are experiencing as something that comes only out of the factors you list, so I will assume that there is no unstated cause of unpleasantness in regard to the personality of the student. If that is correct, I agree with other commentators who suggest that the style of instruction you are using might not suit this student, and you might therefore have a more pleasant experience (and get better results in the long-term) if you use an alternative style.

I speak here as someone who recognises myself in this student. I was a bright student, but ever since high school I was always reading/learning something different than what I was supposed to be reading/learning, and merely treading water in my formal classes and projects. I was definitely also "rebellious" in the sense you describe, and I was not the easiest student to supervise. The self-directed learning style I used had pros and cons: it came at the expense of difficulties in formal courses and projects (and lower grades than peers with similar ability), but it also meant that over time I found that I had developed much broader knowledge and skills than most of my student peers, even the ones who got better grades than me.

I recall that in the early days of my PhD candidature I got a bit frustrated with my supervisor giving me lots of regular homework on a topic which I had only mild interest in, which was making it difficult for me to find time to read and learn things of interest to me. He was a good supervisor and was doing roughly what you are doing --- trying to drill me with work that he saw would lead to a particular outcome. We had a nice chat and he agreed to drop down the homework and give me "more rope" in my explorations. As to whether this was good for me, well, I led myself down plenty of blind alleys (see e.g., here), but I probably couldn't have survived my candidature any other way.

In this case, I would recommend you consider whether you can "work with" a student like this in a way where you do not feel a personal stake in the outcome. Your obligation is to be clear about the course requirements (i.e., what the student needs to produce in order to pass the course and graduate), to assist the student, and to apprise the student of their progress relative to expectations. If a student wants to pursue work with you, and be largely self-driven in his direction and progress, you can give him "enough rope" to do this, but warn him if he is falling behind on the material that is necessary for the course. Intelligent but rebellious students are usually intelligent enough to knuckle down with non-preferred work when it becomes necessary to jump a formal hurdle, and if they fail to do this, the resulting failure is also a valuable learning experience.

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If your experience with the student has been very unpleasant in the past, then maybe you should discuss the problems and expectations directly with him this time.

The student is smart that's a good thing, but I think personality, manners, discipline, etc. are also very important. Just by being smart you won't be able go very far in academia if you can't respect others and their opinions, don't know how to work or collaborate with others or be on the same page as other people in your team (with regard to research).

If the student is unstable, then maybe some counseling may help, but there's no guarantee that he won't continue to defy your "orders" or instructions in the future.

Despite your unpleasant experience in the past, if you're still willing to work with him, then maybe you should talk to him first before hiring him as your student and clearly get to know his intentions and future plans and establish a clear protocols as to how both of you would be working. Maybe being a little strict this time might work. Also, if you're not really comfortable with the student then chances are it's gonna make your life difficult and build-up some unnecessary pressure on you.

By your description of the student, it seems to me that he gets distracted by other things easily and that might be a bit problematic in completing the project and meeting the deadline.

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At the end of the day, it is the student's project, rather than yours. It is their opportunity to show what they can do, so being overly prescriptive in what they are supposed to do each week is limiting their ability to demonstrate their capabilities. If a student seems able to direct their own study, then it is often worth letting them have more control. I tend to view myself more as a project advisor rather than project supervisor/manager. I think it is fine to give students advice and guidance, but it is their choice whether they follow it or not (especially if the marking criteria have been clearly communicated). However, the real problem is that students often are not good judges of their own capabilities. Unfortunately some people are only able to learn by error and trial, and they do need the opportunity to fail every now and again, so they can learn the lessons they need to learn, but with a safety net of an adviser that can drag them back to safety if they are heading for complete failure.

On the other hand, the student does need to show that they are capable of engaging properly and allowing the people they work with to work with them. That means that it is not O.K. for them to skip meetings, he does have to write the reports that are required of him, and his communications with you need to be polite and professional.

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The fact that this student left mid-term for personal reasons suggests to me that he is under strain. I don't know the details, obviously; it could be depression, anxiety, insecurity, family troubles... But suffering of this nature can have a dramatic effect on focus, concentration, enjoyment and motivation, mental stamina, and other cognitive attributes. Perhaps the fact that he's back means he's recovered somewhat, but these issues generally do not disappear overnight, and you can expect a resurgence if he finds himself under stress again.

I wish more people understood that that the academic mindset — the way of thinking that we cultivate in ourselves and others — is unavoidably cold, clinical, ambition-oriented, and alienating. We tend to objectify everything, and process everything either as a teleological system to be worked through or an analytical problem to be dissected and resolved. That mindset is something separate from intelligence; it's more a matter of socialization than aptitude. Some students take to it like ducks to water, others (often the more sensitive, intuitive students) can find it brutal and hostile. The project you reference was a fairly typical move in the inculcation of that mindset. You gave him a topic, a structure, a set of short-term goals to meet, and a potential reward in the possibility of a publication, and then sent him off to meet them on his own: to 'prove his metal', as it were. He couldn't rise to the task (unfortunately), so you've chalked him off as 'rebellious' and are wondering publicly whether you should bother investing any more effort in him.

As I said: a cold, clinical, ambition-oriented, and alienating way of looking at it.

If you decide to put more effort into this student, you should recognize that what he needs at this stage of his career is to build confidence and a sense of intellectual security. If he feels like a task is strictly performative — something he feels he has to do merely because it's expected of him — he'll likely feel judged/evaluated and lose self-confidence. The fact that he's asking questions and doing reading outside the assigned work means that he's looking for a way to connect to the project on an emotional level — to make it meaningful — and that urge needs to be accommodated and encouraged as much as it needs to be reined into the task at hand. I'm not suggesting you should be his counselor or best friend, but he needs a bit more personal, human guidance and interaction than most students, at least until he internalizes the academic worldview.

Not every professor is inclined to do this. Some are too busy, some don't like that kind of personal interactions with their students, some are such consummate academics that they've lost touch with that supportive, personal, non-analytical way of being. No worries... If you decide not to work further with this student, the best course for him would be if you explained directly that you and he are not a good fit emotionally, and recommend some other professor in your department who has a knack for mentoring or supportive guidance. Maybe even set up an introduction; that would be a kindness. Ultimately this student is going to have to sink or swim on his own, sure. But making the water a little warmer in the short term might help him out.

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    "I wish more people understood that that the academic mindset — the way of thinking that we cultivate in ourselves and others — is unavoidably cold, clinical, ambition-oriented, and alienating." Couldn't agree more. +1
    – FreePawn
    Aug 13 at 19:01
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    I have no idea how you reached this conclusion when you say: "He couldn't rise to the task (unfortunately), so you've chalked him off as 'rebellious' and are wondering publicly whether you should bother investing any more effort in him." That is not true at all. If I didn't care about him on a personal level, I wouldn't have raised this issue here to seek opinions of other professors (remember I don't have to supervise him, I could just say please find someone else and still support him indirectly). You are missing the point.
    – Fizicklyn
    Aug 13 at 21:25
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    @Fizicklyn: That statement is merely factual. You called him rebellious in the title and body of your question; you stated that you find working with him unpleasant; you asked specifically whether you should avoid him. No offense intended; I have no doubts you care about the student. I'm merely examining this question with the academic mindset, and these are (cold, clinical, presumptive) details that bear on the issue. I mean, if the student senses that you believe he's rebellious, unorganized, and unpleasant to work with, that's likely to increase his distress, no? Aug 13 at 22:36
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    @TedWrigley I never said to him any of that. I am saying this here. I don't go blaming my students and telling them you're this or that. If I said that to him ("you're rebellious and unorganized" etc.) directly I would not accept to supervise him because then I would have taken a stand. What I say is something like: "I expect this or that from you", "come to the meetings and submit your reports regardless of finishing the task and we can discuss", "I need you to focus on completing the task at hand before asking me about such and such"... etc.
    – Fizicklyn
    Aug 13 at 23:32
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    @Fizicklyn: I believe I have a good grasp on how your conversations went, having had and seen a good number of them myself. I also believe you are underestimating how much information people pick up from non-verbal attitudes. People have eyes as well as ears, and the body has a language all its own. But I didn't mean to cause any stress; I mainly wanted to suggest that this is an emotional issue more than an intellectual one, and it may require something more personal than the typical academic approach. I hope you can see it in that light. Aug 13 at 23:41
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It sounds like the issue may be his own personal discipline, not necessarily a bad attitude. Here's the most useful advice I ever got from a professor in college:

You're bright. You're capable. You have great ideas. But right now you aren't the one who decides how it works. I would like to see you get to that point. I would like to help you get to that point, but here's what you need to understand:

You've gotta join the union before you can strike.

Apparently it is a quote by someone famous-ish. I didn't recognize the quote. But I thought about it a lot: I had to "pay my dues," "earn my chops," or whatever other euphemism.

So, I did. I didn't need really need help having a good attitude, but I needed help seeing the value in conformity and submission. Sometimes it felt stifling--even oppressive. But I saw that I needed it and just did my best to get my wilder inward bits under control.

So, my advice has two parts:

  1. If you're willing, welcome him back. Make it clear that you want to help him, but it's conditional. "I want to help you succeed in this field. I'm older and wiser than you are about it-- I've done it. So you need to make a choice: either take me on as your academic advocate, which comes with doing what I say without quarrel, or go find a different advocate, if you can."

  2. Resolve yourself to either choice.

    • If he wants to work under you, take him on. Let him know he has to get his work done. Give him three strikes per semester or something (missing a third report and he's out of the group/class/program). Set the boundary and hold it. He'll be the better for it. Don't give him a fourth chance. If he makes it through, give him two strikes the next semster.
    • If he isn't up for it, let it go. Don't think about him again. Be willing to give him a new opportunity if he asks again in a couple of semesters.
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Although its a tricky area to explore, be alert to the possibility the student has undiagnosed issus and this isnt just "acting out".

What you describe is very close to a student friend of mine - very smart, but constantly asked unconnected questions, missed meetings or work or reading and made excuses, extremely disorganised, appeared to be a rebel.....

6 years later he was diagnosed with severe ADHD with appropriate meds, and now says if he'd been aware at the time,it would have made a hell of a difference.

So just be aware, not every acting out student is doing so because of a problem they can control.

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  • Thanks for pointing this out. I will take this into consideration.
    – Fizicklyn
    Aug 14 at 13:11

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