My question is whether anyone has advice for dealing with difficult students. Specifically, if a student is taking up your time/mental energy and you can no longer justify this investment, how do you distance yourself while still remaining supportive?

Apologies in advance for the length of this question.

I am a PhD student currently supervising an undergraduate student completing a short lab project as part of their bachelors degree in a lab where the main supervisor has been unavoidably absent recently. In addition to this we are a small lab with broad research interests, as such I am currently the only lab member apart from my supervisor who is qualified to oversee the project designed for the student.

I have found the undergraduate student very difficult to work with, a fact I brought up with my supervisor quite early on. My supervisor asked me at that time if I would be willing to continue with the student. I was optimistic and believed that I could reason with the student about their difficult behaviour but that now seems to be off the table.

Their behaviour is surprising to me and I have a difficult time resolving it as it seems quite bizarre. I have had several 'talks' with the student now regarding their behaviour which includes a range of single incidences that caused problems in the lab. Additionally the student does not handle unforeseen situations very well and so, I have been supervising them closely at times, which costs me time and has resulted in me working later and on weekends. Finally, the student has, despite assurances to the contrary, made it clear by their actions that their priorities lie elsewhere. This final point is perhaps the one I find most bizarre as this project is 4 months out of a 4 year degree but will affect the final grade significantly.

I feel that I have been open and honest with the student, I have given them a chance to address behaviours which may not be suitable (I had assumed that they may not understand that they were now in a place of work, not a teaching lab). I have also informed the student that if they feel I am being too cold or they need a break from work to let me know - as the student often seems to become quite visibly stressed - and I could try to accommodate this. Overall I don't feel there is anything more I can do.

I have recently been informed that they have messaged my supervisor implying that my apparent 'harsh' behaviour is the reason for their lack of progress. This doesn't worry me as I have a good relationship with my supervisor and have supervised students before without issue - though never as closely as this.

At this point I feel I should cease close supervision of the student and my supervisor agrees. However, I worry that left alone the student will not be able to deliver a good project and will attempt to justify this - citing for example a 'sudden' lack of supervision. I am also reluctant to leave the student alone to perform large experiments required to finish the project as they have previously shown themselves to react quite badly in stressful situations.

In summary I feel between a rock and a hard place, do I continue to guide the student and possibly suffer the 'consequences' of their apparent belief that their slow progress is a result of my supervision and not their lack of commitment. Or do I leave the student to their own devices and risk them failing - a very real possibility from what I have observed and something I wish to avoid as it is a good project and I want the student to do well.

  • 4
    If I were your supervisor and you came to me saying all these in this long question, the first reaction I would have is to ask you to give an example or examples why this student is difficult?
    – Nobody
    Commented Mar 6, 2016 at 4:03
  • 2
    @scaaahu Thanks for your comment. This question originally had a list of incidences which had occurred in the lab/office which led me to consider the student difficult. I removed them for brevity. In summary, the student has lied about following experimental protocol, not disclosed results and not acted on them until prompted, damaged lab materials and not informed me or other lab members, had a minor verbal altercation with me when I informed them an experiment required repeating. The list is slightly longer. My supervisor has been informed of most of this.
    – poppyseeds
    Commented Mar 6, 2016 at 4:10
  • 12
    Some students will fail. You need to let this go. The only question in my mind is whether the transgressions you describe warrant them being locked out of the lab ASAP. Since I'm not a lab guy, I'll let others opine on that. Commented Mar 6, 2016 at 4:44
  • 3
    Also I might suggest changing the title of the question. This doesn't sound like "lacking commitment"; what you describe is "actively self-destructive". Commented Mar 6, 2016 at 4:46
  • 2
    The comment looks like improper conduct, that just can't be tolerated. It will end up damaging your reputation if it turns out experimental results weren't obtained with the required care.
    – vonbrand
    Commented Mar 7, 2016 at 1:16

5 Answers 5


First of all, people are not mind readers; so first tell the student that he/she needs to work harder. and then:

Longer Time Intervals: This worked for me for number of students. Basically double the time intervals between meetings. So for example, if you meet the student every week, tell him/her that his/her progress is not satisfactory so meet me in two weeks time and tell me what you did.

Warning With a Help of a Senior: Then give a warning for the next time interval, and tell the student if he/she keep working like this, you will not support him/her anymore. For this, it is better to have a senior lecturer (e.g., head of a group) in the meeting as well.

Refuse of Support With a Help of a Senior: Then, if the student progress is not satisfactory, have another meeting with the student and with the help of a senior lecturer let the student know that you did you best and because of the student's lack of progress you are not willing to work with him/her anymore. So, he student needs to find another supervisor to work with him/her.

  • I feel I have addressed these issues already with the student. We have talked about how things may not get done unless they apply themselves and focused. This was met with a continuous 'I will try harder' which left me feeling optimistic, followed closely by disappointment when they do not follow through. At this point there is no time to find another supervisor for the student. Thank you for your answer.
    – poppyseeds
    Commented Mar 6, 2016 at 15:10

First, a student must meet you half way. Otherwise, there is nothing much you can do. In this case, you walk away. Not everyone can be 'saved' no matter how much you care.

(1) is the issue lack of respect? Maybe he/she sees you as a PhD student only or that there is some cultural issue. The former can be remedied by involving your supervisor. As for the latter, there is no solution apart from asking the student to change supervisor,

(2) are the tasks too vague or big? Maybe break it down a bit more; start with 1+1 and build up to ODE for example. Setting a task that is well above a student's ability will kill his/her motivation.

(3) is he/she suffering from any mental issues or has personal problems? How is his/her score in other subjects? Usually these issues will affect all subjects. If the student is poor academically, you need to adjust your expectation

(4) have you discussed with the student how to work in a project based subject? Maybe he or she is at lost how to 'study' and get high mark, especially with a student supervisor.

Edited: based on your comment above, sounds like you have an incompetent student. So I would set an easy task and get him/her out of the lab! On this I have had students who have observed their teachers in their home country perform an experiment but never done one themselves! So when they are asked to prepare something it is like flying a plane after just having read the manual; so it is not unreasonable your student will want to cover up any incompetencies.

  • These are all very good suggestions. The student cited #2 as an issue and we adjusted the project to fit what could realistically be achieved. I have asked if #3 is an issue and made clear that it if it is this needs to be addressed in a separate forum (with the Uni). I was assured this was not the case. Wrt #1 and #4 I feel there is not much I can do in these incidences. Thank you for your answer.
    – poppyseeds
    Commented Mar 6, 2016 at 14:59

I would strongly consider revoking the student's laboratory access (or recommending this action to the appropriate authority; in some labs everyone has this authority). This student appears to be unprepared for laboratory work and may be a danger to themselves or others. Of course, this depends on the degree of hazard associated with your laboratory. Mine has substantial dangers which require lab workers to commit to follow procedures. If you do not feel permanent sanctions are warranted, you could offer the student the opportunity to earn their access back by performing safety/ethics/classroom training elsewhere.

  • I see your point. Our lab is not particularly dangerous and the student doesn't have access to anything too expensive unsupervised. If it were the case that the student could do 'real' damage I would certainly take this action. Thank you for your comment.
    – poppyseeds
    Commented Mar 6, 2016 at 15:14

If an undergraduate, the student must have a home department with administrative staff and academic directors that you could approach. If the student is truly incapable of good work, then the department should know about it so that they can deal with it. It should be neither your nor your advisor's job to make sure that an uncooperative student succeeds in their degree work. Especially you. Your advisor must have agreed to take on this undergraduate student and their project, so ultimately, I think it should fall on your advisor to have those difficult discussions.

I think it is inadvisable to simply "abandon" the student without telling them why you are making less time for them. If you are trying to make distance between you and the student so that you can succeed in your work, because of how the student has seemingly disrespected your time and the lab, then this should be stated in no uncertain terms for their information. "Either fix the standing issues, or else do something else not here."

  • I have no intention of 'abandoning' the student. I intend to 'pull back' and no longer put my time into trying to ensure things run smoothly/stop problem solving etc. I agree with your point about making intentions and the reasoning behind them clear. Thank you, your point about 'who has responsibility' in this incidence is very helpful.
    – poppyseeds
    Commented Mar 6, 2016 at 15:07
  • I understand. Did not mean to accuse you of anything. I have been through this situation and seen others go through it, whether it is an undergraduate, graduate, or post-doc. When things do not get explicitly communicated, even if it seems futile, it can create strange perceptions about what is happening and typically worsens the problem. As a last ditch effort, you and/or your advisor might attempt to sit down with the student and structure his/her time, make recommendations about how to manage time, and otherwise succeed by dint of their own effort. Good luck!
    – user367769
    Commented Mar 6, 2016 at 18:54

If I was the student and I read this:

"I have recently been informed that they have messaged my supervisor implying that my apparent 'harsh' behaviour is the reason for their lack of progress. This doesn't worry me as I have a good relationship with my supervisor and have supervised students before without issue - though never as closely as this."

about myself, I would think I had better lift my game ASAP or I am in trouble.
So why don't you let them know?

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