The art of supervising students

I had an off-line discussion with a collaborator about student supervision and how frustrating it can be. As a professor, you have, from time to time, to supervise students. It could be a graduate student you are supervising as part of their studies, it could be an undergraduate project, it could an assistant you’ve hired.

You know you have a bad student if the student

  • cannot keep track of tasks assigned to him and be responsible for such tasks;
  • lies to you about what has been done and what hasn’t been done;
  • repeatedly ignores some of your phone calls or emails.

In my experience, a bad student is a drain on your resources and a professor simply has to drop such a student as soon as possible. Even if you have funding or need of a student, you are better off with no student than a bad student.

So, what about my title? The art of supervising students?

My experience has been that there is no need to be tough or strict with the students. There is nothing magical you can do: forcefully organizing many meetings with the student often won’t help. If you have a bad student (see above), cut your losses as early as possible. Otherwise, trust the student.

Here are a few rules based on my experience:

  • Be clear about the tasks you expect the student to perform and the time it should take.
  • Be available to the student in a personalized way: some students benefit from frequent meetings, others do not.
  • Get to know and leverage the student strengths and know his weaknesses: you are better off doing some of the tasks yourself.
  • Trust the student: most students have tremendous potential and will deliver greatness given a chance.

7 thoughts on “The art of supervising students”

  1. Here in the UK I’ve seen international Asian students go out of orbit because they don’t like bothering their professors when they’ve got problems. Here in the UK postgrads treat their profs in quite a familiar manner but in other countries relations are more formalised. I think sometimes British professors fail seemingly inadequate students because they don’t realise this.

  2. I don’t expect a student, Chinese or otherwise, to be very proactive. However, if I ask questions, and they lie, then it is not good whether they are Chinese or not. The typical lie is “has this been done? yes”. And the supervisor goes on to some other issues without necessarily double-checking, he gets back later to notice that the task was not completed. Also, if I ask a student to do task X, I expect the student to remember two weeks later what I asked. Maybe the student won’t have done the task, maybe the student is lazy or busy… and that’s alright, we are all lazy and busy… but students who routinely fails to remember or only remember vaguely tasks that were assigned to them (he conveniently forgets), are a major waste of time for a supervisor. Finally, if I write to a student to ask him a question, and, sure enough, the student never answers, then it is a sure clue that the student is a waste of time. If your supervisor asks a question, answers in a timely fashion, do not force your supervisor to have to track you down and force the answer out of you.

    As a professor, I have a boss and peers I must answer to. I try never to lie to them, I get back to them when they try to reach me, and if I accept a task, I will at least keep track of it (and it is very likely that I will actually do it). I expect the same from students. These are not high standards.

  3. I think sometimes though if students feel the need to lie to profs it’s not always because their are liars pure and simple. I’m always very honest with mine but I’ve seen students doing it out of the general malaise and craziness that is part of university life. It’s a shame thing.

  4. I agree that the “bad student” I describe might be an otherwise honest, hard-working individual. However, from the supervisor point of view, I claim that once the student starts to lie, it is best to drop the ball and not waste any more time with the student.

    I’ve seen students come in and say that they had been lazy, had not achieved anything, and were disappointed at themselves. I have yet to see a supervisor get upset with such statements. Notice that being “hard working” is not part of my definition of what a “good student” is. If the student barely does any work, but is honest about it, I think it is alright. The student will get a poor review of his work, and should not expect shinning letters of reference, but at least, it is workable for the supervisor. The supervisor knows how to handle it. He might try to motivate the student and so on. Lies make everything extremely difficult. Students who disappear or can’t keep track of what was assigned to them are simply unmanageable in my experience. Lazyness can be managed, these other defects cannot.

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