Tuesday, April 16, 2013

ADVICE: Advisors, How Do You Deal with Student Tears?

This is the second in our new series of ADVICE posts as CSWA tries to ensure that information gathered over the years remains available to the current generation of students, postdocs, and faculty. This month, we ask, “What should an advisor do when a student comes into her/his office and breaks into tears?” Here are my answers to this question:

-- Drop what you're doing and treat this situation seriously; give the student your full attention.

-- Hand the student the box of tissues that you (always!) keep in your office.

-- Say something reassuring like "take your time" or "we'll sort this out together;" then give the student time to collect her/himself.

-- There were mixed opinions about open/closed office door. I personally would not suggest closing the door, unless your office is in a busy corridor where there is no privacy. Closing it 7/8 of the way may be a good compromise. If there is a window in your office door, do not block it.

-- It's not appropriate (in the US) for an advisor to initiate touch even in emotionally difficult situations, so no hugs.

-- If the phone rings, ignore it if you can. If someone knocks on your door, tell them you'll get back with them later.

-- The student will eventually calm down and tell you what's wrong. Focus and listen. Don't interrupt. Never belittle the student or the problem.

-- What you say next depends on the problem. Here are several examples:

- Personal: Suppose the student has just learned of a death in the family and wants to go home. Go online and get her/him a ticket. Take her/him to the airport, or get a friend to.

- Work: Perhaps the student can't get past a bottleneck. Get her/him to explain the work to you in detail. Say something reassuring like, "It's okay to be frustrated; this is a tough problem." If it's something that is difficult for you, commiserate with her/him.

- Sexual harassment with a professor or another grad student: Every university has a plan. Know yours. Help your student go through the procedure.

- General unhappiness: Avoid acting like a therapist. Advisors are not (in general) trained for this. Help with the things you know how to do, like science. Suggest work habits, like making detailed outlines of papers, etc. If the problems seem serious, it may be appropriate to suggest counseling, but not when the student is in a highly emotional state; if counseling seems appropriate, wait a few days and initiate another (private) conversation to suggest it.

Contributions from Cara Rakowski, Mordecai-Mark Mac Low, Heidi Newberg, David Helfand, and several anonymous sources are greatly appreciated.