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.


Catherine said...

It depends on the student and the situation too. I'm the sort of person who will silently let tears fall when very stressed out. There's not a lot I can do about it, so I tend to ignore the tears and get on with the conversation. My supervisor was always good about ignoring them too, because that was what I needed him to do while we sorted out whatever crisis of confidence I was going through.

But there was a time when I subjected him to the full waterworks. And then he provided the tissues and the metaphorical shoulder to cry on while I let my emotions run free and dealt with things.

Closing the door probably depends a bit on local culture too. Do you usually close the door for meetings just to keep the noise level down? Then it's probably okay to have it fully shut. Otherwise, I think I agree with the suggestion of closing it most of the way, so that it's clear there's a way out if the student wants to flee but there's enough privacy that no one will simply walk in or overhear too much. Being a student with a problem is hard enough without thinking that the entire department knows about it.

zandperl said...

I make different decisions about closing doors depending upon the individual student, but good compromises are closed most of the way (so random passers-by can't look in), or if your door has a window you can close the door entirely but leave the window slightly uncovered so that bodies can be seen but not identified. I have had other students come to my office while a student in crisis was inside, and what I typically did was went to the door and blocked it with my body so the outside student couldn't as easily look in or come in, and in one case I needed to talk to the outside student for a few minutes so I stepped out of my office and closed the door most of the way behind me to talk to the outside student in the hallway.

Hugging I think can depend on the student too. If it's a student you already have a good rapport with which includes hugs, then by all means go ahead and do it. If you're nearly at that level, then you can ask the student if a hug would be helpful - and they'll tell you if not.

For me personally, when a situation like this comes up I'm always worried I'll do/say something wrong that will hurt the student further. It helps me to remember that all I can do is make decisions based on the information that I have at the time. And I can then follow up later (for example, providing mental health resources if that is appropriate for the situation).

Anonymous said...

I want to echo what Catherine said above. I too tear up when very stressed, frustrated, or embarrassed, and it's not something I can control. If I'm trying to ignore it, or I just take a few deep breathes and sniffle a little before going on with what I was saying, I appreciate that my advisor ignores it too. So I would say, yes, if a student is sobbing in your office, absolutely follow the advice in this post. But take your cue from the student.

Also, I very much agree with the advice in this post to suggest counseling if the situation seems serious, but NOT right when the student is crying in your office. One of the least helpful suggestions I've ever received was from a professor (not my advisor, and not someone I was speaking to by choice) who said, "You cry a lot - you should get counseling." (I'm paraphrasing, but that was the message.)

Anonymous said...

Close the door, have tissues on hand (you may need them yourself!), and make sure the discussion ends on a positive note with a clear direction forward. I would also note that this extends to postdocs and faculty too.

Anonymous said...

Yes, close the door. Yes have tissues since they can be comforting. Mentoring is key here -- establishing a network of mentors (upper level grad students, postdocs, advisor, and another dept faculty mentor) can minimize the meltdowns, I think.

Anonymous said...

Closing the door may give you privacy, but it can leave you open to charges of inappropriate behavior. As a teacher, I leave my door open at all times when working one-on-one with a student. It is simply safer.