Friday, October 03, 2008


Things are NOT going well with my RA and I need to have a chat with him/her. It's not just the assistantship work, but also his/her overall performance as a graduate student. As of now, I am the default advisor, but I'm wondering that is the best thing.  This student will not continue as my RA next year unless s/he really buckles down and gets his/her s**t together. My question is this: should I just set up a meeting without being specific about what it's for and drop the bomb then or prepare him/her by explaining my concerns in an email before the meeting? Oh wise, internets... I await your responses!


chall said...

I would probably write an email stating "a yearly evaluation" or something along those lines. I can't hurt to say "I think we need to talk about future plans in the lab" or something accordingly.

That is of course coming from me, the person who got a "I think you need to quit" in her face after one year of graudate studies... and would've appriciated a bit of warning. [all went fine after the talk and I continued, shaped up etc but still...]

Are you absolutely sure s/he will not continue next year of will this be based on the "shaping up"? If it will be based on shaping up, tell him/her and explain why there is a need to work things out.

otherwise, spin it as "I thought it better to tell you early on that I will now be renewing you next year. I will do anything to help you find a new place ...."

my two cents

Anastasia said...

an email expressing some concerns that ends with let's talk about this in person. s/he is likely to fret ahead of the meeting but that's not going to be worse than getting blindsided in a meeting.

if it were me, the former scenario would give me a chance to prepare myself. blindsided, i can almost promise you I would cry. nobody wants that in their office, yo.

Rebecca said...

Have you spoken to this RA previously about your performance concerns? If so, then set up the meeting as a "performance update". If not, set it up as a one-on-one meeting and be vague.

However, as both an RA and an experienced manager (I'm back in school in my 40s after a 20 year career), I would suggest that if this is your first discussion with the person you not come out swinging like that. It sounds like you've made up your mind already, and if they haven't had any coaching/mentoring on how to be a good assistant or what is expected of them as a student than this will be a real shock.

One of my biggest complaints about the graduate school process is the fact that faculty treat the RA relationship as something other than an employee/employer relationship. It should be more (mentee/mentor) but at the very least an RA should expect the same kind of clear expectations and performance reviews you would give to an administrative assistant. I know it's hard - few people got that as grad students, most grad students haven't had other jobs where they had professional expectations, and there are a lot of other things on your plate. Nonetheless, if we want professional colleagues we have to train them, not just leave them alone and hope they figure it out for themselves.

If you aren't comfortable in the role of official adviser, fine, but you still are the RAs boss for now. That person needs clear feedback on what isn't working and what they can do to fix it. If the issue is also a failure to meet academic standards then be clear about that as well; successful academic progress is a prerequisite of employment as an RA.

Regardless, treat the person like a professional and be crystal clear on what you expect them to achieve before you bring them in. Then conduct the meeting as a coaching session during which you are providing negative feedback "you aren't living up to expectations" but with clarification and the offer of assistance in meeting the goals. If you think the person has a lot of promise, set up a regular meeting with them to touch base and review their progress.

(Sorry if this sound harsh - this is a touchy subject for me, as there are many faculty in my college that leave their students adrift. You then get motivated and organized students who seem like stars because we figure out the unwritten rules and otherwise brilliant students who struggle because there isn't any structure. While I understand that graduate school is expected to be more self-directed than undergrad, and PhD studies even more so, we would have more successful students (in less time) if we found that middle point between holding their hands and leaving them adrift.)

Addy N. said...

I have no management experience and really hate dealing with things like this. I didn't elaborate too much on this post, but I am wondering if this student will do well enough to pass classes, so it may not matter anyway. For the short-term, I feel obligated to let him/her know that things are looking bleak- I just wanted to do it in the best way possible. I hate the idea of blind-siding, so I thought the warning email might be good, but the draft I've written is pretty detailed and I wonder if it's too much... Keep the input comin'!!

Inside the Philosophy Factory said...

First of all, hasn't school just started? I know we're only in the second month of classes around here, so maybe the student has potential to pass if given the inside information on what is actually expected?

I agree with the concerns Rebecca expressed. If the RA expectations aren't being met, then it is your duty to explain how they aren't being met and to set up an action plan which includes a way to save the situation.

If the problems are academic, then maybe the way to start is to assess where the mis-understanding might be and see if there is some way to salvage the semester.

Either way, I wouldn't start with too many details in the e-mail... especially if it looks like the purpose of the e-mail is to warn them that they're about to get yelled at. Instead, maybe phrase the list of problems as 'topics of discussion' for the meeting. Perhaps you could hint at the reason for the meeting being observatins you've had that have caused you to become concerned -- but, don't be specific.

The thing is, there may be other factors you don't see, but that may cause you to change some of your evaluations of the RA's performance. If you are too explicit in your e-mail, the RA's immediate repsonse is 'yep, I suck, maybe I should quit and go drive trucks' -- instead of 'well, it has been a hard month because of ________ but _______ now has been resolved and I'll be able to focus significantly better from now on out.' Depending on what is in the blanks, you may change your mind without countradicting the concusion you expressed in e-mail.

Good luck

EcoGeoFemme said...

I agree with much of what Rebecca says. It really irks me that grad students typically don't get formal reviews. I think in this case it's really important to be clear and concrete. Tell the student what s/he needs to do to improve, like specific actions s/he could take to improve the chances for success.

I'd give some warning in an email but not list all the problems. Then I'd try to schedule the meeting shortly after the email so that the student doesn't have a long time to suffer worrying about it.

NJS said...

Rebecca, Ecogeofemme: I think part of the problem with grad students not getting feedback they need is that professors are rarely trained to be mentors or bosses. For profs with no such training, it'd be good to sit down with an advisee after they've settled into their first semester of grad school and agree on expectations, communication, and other important parts of the mentor-mentee relationship.

Addy: In this case, I mostly agree with philosophy factory. At the meeting, I'd give the student a chance to explain extenuating circumstances but make it (calmly) clear that his/her progress is not satisfactory. Let him/her know the consequences if s/he does not improve and exactly what is satisfactory progress. It helps to have everything laid out honestly and as concretely as possible, even if it initially stings.

Super Babe said...

As someone who went through some rough spots during grad school (aka "didn't have my sh#$%t together"), I gotta say I really appreciated my adviser coming into the lab one day (less threatening environment than his office with a close door) and just asking me how things were going, telling me that I needed to get my stuff together and do better (but offering his support if needed), and just being straight with me about my future as his student... Following on the crying... my adviser I guess had had some experience with crying girls, so he was very nice about it (which is weird, considering he was socially awkward at times)...

JaneB said...

We have a system in my department which I thought was actually based on US supervision, but maybe not?

Students have a committee of three from the start of their time in the department, a lead supervisor and two others (one may be a co-supervisor, or both may just be committee members). A minimum of once every six months, and preferably once every four months, these people meet with the student. The meeting is organised around a form with four headings:
a) work done since last meeting
b) problems arising
c) targets for next meeting
d) action points for committee members/the department/people other than the student
The student prepares a report on a) and b), the committee discusses same, the student proposes c) and this is then discussed with the supervisor - so there's plenty of opportunity for the supervisor to lay out their expectations, and for the student to explain why they didn't fulfil them over the last period. d) isn't always used, but can include things like a need to sort out a kink in the ordering system, or a training need for the student, or changes needed to a booking system for facilities or whatever.

Then the supervisor fills out a summary of the meeting on a form under the four headings (usually this just consists of writing 'see attached report from student' since the student already wrote a summary...), and the student and supervisor both sign off on the form (so the student has the chance to check that they do agree with what the supervisor has written...). Copies then go to everyone at the meeting, to the Grad student advisor, and to the central files.

It's not foolproof but it's simple, it's helpful for everyone involved (as there's an objective piece of paper to point to when there are disagreements about what is reasonable), and because the committee member(s) are there there's some check that different labs aren't making vastly different demands on their students. Might be something to try and instigate from day one with future students?

MommyProf said...

I agree with ecogeofemme...outline in an e-mail what the areas of discussion for the meeting are to be (academics, RA duties, whatever else) and schedule the meeting for as soon as possible after you send it.

I think you will find you get better results if you phrase things like "how you and others can work together to improve your success in ..."

If you want to retain the student in your program, a collaborative approach is going to be helpful in putting aside emotions that might lead to faster failure. If you are wanting the student to go, a more top-down managerial approach will make this happen faster.

My $.02.

JustMe said...

everyone else said good things. i'm just offering moral support!