Getting Your Students To Own Their Mistakes

Have you ever found something wrong in your lab, maybe an instrument has been broken or something not quite how it should be? Or, have you ever found that someone you supervise won’t ever take responsibility for doing something wrong?

It’s fairly common.

When that happens, it can dramatically drop productivity. For example, if, as the supervisor, you’re never notified if an instrument is broken, then you can never factor that into your plans. You might plan some research around using this instrument, but then you find it’s broken and that stifles your progress.

Likewise, if your students aren’t forthcoming with their mistakes, then you can’t factor that into their project’s plan, which stifles progress.

Having your students, and everyone in your research group, taking responsibility for mistakes is hugely beneficial for progress because you’re no longer surprised by these setbacks and can take them into account. You can also help overcome them. What’s more, if your students and group members feel happy to take responsibility for mistakes, then that’s a far healthier working environment – mistakes happen and no one likes to feel terrified of making mistakes. In fact, feeling terrified of making a mistake often leads to more mistakes!

How do you get your students to take responsibility for their mistakes?

You can try forcing them, such as putting pressure on them once you find something wrong, but that isn’t conducive to a healthy environment. They’re still going to feel terrified and hate their PhDs…because it’s inevitable that some things are going to go wrong during their PhDs.

Instead, you need them to feel happy to take responsibility for their mistakes. The way to do that is by responding to news of a mistake well – if, when you hear of a problem, you start blaming and berating, then the person who’s responsible will never want to come forward and own up to a mistake again. Can you blame them?

Alternatively, if your reaction is to accept the mistake and look for how to solve the problem, then that’s a far healthier reaction. Your student will feel positive about owning up to a mistake because they won’t fear being berated or punished.

What’s more, immediately searching for a solution to a problem is far more productive than blaming someone. The reason why is because regardless of the route you take, you will need to find a solution to the problem eventually. Every second you spend blaming someone else is one second you delay finding a solution and that reduces productivity.

By keeping calm and accepting of mistakes, you create a very conducive environment for your students to take responsibility for their mistakes, which leads to everyone being happier and productivity being higher.


We also have big news. We wrote a book about “Supervising PhD Students, Effectively”. You can find it here!

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