Is It Good For A Supervisor To Let Their PhD Students Fail?

I was having a conversation with a supervisor (who was taking our supervisor training course here), and we were discussing whether it was good for a supervisor to let their students fail.

We both quickly agreed that letting your student fail their PhD is a bad idea, however, there are many steps along the way, and is it good for the student if the supervisor lets them fail some of them?

This question then arose, “What is the purpose of doing a PhD?”

The point of doing a PhD is to learn how to research effectively. The goal is to take someone who has been trained up to a certain point and then train them further so that they can perform everything needed to do high-level research.

By the end of the training (the PhD), the person should be able to handle a research campaign, from the beginning to the end, by themselves.

However, research is often not straight-forward. Even the best researchers face failure on a regular basis, whether that’s being rejected from grant applications, paper reviewers, and even having vital equipment break or not being available at the most inopportune time – it happens! I’ve had that happen to me more than thrice.

If a PhD student were to go through their entire PhD and not experience any of these setbacks, how well would they do after their PhD? How well would they do when they do eventually face these setbacks in environments where their colleagues are really counting on them to perform well?

Would it be better for them to experiences these kinds of problems, and general failure in research, during a time when these mistakes are far less crucial, rather than later on? During a time that is designed to accommodate these setbacks?

Perhaps experiencing these failures early on will make them more resilient and, at the very least, they will have a better understanding of what to do to get things back on track. If so, could a PhD where no failures occurred be considered a success?

We both agreed that, overall, some level of failure was good for a PhD student to experience because, while it would make things a little harder short-term, long-term it will make things much easier, and they can’t be protected forever. One day, they will have to do things on their own. That’s the goal of doing a PhD.

However, which situations are okay for them to fail? As we agreed upon at the start, letting them fail a PhD is not okay, but other minor aspects are okay. BUT, it also depends on the student. For example, some students are perfectionists. It’s very common considering that most PhD students are very high-achievers – just to get into a PhD program means you must have done very well in school, even if you don’t see it that way.

Perfectionists, unfortunately, often get in the way of their own success. So, would it be better to let perfectionists fail more than others to get them out of their perfectionist tendencies? Or, not? Would more short-term failure for perfectionists lead to more long-term success?

What’s more, should you discuss with your students when you’re going to be less hands-on and let them take the lead, even if it will increase the chances of failure? Giving them warning will help them understand that you are doing this to help them develop, so they can thrive later.

We concluded that this topic is very complex and it not only depends on the situation, but also the individuals in that situation. These aspects are worth thinking about in each of these situations in order to make a good decision.

By becoming a better supervisor (interestingly, a PhD doesn’t just educate the PhD student, but also the supervisor, because they will invariably grow during it, as well), you can better make these decisions and improve your students’ development as well as their projects, because more capable researchers do better research.

If you would like to improve your supervising skills, take out course here. It covers this topic in depth and dozens of other topics that you will face as a supervisor, both knowingly and unknowingly, every day!

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