The Bittersweet One needs a little support and encouragement, if you’re at all inclined to provide any. She had to put the boots to a student who is seriously stalled in her work:
But somewhere along the way Jane fell victim to the perils that afflict so many graduate students: anxiety, self-doubt, fear, paralysis, and shame. I’ve seen this many, many times (hell, I was in that same black hole for most of my own graduate career!) but I just hadn’t expected this for Jane — and, frankly, it took me a while to figure out just how serious the situation was. Jane is not making the progress she needs to make — I can no longer say with any confidence that she can finish her degree in the time frame we had planned — and, obviously, there are serious consequences for the next stage of her career.
There’s a lot more to be said about why even brilliant, self-motivated students get stuck in the grad school black hole — and there are other details about Jane’s situation that I am not including which would explain why this is an all-or-nothing moment — but this is a post about me so please excuse the one-sided-ness of this discussion.
At our last meeting, I found myself really struggling to break out of the established pattern of our relationship — the one in which we are very friendly, I am very upbeat and supportive, and in which I tell her there is no question she can do it all — and shift gears to this new reality — in which I express concern about her progress, start to talk to her about alternatives (deferring the PhD program; taking some time off; considering other careers), and basically convey that our relationship was going to have a different flavor. I really didn’t want to give up being Supportive Prof because that is such a positive role — it feels good to be Supportive Prof. I didn’t want to have to be the one to break the bad news, force Jane to acknowledge the situation she’s in — be Downer Prof. Downer Prof sucks.
I feel that, Bittersweet Girl. But, we’re not really earning our (modest) paychecks if we’re only “helping” the brilliant, hardworking, and deadline-meeting students who just need a nudge here and there. I really don’t think you broke any bad news to Jane–she knew she was in a jam. She might even come to appreciate your intervention, especially if you can morph quickly back into Supportive Prof and help her out by setting small, feasable deadlines that may help get her started in her work again.
If you think about it, Downer Prof does the dirty work so that Supportive Prof can do her job, right? Think of Downer Prof as Bad Cop to Supportive Prof’s Good Cop. For example: Downer Prof can smash Jane’s head against your desk a few times while she insults Jane’s parentage, and then Supportive Prof can offer to bring her a pack of cigarettes and a Tab. (Well, it works for me, anyway.)
BS Girl doesn’t say, but I’m guessing the issue is writing or writing-related. If it is a writing problem, here’s another idea: tell her to start a blog in which she complains about you and the other faculty she works with–that might get her creative juices flowing again!