My PhD Student Whines Non-Stop

[Adapted from this parenting article]



My PhD student is in their second year. They get frustrated easily when something doesn't go as they want after the first few times of trying. The problem is they never explicitly complain. They are very vocal otherwise but will not complain when prompted either.

So when they get frustrated and want help, they whine just until I step in to help him. I have read that I should let them get frustrated, because that will help them learn. So I don't want to step in before they feel they needs my help. But I just don't know what to do about the whining. Its so hard for me to ignore, if they just want my help. But at the same time I am starting to feel like by my responding to their whining for that, they are now starting to whine/cry for everything (like if they can't solve an equation, need a reference, submitting a paper, writing conference abstracts, anything really). I try to say " oh you need help, say, please help supervisor" as I go to help them. But its been a while now and they still haven't picked up that that is how they should ask for help. Am I expecting to much for them to even say 'help me" instead of whine?

They seem to be just fine otherwise, so I don't think they're overtired/overworked and that's leading them to whine, I just think its that they don't know how else to get my attention and I've always responded to the whining. Its hard to know where helping your student meets hurting them in the long run. At least for me! Thanks in advance! -- Supervisor



The whining you are describing is very common at 18 months. Students at this stage can whine as a means of communication. They don't know that we find it irritating, and they wouldn't have the self control to communicate differently even if they did. But not all of them whine, so we can learn from the ones that don't. Student whine more when:

1. They feel powerless. Students whine more when they don't feel like they can meet their own needs, or count on their supervisor to meet their needs.

Some of the things you describe -- solving an equation, finding a reference, submitting a paper, writing conference abstracts -- seem to require your assistance. But I strongly recommend that you set up their life so that he can be as independent as possible. Can they use MATHEMATICA to solve their equation? Have you taught them how to effectively use ADS, their library and SCOPUS?

But if indeed your help is necessary to get these things, then the frustration you are describing is partly about being dependent on you, and powerless to meet their own needs. If you wait to help them, you are reinforcing their dependency and powerlessness. If, instead, you respond promptly when they communicate their needs, you reduce the frustration, and therefore the tendency to whine.

What if they're whining about something he could do for himself, like writing a conference abstract? They're telling you they're running on empty and needs some re-fueling nurturing from you. There's nothing wrong with that. Sure, you can make dinner for yourself, but isn't it nice to have someone else feed you sometimes? (More on this below.)

And yes, expecting him to use academic words -- which are like a foreign language that they're still learning -- while they are already frustrated is expecting too much from them. They have plenty of time to learn manners. Why add fuel to the fire? That's how supervisors trigger breakdowns (which are a signal of emotional overload). Once students are emotionally overloaded, they're in a state of emergency and can't learn what you're trying to teach.

2. They are frustrated. Whining is a way for humans to communicate that they feel overwhelmed and need help. So if your student is working on something and is frustrated with it, they may well whine.

I know experts often say frustration is good for students, but my professional opinion is that frustration is misunderstood. If your student is working hard at doing something, they will try and try again, and you certainly don't want to jump in to do it for them. That deprives them of learning and gives them the message that they are too dumb and incompetent to master that new task themselves.

But too much frustration is as stressful to your student as it is to you. Is frustration good for you? Of course, if it motivates you to take action to address the issue ("I really do have to clean out this closet, I can't find a thing!") But if you think about your student's life, he is constantly bombarded by frustrations: being told what to do, not being able to get some code to work, not getting to go to a conference they were excited about, getting pulled away from their spare time to work overtime, having to wait for you to help him with something. Students can get easily overwhelmed.

So the best way to respond when your student begins to sound "whiney" is to acknowledge their feelings, and let them know you're standing by as backup if he needs you. You might say "You are trying so hard....but you can't figure it out right now....That's frustrating." Your tone will reassure them that this isn't an emergency. They may, then, be able to master their upset enough to push through and do it themselves. The key is that your attention helps them to manage their own mounting anxiety -- they see that you aren't worried about this, and you are right there if they need you.

But remember that their internal resources will vary from day to day and at different times of the day. If they are begging you for help, there is nothing wrong with stepping in: "I know you did this yourself yesterday. But right now you want my help. Of course, I am always here to help if you want. What if we change these lines of code? Do you think you can finish this off now?"

3. They feel bored. Students whine when they feel out of sorts and can't figure out what to do with themselves. Why on earth would a student ever be bored? The world is an amazing place for them to explore. But students are just learning to undertake self directed research and may have a hard time engaging in self-directed activity. Try helping them break tasks down into manageable chunks they can self-direct themselves through at their own pace.

Some ideas for bored students: Remember to rotate their projects. Active students may love a task that takes them out of the office. Anything using equipment: a small lab project, or time out at the telescope. Or let them take some of your old code for a project at a standstill and see what they can do to it - you may even get a finished project out of it! Get them to work on the whiteboard instead.

4. They're pushed beyond what they can handle. Just don't try to squeeze in another task when they're hungry or tired. Even if they don't whine, you can be guaranteed that they'll start whining, and why feed that habit?

5. They are tired. They probably doesn't whine when he's well-rested after a holiday. Students may go through spurts where they need extra sleep, so trying suggesting an earlier bedtime or time off - even for a couple of nights can show you the difference.

6. They need our attention. Students can work by themselves now, but they still need a tremendous amount of interaction with us. In fact, just when we see them walking around and acting like experienced researchers instead of undergraduates, they often go through a clingy period because they feel like we're pushing them to separate and act grown up. This is always worse if there has been a real separation (for instance, they went away to their first international conference or visited a different institution). Bottom line, the more connection we give our students without their asking, the less likely they are to whine when our attention does need to be divided.

So be pre-emptive. Make sure that your students get enough of your positive attention unprovoked, especially at the times of day when they is more likely to be whiny. Pre-empt whining by giving attention BEFORE they get demanding. (Anyone who's had to ask a romantic partner "Do you love me?" knows that attention given after you ask can never really fill the need.) The secret is to take the initiative and give attention the student hasn’t asked for, often, so they feels your support and connection. And of course it's particularly important to give attention when they shows the first sign of needing your emotional support, before that quick downhill slide.

7. They need to cry. Life is full of frustration for students. That builds up stress hormones: cortisol, adrenaline, etc. Nature has designed humans with a fail-safe to get those stress chemicals out of our system: crying. Most students need some time to cry on a regular basis. Please note that I am NOT suggesting making your student cry or leaving your student alone to cry. If your son is whining a lot and you have done everything you can to meet their needs, try giving him your full attention. Say: "You seem so unhappy. Do you need to cry and be sad? That's ok, I am right here if you want to talk. Go ahead and cry if you want, here's a tissue." After they release all those pent-up upsets, they're more cheerful for the rest of the day.

8. They develop the habit of whining. Remember that what feeds the habit is the actual whining, not your meeting their needs when they express them. When you meet their needs -- or at least acknowledge what they feel -- they don't need to whine, so empathizing pre-emptively will help them break the whining habit. They share things happily when they're happy, right? Well, when they're stuck, tired, or frustrated, grousing about it feels better to them. They're communicating their emotions to you. So it's best if you intervene positively when they whine to interrupt the habit. First, recognize their feelings and give them a word to use instead of whining: "Oh, you sound frustrated/cranky/worn out/bothered/sad right now" or "You really wish you solve this problem." Then teach them that they can do something to make them feel better, besides whining: "What could you do to feel better? Some help from your supervisor?/To discuss this?"

I hear how important it is to you to do a good job as a supervisor. I want to encourage you to use your instincts, which sound very good to me, and ignore the messages you are hearing about not responding to your student. Being swamped by negative emotion sets students back in learning. They sometimes need us to help them learn to manage their emotions, and the more responsive we are to their needs, the less likely they are to end up overwhelmed.

The way students learn to delay gratification is by becoming able to manage their emotions, and the way students learn to manage their emotions is by having their supervisors respond to them helpfully. That's how they get the message that they matter and can impact their world. That's how they learn not to panic and tantrum, and learn that frustration is bearable.



AN: I have a great supervisory panel. The original parenting article made me think of the ways we've managed my workload to result in a generally happier PhD student and happier supervisors.