Tough love

‘Tough love’ is concept borrowed from parenting.  In the context of supervision, it’s the notion that part of caring about and supporting students is being straight with them – even when it’s ‘tough’.  Within the context of a caring and supportive supervisory relationship, ‘straight talking’ helps address problems as they arise, and makes students aware of shortcomings with sufficient time to address them, rather than letting issues fester and accumulate. ‘Straight talking’ can also help students make informed choices about their PhD journeys.

‘Straight talking’

‘Straight talking’ means balancedconstructive criticism, with acknowledgement of the positive as well as clear articulation of the negative.  It works best in the context of effective project management, so that expectations are clear, actions are agreed explicitly, and there’s ‘space’ to discuss setbacks and obstacles promptly and constructively as they arise.

Key characteristics of supervisory tough love: 

  • set clear, explicit expectations (including consequences for failure to progress);
  • keep a clear audit trail – good records of discussions, decisions, and agreed actions help avoid or resolve misunderstandings;
  • listen well;
  • call it like it is – straight talk about what works and what doesn’t (in fair proportions);
  • explicit project management.


‘Tough love’ means that if a student does not deliver – even if it has been clear what is needed, and after the  student has had multiple chances to engage with and enquire about any uncertainty  – then you face the hard call on consequences.  

Something I’ve realised through harsh experience is that the formal procedures we invoke (such as upgrade/transfer/probation; progress reporting; a procedure for failure to progress) often provide the turning point for struggling students. Formal processes can help students understand the importance of addressing issues and giving them a clear route to improvement. When that’s not the case, then it’s best to face reality. It is no kindness to anyone to persist with a student who is not going to meet the standard. De-registration after a year is easier to face than failure after three or more years of research.

A PhD is not for everyone.  It’s not just a matter of intelligence or education.  There is more, in terms of where the student’s passion lies, what the student values, how the student deals with setbacks and surprises and why the student wants to do a PhD in the first place.  Some students would rather ‘invent’ or ‘build’ than seek knowledge.  Some students would rather speculate than gather evidence.  Some students decline to engage with the discourse.  Some students want to write a book – but not a doctoral dissertation.  Informed withdrawal is a success, when the student recognises that a PhD is not their true goal, or not a good fit for them.

But don’t forget the ‘love’

Remember that ‘tough love’ has two parts:  the ‘tough’ – i.e., facing deficiencies promptly and providing constructive criticism – is moderator of the ‘love’, i.e., caring about the student and wanting to support the student to succeed.  It’s about saying what needs to be said in order to support students, not being arbitrarily harsh or dictatorial.

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