July 2013 (perspective of a postdoc)
If you're a professor, once every few months, work intensely with one of your grad students over a consecutive two-day period. Doing so can alleviate three potential sources of unhappiness for your student: getting stuck, feeling isolated, and becoming estranged from their advisor.
As a professor leading a research group, pretty much the only one-on-one time you get with each grad student is a one-hour weekly meeting. You're on a manager's schedule, and your students are all on maker's schedules. Each student grinds for a week, meets with you to deliver a status update, absorbs your scholarly wisdom for an hour, and then goes off to grind for another week. Repeat for four to six years.
Of course, your student might send you email if they get stuck mid-week or spontaneously pop into your office to get more feedback. However, in my experience, most students (especially early-stage ones) are unlikely to take the initiative to bug their advisor, who always appears way too busy and overbooked.
This common mode of advisor-student interaction leads to three main sources of student unhappiness, all of which I've witnessed during grad school:
Now here's an idea that could alleviate these problems without taking up much of your time. I've never seen this done before, so I have no idea whether it will work. But here goes ...
Once every few months, clear your schedule as much as possible for two consecutive workdays and spend that time one-on-one with a single student. For those two days, move that student into your office, and work alongside them on their project. Think of this experience as a two-day research hackathon.
Here's how this simple idea combats the three aforementioned problems:
I'd love to hear feedback from professors. Are research hackathons a good idea, or am I hopelessly naive? What can go wrong?
(Update on 2014-02-14: As an alternative, replace weekly meetings with a two-hour passive pair programming session.)
“There's no way I can clear my schedule for two full days. Do you know how busy I am?!?”
You don't have to be in your office the entire time, so it's okay if you sneak away every few hours to teach or attend meetings. The important thing is that you've devoted those two days to your student, so that they can feel comfortable interrupting you anytime when you're present without first scheduling a meeting.
“How much can you possibly get done in just two days?”
I obviously don't expect an entire project to get completed, but this burst of intensity could be the kick that your student needs to build up momentum on their own.
“I thought my job was to be an advisor, not to be down in the trenches with the students.”
Think of your two-day hackathon as a 16-hour period of concentrated advising. By getting down into the details of your student's project and agonizing over the grind together, you'll be imparting so much wisdom and know-how that would never come out during a casual chat.
“Pssh, my valuable time is better spent on other tasks ...”
A two-day burst (repeated a few times per year) seems like a modest amount of time to spend training and boosting the morale of one student, who will be working with you for four to six years.
“Uh, I don't want to get my hands dirty anymore. I transcended the grind a long time ago ...”
Fair enough. This idea isn't for everyone.