How to Recognize and Resolve Conflict in the Lab, the Classroom, and in Other Academic Settings

If you’re reading this post, you undoubtedly have positive feelings about universities and colleges. Maybe it’s the research that excites you or the promise of engaging classroom discussions. Whatever the reason, though, something drew you to the world of academia.

But institutions of higher learning are not perfect, and neither are the people who teach, study, and work at them. Faculty members; students (both graduate and undergraduate); and staff are subject to the same emotions as everyone else and, at times, these academic folks just don’t get along.

But there is something unique about the conflicts that occur in academia. In the business world, if an employee is unable to coexist with her boss, the two parties more often than not can part ways with little long-term, professional damage to either person (assuming, of course, there are no legal issues involved).

Conflicts in academia, if left unchecked, can turn a happy, productive graduate student into an unhappy, unproductive one. Photo courtesy of

Academia is a different ballgame altogether. A seriously strained relationship between a graduate student and an adviser can jeopardize a student’s long-term career prospects. For example, maybe a student isn’t invited to attend conferences (where important career networking takes place) with her adviser, or the same adviser isn’t willing to write the sparkling recommendation the student needs to land that all important postdoc. Because of this strained graduate student/adviser relationship, the student may also feel resentment toward fellow students who appear to have a better relationship with the adviser.

Such a conflict can lead not only to tension between graduate students and advisers, but can also affect the productivity of the research group (as an unhappy graduate student, as a rule, is less productive than a happy one).

Conflicts in academia don’t just occur between graduate students and advisers, though. Tense relationships can exist between undergraduates and their instructors, between junior and senior faculty members, or famously between faculty members and administrators. If not addressed, these conflicts can lead to a toxic course (a cohort of students thoroughly displeased with an instructor and/or class) or department (a tenure-track faculty member at odds with a senior faculty member who can influence the tenure case of the junior colleague).

But we do not have to simply live with these realities: drawing from our experience at a workshop administered by conflict resolution expert Sinaia Nathanson, who is also director of Tufts’ School of Arts and Sciences Graduate Resources and Development Center (GRAD), in June 2012, we share some common conflicts that occur in academia and how they can be resolved.

Making Time

Like Mr. Spock, faculty members and teaching assistants also need to keep in mind "the needs of the many."

Besides being arguably the best Star Trek film ever made, The Wrath of Khan also ends with the shocking death of Mr. Spock, who dies shortly after restoring power to the disabled warp drive. Before his last breath, Spock instructs Captain Kirk not to grieve since, “the needs of the many outweigh…” with Kirk adding “…the needs of the few.”

For faculty members and teaching assistants (TAs), maintaining the balance between the many and the few can lead to conflict when it comes to class time or office hours. If a student, or students, frequently interrupts class with questions or monopolizes office hours, fellow students may feel resentful that they’re not getting all they could from the class.

Some ways of dealing with the needs of the few versus the needs of the many are as follows.

-Faculty members and teaching assistants can hold office hours in an open space so everyone in the class can benefit.

-Office hours can be scheduled at fifteen minute intervals with students using a sign-up sheet—with a list of available times—on the office door.

-Boundaries for the class can be set early on, making sure to discuss the importance of making the most of class time; this may include a period at the beginning or end of class for questions.

How to keep everyone (or mostly everyone) in a course happy? Designate a time at the beginning or end of each class for questions. Photo courtesy of

-Faculty members can check in with the teaching assistant for the class (if there is one) to make sure that the TA is a good fit and is providing support to students who need it. If the TA isn’t working out, a change might be necessary.

“I actually had a student who would take up a significant amount of my time during lab hours,” said a Tufts graduate student. “The student was having a very hard time in the lab and was unwilling to help herself. It was stressful because I wanted to help the student but also had to make sure that the other students were getting enough attention as well. I also tried reaching out to the student and scheduling meetings outside of lab sessions. However, you can only take so much of your time outside of lab and office hours because you also have other time commitments. I tried my best to help the student and meet with her. I also made sure that from the moment there was an inkling of trouble the professor was informed and was kept updated on the situation.”

A fellow graduate student shared how he might approach this scenario.

“I might direct teaching assistants to try to help this student preemptively. I would also be strict about what sort of help I would provide, and if the student showed up without well-formed questions, I would send him or her off with a set of tasks to complete prior to asking for further help.”

Communication Matters

Labs, for better or worse, become the second home for many graduate students. So, while there’s a lot work to be done some socializing and levity between lab mates ensures it’s not all work, all the time. It’s also important for graduate students to feel that their work is valued and that they are making positive contributions to the group. But problems can arise when a lab director believes that “we’re here to work, not socialize” and when the student feels that the director “only criticizes my faults and never praises my work.”

Some ways of dealing with these conflicting perspectives are as follows.

-The student can communicate with the director early on to discuss what each party needs out of the relationship for it to be successful.

-The pair can create a verbal or written contract which includes clear expectations for both the student and the director. The student can cite the contract if, for example, he or she isn’t getting promised feedback or support from the adviser.

Crafting a written or verbal contract with your adviser early on may help prevent problems down the road. Photo courtesy

-If problems persist, the student can have a third party join the conversation. This third person can be copied on emails and/or attend meetings involving the student and the director to discuss ways to resolve the issue.

-The student can weigh the pros and cons of walking away from the lab. If all steps to resolve the problem have been exhausted, the student can consider joining another research group, but not before considering the repercussions of leaving (for example, the student may be relying on a research assistantship or teaching assistantship with the director) or staying.

“I completely disagree with the lab director’s views,” said a Tufts graduate student. “Yes, we are here to work, but humans are social beings and need interpersonal relationships. However, socializing in the lab should not interfere with your productivity, which is possibly what the lab director is worried about. If it is that much of a problem maybe seek other ways to interact with your colleagues, such as a summer softball league or happy hours; things outside of the lab that still build a community that improves your working relationships.”

Another graduate student believes that walking away might be the best solution.

“Sometimes, there is simply a mismatch between a student and an adviser. If this mismatch cannot be resolved, even through mediation with other people, perhaps that adviser/advisee relationship will not work. I have suggested to colleagues in the past that they seek a different adviser, but this can be difficult at a small school. I would say that a Ph.D. is a large enough undertaking that you can’t ‘hate’ your way through it; if you aren’t enjoying your scholarly life, something has to change.”

Trade Places

Another way to avoid conflict in academia? Try to see things from another person's perspective (overacting is optional)

Aside from its overacting (seriously Nicolas Cage, tone it down!) and use of way too many explosives, the film Face/Off is an interesting take on what happens when two people literally see the world from the other’s perspective. While faculty members and graduate students won’t be changing places any time soon—though faculty members were graduate students once upon a time—one way to resolve or avoid conflict altogether is to try and see things from a different vantage point.

Some scenarios where a different perspective can help alleviate or stop conflict from happening are as follows.

Scenario: A faculty member uses American sports analogies in class because he feels that these analogies are useful in explaining complex topics. The use of these analogies is problematic for some international graduate students who are not as familiar with American sports as their American counterparts; this can also be an issue for other students who don’t follow sports.

To resolve this problem, the following step can be taken.

-The professor can meet with the students to discuss the issue, trying to see the issue through his students’ eyes. He can ask himself questions such as, “How would I feel if the situation was reversed and I was in a class that used analogies that I didn’t fully understand? Are there other ways I can teach these topics and get the same results without using sports analogies?”

Scenario: A graduate student is getting ready for a conference and as part of the preparation process the student presents her talk to her adviser and some fellow students. The talk is well received, but the adviser thinks some things need to be changed. The student makes some of the changes, but is worried how the adviser will react when he notices that not all the edits were made. To resolve this problem, the following steps can be taken.

-The student can find out what specific problems the adviser has with the presentation as soon as possible. If the student does not engage in a conversation at the outset, the issue could escalate.

-Each party can meet and make their arguments for why (or why not) certain changes to the presentation should be made. During this conversation, it is critical for each to try to see the case from the other’s point of view, to be as open as possible to other approaches and ways of thinking.

-If the situation becomes intractable, it may help to bring in a third party, someone who can provide a different, and hopefully, unbiased perspective.

“I think that the student should be free to make the edits that they wish. The adviser is there to advise not to determine,” said a Tufts graduate student. “However, it is generally good practice to respect what your adviser wants. It makes for a better relationship. If you really have a problem with one of the changes and have a good reason for not making that change, you should tell you adviser exactly that and have an educated discussion about it.”

A fellow student agrees with the importance of stating your case.

“I’ve had this happen, and I’ve also witnessed it happen. The student should be prepared to defend his or her choices, preemptively if necessary. (‘I didn’t change this figure, as that change made it less clear rather than more clear.’) The adviser/advisee relationship should permit honest discussion about things like this.”

By Robert Bochnak, G07, senior writer/communications manager, Tufts University School of Arts and Sciences

We want to hear from you! How have you dealt with conflict in your role as a graduate student, faculty member? Do you have advice for resolving conflict in academic settings? Are there any best practices that we missed? Join the conversation by leaving a comment below.

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