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I am a lecturer in a department in which undergraduate students have to do a final-year project guided (= supervised) by a faculty member. Faculty members do not have to guide students: those who do, get extra payment for this.

Most students who want me to be their guide are great and I am happy to guide them, but a few of them - I suspect - will be very "not fun" to work with: when they took a course of mine previously, they argued a lot about their grade, complained a lot about the course rules, etc. They made me spent a lot of time and energy on futile arguments rather than on productive teaching. I do not want to guide these students - I feel it will be a waste of my time and energy, not worth the extra payment.

However, if I just tell them bluntly "I do not want to guide you since I do not like you", they will be very insulted.

I cannot filter them out based on their grades, since their grades are similar to the average.

I could say that "I am too busy to guide you", which is true, but I am not too busy to guide other students, and the student will probably find this out.

How can I politely reject their request without insulting them?

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    If you don't get a good answer here, you might consider asking on academia.stackexchange.com. I believe your question is on topic and a good question where it is currently, but the Academia site might have more people having the same situation in the past or future. – computercarguy Aug 18 '20 at 19:45
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    It might be a good idea to include a country tag in this question, if you don't mind. That way answers (which now seem to range from US to EU experience) can maybe focus a bit more. – Tinkeringbell Aug 19 '20 at 8:26
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    Did you check whether you are allowed to decline certain students over others? This feels to me like it could open up the institution to claims of discrimination or simply some students not being able to do a mandatory project. I wouldn't be surprised if the educational institution wouldn't be willing to take on those risks. – Jasper Aug 20 '20 at 12:39
  • @Jasper this answer goes a bit into detail about that, normally, everyone needs to have a assigned supervisor so no one would be left behind. – CaldeiraG Aug 20 '20 at 14:54
  • @CaldeiraG Yes and no. That answer is about what policy should be. What I'm asking is: did you check what the policy is? – Jasper Aug 20 '20 at 21:20
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From what you describe, the department gives you free rein to decide whether to supervise a student (which seems fairly normal, based on this Academia SE post, and my own experience in US universities), so the only issue is how to convey your choice in a polite and professional way. For that I suggest giving impersonal reasons and offering alternatives.

If you feel the need to give reasons (or they press you), do try to make them as impersonal as possible. For example, I had a request rejected in college because "I've only had you for one class": it couldn't be changed or argued with, and had nothing to do with personal judgement. Another point may be different research interests, if the student wants to do a project about something that is not your particular area of interest. This came up often for my college's senior projects and some final projects in grad school; students were expected to find a faculty member with similar research interests for their projects, so we typically had an informal interview or at least emailed a proposal to see if the project idea was reasonable and compatible.

Of course, don't invent reasons that wouldn't otherwise apply! I think you know this already, based on your comment about claiming "too busy", but I want to be very clear that this is about examining your existing principles for accepting students and picking out the least personal ones to say.

I will add that I strongly disagree with the answers here implying that you should feel obligated to supervise students that have been difficult and unpleasant in your classes because you don't have an qualitative metric by which to rule them out. If your declining is problematic for the student in some way, it's the department's responsibility to sort that out. But since you have the choice, both you and the student will be better off if they find a supervisor who actually wants to work with them. This leads to my last suggestion:

"Sorry, I don't think it would be a good fit."

(or a variation thereof - "I don't think I would be a good fit" could work well too, as suggested in a comment.)

It's a bit of a cliche, but it is an honest reason without giving much of anything away. Similar to baldPrussian's answer, it has minimal "attack surface" because you aren't being too specific - and like that answer, I also recommend resisting the urge to elaborate since it will only provide them with things to argue about.

The next and probably more important part is immediately following it with an alternative - that might be suggesting a different lecturer to ask, or guiding them to a list of projects open to students, or whatever resource you might have. Going back to the professor I mentioned earlier, I had asked for a recommendation letter - her full response was basically: "I've only had you for one class. Why don't you ask one of your professors from [other class]?" While the rejection still stung, as rejections often do, I was grateful that she suggested a path forward and redirected my energy towards that new path; no reason to argue that she specifically had to be the one to write it since I now had another option. Hopefully your students can be similarly redirected!

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    I like this answer - perhaps you could say "I don't think I'm a good fit". That's more of an "it's not you, it's me". You could honestly back that up with "as a student in my class, you required a level of energy that I don't have to give at this time". While that is personal, I prefer to receive direct answers that actually teach me something. – Aaron Cicali Aug 19 '20 at 15:08
  • I upvoted this as I think this is a good answer. For completeness, though, how does this answer addresses the concern stated by commenters under baldPrussian's answer? Specifically, does this phrasing better in terms of avoiding the possibility that the student will think the worst (discrimination)? Thanks for your answer! It's a great answer. – justhalf Aug 21 '20 at 2:34
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    @justhalf will edit, but tldr - Offering alternatives (+ short rationale) in my experience goes a long way towards making one feel like their request was considered, rather than brushed off. Though I think the concern about discrimination claims is a bit of a red herring honestly. OP wants to be polite and not escalate conflict, but if the student escalates with such claims, that changes the frame - OP could be more blunt ("no, it's not because you're [protected category], it's because you complained and argued about everything in my course") or even get the department involved if needed. – Em C Aug 21 '20 at 12:58
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What you are looking for is a way to say "no". The second part of this is your reasoning.

When I'm asked a question to help someone I'm not interested in helping, I apologize and say, "I'm sorry, it's not possible." There's your "no".

The next question is inevitably "why?" and here's where this becomes simple. You are under no obligation to say why it's not possible, and I do this regularly. People ask "why" to argue with the reasoning, and that's not open for discussion. "I'm sorry, it's just not possible." People may press and then my response is "Irrespective of why, it's not possible. It seems you are trying to convince me that it is; trust me when I say it is not. Thank you for asking." And that's the response and your reasoning. You're not divulging it and it's really no one else's business but yours.

It's challenging to do at first but as you get used to not divulging why, it becomes a lot easier.

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    Note that this doesn't quite prevent the issues OP is looking to prevent (in absence of a justification, the students may still presume that it must be a personal dislike of them, causing them to react the same way as if you told them that), but it does mitigate the potential negative outcomes that can come from this (e.g. formal complaint using your justification as evidence). – Flater Aug 19 '20 at 9:20
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    You say "I do this regularly". How does that typically go? It seems like it might come across as quite rude. Have you had a cordial relationship with anyone following you saying that to them (especially the "irrespective of why" part)? And, if yes, to which extent did it affect the relationship in the short term? – NotThatGuy Aug 19 '20 at 12:57
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    @NotThatGuy better than one might think. It's also in the delivery. I can deliver it aggressively, or I can say it almost as an apology. I do this with family and friends; to date it hasn't seemed to hurt relationships. I usually say "I'm sorry, that's not possible." and do my best to impress upon the recipient that I am indeed sorry that it isn't possible. I find it actually keeps people from being angry as it provides nothing to argue about. – baldPrussian Aug 20 '20 at 0:03
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    What should the question author do if the student later responds, "some time after you said no to me, you offered to guide [person X]; why was that?" – gparyani Aug 20 '20 at 0:27
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    @gparyani If the student really asks about a second person, it's them who is rude. Anyway, one could answer: "I am not at liberty to discuss 3rd parties." or something along these lines. – Captain Emacs Aug 20 '20 at 6:55
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As an ex student myself I would find suspicious you'd discriminate guidance requests by a mean that is not transparent (such as your personal preference). You could ask your academic responsible what is the preferred way to select a given number of student among those who'd request, I would be highly surprised they tell you that you get to choose.

If there is no real guideline about that, and you do as you please, I suspect that students that are especially sensible to fair treatment could possibly complain about the situation, possibly escalating, possibly creating problems. And they would be right, because what you plan on doing is retroactively punishing a behavior that was not against any rule.

If you lack time to guide all the students that requested it it's fair to determine a way to sort them out, but this has to be something that all students get an equal chance at, such as grades.

Then it's probably a matter of establishing rules about time allocation and redirecting away any off-topic question. Once the rules are made clear, I imagine you could very well stop guiding students as a punishment for failing them. They would have little to complain about, and you'd not be afraid of losing your time.

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    Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. We've already had a bit of discussion about whether or not selecting students this way is discrimination in Interpersonal Skills Chat this morning, and the comments here were getting chatty. Please use the room to discuss further if you're not going to give any actionable feedback for OP to improve their post. – Tinkeringbell Aug 19 '20 at 12:59
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I can tell you from experience (as a student), and also based on the information you provided about this student (i.e. them being argumentative etc.), that they're unlikely to take your rejection well. You have to consider that, even though you might think they'll be a "pain" to work with (and your feelings may be justified), this student , who could have selected any other advisor on this project, selected you. Speaking from experience, rejection from a professor you want to advise you hurts. A lot. As such, this student is very likely to escalate the situation, perhaps even complain to administration, especially if you reject them but they find out that you subsequently accepted other students.

I like Arthur Hv's idea of devising an objective guideline as to how you select students. This way, all students have an equal chance of working with you, and if they don't objectively meet the criteria, they have no cause to complain.

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    I don't really know how you could improve your answer or clarify it, but just to explain my downvote: Having seen some posts on what you describe here as the personal experience to back up your answer, which included mental health-issues and went as far as getting a cease-and-desist from the department chair, I don't think your answer is useful as it's not given by a typical student, who will handle rejection a lot better. I know I never got my preferred mentors in high school either, and I didn't escalate those situations into a legal matter that included cease-and-desist letters! – Tinkeringbell Aug 19 '20 at 8:09

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