Most professors who advise graduate students have had one or more students who did not do well, for whatever reason. I use the vague phrase "did not do well" to cover a wide spectrum of unsuccessful outcomes, including failing. Last year, I discussed some of the reasons why some students fail.
In the following discussion, I use the term "failures" to mean failed experiences advising graduate students, whether or not the failure was mostly/entirely the responsibility of the student, the advisor, the academic system, or factors beyond anyone's control.
Some recent conversations with colleagues made me think about how we talk about these failures. That is, how do we discuss (or not discuss), describe, explain, or justify this part of our academic life?
The simple answer is that it depends on context and audience. Many of us have stories to tell about some of our more exasperating and bizarre experiences advising students, and we talk about these experiences at various times, either by choice or when we are asked. The circumstances of a 'failure episode' might be difficult to explain simply* and without seeming defensive, but most other faculty will understand if the situation is described in a sincere and professional way.
For example, in a recent conversation, younger colleagues at another university told me about some of their problems with advising grad students. I could relate very well to what they were experiencing, as I had had similar problems over the years: e.g., students being paid an RA but doing no/little work. These colleagues said they were relieved to hear that others have had the same experiences, and that their problems didn't automatically indicate that they (we) are bad advisors.
I think that this was an important conversation to have. These failures can happen to anyone, no matter how experienced the advisor. However, it can be especially difficult for early career faculty because they don't have a long record (yet) of successfully advising students. When you've only advised a few students, the failures may loom large.
No matter how many students we have advised, we should never be so accepting of the fact that failures can and will occur that we don't try to learn from them (and of course prevent them if possible), but neither should anyone feel like a failure who sincerely tried to help a student. Hearing about the experiences of others can be useful in a practical way (e.g. sharing ideas) and also in an emotional way (e.g. not feeling like you are the only one with these problems), and I think we all need to have these conversations from time to time.
In another case, a professor at yet another university bragged about firing a student who was not putting in much effort. From the description of the situation, the firing seemed quite justified, but nevertheless it was shocking to listen to someone who seemed proud of failing a student. Everyone (faculty and students) who heard the boasting, which was repeated at least twice to two different audiences, felt either uncomfortable or angry. That was not a conversation that any of us needed to have.
* .. though sometimes it is very simple. As I have previously described, my Advisor's Guide to Advising a Heroin Addict is very short and very simple: You can't.
8 months ago