On vacation a few years ago, I was watching "Malcolm in the Middle" reruns on Nickelodeon. In the episode "Cheerleader" (for those who care: Season 1, Episode 12) Francis (a trouble-maker who was sent to a military academy) spends a whole day with Commandant Spangler (who is usually scary and aloof and giving the cadets a hard time) discussing Francis' and Spangler's childhood and mommy issues. At the end of the day, Francis says something like "It's good to know I can always come talk to you whenever I need something" and Spangler just shuts the door in Francis' face with the words "Familiarity breeds contempt, cadet". That's obviously the end of personal sharing for them.
I was reminded of this episode after reading today's FSP's excellent post and comments. The post was about how to get feedback from your research group and, more broadly, should you run your research group as a factory where student sink or swim or should you try to personalize the research approach and ensure each student is happy. It seems most PI's agree that too much personal involvement with students leads to dysfunctional groups. CPP says that "In my experience, the most dysfunctional labs are those in which the PI behaves like a cheerleader/friend/confessor hybrid, and the most functional labs are those in which the PI behaves like an NFL head coach."
I am not sure what an NFL coach's job entails, but I bet they can get away with way more yelling than I can with my students. Nevertheless, it is certainly possible to err on the side of too much personal involvement and allow for students who eventually won't work out to linger on for way too long. In my experience, it has happened only once that a student who initially had problems adjusting to the requirements in my group had a change of pace and attitude after a serious conversation and is now productive (albeit he’s nowhere near being the star of the group). In all the other cases (more than 10) a student who needed a lot of hand holding or required too much involvement in their personal life turned out simply not to be PhD material. The statistics that I can draw from my experience says that the signs are there right away — it becomes obvious pretty early on who will work out and who won’t, and additional hand holding and extra accommodation for all sorts of personal requirements don’t do anything but just drain your energy and financial resources.
I have a weekly group meeting and weekly 1-on-1 meetings. Additional face time as needed. I will do everything in my power to ensure that a smart, motivated, and hard working student gets the techical help when needed, gets all the funds and equipment needed, is visible at conferences and through high-profile publications. I think these are my duties to the good students and this is the domain of happiness/ satisfaction of a grad student that I should be concerned about. However, it is NOT a faculty's duty to help a graduate student find the motivation they never really had or to instill the work habits in them (which should have been done in grade school) or to teach them about time management or, worse yet, about managing their personal lives. Being a grownup should be a prerequisite for graduate school.
I think a good professional relationship between advisors and students is similar to the one between colleagues — the vast majority of my faculty colleagues know nothing about my personal life. My close collaborators probably know my kid count and perhaps their approximate ages, but we never talk about personal issues and we chit-chat only minimally. For instance, a colleague of mine has fraternal twins; I am quite curious if they were conceived on fertility treatments, but I assure you I will never ask, because a question like this would drastically breech the boundaries of our relationship.
PI's can be accommodating of the lives of students without too much personal involvement. Student is having a child? Congratulations and let's see what can be done with the funding and how much time off you can get and how it will influence your progress towards your degree. Isn't that what you would expect your advisor to be focused on – your professional well-being? I know for instance that one of my students just got married, because his marriage was coupled with a long trip home, which he needed to inform me about, plus he wanted to explore the possibility of long-distance telecommuting to continue the work. Some sharing of facts from personal life is necessary as they directly pertain to professional life.
One comment over at FSP's emphasized that PI's are probably worse offenders at oversharing than students, and that students know more about their PI's than the other way around.
There is a difference between small talk and too much personal information. For instance, a student mentioning she is going to see her parents for Christmas falls under small talk. Talking at length about the relationship problems with boyfriend is too much information. The advisor mentioning a tree house for daughter falls under small talk; discussing own marital problems or parents' illnesses with students is too much. Some people enjoy small talk more than others, I don't, but I have some collaborators who do it with students at the beginning of every meeting to make the atmosphere more relaxed.
There can certainly be oversharing on both sides, but I think it is a particularly bad idea for a PI to open themselves personally to trainees. Yes, we are human, but being a leader requires that those you lead believe in you, which means they cannot be intimately familiar with every fear and doubt you have. I erred quite a bit in this respect in my early TT years, much less so now. Familiarity does breed contempt and diminishes your authority: you cannot befriend trainees and also expect them to obey you. For instance, when a group member graduates, I take the group out to a restaurant; many of my colleagues host graduation celebrations or group barbecue parties at their homes, I have never had students over to my house because that's my personal space and it's off limits. I think a certain distance and a lot of tact in communicating opinions are necessary for any successful long-term professional relationship.