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The essentials of PhD supervision

A retired professor shares the ingredients of a successful thesis supervisor-PhD student relationship.

BY PASCALE CASTONGUAY | MAY 10 2022

What makes a good thesis supervisor? This was the topic Jean-Pierre Deslauriers chose to address during a symposium about supervision in graduate studies at the 2021 Acfas  conference (Acfas is a an organization that promotes the advancement of French-language science in Canada). Now retired, Dr. Deslauriers is known among other things for teaching social work at Université du Québec en Outaouais and writing the book Et si le doctorat était une belle aventure?. “Let me tell you what I’ve learned in life, both the good and the bad,” he began with a chuckle, before diving in to his talk.

According to Dr. Deslauriers, thesis contracts, which are slowly becoming more widespread, should be the cornerstone of a good supervisor-student relationship. He defines thesis contracts as written agreements that set the framework for various aspects of the thesis process, including the frequency, content and functioning of student-supervisor meetings, and the proposed meeting locations. Where possible, thesis contracts should also be a forum for discussing “reciprocal attitudes and ways of working” to prevent nasty surprises in the future.

Though there is no need to get into the nitty-gritty of every detail in this type of contract, Dr. Deslauriers strongly recommends addressing the matter of publishing. While the supervisor contributes to the thesis to some degree, he believes that for any article submission coming from the thesis, the publication credit should ultimately go to the PhD student. He compared thesis supervisors to boxing instructors. “Instructors provide ideas, but they aren’t in the ring giving and taking punches. It’s the boxer who really stands to win or lose.”

Dr. Deslauriers said clear publication expectations should be set from the get-go. Thesis supervisors should not insist on co-signing PhD papers as it puts the student in a vulnerable position. Audience reactions to this point in his talk were mixed, demonstrating that consensus between supervisor and supervisee is paramount. “When the working relationship is good and things run smoothly, you just need common sense and the contract doesn’t matter much. But if things get rough, a contract can come in really handy,” he said.

On top of willingness to sign a thesis contract, Dr. Deslauriers said a good supervisor should possess several other traits, chief among them being availability. Agreeing to supervise a student means you have to “make time for the student when needed,” he stressed, adding that another important quality is being able to give prompt feedback. “This is key. Good thesis supervisors take an interest in their students’ work and progress.” While some attributes, like in-depth knowledge of the student’s chosen subject, are a given, others, like an encouraging attitude, can be less obvious. Dr. Deslauriers’ thoughts on the matter are clear: “The stricter you are, the more encouraging you should be.”

Though he acknowledged he has a tendency to put himself in students’ shoes when describing the perfect thesis supervisor, Dr. Deslauriers stressed that supervisors are individuals with their own ambitions, needs, plans and lives. With that in mind, he said it’s a good idea for the supervisor and supervisee to get a sense of each other’s personalities and expectations before they start working together.

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  1. Jon Driver / May 11, 2022 at 14:46

    I spent years as dean of graduate studies at SFU trying to get faculty members to create simple “contracts” with their graduate students. Always had huge pushback. Apparently contracts and collective agreements are fine if a faculty member’s interests are at stake, but for some reason they’re not acceptable to protect the interests of graduate students. It is so simple to let a student know about their intellectual property rights, opportunities for funding, access to labs etc. Putting this in writing can save a lot of grief (for both faculty member and student) if something goes wrong in the relationship.

    I also found students were naïve and uninformed about the numerous work pressures on faculty. So I developed workshops on “how to manage your supervisor” where we started by outlining all the work for which a faculty member is responsible, and then moved on to effective strategies by which students could ensure that their supervisors set aside the time needed for supervision.