Communication is, perhaps, the most important skill across every discipline, and not just for graduate students. For supervisors, communication is the key to establishing and maintaining a good relationship with your students, especially during COVID-19. We can no longer afford to take communication for granted. You aren’t going to bump into your student in the hall and have an impromptu conversation over coffee that resolves all their problems. On the contrary, as remote graduate supervisors, you will have to plan how, when and what you communicate with your students. These conversations have never been more important. They take a lot of work. Communications expert Dan Oswald says that difficult conversations must be HOT: honest, open, and two-way.
You may or may not be having these conversations with your graduate students. For some, it’s a contentious issue. Perhaps you aren’t sure what to say, or you feel at a loss because you have spent your entire career as an academic. That’s okay! You don’t need to have all of the answers. It’s more important that you engage in the conversation. Management leader Peter Drucker once wrote that “the most important thing in communication is hearing what isn’t said.” That is especially true for graduate students. You may avoid having career conversations because you are unsure, but by saying nothing, your students may assume that you do not support their career interests and goals unless they mirror your own.
When you’re approaching a career conversation, there are a few things that you can do to prepare yourself and to make things easier for your student. First, don’t assume that they know that you are supportive of their career aspirations, whatever they may be. Gather information and resources from departments on campus like your career centre, school of graduate studies, your teaching centre, and the alumni association, as well as any other areas on your campus where career development might be within their sphere of influence. Sharing information and resources, as well as support and enthusiasm, will encourage your students.
Secondly, practice getting comfortable with saying “I don’t know.” You don’t need to have all of the answers. You do need to provide supportive referrals. Instead of simply telling your student to go to another department, consider asking their permission to connect them directly with a contact, and endorse their use of the service. Your support will encourage your student to take action without fear of repercussions.
Eg. Following on our conversation, I wanted to connect you directly with my colleague X in the career centre. X is an amazing resource for our graduate students, and can help you with your resume, cover letter, cv, career exploration…
Make a point to follow up on their actions. Many students postpone career planning to their detriment. As their mentor, become involved. Career conversations can become a part of your regular progress meetings.
Listening to your student with the intent to understand, rather than the intent to reply, will go a long way toward fostering the rapport and openness that characterizes a promising supervisor/student relationship. Active listening will help you to identify problems as they arise, and to identify when your student might need more assistance than you can provide. When you are meeting with your student to discuss their progress, give them the space to summarize their work. Listen. Take notes. Do not interrupt, even if you desperately want to interject. Ask open-ended questions that provide your student with the ability to express themselves. You should be seeing patterns in what they are saying, that will help you identify underlying issues. Using reflective language will validate your student, show them that you are paying attention, and that you care.
Eg. I notice that you’ve used the words problem, challenge or barrier several times when discussing X. You seem concerned. Is that right? Let’s talk about it and see if we can address some of the issues for you.
COVID-19 has exhausted graduate students, with 72 percent reporting that feelings of anxiety, depression, helplessness, and loneliness have increased because of the pandemic. Your students will need your support. Listening is an easy way to begin. Encouraging an open dialogue will help them to get out of their funk.
Helping students graduate
A national survey of Canadian graduate students revealed that half of respondents were unsure about their ability to graduate due to COVID-19, and 40 percent were unsure how the pandemic would impact their timeline. Not surprisingly, graduate students are worried about their finances and their financial stability, especially for those dependent on institutional funding. With so much uncertainty about money, the academic job market, and the costs of delaying job searching outside of higher ed, it makes sense to have a frank discussion with your students about their long-term plans and their academic progress.
Before beginning this conversation, ask yourself honestly if the student has met the obligations of their program, or if they are close to meeting those obligations. A student’s career plans can factor into this equation. Under different circumstances, we might suggest hanging on for an extra year to complete additional research or publish, but that might not be in the best interest of your student, particularly if they are looking outside of academia in a tight market. COVID-19 has cost students professional development and training opportunities, time for career exploration, and the stability that they would normally expect from a graduate program. We do not need to increase their burdens by delaying their graduation if they are, or can be, ready to defend remotely. At the same time, if your student will be significantly delayed in meeting their expected progress because of the pandemic, they need to know to make an informed decision about their next steps. This is especially important for international students, and graduate students with dependents.