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The all-important graduate student-supervisor relationship

The relationship between grad student and supervisor is so critical to the student’s success that universities are becoming more proactive to ensure the union lasts


During march reading week, when Université Laval was more or less deserted, 40 professors, novice and seasoned, got together on campus to embark on a novel initiative. They came from a range of disciplines, from medicine to agriculture, intrigued by the invitation from the faculty of graduate studies to form a “community of practice” devoted to helping them all, collectively, become better graduate supervisors.

The more senior professors, experienced – but self-taught – in the art of supervision, came to the group willing to share their expertise and open to exploring new ideas. “We also had junior ones, who don’t have a clue about how to start a [supervisory] relationship with a student,” says Fernand Gervais, associate dean of graduate studies and a professor of education psychology at Laval. “It’s a very interesting selection of people … The intent was to work with their energy, and from that point of view, [the inaugural meeting] was a sheer success.”

The community itself set the agenda and has already chosen some key topics to be discussed over the course of the next 12 months, says Marie Audette, dean of graduate studies: “For instance, how to harmonize the students’ and supervisors’ expectations, how to deal with cultural differences, how to help the students to become independent in a timely fashion.”

Even for the most experienced professors, the practice of supervision can be “quite isolating,” says Dr. Audette, who is taking part in the new community of practice in her role as a professor of biochemistry. She has been inundated by requests from other professors who would like to see more of these groups at Laval.

For the most part, professors do a good job of supervising, say administrators and students, despite the dearth – until recently – of professional development courses on how to do so effectively. A survey conducted by the Canadian Association of Graduate Studies in 2010 found that more than 80 percent of doctoral students at Canada’s leading research-intensive universities were satisfied with the quality of supervision (a follow-up survey was conducted this past spring).

Still, graduate school deans say that Canadian universities can – and should – do more to provide professors with the tools and resources they need to become even better in this most crucial of roles. The number of graduate students in Canada grew by more than 80 percent between 2000 and 2012, and students are enrolled in a much wider range of graduate programs.

As part of this new accountability, universities have set up workshops for junior faculty on best practices in supervision. Many have published guidelines for faculty and students on their rights and responsibilities in the supervisory relationship. Some, like Laval, are testing new concepts aimed at engaging the entire community of professors, not just the newbies.

“The quality of the [supervisory] relationship is fundamental for the student to succeed,” says Dr. Audette. “When there is a problem, the chances are really high that the students will just give up. That is why we pay so much attention to the supervisor-supervisee relationship.”

And, to be sure, not every student is thriving. At the University of Toronto, ombudsperson Joan Foley says graduate students frequently approach her office, in confidence, to raise a variety of concerns, including their inability to find a supervisor, slow feedback on drafts, inadequate or inconsistent direction, and the supervisor being unavailable for consultation. Some have complained about “excessive amounts of work on contracts for the supervisor’s company at the expense of progress on the thesis.”

But the power imbalance is such that students rarely authorize the ombudsperson to investigate and intervene. “They fear that such actions will only make the situation worse,” Dr. Foley noted in her most recent annual report. Since the students often won’t pursue the available complaint channels, the university administrators can’t easily gauge whether the students have been treated unfairly and, if so, whether the problems are isolated or more common. These issues are not unique to the University of Toronto, Dr. Foley adds.

At U of T and elsewhere, graduate school deans say they are paying close attention to these concerns, whether or not formal complaints are lodged. The work that graduate school faculties are doing to identify problems and address them through guidelines and training “is definitely a good step,” says Carolyn Hibbs, president of the York University Graduate Students’ Association and a rep with the Canadian Federation of Students. But she believes universities need to be more proactive in ensuring those guidelines are adhered to, because “the impact of a breakdown of the supervisor-student relationship falls disproportionately on the student.”

Luc De Nil, vice-dean, students, at U of T’s school of graduate studies, recently participated in a workshop on students’ rights, at the invitation of the U of T Graduate Students’ Union. Student union staff representative Gail Alivio Fernando told of a situation where a student came to her, extremely distressed, because he was not getting feedback or support from his supervisor, who was often away on business and personal trips: “He actually told the student he was supervising that he would not be accessible by email or phone during these trips.” Another situation she reported involved a student whose supervisor had been awarded new funding “and was basically telling all the students in her lab that they should change the focus of their work” to the area that was going to be funded. Some grad students in the lab had invested two years in their research.

U of T has, in fact, developed very clear and extensive guidelines for students, faculty and administrators. Supervisors are responsible for establishing regular meeting times for discussion and review of progress, for being “reasonably accessible for unscheduled meetings” and for investigating any concerns. They are to ensure continuity of supervision during leaves or extended absences. The supervisor is also supposed to guide the student in selecting and planning a meaningful and appropriate research topic that can be successfully completed within the normal time limit for the degree program. Students have responsibilities, as well, including the duty to keep their supervisor informed if there are emerging problems in the supervisory relationship.

Dr. De Nil says that in his experience, many of the conflicts could be avoided if there were a conversation early on to discuss the supervisor-student relationship, including such topics as regular meetings, expectations for the student’s research, and authorship on papers. Dr. Audette at Laval agrees, saying, “It is fundamental that the mutual expectations are understood right from the beginning.”

At McGill University, Martin Kreiswirth, dean of graduate and postdoctoral studies, routinely holds brainstorming sessions with graduate students and separately with faculty to get a better handle on what’s working well and where the university needs to provide more training and direction. One of Dr. Kreiswirth’s favourites is the workshop he conducts for graduate students called “How to Manage Your Supervisor.”

“We close the door and anything that’s said in the room will never leave the room. We just talk. People will say ‘this happened,’ and we give advice. But, also, we learn a lot.” His workshops with professors on how to enhance the supervisory relationship are also invigorating. “I just let it flow. The people in the room take over. They’re all professors. Someone in the room will say ‘I had this problem.’ Someone else will say ‘I had the same problem’ ’’ – and off they go, exchanging experiences and examples of what worked for them.

“I don’t want people to get the impression that there are big problems and we have to root them out – like the Charbonneau commission, or something,” Dr. Kreiswirth hastens to add. At the same time, these closed-door sessions do give him insights into issues that professors and students are reluctant to air publicly.

Virtually every major university has a centre dedicated to helping professors improve their teaching skills, Dr. Kreiswirth says, but graduate supervision is different. “Supervision is something that we [Canadian universities] have only recently started to pay attention to in an analytic and systematic way.”

The McGill dean is collaborating with the University of Oxford and Australian National University to set up an interactive website that will give users access to a wealth of pooled intelligence from the three institutions, with effective tools and strategies for managing the supervisory relationship, scenarios that may crop up and ways of dealing with them, and links to pedagogical research in the field of graduate and postgraduate education.

Part of this can be traced to Lynn McAlpine, a professor of higher education development who is on joint appointment to McGill and Oxford. She manages the Oxford Learning Institute website on research supervision that McGill plans to emulate. (See “Oxford advice on supervising,” at the end of the article)

Dr. McAlpine says that one of the difficulties with graduate supervision in the past was that faculty members were, by and large, “left to carry the load institutionally.” This is changing, with universities assuming a greater institutional responsibility, to varying degrees. “The way I articulate it,” says Dr. McAlpine, “is that supervision is about us. It is a collective responsibility.”

In the U.K. and Australia, institutional accountability is formalized in government codes of practice. In the U.K., the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education directs new supervisors to participate in specified development activities, arranged through their institutions, to assure their competence in the role. Existing supervisors need to demonstrate “continuing professional development through participation in a range of activities designed to support their work as supervisors.”

There is no such body or direction in Canada. But universities are devoting more resources to making professional development resources available and accessible, with graduate school administrators engaging faculty and grad student representatives in the design of workshops and online resources.

U of T’s recently revised guidelines, for instance, set out best practices for students, faculty advisers and department heads. They suggest that students and supervisors should spend “quality time” at the beginning of the supervisory relationship to discuss and clarify expectations, the reasons behind them and the degree of flexibility. The most important ones are to be written in the form of a contract, whether a formal signed document or an email summary shared by both: “Such a document can serve as a useful reminder of what was agreed, and can be important if there are future problems.”

Sort of a pre-nuptial agreement, if you will.

“I tell graduate students that this may be the most important relationship they have had in their lives, and it is a little bit like marriage. You are together sometimes for six or seven years,” says Wendy Hall, associate dean of faculty and program development in the University of British Columbia’s faculty of graduate studies. The faculty developed a “document of expectations” for students and supervisors about the relationship. “It is intended to be used as an agreement and a talking point, signed by both parties,” says Susan Porter, UBC’s dean pro tem of graduate studies.

The UBC faculty of grad studies provides individual assistance and advice – when it’s requested – for students, supervisors and graduate supervisors, and the faculty offers workshops on effective mentoring, communication, problem prevention and resolution, and preparing students for the future. But as is often the case with such initiatives, “the ones who come are the really motivated and proactive people, and they are probably going to be really good supervisors anyway,” says Dr. Porter. “It’s the ones who don’t come that we struggle with.

“One of the ways we have got around that is to do what we call a road show. We will go out to departments or faculty meetings and just have a little mini-session, bringing it up, giving a few tips, keeping it on people’s agendas. It’s been helpful.” Nowadays they also hold workshops for postdoctoral fellows because, in a laboratory setting, the postdoc may be expected to take on a large supervisory role. It’s important to discuss that, says Dr. Hall, “because a lot of postdoctoral fellows don’t necessarily sign on for supervision.”

By the same token, it can be a point of contention when a doctoral student expects a one-on-one relationship with a faculty superstar and ends up reporting to – and doing the research legwork – for a postdoctoral fellow instead, says Bahram Farzady, a U of T Graduate Students’ Union executive.

A number of universities have added sessions on cultural differences and how to find help for students with mental health issues or other personal barriers that might be affecting their performance. Heather Macdonald, an assistant professor in UBC’s faculty of experimental medicine, attended a workshop last year on conflict resolution, where she and her colleagues broke into groups to talk about the qualities that make a great supervisor and “the things that are not so great.”

Dr. Macdonald, whose research specialty is physical activity and bone health, recalled that her own PhD supervisor was excellent – “available on a regular basis, challenging me to think outside the box, encouraging independence, those kinds of things.” She says her supervisor was “hard on me, but in the end I realized what a valuable experience it was.” She now co-supervises master’s and PhD students with her own former PhD adviser – giving Dr. Macdonald easy access to mentorship, as well as coverage for her students while she takes maternity leave this year.

Dr. Macdonald has already experienced some of the more rewarding aspects of supervising and she has won a gratifying accolade: “This thesis would not have been possible without the expert guidance and support of a number of individuals,” Christa Hoy wrote in the introduction to her master’s thesis on the influence of adiposity on bone quality in children, adolescents and young adults. “First and foremost, I need to thank my two supervisors, Dr. Heather McKay and Dr. Heather Macdonald. Thank you both for pushing me to find a deeper level of understanding. Your passion and dedication to your work are truly inspiring.”

Virginia Galt is a Toronto journalist who often writes about work and social issues.

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