bad academics · classrooms · grad school · teaching

What grad supervision looks like

I was talking with a colleague the other day, about the crisis in graduate education. (Pick your crisis, I guess: is it the no-academic jobs crisis, the time to completion crisis, the building grad programs to staff crappy teaching assignments crisis, what?) We were actually talking about the problem of graduate supervision: that is, how are you supposed to supervise a PhD student?

I mean, there are department or faculty milestones and such, like how many courses are required, and what constitutes passing the language requirement hurdle, and how many times you can attempt the comprehensive exam, and the Faculty of Graduate Studies or whatever it’s called where you are has rules around the font size in the dissertation. And our guidebook here says something about “reading drafts in a timely manner” and “yearly meetings.”

But, to supervise a graduate student, beyond simply flagging for that student the dates they are well enough able to look up unassisted. What does that entail, really? Go on, try to answer me. Now think: where did you get your ideas from? Was it from your own dissertation process, being supervised?


Think about teaching. Those of us who’ve taken any of the university teaching workshops at all know that generally, the only teaching training most of us used to get was … sitting in classrooms being taught. And so when called upon to teach, we replicated that. At least most PhD students starting to teach have taken something upwards of 40 courses, which, while not the ideal way to learn how to teach, at least offers some range of perspectives and methods brought to bear on the problem.

But again: how do you supervise a graduate student? If we assume the same passive training model (that is, teach as you have yourself been taught) all of us really only have one experience to draw on. And that experience may or may not have been ideal, but in any case it’s hard to generalize from one experience.

And do we, once professors, really see how our colleagues supervise graduate students? I don’t think so–or at least, I don’t see it. These strike me as very private relationships. And yes, the projects are individual and the relationship is much more strictly interpersonal than other aspects of our teaching careers, but still, we probably could stand to think more systematically about what, in essence, competent (never mind good or excellent) supervision looks like. Does the university teaching centre offer courses in how to supervise a dissertating student in the humanities? Err, not here.

So let’s bring it out into the open. I ask you: how were you supervised, how do you supervise, what are good strategies and what are poor strategies for graduate supervision? Let’s build up some real data, with some heft to it, and then maybe we can start to generalize. Please bring on your good ideas, your bad experiences, your helpful suggestions, your terrible warnings, the tips you’ve learned from books, or the research you’ve consulted. Let’s shine some light on this question, could we?

I’ll go out on a limb and say that, for me, graduate supervision is an act of teaching and mentoring, as much as it is one of assessment. It is an active process, or should be. You may disagree, and please! Tell me more!

For myself, I think competent supervision entails attention to the student’s professional goals (what kind of job do you want to get, and how can we get from here to there?), intellectual development (yes, but what do you really mean when you say “discourse”?), academic professionalization (how to apply for grants, which conferences, when to try to publish and how), and writing skills and process (no, that’s not how you use a semi-colon, actually; binge writing does not lead to good results or a happy life). I’m still working out how to model those skills or do that teaching.


5 thoughts on “What grad supervision looks like

  1. Okay, I'll start this comment thread, as it's a topic I care deeply about. First of all, if one is lucky enough to have had a good supervisor, then why not emulate him/her. I had a fabulous supervisor and I've thought a lot about what made him so effective and why I often try to do for others what he did for me. Here's a list of best practices that I have come to:

    * set schedules for meetings, chapters being turned in, chapters being revised, etc.
    * when making that schedule, work backwards from the ideal date of the defence, allowing 2-3 months for a defence to be organized and the external examiner to read the dissertation
    * meet my own commitments to that schedule–written feedback within two weeks.
    * the supervisor is the first and most rigorous editor of the work
    * the supervisor has to ask all of the hard questions
    * the supervisor and the candidate can agree to disagree (this happened in my case and it was when I took ownership of my own research project)
    * the supervisor has to guide the candidate through the professionalization process
    * gives advice as to when a piece of writing is ready to think about conferencing and/or publishing
    * and then teaching the candidate what those two different genres are
    * best piece of advice I ever got about where to send an article: who do you want to be your readers? who is in the conversation you want to enter? This, to my mind, is more important than “aim high and then settle for whatever.” It's unlikely that an ABD is going to publish his/her first piece in PMLA.
    * give lost of praise (even “I really enjoyed reading this chapter” is good to hear), but be a rigorous critic as well–that's why the praise is so important, to give that balance
    * if the student disappears from view (i.e. isn't making the goals on the schedule) track him/her down
    * if the student needs to have weekly meetings with you, find time for them. Sometimes it's the only way forward because the candidate then HAS to show up with some new work done.

    Er, I'm sure there's much more, but I have to dash off to a job candidate interview. Where those candidates are so darned accomplished it makes my head spin. They must have had good supervisors!


  2. I love the link to assessment here and find it similar to the learning outcomes assessment movement that's boiling up in the humanities and social sciences–professional schools (e.g., Engineering, Education) have been doing this for years and might laugh at us for not knowing how to keep track of whether our students are learning at the program level.

    I worked in psychiatric rehab prior to returning to the academy, and that was all Evidence Based Practices (EBPs). So I was shocked to see such leeway and widespread difference in how professional relationships and training programs are managed in humanities and social science doctoral programs. Obviously this varies widely. EBPs, like the assessment movement, rely on

    – enforcing a common culture of high standards
    – referring to research when implementing new steps
    – establishing accountability for all involved stakeholders
    – delineating general steps that adjusted to specific situations and revisited post-assessment
    – and ensuring those in positions of power (e.g., therapists or counselors, professors or administrators) do not assume their expertise but are led by the choices and needs of those they serve (e.g., clients, students) as they actively engage with the practice or content area of interest

    From my limited professional and social network, I don't see this sort of rigor and attention paid to these incredibly important mentoring relationships. And that seems irresponsible and counter to our mission and identity as research-driven educators. What could change this?

    Here's a few easy suggestions:

    – Students and mentors create a brief contract each academic year that lays out goals for research and teaching, responsibilities, and an ideal meeting schedule. That contract is copied to the DGS and Chair and reassessed by student and mentor at the halfway and endpoint of the year. Revisions are welcome, it's not a one-and-done process.

    – Graduate supervision is a subject of tenure evaluations, job talks, and general faculty meetings. They're reviewed strictly. Many departments already do this.

    – At the end of each year, graduate students fill out a standardized survey assessing mentoring relationships. This fits in neatly with end of year progress reports that many graduate students already fill up. It's assessed by the DGS, Chair, and relevant faculty committees. Mentors receive structured feedback, anonymized as much as possible. Feedback is collated at the departmental, college, and university level.

    Dan Greene
    PhD Student in American Studies, University of Maryland College Park


  3. I'm not in the habit of defending Grad Studies Offices, but I think it makes sense that there is no general-purpose “how to supervise grad students” instruction intended for the whole university. This is one of the few times the local GSO hasn't taken a Science/Engineering model and tried to impose it on graduate education across the whole campus! (Just last year they had a program designed to bump up grad enrolment where you got $n dollars if you enrolled a student in a 3 year PhD program, but got $n+m if you graduated the student in 2 years!) In some places, the grad supervisor's job is to generate enough money to pay enough post-docs to do the actual supervising (“wash those beakers over there”) and to keep the lab running. The fact that in the humanities every grad student slows down your research rather than bolsering your CV is something they just can't absorb at the GSO.

    The lists above, esp from Aimee and Ladyenglishprofessor, match my thinking pretty closely. But my own experience, for many students, is that the supervisor needs to be encourager-in-chief and a bit of an amateur shrink.

    The very best students, the ones that we get all the credit for supervising, are the least work: brilliant, self-motivated, goal-directed, etc. What's to do but go into the first meeting and say “that's a career … let's talk about a thesis topic instead,” then after that a bit of editing and asking some probing questions now and then, write the award nomination letters, and get the pats on the back and the reflected glory on convocation day?

    The really smart students with a bit of writer's block, or the ones who notice that all their friends are buying houses and earning real incomes and having kids while grad students are in a state of arrested development, or those who have family crises or just in general wonder if they wouldn't help the world more by doing something else, are the ones who need good supervision. When it's done right I think it's a matter of figuring out how to get *both* the “this is good stuff” and the “this part absolutely has to change” messages across in a way that has the student leave each meeting charged up and eager to produce. How to do that seems to me to be something that it's going to be hard to write a recipe for, because it depends so much on the personality and circumstances of the student … I basically needed precisely one kick in the arse from my supervisor, then for him to get out of my way. I've yet to have a student much like me, so I haven't tried the kick in the arse method. But some seem to need me to be cool and professional, while others seem to need commiseration and some need a good laugh. The hardest to do right by are the ones who it seems to me would like me to be very friendly, but where I reckon being friendly is not going to get them to the finish line.


  4. This is a very important conversation. I want to throw in the fact that the reason emulating an excellent supervision experience of your own might not produce excellent supervision for your student is that different students need different types of guidance. We learn differently. Some need you to provide some structure, others need something else. It is an interpersonal relationship and as such might vary somewhat based on the particular people involved. Guidelines are helpful but flexibility is also important,


  5. I want to thank Aimee for this post, and all of you for commenting. I think the topic of graduate supervision is not only important for those of you who do or will supervise, but is also important for those of us being/or who will be/ supervised. I know several PhD students who talk about the difficulties they have with their supervisors, particularly in tracking them down and seeking help in reaching clear goals and deadlines. As I make my decision about which university to attend, and after that about who to sign on with as my supervisor, I will have to do a great deal of reflection about what I need out of my professional dealings with a supervisor and how important that is in the selection process. I am hoping to be one of the easy ones who doesn't require much work, but how I see myself may not be how others perceive me 😉


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