emotional labour · grad school · writing

Push me, pull you: supervising graduate students

That this post is late is regrettable; that it is appearing at all is a testament to the powers of accountability. I write posts for Wednesday. A good 300-ish people will look for it then. Margrit and Erin expect it then. I’ve worked it into my schedule.

And yet. Last night I couldn’t get a post finished, after having failed to write one to my satisfaction for most of the day. Did. Not. Like. It. Blech. And yet. Even when I gave up and went to bed, vowing to get it done first thing, I was still dead sure I was going to do it.


This morning, I’ve got three things queued up to read: a first dissertation chapter by one student whose work I’m supervising; an n+1 dissertation proposal draft from another; and some ground-clearing literature review writing from yet another.  All these came in, I think, because of deadlines, because of accountability. As I told them all, and I’ll tell you now, I really don’t care if these are works of genius, or even really adequate, let alone groundbreaking or polished. What matters is that they got done. These academic apprentices got a serious amount of writing done and sent off for feedback, despite moving, and teaching, and intellectual crises. On time! Despite the terror of the blank screen and of the filled-up calendar. Done! Fantastic! I immediately sent all of them congratulatory emails, before even downloading their delicious attachments.

Getting something done is the hardest part of grad school, and of research in the professorial ranks. I think a really big part of my role as a graduate supervisor is helping my students manage this reality.

I was reading a couple of opinion pieces in the Chronicle this past week, addressing how to supervise graduate assistants, or how to reconfigure graduate degrees in the humanities to improve the time to completion stats. And in responding to those pieces, I crystallized my general opinion about supervision: supervision is active, and it’s equal parts about the product of research and the process of research.

A big part of supervision is holding students accountable to deadlines and milestones, with the aim of teaching them to create their own deadlines and milestones later on, and the support systems to keep themselves productive.

I’m an emailer, basically: how’s your work coming? Can we meet next week? How about you write twenty pages for this date: I’ll put it in my calendar to expect your email that day. Who is going to look at this when you get the next draft done, and have you set a timeline with them?

Is this stressful for them? Probably. But I’ll bet my house it’s less stressful than waking up one day and realizing you haven’t written a word for six months. And unless we both become sticklers for managing the process, we’re never going to get to addressing the substance of the content–because there won’t be any.

This is not how everyone supervises. Many of us were trained in the “get the dissertation written and get in touch if you get stuck, or, better, finished” school. Some of us see an active supervisory relationship as potentially infantilizing, and definitely as a lot of work. Me, I wish I still had some kind of “supervisor” who would prod me to get stuff done. I guess that’s why I have a writing group: it’s more peer-driven support than authoritarian compulsion, but, hey, it still gets the job done.

And isn’t that what graduate supervision is for? Helping students get their projects done?

What kind of supervisor are you? Or what kind of supervisor did you have, or want, or need?

7 thoughts on “Push me, pull you: supervising graduate students

  1. This is an issue I think about a lot too. I think in general I'm pretty active (like you, I'm an emailer), but I don't think a one-size-fits-all style works for supervision: some students thrive with less hands-on direction and don't need (or, perhaps, appreciate) the kind of overt “I'm holding you accountable” messaging that seems to be essential for other students. I try to make sure we're all aware of external deadlines and both departmental and general expectations, and then I do my best to tailor my specific efforts to my understanding of the individual student and her situation. Ideally, if students need more direct contact or guidance than they're getting, we'll both realize it, but the burden is on both sides of the relationship to be clear and keep the channels of communication open. I've had students ask for what seems to me like too much supervision (multiple contacts / submissions per week, for instance)–in that case what I think they are really looking for is a writing group or support network.But it can be just as risky for a student to think she doesn't need to check in at all: 100 pages into a draft, it's harder to change direction than it is at 20 pages along!

    One factor I find tricky in terms of accountability is that there really doesn't seem to be much I can do if a student doesn't meet agreed-on deadlines. What am I going to do, stop supervising them? (Hardly!) There are no penalties except the long-range prospect of running out of extensions and never finishing. If they routinely aren't meeting deadlines, sure, that means it's time for you both to ask why and try to restructure processes and expectations, but all I really have, in the end, is moral suasion.


  2. Hello, Rohan — yes, you're right that every student is an individual. Supervision is a relationship, and like all relationships it's a balance of the needs and capacities of both parties. I agree. Your process sounds really good, sensible and sensitive.

    On the topic of moral suasion: I think we need more deadlines at the department level. Where I am, for example, we never used to have a firm deadline for thesis proposals, with the effect that some students didn't hand them in until their fifth year of study! Our deadline is now December 1 of Year 3, and they're all hauling ass to get it done. Nor moral suasion, but threat of losing good standing in program. Similarly, where I did my PhD, candidacy exams had rough timeline guidelines: some students in my cohort wrote their exams in Year 4. Here, they're scheduled en masse by the department, and no one misses it. So moral suasion, obviously, is not always enough, and sometimes clear expectations that take the form of milestones with consequences attached are much, much more effective. What do you think?


  3. We do pretty well with departmental deadlines for comps (deferrals require special permission) and thesis proposals, but once we're into the thesis writing phase, there's nothing but the yearly progress reports we have to submit to the Faculty of Graduate Studies. We can indicate less-than-satisfactory progress on them, but I'm not sure there are any consequences unless you reach the very bottom of the scale or flat-out refuse to sign it. It might be helpful, actually, if supervisors had a departmental standard of “satisfactory” to refer to when completing these–something we could refer our students to.


  4. Thank you for this Aimée! After reading your post I was inspired to fire off another 500 words on my dissertation proposal. I find I really need the push of a deadline, but my supervisor follows the traditional school of PhD supervision that you mentioned. I totally get needing to learn how to set deadlines on your own, but I think you're right about guidance and mentorship… Wish more profs would follow your example!


  5. Amaranthus — I'm glad you find the information in the post useful! And I'm glad that it's prompted you to write a little bit more of your dissertation proposal. That's awesome, actually.

    Another takeaway for you and for other graduate students, though, is this: you can ask your supervisor for the kind of help you need. As Rohan notes above, sometimes students ask too much time and effort, but usually, they don't. And asking for something like monthly writing deadlines, or pre-scheduled meetings to talk about progress is certainly reasonable, and your supervisor is almost certain to be happy to accomodate you. Frankly, we all win when students make more progress, faster, and anything that makes that more likely is to the advantage of both parties to participate in!

    Hang in there!


  6. My supervisor at Oxford had a great system, which wasn't the norm but worked well for her supervisees and, I think, for her: she emailed her DPhil students shortly before the beginning and end of each 8-week term to book appointments with each of us. A big part of the meeting would be taken up with a discussion of the writing we sent to her several days before the meeting. The type and amount of writing we submitted varied from time to time. This routine allowed us to anticipate her/our expectations and work accordingly, and for her to fit substantial contact with her students into what was a very demanding schedule. Good stuff.


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