The ups and downs of graduate student supervision

Positive working relationships with supervisors are key to graduate student success

Grad student-supervisor relationships can be contentious.
Image by: Arwin Chan
Grad student-supervisor relationships can be contentious.

For graduate students, there’s one central relationship that keeps them in tune with their research and the university — their supervisor.

Because the majority of PhD programs depend primarily on the completion of a thesis project, the support and guidance of a supervisor specifically selected by the student for their expertise is crucial. And while there are many resources available to alleviate any problems between students and supervisors, their success fundamentally relies on students and supervisors awareness and use of them.

Similarly, the hierarchical structure of the working  relationship ensures that while the resources stress that the onus is on the department, it often falls to the student to carefully navigate their communication with their supervisor on their own, even when that relationship goes sour. 

“There is a lot going on in the heads of every graduate student. There’s a lot of fear and uncertainty,” a sixth-year PhD in the Faculty of Arts and Science said during a recent interview with The Journal

This student, and a number of others interviewed, preferred to remain anonymous, fearing that they’d lose any remaining support and the potential for positive reference letters if their supervisors were aware that they had spoken out about their concerns. As many graduate programs have a small number of students, The Journal has also left out their genders to ensure they’re not easily identifiable. 

While professors experience few of the negative effects of a supervisory-student relationship gone badly, students can lose out on parts of their program that are crucial to the successful completion of their degrees. 

“I think that the professors are in a privileged position where it’s been a long time since they’ve lived like that,” the Arts PhD student said. 

To continue within the academic stream, they said, students graduating from a PhD need three strong letters of reference from tenured professors — a crucial element that can be put into jeopardy if a student frankly voices their concerns. And while many faculty members recommend openly discussing issues with supervisors, or bringing in a third party to mediate, many students don’t view that as a viable option. 

“Intervention would be shooting yourself in the foot,” the PhD student stated simply.

The Queen’s Graduate Supervision Handbook is one of a number of resources created by the University to  provide supervisors and students with the tools to maintain positive working relationships. 

“Good supervisory practice assists students in planning their research, providing guidance and research training, ensuring satisfactory progress and achieving success in completing high quality research,” the introduction to the Handbook reads.

Other resources include workshops held jointly through the Centre for Teaching and Learning (CTL) and the School of Graduate Studies (SGS), as well as guidelines for supervisor and student responsibilities, mediation procedures and an advisor program provided by the Society of Graduate and Professional Students (SGPS). 

These resources typically address communication and mutual respect between supervisors and students and, most importantly, the need to clarify the responsibilities of supervisors and students in the partnership. The Handbook in particular states that supervisors and departments must provide an atmosphere where students feel safe discussing problems as they arise. 

“While it is important to acknowledge that graduate students are partners in the university research enterprise, it is equally important to recognize that the supervisor is the senior partner who, in many cases, provides funding support. Students may feel uncomfortable discussing issues or at risk if they complain or disagree with their supervisors,” the Handbook states. 

“Therefore, the onus is on departments/programs and supervisors to promote an environment where expectations and concerns can be discussed openly and without fear of reprisal.”

Unfortunately, while the University acknowledges the hierarchical issues inherent to supervision,  the power balance continues to pose problems for many graduate students. 

“You just don’t know [who] you can ask for help,” a PhD student in the Faculty of Engineering said.

The student, who comes from a different educational background than their supervisor, had to adjust to the latter’s expectations — as their supervisor wanted them to exhibit  the same knowledge of course material and language proficiency as their peers. 

“They don’t take into consideration that there is a cultural difference… They think that you have to know and you have to work the same [as] everybody else that’s Canadian and has learned the way it is here,” the student said. “It’s already tough to be a graduate student. An international graduate student — it’s even tougher.”  

While the student was willing to work long hours, they said they found themselves consistently working 12-hour days. The workload, coupled with lacking supervisory support and understanding, meant that the student was forced to seek help through the university’s counselling services. 

Students at the “Getting the most from your supervisor” Expanding Horizons Workshop

(Photo by Erika Streisfield)

A graduate student in the School of Business said they had a similar experience. While they’re a domestic student, they found it difficult to see eye-to-eye with their supervisor when it came to having a practical rather than research background. The two also disagreed on the student’s decision to make teaching a priority over research. 

“There have been cases where I’ve said I’d like to take a spare course … in the Education Department looking at [curricula] or something like that. And those things have been completely shut off,” the student said. 

While supervisors don’t have the authority to formally stop a student from registering in a course, there’s always the potential of the working relationship going sour if their advice is ignored.

The student added that their supervisor shifted focus to other students upon learning about their lack of research know-how, which perpetuated the problem. 

All of these experiences go to the root of the same predicament — that a poor working relationship with a supervisor can debilitate a graduate student’s ability to succeed. 

While professors face fewer repercussions if a working relationship with their graduate student doesn’t work out, many professors do prioritize supervision and try to promote a positive working environment.

“You have to kind of foster a good working relationship based upon the different characteristics of the student,” Wayne Cox, an associate professor in the Political Studies Department, said during an interview with The Journal

“Some people like to just go away and research on their own, some people need a little bit more hand holding, like to work to schedules — other people are a lot looser that way. And you can’t really decide as a supervisor how disciplined you’re going to be until you get a strong sense of how that student is going to react to it.” 

Cox also added that there are mutual benefits to providing an environment where a student can thrive.

“When you work with somebody — particularly at the PhD level — your fingerprints are kind of all over their thesis … And so I like to work with the students because it helps them with the branding process and it helps me too, because I find co-writing and co-researching probably normally goes quicker than by yourself, so you can be more productive that way.”

(Graphic by Ashley Quan)

Sam McKegney, an associate professor and the graduate chair in the English Department, said it’s important for students not to fear changing committees or supervisors, as daunting as the prospect might be. 

“I think students are extremely anxious about making any alterations to a graduate supervisory committee. They feel that to do so is going to make them a pariah in the department, or people are going to think they are a hard student to work with,” McKegney said.

“But quite often, work evolves in such a way that someone who was originally imagined as the supervisor is no longer the person with the best expertise to oversee that project.” 

McKegney said that while even faculty can be daunted by the prospect of a student changing supervisors, it’s not an uncommon process and is a better alternative than a partnership that isn’t furthering the goals of either party. 

He also added that letters of reference from supervisors don’t necessarily make or break a career. Instead, he emphasized the importance of fostering interpersonal relationships outside of Queen’s. 

While having a glowing recommendation letter from your supervisor is important, he said hiring committees are more likely to give recommendations from a professional in the same field but not directly affiliated with the project more weight during their consideration process. 

Christine Sypnowich, a professor in the Philosophy Department, stated that while it may not always seem that way, supervisors have a shared experience with their students, having gone through  graduate school themselves.

“I think there’s kind of a built-in empathy in the relationship, as we’ve been through it ourselves.”

Sypnowich also added that while students are the driving force within their degrees, supervisors are also responsible for ensuring the success of their graduate students. 

“It’s important for the supervisor — and it’s really part of your duty — to be checking in, to be setting goals and guidelines and really making sure that the student is making progress and not let them twist in the wind.” 

Hossam Hassanein, a professor in the School of Computing and one of the two recipients of the School of Graduate Studies Award for Excellence in Graduate Supervision this past year, offered his advice on creating a positive working relationship with students. 

“The way I handle my group is that we are a family,” Hassanein said.

While this approach sounds simple, it’s  quite nuanced in its execution. Hassanein collaborates with his students, places them at the forefront in meetings with industry professionals and co-written papers, encourages teamwork between his students and maintains an open door policy — all in the interest of fostering a positive working relationship with his students.

By making his graduate students a priority, Hassanein said he allows them to gradually build confidence, preparing them for life after graduation. 

“All of us in the School of Computing — this is the way we work. We help one another, we are not in competition. If we help one another, we are all doing better,” Hassanein said.

To support the efforts of individual departments, the university provides a number of resources for supervisors and students. Workshops through the CTL and SGS are one of the ways in which Queen’s nurtures positive working relationships between supervisors and graduate students. 

These workshops allow students and faculty to participate in an open discussion with their peers, providing a forum for both parties to air their concerns about communication, expectations and responsibilities throughout a student’s degree.  

While initially the workshop series was only geared towards new faculty, it has been expanded to include returning faculty and graduate students as well. This change was instigated by Sue Fostaty Young, educational developer at the CTL, in partnership with Associate Deans of Arts Kim McAuley. In a recent interview with The Journal, Young explained that after the previous year’s workshop, McAuley proposed adding a refresher for returning faculty.

“And I said I would like to do that only if we offer a counter one called ‘Getting the most from your supervisor,’ which she thought was a great idea,” Young said. 

She added that  the newest version of the workshops is geared towards ensuring that students and supervisors are aware of the importance of communication and avoiding coming into the partnership with assumptions. 

Young also said  that the changes have received positive feedback from students and supervisors, as they provided a much-needed platform for open discussion.

“Everything boils down to purposeful communication, open and honest expectations [and] articulating responsibilities,” Young said. 

At a workshop held at Career Services on Feb. 1, student panelists and the two organizers told the group that students need to realize that they’re the driving force behind their research, and while the supervisor should provide 

their students with support, there’s a level of autonomy required for graduate studies. 

They also provided attendees with a list of resources and strategies for addressing tricky problems that may arise, such as lacking communication from supervisors. 

Finally, they emphasized that students must also respect the advice of their supervisors and vocalize concerns as they come up, while supervisors should be aware that students decide the focus of their research and need the room and confidence to explore avenues of interest. 

There doesn’t seem to be a be-all and end-all solution to problems that arise between graduate students and their supervisors. But all those interviewed agreed that communication is a key component for any positive change.  

“It’s hard to have frank conversations because you don’t know exactly where to start, because you don’t want to sound patronizing. But I think it’s important to start off with ‘this is what I’m saying, what do you understand that to mean in your own context,’ and negotiate the meaning between you,” Young said.

“And I think that’s the single most important thing to do — do it early, and do it often.”

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