This is a guest post by Tanille Shandro, PhD Candidate in Biophysical Chemistry in the Faculty of Science at the University of Calgary. Tanille has a wealth of experience in student leadership and engagement through her roles as the Graduate Students’ Association President (2020-2022) and on the UCalgary Residence Education Team (2016-2021). Twitter @tanilleshandro

People readily picture the ‘mythical’ average undergraduate as a young, inexperienced, possibly late teens or early twenties adult who just left their childhood home to start university. While this image masks the actual diversity of undergrads, it also tends to reflect enough first year students who arrive on campus each Fall to endure as a stereotype. In contrast, it is more of a struggle to picture what the average graduate student might look like as this demographic represents greater variability across all enrollment categories – domestic, indigenous and international. Given that grad students’ ages can span more than 5 decades, these are experienced adults who are in their twenties to seventies and encompass a range of life stages and diverse life roles. Masters and doctoral students tend to bring vastly different goals and purposes to their graduate programs than undergrads, and also aim for diverse career paths beyond the academy upon graduation. Complex life experiences, roles and responsibilities, from multiple career experiences as part and full time employees, to parents, to caregivers for elders, to homeowners, landlords and renters, to community volunteers and business owners, and so on, can make it challenging to easily sum up the “average graduate student”. The diversity of graduate students as a unique population often leads to misconceptions about masters and doctoral students both within and outside academia – such as grad school = academic jobs.

Within the institution, as the former GSA President and a doctoral candidate in Chemistry, I have witnessed students and supervisors struggle to identify a clear trajectory for a graduate thesis project that is well matched with training and experiences and also aligns with diverse post-graduation career plans. Some graduate students hold a clear image of their intended pathway after graduation, but many others lack confidence and certainty – especially given fluctuating employment trends and opportunities in both academic careers and diverse employment opportunities beyond graduation. Eventually, all graduate students must finish their programs and transition to subsequent stages in life, such as continuing in existing employment or starting new career and leadership paths. Many of the niche technical skills learned in the lab or in the field enable graduates to conduct their research and write their thesis. However, to thrive in the many workplaces and diverse pathways graduate students want to pursue, they also need to develop fundamental, transferable skills during their program that can be applied and amplified in the diverse employment contexts they want to find themselves in. Guiding a graduate student’s professional development often falls to the supervisor, who plays an important part in their student’s success. However, there is an important role that the institution plays in providing relevant and coordinated professional learning and development opportunities for all graduate students.

The 2022 report on Excellence in Graduate Student Programs produced by the Canadian Association for Graduate Studies (CAGS) outlines the categories of professional development and learning that must be explicitly included within a graduate program for students to be able to thrive post-graduation workplaces. These categories include communication/knowledge transfer, project management, leadership and mentoring, collaboration and Interpersonal skills, and Intercultural and EDI competencies. Many graduate students and their supervisors may regard these ‘soft skills’ as less important than developing the technical research and analysis skills to be learned specifically for their thesis. Having heard a range of comments from students makes me wonder about potential pressure from supervisors to publish and focus solely on research tasks, which likely has positive impacts for the student’s progress with their thesis and also for the supervisor’s program of research and reputation but may not necessarily benefit the student long-term depending on their diverse career goals.

In Spring 2022, our research team surveyed thesis-based masters and doctoral students about their experience with supervision at the University of Calgary. We asked several questions about professional skills to explore the student experience in relation to supervisory support in areas where they would most likely learn transferable skills, such as the ones highlighted in the CAGS 2022 Report. Categories that our survey explored were attending and traveling to conferences, publishing their research, and networking in various environments.

General Landscape of Supervisor Support for Professional Development in Graduate Students

Our team was pleasantly surprised to learn that a majority of survey respondents agreed that their supervisor encourages them to pursue professional learning opportunities. We recognize that this result is likely influenced by how each respondent defines ‘professional learning’, and can range from workshops and courses on developing leadership, writing, communication skills, to seminars on literature review, and so on. Professional learning also may be understood to include learning how to run a particular instrument or data analysis technique to complete their dissertation research. While the high rate of survey respondent’s agreement paints a positive picture of the current ‘professional development’ landscape for graduate students, it is important we pay attention to the one-fifth of graduate students who disagreed that they received encouragement to pursue professional learning opportunities. Our research team wonders if there is a lack of supervisor support or institutional support is pushing any engagement in professional learning initiatives ‘underground’ and leaving students concerned that they cannot share these activities with their supervisor or program. A lack of supervisory support for professional learning beyond work on the thesis can push students to participate on evenings and weekends, or even cover up how they spend their time on extra curricular campus activities. Our team’s concern is that there will be a deficiency in skills and career preparation for the 1 in 5 students who appear to lack supervisor support for professional learning beyond the thesis/dissertation, which can lead to negative outcomes such as burnout and unhealthy lifestyles long-term.

In the 2022 version of the survey, our team neglected to ask respondents about how they are hearing about professional development initiatives and which ones they are attending. I have worked in many different areas of campus and know that a great deal of time and effort is put into scheduling workshops and seminars to develop graduate students’ professional skills. Various service groups, such as the GSA, MyGradSkills in FGS and the Taylor Institute, are constantly competing to market various professional learning initiatives for graduate students. However, it may be that with many different ‘arms’ running independently of one another to provide professional learning for graduate students at the institution, it can lead to overlap and redundancies. Leadership and collective efforts to coordinate professional development opportunities for graduate students can likely save time and money by increasing awareness and by reducing the duplication of professional development options and services.

Supervisor Encouragement to Attend and Travel to Conferences

It was great to see that almost three-quarters of survey respondents indicated that their supervisor communicates about conference opportunities, which we expand upon further in different blog post. When asked about if their supervisor communicates about travel funding opportunities, however, the “agree” responses dropped to nearly one-half. To put this finding into context, our survey data was collected in the Spring/Summer of 2022, when, from an Alberta context and perspective, society’s views about the pandemic were shifting to a return to a pre-pandemic state of in-person or on-campus learning. The responses to our 2022 survey highlight a demographic of mainly first and second-year graduate students who likely had not yet experienced many in-person learning opportunities due to health restrictions. Simultaneous with the pandemic, the University experienced unprecedented provincial financial cuts that left many graduate programs reshuffling funds and canceling certain opportunities that were available pre-pandemic. A casualty of these budget decisions included a sharp reduction in travel awards available to graduate students for professional opportunities like attending and presenting their research at conferences. Many travel scholarships that were available to graduate students prior to the pandemic no longer exist, so it has become increasingly difficult for many to obtain funds to attend conferences. This scarce funding reality may have impacted the prevalence of student-supervisor conversations about conference travel and funding opportunities, and by extension, reduced the student’s overall ability to participate in these important professional growth opportunities. Re-allocating funding to graduate student travel scholarships should be reconsidered as it is a unique opportunity for students to learn fundamental and transferable skills to be successful at leadership, communiation and networking while simultaneously promoting the research institution and positively impacting the supervisor’s program of research.

Supervisor Support in Networking in a Variety of Environments

Developing a network of academic and professional connections while in graduate studies is key to student success, both during graduate studies and beyond when applying for jobs. A majority of 2022 survey respondents indicated that their supervisor helps them to professionally network within their program, with only one-quarter of respondents who disagreed. We are concerned that this level of respondent disagreement increases to one-third when considering whether a supervisor’s support with networking expands to include other areas of campus beyond the program. There can be many natural opportunities for supervisors to support students’ networking within a program area, such as seminar series, social programming, group research collaborations, and various workshops that are provided. However, it can also be a challenge to promote networking in dispersed programs and projects. For example, in my discipline of Chemistry, the department is spread out across nine different buildings and has no central location. Still, even with the physical separation I have many opportunities to see my colleagues on a weekly basis. A challenge for many programs is that campus-wide or even faculty-wide networking opportunities, especially ones that invite and include both supervisors and students to attend, are almost non-existent. The interdisciplinary emphasis at the University needs to be matched with more opportunities for graduate students and their supervisors to network inter-departmentally or across the institution with faculty members and graduate students in different faculties to provide intentional, flexible and targetted opportunities for graduate students to network beyond their own program area.

To conclude, although I see it as positive that many 2022 graduate student survey respondents agreed that their supervisor encourages professional learning opportunities, I am also concerned that there is still a large proportion of students who don’t have access to this kind of support. Our team’s 2022 survey results indicate that the institution must restore funding for graduate students’ conference travel, and take action to ensure graduate students are utilizing the many professional development and diverse training opportunities academia has to offer in preparing them for diverse career paths. The institution can also take more of a leadership role on investing in supervisory development to expand the quality and capacity for mentoring and advising graduate students on the importance of professional development and networking for diverse careers, along with opportunities for supervisors and students to attend campus wide professional development events and activities together. Continuous professional development during a masters or doctoral program should be a large focus for the modern-day graduate student as only a minority aim for and end up in academic jobs, and all graduate students need to be prepared for the diverse research, leadership and communciation skill sets required for meaningful employment beyond campus. Key changes that should be considered are designing programs differently to include professional development requirements and more opportunities and flexibility for graduate students to network within departments and beyond, where the supervisor would play a key role in facilitating these connections. Additionally, more institutional funding needs to be reinstituted for graduate students to have impactful learning experiences at conferences and other professional settings as this type of professional learning is not only beneficial to the student but for the supervisor and institution as well.

Supervisors are meant to be mentors to their students, and many recognize that graduate studies and or academia is not the graduates’ final destination. All graduate students need to be supported in ongoing professional learning and networking opportunities, and in developing employability skills broad enough to be transferable to the many other career paths and roles they will undertake in the future.

(CFREB approved research, Jacobsen, Shandro & Paquette: REB 22-0374-MOD1, GRA Sonja Johnston)

This Supervision Blog is part of the Quality Graduate Supervision project website.