In this post, I explore why it is important to evaluate the quality of graduate education through the perspectives and experiences of students. Graduate students can provide insights on practices and feedback on lived experiences that support their success and satisfaction. Graduate students are an important source of information on the challenges and barriers they encounter which can inform improvements and changes in graduate education, and the design of supervision, program and institutional alliances that better support students in timely progress and degree completion. Research indicates that a strong learning alliance between supervisor, program and institution scaffolds the key enablers for graduate students to thrive in their studies (Jacobsen, et al, 2021).
In Spring 2022, our research team surveyed thesis based masters and doctoral students about their experience with supervision. In this post, I focus on five key ideas and reflect on why effective supervision, program and institutional support matters for student success.
Health and Wellbeing Matters
It was reassuring that two-thirds of students who responded to our survey agreed that supervisors emphasized the importance of health and wellbeing in their program. What stuck out for me was that one in five students disagreed that the importance of health and wellbeing had been part of supervision conversations. Student feedback on discussions about health and wellness matters given the demands and intensity of graduate education. In order to thrive academically and make progress in their research, students and supervisors need to be healthy and well, and also discuss the importance of balance. Students need access to timely wellness services and support across campus, and supervision is a key support. It is important that academic faculty model health and wellness practices in their own work and actively promote the same practices with their graduate students.
A Good Match Matters
The majority of graduate students agreed that they were matched with a supervisor who understands and supports their unique characteristics, needs, and talents. However, one in five students were less confident about their supervision match. Students thrive when they can establish a trusting relationship with their supervisor early in their program, and then cultivate ongoing relational trust throughout the supervisory relationship (Jacobsen, et al, 2021). As part of a good match, students and supervisors build a sound working relationship based on effective communication and mutual regard.
Meeting Regularly Matters
Supervisors and students need to meet regularly to discuss academic progress and research projects. Just over half of students agreed that they met regularly with their supervisor, with one-third meeting ‘as needed’. Approximately 1 in 10 students reported they rarely meet with their supervisor. We realize that there will be a range of ways that students and supervisors define “meeting regularly”. What we do know is that students thrive when they get to meet regularly with a supportive supervisor who invests in relationship building, cares about their timely progress on program milestones, invites their involvement in preparing papers and conference presentations, and engages in mentoring for diverse career paths. Research has found that effective supervisors seek to establish regular meeting times with students and help them to organize deadlines for milestones early in the program, and engage in student focused, responsive, and tailored mentoring that evolves and changes in response to where the student is at in their program (Jacobsen, et al, 2021).
Funding and Recognition Matters
About half of students agreed that their supervisor communicates with them about grants, scholarships and awards for which they are eligible, with the other half indicating neutrality or disagreement. Graduate education is a significant investment for graduate students. Along with paying for tuition, materials and supplies, graduate students need resources for housing, food, clothing, transportation, childcare, conferences, and the list goes on. The demographic profile of graduate students is expanding; many graduate students are working hard to fund their education and to support families and or elders. Current funding levels for graduate students vary across disciplines, programs and research groups, which can create uneven, unpredictable and unfair access to financial resources for graduate students.
The supervisor needs to be an advocate and trusted mentor who understands the importance of supporting students in applying for grant, scholarship and award opportunities. However, institutions and programs must acknowledge and understand that “supervisors cannot bear the sole burden for effective graduate education” (Jacobsen, et al., 2021, p. 10). Institutions must ensure that there are diverse grant, scholarship and award opportunities, and also provide guaranteed funding so that graduate programs can effectively and equitably fund all graduate students who are admitted.
Safe Spaces Matter
An important question is: Do students know who to turn to if and when things are not working well with their supervisor? In our study, a large proportion of students agreed that the Graduate Program Director (GPD) creates safe spaces to report any issues or conflicts that may arise with their supervisor. What caught my attention was the noticeable proportion of students who submitted neutral and not applicable responses, which likely holds several meanings. It may suggest that students have no issues or concerns to report, or that they’re unsure what role the GPD holds in a program, or they do not know who the GPD is or what they actually do. Graduate Program Directors, who are academics in the home Faculty, serve an important liaison role between the graduate program and the Faculty of Graduate Studies. GPDs have primary responsibility for admission, for ensuring students are matched with an appropriate supervisor, and power in how scholarships, awards and funding stipends are allocated. A perception, correct or not, that a GPD is a “friend or ally” of the supervisor, and thus lacks impartiality, may impact the trust that graduate students have in GPDs. It is important for the university and each program to ensure GPDs are supported and properly trained in carrying out their roles and responsibilities with respect and integrity for all of the graduate students in the program. Further, it is vital that all graduate students are aware of who they can trust and rely on, such as the GPD, if and when issues or conflicts arise with their supervisor or program.
As part of our survey, we wanted to ensure that graduate students were informed about the levels and layers of support available to them. Campus resources were shared with graduate students, prior to starting and at the conclusion of the survey, to create awareness about individuals and groups on campus who will listen and provide support to graduate students. If graduate students have any concerns about their experience with supervision, or with their graduate program, the following list references individuals and groups on campus who will listen and can provide support. We encourage any graduate student who has concerns to please reach out to:
Every graduate student deserves an effective supervisor and all graduate supervisors deserve ready access to professional learning opportunities and sustained communities of practice to refine their supervision pedagogy. It is imperative that graduate students’ voices and perspectives on their experience in graduate school be amplified and leveraged to inform processes, policies and programs designed to support their wellness, progress and success. Given this commitment to students and supervisors, it is a privilege to collaborate closely with doctoral candidates on the Supervision and Graduate Program Student Experience Survey (CFREB approved research, Jacobsen, Shandro & Paquette: REB 22-0374, GRA Sonja Johnston), and to lead the research team that has designed and offered an online course for graduate supervision development [https://ucalgary.ca/graduate-supervision-mooc]. Stay tuned for more posts from members of these research teams and other guest writers with ideas and insights from research on promoting excellence in graduate education.
Jacobsen, M., Friesen, S., & Becker, S. (2021). Online supervision in a professional doctorate in education: Cultivating relational trust within learning alliances. Innovations in Education and Teaching International, 58(6), 635-646. DOI: 10.1080/14703297.2021.1891425