This guest post is from Sonja Johnston, PhD Candidate in Learning Sciences, in the Werklund School of Education at the University of Calgary. Sonja has received numerous teaching excellence awards and has been recognized as an emerging researcher (ISSOTL). Her research interests involve innovation in design to improve learning experiences for post-secondary students and their transition to career pathways. Twitter @SonjaJo_LS

A previous post on the Supervision Blog introduced 5 key insights and ideas that emerged from a Spring 2022 survey of thesis-based masters and doctoral students about their experience with supervision. A dimension in our findings that resonated deeply with me, namely communication and its role within the supervisor-student relationship, has been at the crux of every experience I have had in grad school. In this post, I share reflections on three survey findings on communication through my own experience and perspective as a doctoral student.

First, a large majority of graduate students agreed they were comfortable approaching their supervisor to schedule additional meetings as needed. However, this result made me wonder about the concerns that might be missed when graduate students are uncomfortable with approaching their supervisor. In reflecting on my own doctoral journey, I have found that regular meetings provide dedicated time for discussing my program and progress with my supervisor. Talking about coursework, grant applications, campus experiences, and emerging topics during a regular and predictable time established a routine for open communication so I was rarely concerned about booking additional meetings. Still, if an additional need emerged during regular meetings, time could be offered and booked right away.

Establishing good communication patterns from the start has been important to my doctoral experience. Having started and stopped a graduate program before (it feels like a lifetime ago but still so fresh), I realized it was important to do my homework to get a good match for doctoral supervision. It was important to me to assess the potential for a professional relationship through conversations with a faculty member prior to making a commitment.

Therefore, even before I had applied to the program, I initiated discovery meetings with a prospective supervisor to inquire about their style of supervision, preferred means of communication, and whether a weekly meeting time was possible. Once admitted, and prior to my program start, I had already engaged in conversations about establishing communication patterns and supervision practices. Then came the pandemic and starting a residency-based on-campus doctoral program in Fall 2020 that was moved entirely to the virtual sphere. My supervisor and I had scheduled an entire semester of weekly meetings which helped to facilitate our seamless transition to online meetings and creating space for regular conversations that focused on my progress and process.

An additional consideration was protecting time for my PhD meetings that was different from any other project or topic (i.e., such as work associated with Research or Teaching Assistant roles). Even after the return to on-campus, my supervisor and I have maintained regular meetings for my own PhD work, along with meetings for collaborative projects, or additional research activities. Each meeting is accompanied with an agenda or objectives for the meeting which was invited to be collaboratively compiled (or that I could generate my own agenda items).

A second finding that resonated with me was that only half of the students indicated their supervisor communicated information about grants, scholarships, and awards that they were eligible for. With ongoing concern for student funding levels and increased stress because of financial challenges, this communication gap can impact the day-to-day conditions for the student (if they are not receiving this information from other sources). However, this leads to a concern that almost one-third of students indicated that their supervisor did not provide timely and helpful support in applying for grants, scholarships, and awards for which they are eligible.

In my own doctoral journey, I had identified to my supervisor that I wanted to apply for grants and scholarships but I didn’t have extensive experience with this type of writing in my academic history. The support offered through supervision included being given successful examples, and multiple cycles of feedback on draft applications or abstracts, mentorship on setting targets and goals, and progressive development and discussion through collaborative writing processes. The intensive and iterative nature of these discussions with my supervisor also led to evidence-based letters of reference that were personalized, timely, and reflected a deep understanding of my capabilities, accomplishments, and potential as a scholar.

Don’t get me wrong. Developing trust in this peer review and feedback process with my supervisor took time given the vulnerability I felt about my writing. I stressed for weeks before sending my first abstract for a required national grant opportunity to my supervisor. I still remember the sting from seeing all of the mark-up, feedback and comments in the document’s tracked changes. Although I initially read this feedback through the lens of an ‘imposter’ and it resulted in a few tears and self criticism, such as “do I actually belong here?”, “am I good enough?”, and “can I ever write well enough…”, I did learn to trust and believe that this feedback was kindly and generously offered to help me improve my writing. Facing the feedback and my supervisor in the next meeting, and realizing that this guidance and support was offered to help strengthen my writing processes and understanding, took the edge off of my fear. I won’t say the imposter feeling is gone, but I have come to await these drafting and writing sessions with more confidence and excitement (and, by the way, I have received awards, grants, and scholarships that recognize the quality of my work).

Third, it struck me that approximately a quarter of students indicated their supervisor did not take an interest by asking about their progress with coursework, and another one-third disagreed that their supervisor had taken time to get to know more about them and their interests.

Being a graduate student is only one of my roles.  In real life (IRL) I am a partner, a parent, a teacher, a whole person… and grad student is only one of my many dimensions. It makes a difference when a student knows that a supervisor cares about them as a person and has their best interests at heart. With respectful boundaries, meetings with my supervisor have always started with a heart-felt “how are you?” and a recall of what had been shared previously (like my puppy’s name is Penny, or a big paper was upcoming in a particular course). When my kids had COVID, there was a genuine compassion and pause for care without me being left feeling that faking “fine” was required. My supervisor’s awareness and care for me as a whole person has created authentic appreciation, a feeling that I am valued and seen, and I don’t second-guess emails, feedback, or challenges that come my way.

Through this opportunity to reflect on survey findings through my own experience and growth as a doctoral candidate, I have come to the conclusion that what counts in communication is a relationship of authentic trust and respect – mutually shared between the student and supervisor. If the relationship is framed as professional colleagues, the roles and responsibilities may differ, but respect and accountability for both people involved creates the space for endless possibility!

The University of Calgary Conjoint Faculties Research Ethics Board approved this research study (Jacobsen, Shandro, & Paquette: REB 22-0374, GRA Sonja Johnston).

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