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Intellectual climate and academic community

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Although it might not always be apparent because of disciplinary separation and the size of our campuses, McGill's intellectual climate is full of activity. Take the initiative to participate in some of the many events that gather our academic communities and inspire dialogue and debate. You can also facilitate new events; you simply need a reason, the people who'll come, and the space to welcome them.


Signs of a warm intellectual climate include:

  • student-led peer support groups and other student-led initiatives (e.g., events or policies);

  • presentations by students and postdocs that are attended by most of the faculty;

  • occasions for visiting speakers to be introduced to students, postdocs, and professors;

  • social activities attended by a wide range of people from the department; and

  • departmental meetings that are genuine discussions and not merely administrative routines.

(Adapted from Gerry Mullins and Neville Marsh of the University of Adelaide, and the University of Oxford’s Intellectual climate tool.)

McGill has many opportunities to participate in such activities, resulting in a vibrant intellectual climate and a vocal academic community. Ideas abound beyond the usual departmental confines—at guest lectures and exhibitions, through conferences and clubs, and at a growing number of institutes, centres, and websites like this one. They offer many opportunities for stimulating dialogue, creating new ideas, and learning more about all the knowledge developed and brought here.

Finding the right networks to suit your particular academic interests may take some effort, but a number of initiatives, institutions, and programs are committed to fostering and enhancing intellectual exchange. If you are a graduate student, perhaps start with recommendations from your supervisor, faculty advisers, or join your peers at one or many of the exceptional events at McGill each year. While the supervisory relationship is important, graduate students can receive additional support from—and feel more integrated in—a broader community.

Examples of activities and events offered at McGill

Where to find information on activities and events

The importance of infrastructure and resources

Work space, collaborative space, technology and equipment are crucial for a comfortable and enjoyable work environment, as well as for the organization of the above-described events. When discussing expectations with your supervisor, be sure to ask about these items.

  • Will you have office space on campus?

  • Are there collaborative spaces within the lab, academic unit, faculty, department or program that can be used for group work or small events, like journal clubs?

  • What technology (e.g., computers, printers) will be available in these spaces?

The McGill Library, especially their spaces for graduate students, as well as IT services are useful resources on this topic.

How can supervisees work together to meet collective needs?

Even with events happening across campus, graduate students can still feel that they are isolated or that they lack the support to succeed. Some departments provide opportunities for social contact with other students, faculty, and academic staff, including research presentations. In other departments, initiatives to foster an academic community come from the students themselves.


Case study: Creating a graduate community

The two McGill graduate students writing together here developed a discussion group through conversations with their cohort to address several growing concerns:

We didn’t feel we were getting a chance to have conversations with our professors. They’re always so busy! But, they have a wealth of experience that we don’t always get to hear about in the classroom. Some of their exciting view-points may not warrant a full 13 week course; however, we wanted to learn more on these subjects and what was behind their motivation before starting our intern and job searches.

We wanted to connect with alumni, local professionals, and active community members with a focus on developing some of the professional skills we aren’t taught. We wanted to explore our future roles as professionals and community members; how to work and engage collaboratively in the field and across disciplines. We invited people we admire from the community, some responded and others sent their regrets.

Finally, we wanted to connect with our fellow students before we all disbanded; to have fun, watch cool videos or YouTube clips and discuss what we thought about them. We did this mostly to challenge ourselves to think critically about current issues.

We aimed the discussions a people in our department and connected fields, but really it was open to anyone. We’ve held three very successful Q&A sessions and hope to hold another aimed at engaging and encouraging the cohort below us to set up reading groups and other academic activities aimed at graduate students.

Regardless of the motivation, some goals of developing an academic community are to:

  • provide a forum for students, researchers, and academics to discuss projects and practise presentation skills;

  • give critical yet constructive feedback;

  • collaborate and develop research ideas; and

  • build and support the culture of an academic environment.

Questions for reflection:

  • Does your faculty, program or department offer events like the ones described in the case study? Have you attended?

  • If you haven’t attended, what do you think you could gain from participating in these events?

  • If your faculty, program or department doesn’t offer such events, would you be comfortable starting one?

    • What type of event or activity do you think would be most beneficial and interesting for this group?

    • What resources are available to help organize this event (e.g., peers, professors, program administrators, space on campus, email newsletters)?

A good intellectual climate is supportive, stimulating, and respectful

From your relationship with your supervisor, department, and mentors, to your position in the university in general, a good intellectual climate enables you to feel connected and involved. People in the humanities and social sciences can follow the team-based approach of many scientific research communities, thereby reducing feelings of isolation that are more common in the former disciplines.


Doctoral study is simultaneously an academic and social experience. A good intellectual climate provides both social and academic integration, and it may often be difficult in practice to separate the two. Attrition and long times to completion are related to a student’s lack of social integration in the broader community as well as academic integration in the department (Golde, 2000). Fostering a sense of collegiality among research students and encouraging students to participate in the intellectual life of their university needs to occur at the level of the academic unit, at the level of one-to-one supervisory relationships, as well as between students.

What is a good intellectual climate for graduate research? What does it feel like?

  • Students feel respected, supported, stimulated and involved.

  • There is recognition that graduate students are not just engaged in research, but in developing their identities as researchers.

  • They experience opportunities to interact with fellow graduate students, academics in their department, and in their broader field—and they feel well-integrated rather than isolated.

This involves not only resources but also positive attitudes of professors towards students in their departments.

Barriers to a good intellectual climate may differ across students

A warm intellectual climate is important for all students, however some students may experience more barriers to this than others. International and part-time students may be prone to isolation because they experience more difficulties in trying to access peer cultures and academic cultures (Deem & Brehony, 2000). Students in science disciplines tend to be more satisfied with the intellectual climate and therefore less isolated than students in humanities and social sciences. This disciplinary difference is commonly attributed to the greater prevalence of research groups and teams in scientific research (Deem & Brehony, 2000; Leonard, Metcalfe, Becker, & Evans, 2006; Wright & Cochrane, 2000). However, there is no reason why more disciplines cannot improve the departmental integration and intellectual climate they provide for their students. It might simply require deliberate interventions, because in some disciplines, the intellectual climate is less likely to develop as an indirect outcome of the modes of research employed.

Mentoring can help facilitate a positive intellectual climate

Having a faculty or senior student (Grant-Vallone & Ensher, 2000) mentor can help foster a supportive academic environment. In contrast to supervision, which is more often task-based, mentoring focuses more on caring at a personal level (Baker & Griffin, 2010; Jacobi, 1991; Selwa, 2003). Supervisors often act as mentors for their students (for more information, see the Mentoring page), but students may also find additional benefit in having a mentor outside of the supervisory relationship. Benefits of having a mentor include:

“growth and development of skills, provision for receiving constructive criticism and encouragement regarding workplace performance, enhanced access to organizational, professional, and technical knowledge, cultural norms, and specialist information, creation of networks and ongoing work relationships, which help to break down isolation, and enhanced opportunities for personal support (which acts positively on confidence and motivation and therefore leads to a decrease in stress levels)” (Harper & Sawicka, 2001, p. 4)

Students can often connect with potential mentors through attending the types of events described on the practical advice tab of this page- reading and writing groups, conferences, seminars, and lectures. Entering into a mentoring relationship can be as simple as asking a senior student or faculty member to be your mentor, or participating in formal mentoring programs such as the program offered by the McGill Career Planning Service (CaPS).

When looking for a mentor, consider these questions.

  • What are my personal goals (e.g., meeting basic program requirements, pursuing a career)?

  • What areas or specific fields am I most interested in? How do these interests relate to my personal goals?

  • What are my greatest strengths and my areas in need of improvement?

  • What do I enjoy doing (e.g., for the near future and for the next 30-35 years)?

Adapted from Baker and Griffin (2010)



Baker, V. L., & Griffin, K. A. (2010). Beyond mentoring and advising: Toward understanding the role of faculty “developers” in student success. About Campus, 14(6), 2-8.

Deem, R., & Brehony, K. (2000). Doctoral students’ access to research cultures – are some more unequal than others? Studies in Higher Education, 25(2), 149-165.

Golde, C. (2000). Should I stay or should I go? Students' descriptions of the doctoral attrition process. The Review of Higher Education, 23(2), 199.

Grant-Vallone, E. J., & Ensher, E. A. (2000). Effects of peer mentoring on types of mentor support, program satisfaction and graduate student stress: A dyadic perspective. Journal of College Student Development, 41(6), 637.

Harper, J., & Sawicka, T. (2001). Academic mentoring: A pilot success at Victoria University of Wellington. In C. Hall (Ed.), Nga Taumata Matauranga O Aotearoa/Higher Education in New Zealand: Occasional Paper Series. Wellington, New Zealand: Syndicate of Educational Development Centres of New Zealand Universities. Retrieved from www.utdc.vuw.ac.nz/research/OccasionalPapers/MentoringReport.pdf‎.

Jacobi, M. (1991). Mentoring and undergraduate academic success: A literature review. Review of Educational Research, 61(4), 505-532.

Leonard, D., Metcalfe, J., Becker, R., & Evans, J. (2006). The impact of working context and support on the postgraduate research student learning experience, Higher Education Academy commissioned literature review.

Selwa, L. M. (2003). Lessons in mentoring. Experimental Neurology, 184, Supplement 1(0), 42-47.

Wright, T., & Cochrane, R. (2000). Factors Influencing Successful Submission of PhD Theses. Studies in Higher Education, 25(2), 181-195.

Further Reading

Trigwell, K., & Dunbar-Goddet, H. (2005). The research experience of postgraduate research students at the University of Oxford. Oxford: Institute for the Advancement of University Learning, University of Oxford.