Recognizing student diversity

Talk diplomatically with supervisees about their cultural expectations

Ask yourself what you expect and whether your expectations are specific to your culture. If you discover prejudices, remember that teaching and learning can dispel them. More deliberately with your supervisees from different backgrounds than with those from similar backgrounds, discuss expectations, identify shared values, and try new approaches to supervision whenever they might be feasible.


What diversity is and why it matters

Diversity refers to race, age, sex, sexual orientation, gender, culture, language, class, disability, and other aspects of life and society. Diversity is increasing as people around the world become more mobile and electronically integrated. In supervision, diversity can pose challenges when it is ignored, but it can be mutually beneficial when supervisors and supervisees talk about it and identify shared values.

Engage with diversity in supervision

A minimalist style of supervision can be a barrier to those students who come with needs, expectations, abilities and values that are outside the personal experience or expectations of supervisors. (See also the Supervisory styles page of this website.) Usually supervisors have an intuitive sense of the level of support that is appropriate and to go beyond this level can raise concerns about the erosion of academic standards and the competence of the student. This intuition, however, can be misleading if it derives from a culture of graduate education characterized by independent learning that might differ from more collaborative models.

Graduate students are forging new identities and reconceptualizing themselves as scholars and as professionals. Their “[success] may depend on the extent to which they attempt to enact identities that are valued by their mentors” (Hall & Burns, 2009, p. 49). Hall and Burns argued that supervisors must consider how they influence their supervisee’s identity formation and they should be conscious what values they express with regards to research and their student’s sex, culture, beliefs, and abilities.

Question your intuitions and assumptions

The University of Oxford has a document entitled Mindfulness and reflective thinking that provides questions intended to identify the barriers to considerate and fair dealings with other people. Ensuring fairness may involve making reasonable adjustments to accommodate the varied abilities, needs, values, and expectations of students. On the latter topic, see Clarifying expectations.

Find resources at McGill and beyond

Recognizing diversity, in part, means accepting that people from different cultures have valid ways of life, including ways of teaching and learning that might be unfamiliar but not necessarily less effective or meaningful.

Here are some links from McGill and beyond to resources on diversity.

What questions inspire reflection and action on diversity?

Learning to be attentive to diversity requires openness and respect, and the benefits include an ability to work positively with a wider variety of people while avoiding a range of discriminatory situations. The questions to ask about diversity should, without assumptions, relate to how your supervisees are perceived, what they do with their time, how their beliefs affect their actions, and what abilities they have.



Higher education plays a vital role in preparing students for the job market and active citizenship both nationally and internationally. Universities that call for racial equality in teaching and learning help to reduce the effects of racism not only in the classroom but also on the job market and all the industries and governments it serves. It is worth thinking about how the typically one-to-one relationship in supervision can promote racial equality in larger groups, such as cohorts of graduate students.

See also: Chesler, M. A., Lewis, A. E. & Crowfoot, J. E. (2005). Challenging racism in Higher Education. Lanham, Maryland: Rowman and Littlefield.


What incentives are there for retirement-age professors to accept new supervisees who might require several years of supervision plus support after graduation? How differently should a supervisor deal with a PhD student who starts a program with a bachelor’s degree instead of a higher qualification? Or an older than usual PhD student who begins a doctorate after several years of teaching or working elsewhere in the academy?

Sexual orientation

Sexual orientation may or may not seem obvious and it is generally something a supervisor does not need to know. However, if a student does mention their orientation or their partner, it is respectful to remember and use the same terminology that the student uses (i.e., gay, lesbian, bi, two-spirit, boyfriend, girlfriend, partner, husband, wife, spouse, etc.).

Religion and belief

This form of diversity is largely invisible, yet may powerfully influence student motivation (see also Finding motivation to study.) Many supervisors have discovered that some of their students feel uncomfortable for religious reasons when the social activities of their academic communities happen at the pub, for example. What would be the appropriate tone of a conversation that would allow a student to mention their religion comfortably?


Disability may be obvious (e.g., a student uses a wheelchair) or unseen (e.g., a student suffers from depression) and it might develop during graduate studies. Disability-related problems of learning and assessment may differ both between and within forms of disability, and so there are no definitive actions that will be appropriate and effective for all students. What is required of a supervisor is an understanding of the student’s learning style, of where she or he is likely to encounter difficulties, and ways in which the supervisor can enable the student to harness abilities appropriate to the research. So, for the supervisor, the supervisory team, and the student the challenge can be seen as an opportunity for creative and shared problem solving rather than a threat to research excellence.

Part-time status

Being a part-time student is common at McGill University, but supervisors may need to remember the other demands on students’ time. For example, these could include paid employment and caring for children or other family members. Some responsibilities like these can affect full-time students too. While many programs require full-time registration, the reality for many students is working part-time on their studies due to the need for paid work. How can events related to your academic community be planned so that part-time students can participate?

For part-time students, it can be particularly difficult to access the research cultures of their departments (Deem & Brehony, 2000). Compared to full-time students, part-time students report lower satisfaction with the infrastructure support and the research climate, which is typically caused by lack of acknowledgement of part-time students in university policy (Neumann & Rodwell, 2009). How can you support your part-time student and immerse them in the right research climate?

Prevalent trends and types of discrimination in academia

Attitudes persist in academia that perpetuate discrimination. Nevertheless, diversity continues to increase as more international students choose graduate education in Canada, and as disability gains acceptance as a problem not necessarily of individual health but of infrastructure. Sex discrimination remains a factor in academia even though increased graduate enrolment of women plateaued at levels near those of men.


At McGill, 34% of graduate students in 2015 were visa students from other countries. These numbers suggest that international students are a proportionally greater concern for supervisors and other leaders as the level of education increases.

Some aspects of student diversity are, or are becoming, more visible in our experience and, not unnaturally, this is reflected in the scholarship. For instance, in the literature, there is much attention to international students and gender and an increasing interest in disabilities of different kinds (though not always directed specifically at the experience of graduate students and postdoctoral fellows). At the same time, other differences are sometimes overlooked, e.g. sexual orientation, religion and belief. Nevertheless, there is sufficient research evidence to suggest the following.

Sex: Still a factor in discrimination

At the PhD level, the majority of full-time students continue to be men, though women are gaining ground. In 1980, women accounted for 30% of doctoral students. The percentage of female doctoral students grew to 46% by 2000 and has increased only marginally since then.

Despite substantial increases in the number of female academics in most fields, reports of gender-based discrimination and different role responsibilities (e.g., the tendency for caring and welfare roles to be undertaken by women rather than men) remain, often more evident in the sciences and engineering than in the social sciences and humanities; and this disparity is also present in the doctoral student population (Carr et al., 2000).

As well, within the social sciences, there continue to be gendered differences in experience of academic work partly due to different personal intentions, but also in role responsibilities. This sustained disparity means that it can remain difficult for female students in research teams that are male dominated to participate fully, that women may find access to supervisors more difficult, and that women in fields that are male-dominated may be less likely than men to be included in informal learning opportunities such as heading to the pub at the end of the day. This example may also demonstrate a barrier to inclusion for those who do not drink alcohol for religious, social or medical reasons.

Racial diversity: Appreciated by students

While there has been increased participation by female students, there has been less success for those from minority ethnic groups. However, it appears that students appreciate ethnic diversity regardless of their origin and that feel it enhances their educational experiences.

Age: Part of a stereotype of doctoral students

The age breakdown of full-time Master’s and PhD students has changed over time (Statistics Canada).


% of full-time Master’s students 30+ years of age

% of full-time PhD students 30+ years of age










Doctoral students are still often stereotyped as relatively young with few responsibilities, yet this is not the documented reality, at least in the social sciences. Students often come to doctoral programs considerably skilled due to their prior professional experience, and the kinds of skills training on offer may not be relevant; such students may also have responsibilities as caregivers for children or elderly relatives.

Disability: A barrier in the infrastructure

Although information on different aspects of diversity is limited, we do have some McGill data about disability, which is another aspect of diversity, from the Office for Students with Disabilities (OSD). From 2004-2009 the number of students registered at the OSD was fairly stable, between 400 and 500 students, and then they increased dramatically to around 1200 in 2011-2012. The increase is due to the growing recognition of disability along with other diversities.

Farrar and Young (2007) reported that many students with disabilities were frustrated by having to fight for recognition and appropriate adjustments. According to Farrar and Young, the key to working with disabled students is mutual recognition of barriers. This requires the student to first disclose their disability, but that is easier said than done. The research field is competitive; disabled students may be fear being considered incapable or inefficient in their work. A disabled doctoral student voiced their concern thusly:

As I continue on this postgraduate research journey, it is becoming clearer and clearer just how competitive the academic arena is. There is a pressure to prove that you are efficient, capable and independent. This does not sit easily with being a disabled researcher. Although I am more than capable at the academic and teaching part, I do need support, and if that isn’t in place, I am not efficient or capable. I am, indeed, disabled! There is a very tacit but very real pressure never to admit this and to stay strong, to put on a mask and pretend that all is well. It is a big issue for me and one that I negotiate on a daily basis. (p. 27)

This student expresses their need for support, but also their fear of being considered less competent. This quote makes it easy to understand why a student may be reluctant to discuss their disability. It is therefore crucial that supervisors create a comfortable environment that encourages students to discuss any foreseeable barriers or limitations for the purpose of planning accordingly.

Practice, that is, the response of individuals, may often lag behind institutional policies (Goode, 2007). Thus, some students may fear being judged unfairly if they make their needs known, but generally they recognize the institutional obligation to support them and will often act strategically to get the support they need; they can be aided in this by some kind of institutional induction event which makes apparent all the resources they can call on. Disabled students can encounter difficulties with all aspects of the infrastructure: administration, communication, planning, recruitment, research management, fieldwork, staff and skills development, supervision, feedback and assessment, social experience.

The kind of support required will need to include material resources (e.g., people, equipment, services), guidance and information, and encouragement. Consequently, dialogue between supervisor and student early on in the doctoral experience is usually very valuable, but it should be noted that not all students choose to disclose a disability at the outset; where they do, they may assume that everyone, from admissions onwards, will be aware, which is not always the case.


Carr, P., Friedman, R., Szalacha, L., Barnett, R., Palepu, A., & Moskowitz, M. (2000). Faculty Perceptions of Gender Discrimination and Sexual Harassment in Academic Medicine. Annals of Internal Medicine, 132(11), 889-896.

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.

Farrar, V., & Young, R. (2007). Supervising disabled research students. London: Society for Research on Higher Education.

Goode, J. (2007). 'Managing' disability: Early experiences of university students with disabilities. Disability and Society, 22(1), 35-48.

Hall, L., & Burns, L. (2009). Identity development and mentoring in doctoral education. Harvard Educational Review, 79(1), 49-70.

Neumann, R., & Rodwell, J. (2009). The ‘invisible’ part-time research students: A case study of satisfaction and completion. Studies in Higher Education, 34(1), 55-68.

Further Reading

HEFCE (2001). PhD Study: Trends and profiles, 1996-1997 to 2009-2010. Higher Education Funding Council for England.

Maher, M., Ford, M., & Thompson, C. (2004). Degree progress of women doctoral students: Factors that constrain, facilitate and differentiate. The Review of Higher Education, 27(3), 385-408.