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New supervisors

Ask your colleagues or a mentor for help.

Supervisors have typically only been supervised by one or two person(s) for several years, and this limited exposure to different supervisory styles can limit their beliefs about what supervision is, what it requires, and what it looks like. To get a better understanding of the various styles, ask colleagues about their experiences both as a supervisor and as a supervisee. This will help you learn from different experiences and help you decide what you can learn to emulate or avoid.

 

When undertaking supervision for the first time, it can be helpful to clarify your own views about the scope and boundaries of the supervisory role. Use the “Expectations Worksheet for Mentors and Graduate Supervisors” in the appendix of this guide (p. 33-34) from the University of Western Ontario to clarify your expectations for supervision.

Interviews with a few new faculty members at McGill revealed that new supervisors have lots of questions about how much they can and should do as supervisors. These two assistant professors pointed to some common challenges:

[One of the challenges is] keeping a balance between “doing” and “enabling”; how much detail should I know about the work [my supervisees] are doing? Can I trust they are doing the right thing? I don’t have time to sit down with them and work: am I expected to do so? (STEM supervisor: McAlpine & Amundsen, 2010-2015)

[A main challenge for me is] having to tell students that they are performing poorly and showing them the door (in spite of the fact that this is a better solution for the student and me). (STEM supervisor: McAlpine & Amundsen, 2010-2015)

Who do you want to be as a supervisor in 10 years?

Sometimes you need a quick answer for the short term, but you might also benefit greatly in the long term from gradually developing a repertoire of skills and attitudes that will help your supervisions to be successful and rewarding—skills in providing direction, networking, listening, and more. Remember that some supervisory relationships will last several years, and that your ability to do well in 10, 20, 30 or more years depends partly on how you begin, and how you imagine the future.

 

Remember that supervision involves:

  • professional, collegial, “near-peer” relationships;
  • mentoring, including verbal encouragement;
  • promotion of the work of good students through networks; and
  • long-term pedagogy, beyond the student’s graduation.

 

Reflect too on the following activities of good research supervisors that you might already do or might want to start doing.

  • Appreciating individual differences (e.g., uniqueness of each candidate and candidate differences within each stage)
  • Being available (e.g., having regular meetings and being contactable through a range of media)
  • Providing appropriate direction and structure (e.g.,  challenging the candidate when required and assisting with structuring and developing the project)
  • Celebrating  (e.g., giving public recognition of a candidate’s or research team’s achievements)
  • Building a research community (e.g., attending seminars with candidates)
  • Building a social community (e.g., being involved in research team social events)
  • Assisting with developing students’ skills related to the graduate studies experience
  • Networking (e.g., including candidates in professional networks for their research and career planning)
  • Being a mentor for life (e.g. helping with career planning and collegiality after graduation)
  • Demonstrating interest and enthusiasm for the project and candidate progress
  • Having good listening and questioning techniques
  • Providing constructive and timely feedback on written work

Adapted from Janssen (2005); and Lee, Dennis, and Campbell (2007).

 

In developing a robust supervisory relationship, a common challenge is finding the balance between “benign neglect” and “taking over." With your supervisee(s), are you assertive enough? Do you listen well, thinking fair-mindedly about what you are hearing? Are you too focused on tasks? Some guidance in achieving balance can be found on the Supervisory styles page.

Training for supervisors

The 2012-2013 Supervisory Surveys at McGill suggest that most graduate students want their supervisors—all of them, not only the new ones—to have had the benefit of training. Internationally, training is sometimes a criterion of eligibility to supervise, though how training is defined is a question for future research. 

 

Until recently, doing a doctorate was probably the only preparation that academics had before going on to be graduate supervisors. Should supervisors undergo training in graduate supervision?

The 2012-2013 Supervisory Surveys conducted at McGill show that, of responding professors (N = 386):

  • 39% wanted to undergo or wished that they had undergone some training in graduate supervision; and

  • 51% of responding professors did not perceive training as necessary.

 

In contrast, of responding graduate students (N = 1389):

  • 66% believed that “all supervisors” should undergo training; and

  • 28% thought that only “new supervisors” should undergo training.

 

So while half of the supervisors appear to be satisfied with their supervisory work, nearly all students seem to expect better supervision. 

Supervisors have a difficult but usually rewarding job. A supervisor in the social sciences shared these questions and observations:

How much should you be spoon feeding? Should they be doing it themselves? Should I be in the library sussing out things? How much re-writing? Do you go through it with a toothcomb?... There are no guidelines at all. So I find it very problematic. How much to help the weaker ones, how much to try to keep up with the brighter ones? They are so different, they're not off the peg. (Delamont, Atkinson & Parry, 2000, p. 140)

Internationally, research on the experiences of new supervisors shows several challenges (Amundsen & McAlpine, 2009; Delamont et al., 2000; Janssen, 2005).

  • New supervisors depend very much on their own experience of being supervised and their observation of other supervisory relationships.

  • The supervisory relationship is incredibly variable depending on the past experiences and present expectations of those involved in each relationship.

  • Providing structure for the student is a critical form of support.

  • Finding support and advice on supervision is not straightforward.

 

Given the challenges, one might ask what prerequisites a supervisor should have. In some countries, such as Australia, it is becoming increasingly common to have approval processes for supervisors as well as registries of academic staff who have been approved to supervise graduate students. However, it is more common to have no explicit or easily measurable prerequisites for becoming a supervisor.

Some universities require the supervisor to have a PhD; however, in some professional disciplines even this is not always a requirement. Some universities expect staff to have completed at least one successful supervision as a member of a supervisory committee before they undertake the role of a) sole supervisor or b) primary supervisor on a committee.

With increasing frequency, universities are now offering preliminary training opportunities for new supervisors. Less commonly, training for new supervisors is mandatory. Given the results of the recent surveys on supervision at McGill (2012-2013), Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies launched its first mandatory training for new supervisors at McGill in May, 2016, acknowledging that supervisees may have legitimate reasons for wanting their supervisors to have the advantages of training. 

References

2012-2013 Supervisory Surveys. Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies: McGill University.

Amundsen, C., & McAlpine, L. (2009). "Learning supervision": trial by fire. Innovations in Education and Teaching International, 46(3), 331-342.

Delamont, S., Atkinson, P., & Parry, O. (2000). The doctoral experience: Success and failure in graduate school, London and New York: Falmer Press.

Janssen, A. (2005). Postgraduate research supervision: Otago students' perspectives on-quality supervision problems encountered in supervision. Dunedin: University of Otago.

Lee, A., Dennis, C., & Campbell, P. (2007). Nature’s guide for mentors. Nature, 447, 791-797.

Further Reading

Delamont, S., Atkinson, P., & Parry, O. (2001). Supervising the PhD: A guide to success. Buckingham: SRHE and Open University Press.

Pearson, M., & Kayrooz, C. (2004). Enabling critical reflection on research supervisory practice. International Journal for Academic Development, 9(1), 99-116.