Who supervises the supervisors?

Who supervises the supervisors? McGill University

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McGill Reporter
November 8, 2001 - Volume 34 Number 05
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Home > McGill Reporter > Volume 34: 2001-2002 > November 8, 2001 > Who supervises the supervisors?

Who supervises the supervisors?

McGill graduate students who want to anonymously evaluate their thesis advisors have to do it with a form that extends the anonymity to the professor.

Photo Associate Vice Principal (Teaching Programs) Martha Crago
PHOTO: Owen Egan

The Graduate Thesis Student Questionnaire being handed out this semester includes a note that says: "Do not include your supervisor's name or your name."

It may sound like a futile exercise to some, but it was a compromise that came out of two years of debate on how to improve graduate student supervision.

Robert Sim, who represented the Post-Graduate Students' Society in discussions on the questionnaire during that time, says, "The gist of the compromise is that professors objected on the basis that such evaluations would be used in tenure decisions -- which, of course, we wanted -- but also that it was impossible to protect the anonymity of students in small research groups."

McGill is not the only university with this policy, according to Associate Vice-Principal (Teaching Programs) Martha Crago.

She investigated how other universities handle the subject and knows of no institution that has adopted individual evaluations of graduate supervisors successfully. Most opt instead for the McGill-style departmental average.

"Nobody is willing to go the whole nine yards," says Crago, who during the approval process had been one of the voices pushing for naming professors. "Students are afraid of retribution," she says. As for professors, they worry that a small group of graduate students does not offer a wide variety of opinion. "If one of three people hates you, it will skew your results."

Is there a point to doing it at all if no one is named? Yes, says Crago, because the questionnaires should help shed light on whether or not there are problem spots in departments when it comes to graduate supervision. And if problems do become apparent, departmental chairs can start taking steps to remedy them.

The Senate Committee on Teaching and Learning voted to have an ad hoc subcommittee develop a student evaluation procedure for graduate studies in 1998. Last September, the issues were discussed in Senate, including the need for students to have some means to express their concerns.

In January, the issue was aired again and Senate passed the Graduate Thesis Student Questionnaire and Implementation Protocol. The first questionnaires were filled out this past spring as part of a three-year pilot project. The questionnaires and their usefulness will be re-examined at the end of the three years.

The anonymous questionnaire does deal with the specifics of the student-advisor relationship and asks questions about the quality of feedback, promptness, time commitment and whether or not the student would recommend that advisor to a fellow student.

One graduate student, who, ironically, asked that he remain anonymous for this story, does not feel satisfied with the compromise. "There are no ramifications for the professor." He says he has gone through "hell" with his supervisor. The student's participation on a varsity sports team, for instance, has been a source of contention in their dealings, inappropriately so in the eyes of the student.

There are policies in place to address conflicts between supervisors and graduate students. But this particular graduate student believes that fingering a professor would be committing career suicide.

Caroline Kim, a graduate student in the Department of Human Genetics, says she doesn't need to maintain anonymity in assessing her supervisor, Professor Gustavo Turecki. He gets high marks. "We have regular meetings, he listens very well and is sympathetic to whatever stressors are bothering me and my labmates. He allows time off every now and then, and worries about overworking us. He is also a psychiatrist, so maybe this has something to do with it."

For now, departments will be able to use the questionnaire's results to compare themselves to one another. Students with concerns about their supervisors can seek advice from their departmental graduate program director, from Associate Dean of Graduate Studies Philip Oxhorn, or from the Post-Graduate Students' Society.

To avoid some of the problems that can come up, many suggest graduate students ask pointed questions before they forge a relationship with a supervisor.

U.S. researchers Chris M. Golde and Timothy M. Dore, co-authors of "At Cross Purposes: What the experiences of doctoral students reveal about doctoral education," canvassed opinion from 27 different American universities. They suggest several questions students should ask supervisors, to avoid potentially bad experiences: How many students does the advisor have? What stage of the process are they all in? How does this compare with other faculty members' student load? How many students of that advisor do not complete their degree, or transfer?

They also give advice to potential supervisors. Supervisors should clarify mutual expectations with advisees, including the amount and quality of time that will be spent together. Supervisors should also conduct a thorough annual evaluation of each advisee.

Crago says there is a movement afoot among graduate students throughout North America to put issues surrounding how well they are supervised under the spotlight.

She points to the recently released results of the National Doctoral Program Survey conducted by the National Association of Graduate-Professional Students in the U.S. Over 32,000 students and recent PhD graduates responded to the survey on educational practices in doctoral programs and the NAGPS has graded graduate programs across the U.S. as a result.

In terms of overall satisfaction, for instance, students who did graduate studies in neuroscience at Stanford University only gave the program a C+. Harvard earned a B, while the Baylor College of Medicine received an A-.

While such results should be taken with a grain of salt -- they're based on the experiences of only 10 to 20 students at each school -- Crago says it is indicative of the fact that graduate students want more information about how well different graduate programs will serve them. And they'll do the legwork themselves if they aren't satisfied with the information being provided by universities.

"It reminds me of when I was an undergraduate back in the 1960s and we did our own evaluations [of teachers], handing out forms at the door in secret to other students to fill out." McGill eventually took over the course evaluation process itself. Students have a hunger for this sort of information, says Crago, and that isn't likely to change. "I think we're entering a new world when it comes to evaluating graduate student support."

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