May 12, 2023

'Supportive' and 'knowledgeable' are among top 10 characteristics of grad students’ ideal supervision

Supervision and Graduate Program Experience Survey sheds light on graduate student experiences with supervision and their graduate program
Michele Jacobsen
Michele Jacobsen. Michele Jacobsen

Understanding the experiences between graduate students and their supervisors is key to improving the quality of academic research at the University of Calgary. However, scant formal research was done on this topic for the UCalgary graduate student community until Dr. Michele Jacobsen, PhD, teamed up with former Graduate Students’ Association (GSA) board directors Alex Paquette and Tanille Shandro to create the first-ever modern in-depth student-supervisor survey.

The first version of the survey was launched in the spring of 2022, with 762 graduate students participating to produce encouraging preliminary results on the top characteristics of ideal supervision and effective supervision.

Ideal supervision

Almost 500 survey participants weighed in and identified the top characteristics of ideal supervision: supportive; knowledgeable; understanding; helpful and attentive; organized; approachable; open-minded. According to graduate students, ideal supervisors are invested in student well-being and guidance.

Effective supervision contributors

The survey findings also help Jacobsen’s team explore five key ideas: Mental Health and Wellness, Good Match, Funding and Recognition, Safe Spaces, and Meeting Frequently, and how these ideas impact effective supervision. In her blog on this topic, she expands upon the importance of health and wellness, the need for a trusting relationship basing on individual support, the continuous communication, strong funding model, and the role of the department’s community to establish a safe and inclusive space.

What counts in communication

Another important aspect of effective supervision is communication. Sonja Johnston, PhD candidate in learning sciences, reflects on the survey findings and her own experience and growth as doctoral candidate. The 2022 survey findings indicate that a large majority of graduate students agreed they were comfortable approaching their supervisor to schedule additional meetings as needed.

Secondly, only half the students indicated their supervisor communicated information about grants, scholarships, and awards that they were eligible for.

Finally, 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. 

Johnston says, “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.”

Survey for grad students now open until May 17

Jacobsen comments on the significance of this project: "We are very interested in what graduate students have to say about their experiences in graduate school. It is vital that graduate students are given opportunities to freely share perspectives and feedback on their experiences with supervision, their program and the university.

"Graduate student voices can highlight the practices, designs and systems that support their learning, persistence, and progress toward graduation, along with uncovering any challenges or roadblocks to their success and satisfaction in graduate school."

The second Supervision and Graduate Program Experience Survey is open until May 17. Graduate students can fill out the survey to help the team further understand the student-supervisor relationship at the University of Calgary.

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