Documentation:Guide to Teaching for New Faculty at UBC/Supervising Graduate Students

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In your role as supervisor, you are the key person in your students’ graduate degree program and have considerable influence in helping them achieve their full potential academically, intellectually, and professionally. To be an effective graduate supervisor, you must first recognize the responsibilities that come with this role, and ensure that these are met to the best of your abilities with each graduate student.

Effective Graduate Student-Supervisor Relationship

Graduate student relationships with faculty members are regarded by students as the most important aspect of their graduate education. Good student-supervisor relationships are also associated with higher completion rates and faster times to completion.

Some fundamental elements of successful graduate supervision are:

  • Clear and frequent communication
  • Agreement on mutual expectations
  • Mentoring tailored to the needs, attributes and aspirations of each student

These elements should be established as soon as the student begins his/her program, and continue for its duration. Clear communication of expectations and responsibilities is especially important for graduate students and supervisors from different cultures, for whom there may be unspoken assumptions about responsibilities which are not shared.

Ground rules

The best way to initiate an effective relationship with your graduate student is through early meetings in which you discuss and clearly define your roles and expectations. Here is a list of “ground rules” that should be clarified in initial meetings between a graduate student and his/her supervisor:

  • How frequently you will meet and for what purposes (progress updates, literature reviews, etc.)
  • Who will initiate the meetings and prepare meeting summaries'
  • The student’s role with regard to the data collection and analysis
  • The supervisor’s role with regard to the student’s data collection and analysis
  • Who will train the student to do technical work, and what is the role of the program technician
  • Standard hours for office space, weekend work or labs
  • A timeline for the research program, which may include experiments, data analysis, manuscript writing, and thesis writing
  • Safety considerations which may need to be completed before working, such as training programs, standard office or laboratory etiquette, or laboratory attire
  • The use of university computers and accounts for research, net surfing, games, personal work, etc
  • Applicable funding sources and the duration of such funding
  • Presentations at conferences and meetings: how many, how often and who pays

In addition, University Policy 85 requires that research conditions for all involved in a research team be outlined in a letter from the principal investigator before team members become engaged.

Letters are to cover issues such as compensation, supervision, authorship practices, records of data, ownership and/or use of data, publication rights, and commercialization. The templates provided here should be adapted with information specific to the program.

Communicate Early and Often

Clear and frequent communication with graduate students throughout their program is key to building the trust and mutual respect that form the foundation of the most effective supervisory relationships.

Meetings with graduate students are also good opportunities to discuss any particular needs or deficiencies of the student, as well as their career aspirations. You can then explore with them useful avenues for their development.

The best mentors lead in part by example, and including students as appropriate in your professional life is an effective way to share your knowledge and experience. Openness about the challenges you face or the excitement you feel, and involvement of students in broader dialogues with your peers all help assimilate students into the professional culture and broaden their learning experience.

Maintaining Momentum

Another key role you play as a supervisor is in helping your students maintain good progress through to successful completion of their program. Students can lose momentum at any stage of their program and for a variety of reasons. Frequent and open communication will help you to identify when this occurs and what you can do to help the student get back on track. Clearly defining expected progress and assessing the student’s progress during supervisory committee meetings or your more frequent meetings with the student can help you identify when students are becoming sidetracked or losing momentum. Recognition of a concern should be followed by discussions between you and the student (and perhaps the supervisory committee) to determine the best approach to help the student get back on track.

Preparing for the Future

As supervisor, you have an important role to play in helping your students prepare for their future careers. You can assist your students by discussing their career goals with them early in their program and as they evolve, and working with them to identify potential career-related experiences and professional development opportunities. Oral and written communication are key competencies for which you are well-placed to mentor students by providing thoughtful responses and advice with respect to their written work and oral presentations. Many opportunities for students to gain additional competencies are available through the Graduate Pathways to Success Program offered by the Faculty of Graduate Studies, the Centre for Teaching, Learning and Technology and other organizations at UBC.

You also have a role to play in helping your students to become established in their early careers by writing effective reference letters, identifying additional mentors to advise them on non-academic professions, and helping them network with prospective colleagues, advisors or employers. Effective mentors of graduate students do not consider their job done until students are successfully launched in the career of their choice.

Constructively Ending the Relationship

Changing circumstances and life events may lead either you or your student to consider ending the working relationship. There are several reasons why a change of supervisors may be the best option for both the graduate student and supervisor:

  • Supervisor leaves the university: The supervisor retires, leaves the university to work somewhere else or is on sick leave for more than a year. If the student has almost completed his or her thesis this may not be an issue, as long as the supervisor is still available for support. However there must still be someone in place with a formal link to UBC who can look after the academic and administrative aspects of completion of the student’s degree program.
  • Incompatibility of graduate student and supervisor: Sometimes two individuals simply don’t get along, even after honest efforts to do so, and it interferes with their academic activities.
  • Funding: Sometimes funds designated for a student’s stipend do not materialize and other funds are not available. Sometimes research funds run out.
  • Student changes area of interest: Sometimes, a student’s research focus changes or shifts to such an extent that the supervisor feels he or she no longer has the appropriate background to supervise the research. Also, a student may lose interest completely in his or he research and wish to change fields entirely.

These situations require you and the student, in conjunction with the Graduate Advisor for the program or Department Head, to make every effort to identify a suitable supervisor and project for the student.

The Supervisory Committee

The supervisory committee will generally consist of yourself and two or three other faculty members. Its role is to provide support to you and your student by broadening and deepening the range of expertise and experience available, and by offering advice about, and assessment of, your student’s work.

The supervisory committee is responsible for guiding the student in selecting any required courses, planning the research, and preparing the thesis.

Graduate students who establish their supervisory committees early in their programs, and who meet with their committees regularly, tend to complete their degree programs successfully, and sooner than students who wait to establish their committees or meet with them infrequently. The student’s progress since the last committee meeting and expectations for progress by the time of the next meeting should be clearly identified during the committee meeting and in the meeting report. This will assist you in determining the degree of intervention needed to ensure that the student makes good progress through completion of their program.

Assembling the Committee

In general, a supervisory committee should be established as soon as you and the student agree on a thesis topic. Generally, the graduate student and supervisor together decide on an appropriate committee structure, based largely on the research interests and areas of expertise of individual professors. You should check UBC Policies and Procedures to ensure that potential members meet all UBC requirements.

The student, supervisor, or graduate advisor approach potential committee members to determine if they are available and interested in serving on a supervisory committee.

Administrative Decisions

Both students and supervisors need to know which individuals and University bodies are responsible for different administrative decisions, since confusion about who does what can lead to missed deadlines and missed opportunities.

Each person or administrative body in the following list has responsibilities in specific areas.

  • The graduate student, supervisor and supervisory committee
    • The student’s degree program, including required and elective courses or labs
    • The scope and topics of comprehensive exams or comprehensive research papers
    • Master’s thesis and doctoral dissertation topic
    • Master’s thesis and doctoral dissertation research methodology
    • Format to be used for thesis dissertation
  • The graduate program, department or school
    • Recommendations to the Faculty of Graduate Studies for merit-based awards
    • Delegation of graduate program teaching assistantships
    • Nature of the comprehensive exam
    • Final Master’s exam or defense
  • The Faculty of Graduate Studies
    • Admission to graduate school
    • Administration of fees
    • Selection of merit-based UBC awards and fellowships
    • Final doctoral defense scheduling and standing
    • Changes in students’ academic programs
    • Confirmation of the eligibility of supervisory committee members (doctoral only)
    • Leaves of absence, extensions and transfers
    • Student withdrawal from graduate program
  • The UBC Board of Governors
    • Fees assessment
  • The UBC Senate
    • Approval of academic policies of the University
    • Approval of requirements of all graduate programs and degrees
    • Approval of students for graduation
  • The UBC Senate Committee on Student Appeals on Academic Standing
    • Academic appeals
    • Disciplinary appeals
  • The President’s Advisory Committee on Student Discipline
    • Recommendations to the president regarding suspension or other disciplinary action
  • Enrolment Services
    • Tuition fee payment
  • The Office of Awards and Financial Aid
    • Recipients of need-based awards and bursaries

Supervisor Responsibilities

Supervisors should be available to help their graduate students at every stage, from formulation of their research projects through establishing methodologies and discussing results, to presentation and possible publication of dissertations. Graduate supervisors must also ensure that their students’ work meets the standards of the University and the academic discipline.

Specific responsibilities of a graduate supervisor:

  • Assists the student with the research topic selection, ensuring that it is suitable and manageable
  • Is sufficiently familiar with the field of research to provide guidance and/or has a willingness to gain that familiarity before agreeing to act as a supervisor.
  • Is accessible for consultation and discussion of the student’s academic progress and research. The frequency of meetings will vary according to the discipline, stage of work, nature of the project, independence of the student, full- or part-time status, etc. For many, weekly meetings are essential; for others, monthly meetings are satisfactory. In no case should interaction be less frequent than once per term.
  • Establishes a supervisory committee (with input from the student and colleagues where appropriate), and convenes a meeting, at least annually, to evaluate the student’s progress, and provides a written report of the meeting.
  • Responds to written work submitted by the student, with constructive suggestions for improvement and continuation. The turnaround time for comments on written work should not normally exceed three weeks.
  • Makes arrangements to ensure continuity of supervision when the supervisor will be absent for extended periods, e.g. a month or longer.
  • When necessary, assists the student in gaining access to facilities or research materials.
  • Ensures safety of the research environment, and that it is healthy and free from harassment, discrimination and conflict. When there is a conflict in advice or when there are different expectations on the part of co-supervisors or members of the supervisory committee, the supervisor is expected to endeavor to achieve consensus and resolve the differences.
  • Assists the student in being aware of current graduate program requirements, deadlines, sources of funding, etc.
  • Encourages the student to make presentations of research results within the University and to outside scholarly or professional bodies as appropriate.
  • Encourages the student to finish up when it would not be in the student’s best interests to extend the program of studies.
  • Acknowledges appropriately the contributions of the student in presentations and in published material, in many cases via joint authorship.
  • Ensures that recommendations for external examiners of doctoral dissertations are made to the graduate program advisor and forwarded to the Faculty of Graduate Studies in a timely manner.
  • Assists the student to comply with any changes that need to be made to the thesis after the thesis or dissertation defense.

Graduate Student Responsibilities

As a supervisor, you have a right to expect substantial effort, initiative, respect and receptiveness to suggestions and criticisms from your graduate student.

Graduate students are expected to:

  • Make a commitment and show dedicated efforts to gain the background knowledge and skills needed to pursue their research project successfully.
  • In conjunction with their supervisor, develop a plan and timetable for completion of all stages of their thesis project, adhere to a schedule and meet appropriate deadlines.
  • Meet with their supervisor when requested and report fully and regularly on progress and results.
  • Maintain registration throughout the program and (for international students) ensure that study permits and (where applicable) employment authorization documents are kept up to date.
  • Keep their supervisor, graduate program and Enrolment Services informed about their contact information and respond in a timely manner to queries from them.
  • Give serious consideration to the advice and criticisms received from their supervisor and other members of their supervisory committee.
  • Keep their work space tidy, safe and healthy; show tolerance and respect for the rights of others.
  • Be thoughtful and frugal in using resources provided by their supervisor and the University, and assist in obtaining additional resources for their research.
  • Conform to University, Faculty and graduate program requirements, including those related to deadlines, dissertation or thesis style, conflict of interest.
  • Terminate their work and clean up their work space when their degree program requirements have been met.
  • Return borrowed materials to their supervisor, graduate program, library or reading room, etc. when their project has been finished or when return is requested.

Resources for Graduate Supervisors

  • Committee on Science, Engineering, and Public Policy. (1997). Adviser, Teacher, Role Model, Friend: On Being a Mentor to Students in Science and Engineering. National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, and Institute of Medicine. Retrieved from www.nap.edu/readingroom/books/mentor/ index.html
  • DeNeef, L. & King, M.F. (2009) Research Student and Supervisor. Council of Graduate Schools, Washington, D.C. •
  • James, R. & Baldwin, G. (1999). Eleven practices of effective postgraduate supervisors. The Centre for the Study of Higher Education and the School of Graduate Studies, University of Melbourne. Retrieved from www.cshe.unimelb.edu.au/pdfs/11practices.pdf.
  • King, M.F. (2003). On the Right Track: A Manual for Research Mentors. Council of Graduate Schools, Washington, D.C. •
  • Lee, A., Dennis, C., & Campbell, P. (2007). Nature’s guide for mentors. Nature, 447 (7146), 791-797.
  • University of Washington. Mentoring: How to Mentor Graduate Students – A Faculty Guide. (2005). The Graduate School: University of Washington. Retrieved from www.grad.washington.edu/mentoring/
  • Rackham Graduate School (2006). How to Mentor Graduate Students: A Guide for Faculty at a Diverse University. Rackham Graduate School, University of Michigan. Retrieved from www.rackham.umich.edu/downloads/publications/Fmentoring.pdf
  • Ricks, F., Kadlec, H., Corner, S. & Paul, R. (2003, November) Research on critical aspects of graduate education at the University of Victoria: Graduate student experiences, timely completion, supervision. University of Victoria. Retrieved from http://web.uvic.ca/gradstudies/research/
  • Skarakis-Doyle, E, & McIntyre, G. (2008) Western guide to graduate supervision. University of Western Ontario Teaching Support Centre: 360° Graduate Student Development Initiative. Retrieved from http://grad.uwo.ca/documentation/purple_ guide_supervision.pdf
  • University of British Columbia. Handbook of Graduate Supervision. Retrieved from www.grad.ubc.ca/students/supervision/
  • University of California at Berkeley. (2006). Best practices for faculty mentoring of graduate students. Retrieved from http://academic-senate.berkeley.edu/committees/pdf_docs_consolidate/mentoring%20gdelines-FINAL.pdf

• Hardcopies available from UBC Faculty of Graduate Studies