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Graduate supervision as teaching: Let’s talk

While many professors come to Teaching and Learning Services (TLS) to talk with us about undergraduate teaching, hardly anyone ever comes to talk with us about graduate supervision. Considering how many difficulties can arise when a professor is supervising a student, it is rather surprising to me that the topic does not come up more often during consultations. As a supervisor, you may find yourself wearing many different hats: that of an employer, a guide, a role model, a coach, and occasionally, even a friend. Regardless of your approach to graduate supervision, it is essentially a form of teaching. What you are teaching will depend on your discipline as well as the skills the supervisee already brings to the table. It can involve anything from identifying pertinent research questions to choosing the right audience for a publication. In addition to the disciplinary knowledge, teaching may also include time management and organisational skills, the ability to communicate research results and the resilience to deal with setbacks.

The word cloud above was created based on all the answers to the question, “What is supervision?” that we collected during the Orientation for New Supervisors over the past few years.

Whether research takes place in a library, a lab, or the field, your role as a supervisor is to help students on their journey to becoming independent researchers and, importantly, to obtaining a graduate degree. I am mentioning the latter because it is surprisingly easy to lose sight of the fact that your supervisee’s journey should not meander aimlessly from one interesting topic to the next, but rather follow a curriculum with predefined milestones. Due to the unpredictable nature of research, developing the curriculum and keeping students on track can be challenging. To help you with this task, Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies (GPS) has developed myProgress, an online tool that allows you and your supervisees to keep an eye on their progress towards obtaining their degree. “I expect my students to monitor their own progress,” some of you may interject at this point. That raises important questions: What are your expectations for your graduate students and what can they expect from you as their supervisor? Responsibilities in graduate supervision are often not clear-cut. For example, everyone agrees that you are supposed to provide support to your supervisee, but what kind of support and how much? Are we talking about comments on a research paper or emotional support after the rejection of a conference abstract? What kind of support will actually help your supervisees succeed? While there are no simple answers to these questions, the supervision team is here to help. Together, TLS and GPS, have developed a variety of resources and workshops to help you navigate the supervisory role right from the start.

If you are curious about approaches to supervision taken by award-winning supervisors at McGill, take a look at their profiles on the Supervision Snapshots website. The site features the winners of the Carrie M. Derick Award and the David Thomson Award for Graduate Supervision and Teaching at McGill since 2016. If you would like an opportunity to talk with some of these supervisors in person and learn about their experiences, join us at TLS on April 12 for the Supervisors’ Lunch. Whether you are looking for advice or have a successful supervision strategy that you would like to share, this event is your chance to talk to colleagues from across the university. For more information or to register, click here.

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