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Career Advice

How to manage your graduate student

A written agreement is a good way to clarify expectations and build trust.


My colleague arrived for our coffee date looking somewhat frazzled.

“What’s bothering you?” I asked.

“I just got out of Sam’s thesis defence,” he replied. “They passed, but they really struggled with some of the broader questions. In fact, I realized halfway through the defence that Sam had only read articles and books that I told them to read. I thought Sam would understand that I was just pointing them in the direction of the literature, but they seem to have taken me literally and only read what I suggested. You would at least think they would have the sense to read a few things by their external examiner without me telling them to do so……”

Faculty members often forget that they were once naïve beginners in the academic world, ignorant about how to implement a research project or how to structure a journal article. They forget that when they entered graduate school they had little idea of what to expect and what was expected of them.

Most of us have now supervised plenty of successful students. We know what the student has to do and what we have to do, but unfortunately, we don’t always convey that to the students.

Most of the problems that I have seen in the student:supervisor relationship result from poor communication about expectations. Supervisors of graduate students have an ethical and professional responsibility to tell their students what they need to do to be successful. The good news is that this ethical behaviour will be of practical benefit to the faculty member, as well as to the graduate student. The bad news is that many faculty members neglect to communicate this vital information to their students, as my colleague found out during that thesis defence.

Read also: How to manage your supervisor

Graduate students know that an advanced degree is essential for their career goals, whether in academia or otherwise. They don’t know how long it’s going to take, how they will support themselves, and how to evaluate their progress. After a few months in the program, they may learn from other students that there are unspoken expectations about long working hours, or about sharing their intellectual property with their supervisors. They may hear that their supervisor is notorious for demanding re-writes of every chapter. They also realize that they are dependent on their supervisor for good references for scholarships and future employment, but they don’t know for sure what their supervisor expects of them.

Most new students have no experience of graduate school, and don’t know much about their supervisors. Well-meaning student “handbooks” (including those I have written) are a jumble of rules, mileposts, deadlines and advice that tend to increase levels of anxiety for students and require a growing bureaucracy to administer. To add to the confusion, as I noted in an earlier article, graduate students and their supervisors have multiple, simultaneous working relationships that result from graduate students having multiple roles as students, mentees, employees and colleagues.

It should come as no surprise that deans of graduate studies have recommended for decades that a simple way to clarify the student:supervisor relationship (and thereby prevent future problems) is to have a written agreement between student and supervisor about expectations and obligations. It’s not worth trying to mandate such agreements, because a proportion of faculty members object to treating the relationship with a student as contractual. (Strangely, these same faculty members would be outraged if their universities tried to do away with the collective agreement under which they work!)

Read also: The difficulty of defining the student:supervisor relationship in grad school

So read no further if you think student:supervisor “contracts” are a waste of time, a violation of your academic freedom, or a mechanism that prevents your students from imbibing your wisdom via a mystical osmotic process while they sit at your feet in awe of your international reputation.

Many universities provide templates or checklists to help you structure a document that provides you and your student with a clear statement about rights and obligations. These tend to be general and comprehensive, so you should not feel obliged to follow every detail, unless this is mandatory. Some of the most important features of any document that outlines your relationship with your graduate student are as follows:

  1. Present the document to the student as a draft. Give them an opportunity to clarify or propose amendments before signing off.
  2. Include a mechanism to review the document, if circumstances change.
  3. Identify who will mediate disputes arising from the document.
  4. State that in some circumstances your relationship will not be simply professor and student, and that it may be governed by other policies or collective agreements. If you feel comfortable with it, let them know your “philosophy” about supervision.
  5. Explain what funding you can provide for the student, when it will materialize, and what it is for. You may want to include a provision for changing the funding amount (e.g., a reduction if the student receives major external support; or an increase if you are successful in an upcoming grant competition).
  6. List other resources you can provide (e.g., access to data; use of a laboratory).
  7. Be very clear about ownership (and especially shared ownership) of any intellectual property that results from the student’s work or the student’s use of resources you have provided. Who has ownership if the student doesn’t complete the program?
  8. Include a term-by-term timeline that provides a list of tasks along a route to degree completion.
  9. Indicate how you like to receive written material (especially thesis chapters). Provide a guarantee of the turnaround time for comments on your student’s writing.
  10. Insist on regular meetings with your student to review progress.

To be sure, time and thought have to go into such “contracts” – just one more thing to do in our busy lives. Very occasionally such a document may get you out of a difficult situation in the future. But their real value is two-fold. First, they provide the student with information about a process that is familiar to you, but unknown territory to them. Second, the contract assures your student that they can trust you, rely on you, and communicate with you. And those are valuable foundations for good relationships, however complex they may be.

Jonathan Driver is a part-time professor of archaeology at Simon Fraser University. Previously, he was dean of graduate studies as well as provost at SFU.

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