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

Students often see themselves as ‘oppressed’ workers, while faculty see themselves as the expert who will mould the smart but inexperienced student.


Sasha, a PhD student in geography, is taking a course where their supervisor, Pat, is the professor. Pat will soon be assigning a grade to Sasha’s term paper, following guidelines in the university’s grading policy. Sasha is also a teaching assistant (TA) in Pat’s undergraduate course, where a collective agreement controls their relationship. In the summer Sasha will join Pat and some senior undergraduates in a field camp in the Arctic. Sasha will be paid from Pat’s grant to oversee a few undergraduates and to conduct some of the research. While they are in the field, Pat supervises Sasha under a collective agreement for research assistants (RA) and is also a mentor to Sasha, the aspiring researcher. The work that Sasha performs in the field will form the core of their thesis and entitles them to co-authorship of a paper with Pat. If Pat is fortunate, Sasha will come up with insights that Pat might have missed. So the success of that paper may depend on the extent to which they can operate as colleagues.

Over a few months, Sasha has two different employment relationships with Pat as TA and RA, plus two relationships as a student in a course and as a mentee, and a collegial relationship as a co-investigator on a research project. They will also form a friendship through the shared experience of the awfulness of undergraduate camp cooking. To add one more complication, Sasha will take over as president of the geography graduate student society when they return from the Arctic; Sasha and Pat will have equal voices and votes at the monthly meetings of the geography department.

When they return to campus and start a new fall term, Sasha thinks everything is going well, but Pat writes a rather harsh critique of Sasha’s first comprehensive exam. Pat is pleased that their co-authored paper has been accepted, but the department chair shares a memo from the graduate student society complaining about a lack of Indigenous perspectives in graduate courses – including one that Pat teaches. Things are not going so well for Sasha and Pat, but they both find it hard to understand why. Yet it is not surprising that student:supervisor relationships can go sideways when both the student and the faculty member have multiple roles, some of which operate simultaneously.

When I served as dean of graduate studies I saw that many student:supervisor problems were caused by two factors. First, students and supervisors found it difficult to disentangle the multiple relationships in which they were involved. Second, poor communication about expectations of both parties led to frustration, misunderstanding and eventual hostility.

By the time these problems reach graduate studies they have often become insoluble because positions and opinions have hardened. When supervisory relationships go wrong, students tend to blame the university for not regulating the behaviour of “bad” faculty members. Supervisors tend to blame students for not meekly accepting their subordinate status.

Students and supervisors typically have different views of their roles. Here I will focus on research-intensive graduate programs, rather than professional graduate programs, because it is in the former programs that student:supervisor problems occur more commonly.

Faculty members often describe the graduate student:supervisor relationship as apprenticeship or mentorship. Apprenticeship tends to connote some hardship for the student, whereas mentorship implies a softer guiding hand. Regardless of the terminology, the faculty member sees themself as the expert who will mould the smart but inexperienced student into something new. From the faculty perspective, the student learns from the supervisor via formal teaching and less formal research supervision. By observing the faculty member teach and by participating in teaching activities as a TA, the student develops skills that will set them on the road to their own academic position. And by conducting research under the watchful eye of the supervisor, the student will be transformed into an independent researcher. It’s not uncommon for faculty to reproduce their graduate “apprenticeship” experience for their own students.

The student has a different perspective. Throughout their undergraduate career (and sometimes in a master’s program) they have excelled and been rewarded for their skills as a student. Entering a research-intensive graduate program, they find that new skills are required, and the criteria for success are harder to define. While their supervisor believes that apprenticeship transforms the student into an independent academic, an alternative view offered by TA/RA unions is “oppressed worker.” From this perspective, graduate students are seen as powerless workers, beholden to supervisors who can make or break the student/worker’s aspirations. This power imbalance leads to exploitation of the student through long working hours, theft of intellectual property, poor pay, withholding opportunities, and unrealistic expectations about performance.

Self-interest fuels both the apprenticeship and worker metaphors of the student:supervisor relationship. It’s easier for a faculty member to treat the entire graduate student experience as a multi-faceted apprenticeship, because they don’t need to compartmentalize their behaviour into categories such as teacher, employer, colleague, etc. It’s easier for a TA or RA union to characterize their members as oppressed because they don’t have to recognize that the workers have other relationships with their supervisors that are outside the purview of the collective agreement. Nor do they recognize that the ambition of many of their members is to become one of the “oppressors.”

The reality for graduate students and their supervisors is that life is messy and relationships are complicated. The best way to prevent problems in the relationship is to recognize its complexity, and to use simple communication methods to minimize the likelihood of problems getting out of hand. But, because of the unalterable power imbalance between student and supervisor, each needs different tactics to make the relationship work. I’ll cover these in the next two articles.

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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