They Want to Help…. So What Can Your Department and Supervisor Do?

Holistic Applicant Assessment

In the early stages, supervisors and departmental application committees should place greater emphasis on relevant experiences and shift away from exclusively GPA-based assessment of a student’s capabilities. Success in such a program is never guaranteed and is highly subjective, therefore previous experience and performance in relevant settings should be weighed heavily when considering applicants. Some supervisors (admittedly, including my own!) give applicants the chance (through volunteering/directed studies/honours projects) to reveal a desire to succeed and to demonstrate that their sub-par GPA is not indicative of a lack of capability. The confidence which they may thus instill can allow students to flourish irrespective of their past history. 

Equal Opportunity Research

Students sign up for the opportunity to learn through conducting lab-based research. They should also be provided with opportunities and guidance to help them grow in return for the work they provide at minimal cost. It should be a prerogative for the departments and principle investigators (PIs) to treat every single student with equal deference. Students who demonstrate a greater desire to apply themselves and the potential to produce more efficient returns would then be provided with a greater input of resources. However, in the early stages at least, each student should be afforded time and the opportunity to demonstrate competence and capability. As it stands this is often not the case…

The Principle Investigator

The supervisor-graduate student relationship is characterized by an imbalance of authority that is seen in numerous job settings. Less common is the amount of control which the supervisor can exert over a student’s future, that allows for them in equal measure to either perfectly nurture growth or cause great distress. Therefore, it is important to familiarize oneself with a prospective supervisor prior to committing to any graduate program (See previous article).

In addition to spending time in the lab in various capacities (as discussed here) prior to committing to a multi-year program, the student should be advised by the supervisor regarding the requirements for success (see this and this). Talking to current and previous lab members in private might also prove insightful and has saved many from an unhappy research tenure. 

Once committed to the program, many students have difficulty in getting their supervisors to respond to queries. Busy  supervisor tend to spend less time monitoring each student’s day-to-day activities, with the downside that one really needs to work to get their attention and feedback when it is needed. At the other end of the spectrum are the micro-managers… I am not sure that the perfect scenario exists, but a balanced approach is undoubtedly closer to ideal. PIs are unlikely to change their management style, therefore students should look for supervisors that are willing to give them the level of trust and guidance they need to grow.

Lastly, as in any relationship, students would do well to remember that supervisors are not mind-readers and the answer to 100% of the question they do not ask is always NO; keeping the lines of communication open and asking may lead to the desired outcome.  

Establishing Contacts

Once in the program, depending on the goals of the student, supervisors can help facilitating contact with members of industry and/or collaborators in research. When possible, these opportunities should be discussed early on in keeping with the goal of maximal transparency and to provide further incentive for applicants. Conferences, to be discussed in a future article, are a great setting to meet and familiarize oneself with possible collaborators and for supervisors to play a significant role by way of facilitating introductions.

Departmental Support

The self directed program as it exists in the minds of most is far from reality, progress in graduate school is highly subject dependent. With this in mind, there should be clearly defined checkpoints for progress in the program. It must be acknowledged that departments have in recent years taken steps to communicate more clear and transparent guidelines.

Some departments, like my own, have taken the initiative to introduce a seminar course to discuss the various administrative aspects of a master’s/PhD program. In addition, in recent semesters they have necessitated annual progress reports be completed by the student and PI. Reports then need to be approved by committee members and the departmental graduate program chair. These endeavors are rightly guided but often enforce little change in actuality, as the majority of students complete courses and progress reports as a formality with little else being gained. I would suggest instead, that student be assigned monthly sessions with a graduate adviser to discuss their progress.

Currently, the majority of questions are discussed informally and with similarly uninformed lab mates. In labs with fewer students, questions may remain unanswered leading to even greater uncertainty. In contrast, discussion with an informed member of the department can help alleviate anxiety. An adviser can supplement the supervisors guidance to avoid common pitfalls and those specific to each student’s situation.

This article highlights a few areas of concern for the average graduate student and suggestions corresponding to each. It is hoped that altered policy at the administrative level, conscious guidance by PIs, as well as changes in student attitudes can facilitate the process as they navigate through programs in order to increase the likelihood of success in post-graduate life.

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