Graduate students and supervision: What you need to know to optimize your graduate school success.

Graduate education is an exceptional experience!

This post describes many of the experiences, expectations, roles, and responsibilities that are particular to the graduate student — supervisor context. Some are just things of which to be aware, and others are relatively standard practices you will likely experience.

Every university has documentation about responsibilities of students, supervisors, and degree completion procedures. However, there are intricate, interpersonal phenomena that are almost always present, and need to be acknowledged. Sometimes it is important to be reminded of these phenomena throughout the graduate experience, so graduate students and supervisors can maintain a collegial and productive relationship.

First and foremost, read, and keep a copy handy, of your university’s graduate student handbook or graduate education policies and procedures documentation. Book mark the official webpages and save the weblinks.

The following describes the role of the supervisor:

  1. The supervisor is a faculty member with classroom teaching, research, and service requirements to their position. This means, they have a lot of other work roles and responsibilities aside from being a graduate student supervisor. Take some time and learn about the work your supervisor does aside from being a graduate student supervisor. Also, find out how many graduate students are being supervised (at masters and doctoral levels) and appreciate you are one of those many other people with a similar goal.
  2. If you have done your homework well (i.e., the homework of finding and selecting a graduate supervisor) then you have the right person to get you through your graduate degree, and make sure you will be successful at each step along the way. Trust them!  Follow their instructions, even if it appears to contradict a committee member, your supervisor is ultimately responsible for helping you achieve a quality graduate outcome and manuscript product.  Additionally, your supervisor will welcome discussion if instructions seem unclear or contradictory, so please approach them if you are uncertain how to proceed at some step along the way.
  3. A graduate degree has been designed to fit within a particular amount of time, and according to a particular student context (e.g., full time or part time). You and your supervisor will set learning and productivity targets, times for completion of various pieces of your graduate learning, proposal writing, research, and thesis/dissertation manuscript writing. Sometimes these negotiated targets land outside the normal completion time, but they are agreed upon, and therefore acceptable.

The following points are particular to me as a graduate supervisor:

  1. When you send something to me to read, if it is ten pages or less, you can often expect feedback within five working days; if is more than ten pages, expect feedback within ten to fifteen working days. (Full thesis/dissertation manuscripts may take even longer.)
  2. Anticipate weekends, holidays, vacation, and sabbatical, these days slow the turnaround time. These are days during which I am unable to work on your project because that time is already committed to other personal activities and/or possibly other work.  Plan for this and always give as much time as possible for me to return your work to you.
  3. Anticipate your own personal requirements for vacation or down time. It is absolutely ok for you to take time for yourself and your family, but anticipate when and how these days could slow your productivity down.
  4. Be careful if you decide to work longer than the normal completion timing, or decide to be finished earlier than planned. For example, working on external research projects or working part-time or full-time (especially at a job outside of the university) will definitely impact your productivity.
    • It will take longer to complete your project, and often that means extra in terms of graduate student fees.
    • Once you and I get out of a rhythm of writing, reading, feedback, then it takes much longer to get your mind and my mind back into the topic appropriately. This slows down the writing and feedback process, and sometimes means misinterpretations could occur.
    • To be frank, for example, if you decide to work longer than the normal or negotiated timing of the graduate program length, and you don�t want to pay another term of student fees, this is not a reason to demand or expect that I cut corners and push your completion (i.e., thesis/dissertation writing) through to a defense.
  5. Theses and dissertations are defended. That means they are a written product you are proud of, and will defend. To me, that means your manuscript is complete and finished, not a work in progress. I will not have you go to a defense before your manuscript is ready, and you are ready to defend it.
  6. The graduate student — supervisor relationship requires work on both our parts. Keep it professional, and focused. For example, my preference is that you use email to communicate with me about your graduate work, not text (even if we have shared personal phone numbers for another purpose, like travel to a conference).  I also expect that emails will be kept professional, for example, salutations of “Hi” or “Hello”, rather than the colloquial “hey” etc. are preferable.
  7. As your supervisor I am invested in your success.  My aim is for us to have a collegial relationship that results in your graduate work being something we are both proud of, and that you can reflect on your time as a graduate student as a positive experience of learning and growing and developing expertise in your chosen area of study.  If you have concerns about how the relationship is functioning, I encourage you to discuss these with me, as, just like any relationship, this one too, requires care and attention on both of our parts.
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Jamie Pyper

Jamie Pyper

mathematics educator and researcher | mathematics teacher (OCT) | and craft beer enthusiast! | he/him | #MSTE Coordinator, #PBLmathEd #CMESG #NCTM | mathperceptionproject.ca @314_per
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