The Supervisory Balancing Act – Nanda Dimitrov

The relationship between graduate student and supervisor rests on a foundation of trust.  After speaking to a few dozen graduate students over the past few months, I was impressed by how easily trust can be lost in the supervisory relationship.

In order for the supervisory relationship to work, grad students need to trust in that their supervisors will do all they can to mentor them along the path towards the degree, introduce them to scholars in the field and tell them where to find information they need to succeed in their program.

Supervisors need to trust in that students will follow  supervisors’ guidance, stay informed about what is expected of them, take initiative and ask questions if they are unsure of something or that they will treat the data they collect together responsibly – just to name a few.

Trust is crucial because supervisor and student are on a journey together, and there are many times during the journey when only the supervisor knows where they are going. He or she holds the map and provides direction for the student on the first phase of the journey, and then – hopefully – lets the student continue on their own and complete the final stage of the journey independently.   I really love maps and I like figuring out where I am going on my own, so when someone else holds the map and I can’t see the path in front of me, I feel quite frustrated and disoriented – as do many graduate students.  (It would be nice to look at the map together.)

Graduate school can sometimes feel like trying to find the way out of a  forest, with the supervisor’s voice telling you which way to go.  Some supervisor voices say “Listen, here’s a ‘data jungle.’ I want you to try and find your own way out of it.  You will get lost a couple of times, and will have to turn back if you run into a dead end, but it’s OK.  Getting lost and finding your own way will teach you how to get out of the next jungle faster… I am keeping an eye on you from my helicopter above and am here to help if you need it. Just call if you have a question.”

Other supervisor voices just instruct: “Here’s the jungle, I’ll drop you in the middle, call me when you get out. No cell phones allowed.”

Both students know that the supervisor knows the way out of the jungle of data.  How does the explanation they get about the task affect trust towards their supervisor? Do they understand why they need to go through this exercise?  Do they realize that the supervisor is trying to help them become independent scholars? How may a lack of trust affect their behaviour the next time the supervisor suggests that they venture into a new “data jungle”?  Will they ask for help? Will they succeed? Will they look for a new supervisor?

What do you do to establish trust with your new students? If you are a student – what do you wish your supervisor would say or do to build trust in your relationship? What do they do to clarify their expectations to you? How does this help you grow as a scholar?

If you are interested in reading more about how faculty in different disciplines approach supervision, take a look at the TSC’s two purple guides on supervision online:  The Western Guide to Graduate Supervision is based on interviews with faculty across campus and focuses on general supervision issues such establishing boundaries with graduate students, while the Western Guide to Mentoring Graduate Students Across Cultures explores strategies for effective communication between students and faculty from different cultural backgrounds and examines promoting initiative and independence, bringing the power gap and giving effective feedback.

You can find both on the TSC webpage at: