Guiding the Guides

Being a graduate student can be tough, but supervising a graduate student is no easy task either. Supervisors are usually given no training, and they often have nobody to turn to if the student-supervisor relationship runs into professional or personal difficulties. Little surprise, then, that a 2-week course for supervisors at Umeå University in Sweden has become immensely popular.

Solving problems and tackling conflicts, dealing with issues related to sex or ethnicity, and walking the line between too much and too little interference in the work of the graduate student are some of the subjects under discussion during the course. Six full days of seminars and lectures are combined with three individual written assignments and one session observing a supervisory meeting between a more experienced colleague and his or her student in a different department. In all, the 10 days' work is spread over a longer period. Supervisors who complete the course get a certificate stating its contents.

One important objective of the course is to provide a safe forum for discussion of problems with supervision. Competitiveness within academia, where bringing up one's own problems is equated with admitting failure and losing face, means that although supervisors might discuss a graduate student's work performance, conflicts, or personal disagreements are seldom mentioned.

Another important objective is to encourage participants to reflect on their behaviour and attitudes. "Supervisors often unconsciously reproduce the manner in which they themselves once were supervised--or do the exact opposite, if they were dissatisfied with their supervisors," says course initiator and lecturer Åsa Bergenheim. "They might also treat all graduate students in exactly the same way regardless of their differences. They do this in the name of fairness, but this equal treatment may end up being to some students' disadvantage," she continues. A third issue "is that the supervisors may be too intent on the student's finishing in time, giving detailed instructions and perhaps even doing some part of the work themselves, thus preventing the students from growing towards independence."

Different department heads at Umeå put different emphasis on supervisors' participation in the course. Some actively push their supervisors to enroll, while supervisors at other departments have to ask for permission to attend. Likewise, some supervisors are encouraged to regard the training as a part of their job, while others have to attend in their own time. Bergenheim even recalls some attendees having to use part of their vacation to participate.

How Seriously Do Supervisors Take Their Responsibilities?

Sweden's Higher Education Ordinance of 1998 outlines certain requirements for the supervision of graduate students. Each student is entitled to his or her own individual study plan outlining the work expected of the student and the corresponding obligations of the supervisor. This study plan is to be accepted by the faculty board and revised at least once a year.

These rules are, however, only gradually being implemented. According to graduate student representative Helene Persson at Lund University, it is not uncommon that a study plan is either never made or made once and never revised. Responding to a questionnaire, more than a third of Lund graduate students were dissatisfied with their supervisors' lack of interest in their study plans.

This lack of interest generally passes without sanction. True, a professor at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences was recently sentenced by a government board to suffer 30 days loss of salary, in part due to his failure to make proper study plans for his graduate students. Also cited, however, was his long-standing sexual relationship with one of these students. The latter unethical behaviour is believed to be the main cause of the sentence, while the lack of study plans would have gone unnoticed--or at least, unpunished--under other circumstances.

That was in the early days, however. The success of the course has now forced all department heads to acknowledge its value. Started in 1997 and originally given twice a year, the course is now offered four times a year. Some 200 supervisors have attended, a quarter of the total number at Umeå. And according to the university's recent Educational Action Program, which is intended to improve the overall quality of teaching at the institution, the remaining three-fourths will be expected to participate in the future.

Bergenheim is convinced that better supervision will, in time, lead to better research. The goal is to achieve the optimal balance between producing results (a dissertation submitted within the prescribed four years) and producing competence (a graduate able to do good independent work as a junior scientist).

Some of the participants in the course have long experience of being a supervisor, while others are themselves recent graduates. Regardless of background, however, they seem to find the course useful.

Business economist Nils Wåhlin, one of the younger participants on a recent course, mentions having learnt the importance of tackling problems as early as possible. If a graduate student produces a substandard paper, for instance, the best thing to do is to discuss it at once, instead of merely giving a brief comment and hoping for better results next time, he points out.

Wåhlin will also be wary of becoming too closely involved in his student's problems. "Of course the student's personal situation is relevant, and I'll want to know if there are problems which may affect his or her academic work," he says. "But to solve the problems the student should turn elsewhere."

Margareta Molin, professor of prosthetic dentistry, has been a supervisor for many years. She nevertheless found the course rewarding, even calling it "one of the best courses I ever attended."

Its main benefit, in Molin's opinion, is its emphasis on the relationship between supervisor and student. While all supervisors take the academic part of supervising seriously--discussing books to read, conferences to attend, experiments to plan, and so on--many tend to disregard the social aspects of the task. Yet, these aspects are of almost equal importance, being the basis for a cooperation that is supposed to be mutually rewarding during 4 years of work.

With her future graduate students, Molin intends to bring these questions up at the very beginning, and may even formalize an agreement on paper. This agreement would address all matters relating to the supervisor's demands on the graduate student and the graduate student's demands on the supervisor, such as the frequency of scheduled meetings, the degree of familiarity expected, and the supervisor's availability outside office hours.

A detailed consensus on the role of the supervisor will probably never be achieved due to the difference in research culture among departments. In medicine and technology, graduate students often form part of a research group publishing scientific articles, while in the humanities the dissertations are written as monographs based on more individual and independent work. Nonetheless it is hoped that, once a majority of Umeå supervisors have attended the course, they will show a greater awareness of their own role in the student-supervisor relationship, and will also be more willing to discuss problems with their colleagues.

Raising the competence of the supervisors is an area of interest for other Swedish universities as well. Stockholm and Lund Universities have recently launched similar, though shorter, courses following consultation with their colleagues at Umeå, and others are following suit.

Umeå is, however, still the leader of the pack. Not content with its own successful course, Umeå recently held a Nordic conference on postgraduate supervision, with keynote speakers from Denmark and Norway as well as Sweden. It was the first of its kind but will, judging from the "extremely positive" response, certainly not be the last, assesses Bergenheim.

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