Expectations (of graduate students and supervisors)

I have been running a research laboratory for close to 15 years, and I’m ashamed to say that I have not written down, formally, my expectations* of graduate students and their expectations of me. I regret this, especially since there are amazing resources out there to help with this discussion. I would argue that differing levels of expectation is probably a key source of conflict in research laboratories, and having a solid agreement between graduate students and supervisors is key for success.

Here is some context for my laboratory: I run a mid-sized laboratory (currently with three MSc and three PhD students and two undergraduate Honour’s students), focused on studying arthropod ecology.  As a Professor, my job involves teaching, research and administration. When running my research laboratory, the three tasks overlap – for example, I’m a lab ‘administrator’ in some ways, including ordering supplies, dealing with budgets, working on policies related to laboratory safety. I am also a researcher – perhaps doing research directly**, and certainly helping students with their research, from project design, to field logistics, analyses, and writing and editing manuscripts. I am also a teacher, and supervision involves different kinds of teaching, from leading lab meetings, teaching graduate-level classes, to taking parts in scientific debates, and sharing interesting literature. I assume my graduate students see my ‘roles’ as being varied, and sometimes fuzzy, because they really are! In recent years, my administrative duties at the University have increased, so I’m certainly not in the lab as much as I used to be, which can be tricky for everyone.

After a terrific laboratory meeting about expectations, my students pointed out that a lot of what is written below can be considered more as a philosophy about supervision, graduate school, and running a laboratory. This is quite true, and valid, but I think there are some concrete expectations that emerge from some of the bullet points, and the more vague and intangible expectations are a good starting point to the development of formal agreements with graduate students. With this in mind, I have agreed to work with my students (individually) to develop a “student-specific” document to outline a plan for meetings, communications, timelines, research priorities; that kind of living document will be a way to formalize specific expectations, plans, and contingencies when things don’t go as planned – such a document can give weight to the broader ideas around expectations, and allow for accountability (as that document develops, I’ll be sure to share a draft form on this blog).

For now… let’s get into some of the ideas around my expectations of graduate students, and their expectations of a supervisor.

Capture

A lab environment… should be a team environment!

As a supervisor, my expectations for my graduate students are as follows:

  • Celebrate diversity, be respectful, be honest, and be ethical.
  • Be part of the team: I expect my students to be engaged and active members of the lab. This includes taking part in laboratory meetings, and being responsive to activities in the laboratory. This could include showing up for lab clean-up days, replying to emails related to lab events and activities, and generally working to be an integral and important member of the lab.
  • Be productive: graduate school is a full-time endeavour, but being productive in work does not necessarily mean working unreasonable hours; being productive is about working well. It’s about quality, not quantity. I do not expect my students to be in the lab all the time; if work is progressing well, and students are reading for comprehensive exams, or have other tasks that don’t require them to be physically present, it’s quite fine that students are not in the lab during regular working hours. However, at other times (e.g., when there is a lot of microscope work required), I do expect to see students in the lab on a more regular basis. I do not count hours, but if productively is not where I would like it to be, we will have a discussion about this, and determine ways to see that work is being done well. Related to this, I do hope that my students to have a life outside of graduate school and that ‘work-life-balance’ is happening, and hopefully this helps promote wellbeing.
  • Communicate: I expect my students to communicate with me, on a regular basis. I will discuss the importance of this at the start of the program, and establish a system that works for both of us. Communication includes (most importantly) keeping me in the loop on their project development, but also around issues they are facing, complications with their work, and certainly about their schedules (e.g., if they will be away for extended periods of time). I need to know when things are not going well – otherwise things can go off the rails rather quickly – being proactive on communications is essential.
  • Develop a research project: a core part of graduate school is developing a research project. I expect my students to do this, with me. The project will likely be a mix of my ideas and their ideas, done with knowledge of literature and ideas, from the broader scientific community. I expect PhD students to develop their project with less input from me (as compared to MSc project development)
  • Keep research as a priority: although I’m very keen on science communication, and outreach, and keen to have students that are engaged in many parts of the graduate student experience, at the end of the day, the research is a priority. “Keeping an eye on the ball” is important, as we are all working with limited resources (mostly time and money!), and the reason students are doing a thesis-based MSc or PhD is because there is an interest and passion for the research, and the current path involves this research-intensive stage. It must be the overarching priority.
  • Be organized: I expect students to be organized; successful students students use an agenda, plan ahead, and think ahead. I expect them to come to meetings with the appropriate documents (prepared and forwarded ahead of time) and with questions prepared. Being organized is a key step towards effective time management and that is essential for success in graduate school (and beyond!).
  • Apply for funding when appropriate: I will do my best to find funding for research, but at the same time, I expect my students to be on the lookout for any funding opportunities relevant to their program, whether it’s applying to a fellowship to get them through their final year, or applying for funds to offset costs for attending conferences.
  • Be responsible for the program: I am well aware of many deadlines, and overall program requirements, but it’s also the responsibility of students to know what courses they need to take, and when to take them. Being aware of deadlines is essential for supervisors and students.
  • Finish on time: I expect MSc students to finish in under two years, and PhD students to take around 4 years*** to complete all degree requirements. There may be exceptions to this, but these should be rare, and should be discussed well in advance. My role as academic guide is to help students through the program, and help design projects that are feasible within the time limits mentioned; the students are also responsible for trying to reach these deadlines and communicating when they cannot. I am a very strong believer in avoiding ‘extended’ MSc or PhD programs: it is seldom a good idea.
  • Publish: While I provide opportunities for joint-authorship with my students, I expect my students to publish their main thesis chapters, in suitable peer-reviewed journals. Ideally, (some of?) these publications should be submitted before the student graduates, or at least within a reasonable time frame after graduation. For me, this time frame is certainly within a year of graduating. I expect to be a co-author on papers that originate from a student’s thesis work, provided I have earned that authorship.
  • Be responsible for data: I expect my students to have good data management procedures, and any field books or raw data sheets be copied regularly. I expect data-back up to be happening on a regular basis. I also expect all data files will be submitted to me at the time a student graduates.
  • Collaborate and mentor: I model a collaborative research approach and expect my students to share what they are doing with each other, and work collaboratively whenever possible. I expect my more senior graduate students to mentor more junior members of the lab. I expect my students to seize opportunities to collaborate with other students (provided it complements their own research, and doesn’t distract too much from their own research!)
  • Read: Reading narrowly and broadly will help students become better scientists. I expect my graduate students to be aware of broader happenings in science, as well as the specifics related to their projects.
  • Do #SciComm: Communicating science is a central skill for scientists. I will give students opportunities to go to conferences and I expect my students to present their work at these conferences, and to spend time and energy on developing effective science communication skills. 
  • Be independent: I expect my graduate student to be independent. I’m a busy person, and I’m not in the lab all that much. I travel, teach and have a bazillion meetings to attend. Therefore, my students need to be able to work independently. I will not micro-manage; I will not be a ‘helicopter supervisor’. I’m hands-off, much of the time, although I will be available and accessible as needed.
  • Be creative, take risks, have fun: Graduate school is a wonderful time in a career, and I certainly do my best to create an interesting work environment for my students. I hope this is an environment that will allow for students to feel comfortable being creative and taking risks. Also expect there to be ‘play’ and ‘work’ and that in many cases, the lines between the two will blur.

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Being a supervisor can be like setting out pylons in a construction zone.

Here is what I will try to provide to my graduate students – this is what I perceive to be their expectations of me (note: my current students helped with this section):

  • Celebrate diversity, be respectful, be honest, and be ethical.
  • uphold and transmit the highest professional standards of research and scholarship” (that one comes straight from my University)
  • Be supportive and human: I will develop a working relationship with students that will be based on the philosophy of being a good human! This means being supportive of my students, and to be there when they need me. A supervisor’s role is certainly to give advice (even long after graduation), and be a person they can depend on. I will strive to be compassionate, patient and empathetic. I recognize that everyone has ups and downs, and will have dark days as well as bright times: I will be supportive through all of this, and will work with my students to help them through their program, despite the challenges that will be thrown their way.
  • Be available: related to the previous point, I will be available to my students. I recognize this is a struggle at times, but when a student needs a meeting, I will help make this happen. I will answer emails, and meet face-to-face as necessary. They will know about my schedule, so it’s no surprise if I’m away on vacation, or otherwise unavailable. (as an aside: this is something I have to work on, and increasing face-time with my graduate students will be a priority going forward)
  • Communicate: I will do my best to have open communications with my students, from laboratory happenings, progress on research, troubleshooting, or just basic planning. The communication may be via different types of media (e.g., social media, emails or phone calls) but regardless, I will communicate.
  • Compromise: when discussing this document with my students, we talked about the power imbalance in Academia. It’s important to be honest about this power imbalance, recognize it’s there, and understand the stress it can put on students. Conflict can arise in part because of different priorities of students compared to a supervisor: for example, a supervisor may see a short-term gain by having another publication, whereas a student may need to devote some time to professional development activities, and see that ‘critical’ publication as being less time sensitive. This is further confounded by the power imbalance; therefore, a supervisor needs to be willing to see these differing priorities, in the context of potential power imbalance, and be willing to compromise.
  • Take the feedback: A supervisor has to be willing to be criticized, and be willing and open to comments from students. This becomes especially relevant when there are agreed-upon expectations!
  • Edit: A key role of a supervisor is to read and edit manuscripts, proposals, thesis chapters, etc. I will try to provide timely feedback on written materials. The definition of ‘timely’ is difficult to pin down, but optimally this will be within a 2 week window, provided there is advance notice and planning.
  • Provide funding: I will provide adequate support for research activities, from helping fund research assistants for the summer, to making sure students are not out-of-pocket for airline tickets or field supplies. My job is to make sure research can happen, and a big part of this is funding. We need open communication about funding, from the start, so that my students are supported, financially, in all parts of their work.
  • Help navigate graduate school: a supervisor has to help establish a research project, set-up committee meetings (help fill out the relevant forms), organize comprehensive examinations, sort out potential examiners for a PhD defense, and have good working knowledge about the policies and procedures at the University around graduate school. Although the program is ultimately a student’s responsibility, a supervisor has a key role to play in navigating the program. I will try to be organized on these tasks.
  • Leverage my network: Whenever possible, I will use my own contacts and network to help my students. At times, it may be necessary for students to get in touch with experts outside of their own network, and I will facilitate this as much as possible.
  • Help get jobs: I know my students, care about them, and recognize they will pass through the lab on the way to a career. I have a responsibility to help them with this transition, and as such a supervisor needs to be ready to write letters of reference for students (even at the last minute!), and send interesting job opportunities their way.
  • Troubleshoot: I will be there to help troubleshoot, whether it is issues with a collaborator or fellow graduate student, or laboratory equipment failure. I will make sure most stuff works and model steps to problem solving.
  • Provide a safe laboratory environment: I will provide a safe work environment by following the standards put in place by my University. I will ensure there is adequate training, dissemination of policy, and good practice. I will work with my University and my students to make sure any problems are dealt with in a timely fashion.
  • Space and supplies: I will work to make sure students have the physical space they need in the lab, and the equipment they need, from IT support to insect pins.
  • Send students to conferences: I will send students to conferences, and pay for these (in part****). For MSc students, this may be 1-2 conferences over the course of their degree, and these will likely be national-level conferences relevant to their field of study. For PhD students, this should include at least one international conference, preferably towards the end of their degree.
  • Sign stuff: I will sign stuff for my students, whether it is expense reports, or forms for scholarships.
  • Put out pylons: although I expect my students to be mostly independent researchers, this model does not apply to all students, and problems will occur. When necessary, I will play a more active role in direct supervision, have weekly meetings as necessary, and work in a more ‘hands-on’ manner with students. I like to see a supervisor’s role as one that involves setting up pylons in a construction zone: ideally a student can navigate this zone with just a few pylons, placed here and there, and I will help facilitate a route through the zone with as few pylons as possible. At times, however, more pylons are needed, perhaps placed closer together, and navigating through a graduate program may require more help for some students. Creating a laboratory environment in which it’s safe to take risks, and safe to fail now and then, is also important, so at times, veering into the construction zone is fine, and I may not stop a student, but I will help to find a way out.

I realize this is long-winded, and detailed, but it needs to be. Expectations are drivers of success in graduate school, and essential for good supervisor-student relationships. I encourage other Academics to develop this kind of document, and have this discussion with students, before they come to your lab, when they start, and during the program. It will benefit everyone.

—–

* To be clear, I certainly have discussions with students about expectations, but talking about it isn’t as good as having it stated more explicitly in written form.

** I don’t “do” all that much direct research anymore; although I try to get out in the field with my students, and certainly edit/write manuscripts, my research is not mostly at arm’s length to my students. I have traded field work for a desk job… 

*** Time for completion for PhD programs are more variable, and they should be. When I state ‘4 years’, it’s much more of a goal than a reality. However, I feel strongly that there are very few reasons why a MSc should take more than 2 years, from start to finish.

**** Funding for conferences will not come out of a student’s own pocket, but I do expect students to apply for relevant travel funds, or for departmental funding, to help offset costs to my research grants.

4 thoughts on “Expectations (of graduate students and supervisors)

  1. Excellent doc, Chris. Transparency is critical. Couple of questions:
    – do your grad students have teaching assistant obligations (i.e., certain number of terms they must be TAs or perhaps they need to be TAs for the funding) If so, do you support / encourage them to get teaching/TA training? I’m thinking of the grad students in my teaching & learning course who have to sneak out of their labs to come to my class.
    – your very first point in both lists is about supporting diversity – awesome! Have you considered a policy specifically about sexual harassment in and around your lab? Can students come to you with issues? How do they report incidents? What are your moral and legal obligations. All tough things to think, talk, and write about but if it helps even one grad student succeed instead of dropping out, it’s worth it.

    I’m not trying to critique your doc – the only reason I’m able to ask thes questions is because you’ve already done such a careful job. Great model for other faculty!

    Peter

    • Thanks Peter, for the comments! They are excellent and spot-on.

      Regarding TA – on our campus, we only have 1/2 TA-ships, due to smaller student body and fewer large classes. As such, even when students do TA, it’s usually not onerous. That being said, my students, when wanting to TA, typically have a conversation with me about the impact a TAship will have on their program, and we have a discussion about my perspective on it. I’m generally supportive, and I typically encourage students to get some TAing experience during the course of their degree. Regardless, I do need to add bullet points around expectations of teaching. Thanks for raising that issue!

      The harassment piece is also an excellent point. We do have excellent policies at the University, but the policies themselves need to be communicated more effectively, both across the University and within a lab environment. And, because there are different policies (e.g., a specific harassment policy, as well as harassment being covered in the Code of Conduct), it can be difficult to navigate. So, indeed, my next draft of this document will certainly add bullet points related to discussions about harassment policies, and clear guidelines to students around those policies.

      THANK YOU for raising these points. Excellent contributions.

      • Your willingness to publish your expectations and then have conversations like this, Chris, are more signs of your commitment to creating a safe, supportive environment for everyone in your community. Blogging makes you accountable- that can be scary. And I applaud and admire what you’re doing.

        Peter

  2. Pingback: Tips for managing a research lab | Arthropod Ecology

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