Getting Your Graduate Students Off to a Good Start

Accessible Version

By Nanda Dimitrov, Associate Director, Teaching Support Centre

It is easy for graduate students and their supervisors to get caught up in a myriad of details at the beginning of the year.  The bureaucracy that surrounds getting started is formidable-after forms, keys, orientation sessions, safety training, Sakai access, course registration and funding questions, there is often little time to talk about anything else. But if you want to get your students off to a good start, make time for three critical conversations that contribute to student success: (1) discuss the big picture, (2) clarify expectations, and (3) connect your students with multiple mentors.

Discuss the Big Picture
In the first few months of the new year, consider addressing the issues that will provide students with a bird's eye view of scholarship in your discipline. Have a conversation about what it takes to grow from a student into a scholar, and what stewardship of the discipline means in your field (Golde et al., 2006; Walker et al., 2008).

Talk about the goals of the program, expectations for successful graduates at the master's or doctoral level, career development and how the choices students make during their program may affect their career prospects (e.g. the choice of thesis topic, publishing early on or gaining teaching experience).

New graduate students often focus on the most tangible components of the degree, such as coursework or qualifying exams, and do not really understand the need to develop original contributions to research, or what original research is. They do not realize that one of their tasks in graduate school is to understand unspoken norms of their discipline (Dimitrov, 2012), network with other scholars or get published early on (Austin, 2010). They often think they can leave such things for "some time later." Without guidance from their supervisor, many graduate students zero in on major theories in the field and get busy working on their own experiments, without taking the time to develop competencies they may need as an independent scholar once they are out of graduate school: grant writing, presentation skills, lab and project management, budgeting, teaching and course design, or the mentorship and supervision of junior scholars in their research lab (Gilbert et al., 2004; CAGS, 2008). Get students to reflect on their own development by asking them to set goals for the next month, term or year, and work together with the research group to map the essential skills of a successful scholar in Bioengineering, Women's Studies or Astronomy.

Clarify Expectations
In a survey of Western faculty, Skarakis- Doyle and McIntyre (2008) identified seven areas in which it is important to clarify expectations with graduate students. These are:

  • The extent and nature of direction from the supervisor
  • The degree of independence of the student
  • Frequency and manner of consultation and feedback
  • Written work: frequency of submissions, drafts, progress reports
  • The role of supervisor in editing work-Manner in which ideological or opinion differences will be handled.  (p.7)

In addition it is important to discuss issues of authorship and intellectual property, including order of authors on co-authored articles.

Western has developed a template letter of understanding that graduate supervisors can adapt to their needs and use to discuss expectations with their graduate students. The Western Guide to Graduate Supervision also includes several expectations worksheets that may guide this dialogue.

To clarify what excellent work means for you, show new graduate students examples of both outstanding and average quality research by other graduate students-not only exemplary research by established scholars-so they can see the level of sophistication expected in a master's thesis or dissertation in the discipline.

In addition to the financial and administrative issues (vacation time, hours, funding, how to apply for grants, documenting their work, keeping track of data), also talk about feedback: how do you give feedback and how the student receives it. What types of feedback help them learn? How do you want students to respond to feedback on written work?  Should they respond to your comments in writing as if they were getting back to a journal editor or do you just want them to incorporate the changes and give you a clean copy of the text?

Connect Students with Multiple Mentors
Doctoral attrition rates are between 30 and 50% in Canadian universities (Lovitts, 2001). The main reasons why doctoral students quit their programs include: negative relationship with their supervisor; a lack of match with departmental culture; or lack of integration into department (Golde, 2005). So create community and connect new graduate students with senior peers. Assign multiple mentors and bring the graduate students together informally to discuss their progress and share advice with each other. Research on graduate education in the U.S. and Canada found that a number of factors contribute to successful completion and faster time to completion by doctoral students. These include: beginning dissertation research early in the program, remaining with the original topic and supervisor, meeting frequently with the supervisor, collaborating with supervisor on conference papers, and having multiple mentors (Seagram, Gould, & Pyke, 1998; Golde & Dore, 2001). Mentors may not need to be other faculty members. Many graduate students find mentors in senior peers, postdocs, the graduate assistant in the department or grad students in other disciplines with whom they can share strategies for staying on track, organizing their work, managing large amounts of reading, deciphering the research ethics process or managing their time.

References
Austin, A. E. (2010). Reform efforts in STEM doctoral education: Strengthening preparation for scholarly careers.  In J. C. Smart (Ed.), Higher education: Handbook of theory and research (pp. 91-128). Dordrecht Netherlands: Springer. Retrieved from http://www.springerlink.com/content/h277457160767h44/

CAGS (2008). Professional Skills Development for Graduate Students. Downloaded from http://www.cags.ca/documents/publications/Prof%20Skills%20Dev%20for%20Grad%20Stud%20%20Final%2008%2011%2005.pdf

Dimitrov, N. (2012). The development of disciplinary communication competence among teaching assistants: A research agenda. In Gorsuch, G. (Ed.), Working theories for TA and ITA development (pp. 169- 199). Stillwater, OK: New Forums Press.

Gilbert, R., Balatti, J., Turner, P., & Whitehouse, H. (2004). The generic skills debate in research higher degrees. Higher Education Research and Development, 23(3), 375-388.

Golde, C.M., & Dore, T.M. (2001, January).  At Cross Purposes: What the experiences of doctoral students reveal about doctoral education.  Retrieved from www.phd-survey.org

Golde, C. M. (2005). The role of the department and discipline in doctoral student attrition: Lessons from four departments. Journal of Higher Education, 76, 669-700.

Golde, C. M., & Walker, G. E., & Associates (2006). Envisioning the future of doctoral education: Preparing stewards of the discipline. San Francisco, CA: Jossey- Bass.

Lovitts, B. (2001). Leaving the ivory tower: The causes and consequences of departure from doctoral study.  Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.

Seagram, B., Gould J., & Pyke, S. (1998).  An investigation of gender and other variables on time to completion of doctoral degrees. Research in Higher Education, 39 (3), 319-335.

Skarakis-Doyle, E., & McIntyre, G.  (2007). Western guide to graduate supervision. London, ON: Western University Teaching Support Centre.

Walker, G., Golde, C., Jones, L., Conklin Bueschel, A., & Hutchings, P.  (2008) The formation of scholars: Rethinking doctoral education for the twenty-first century. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.