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A vision for graduate supervision

Supervising graduate students is a responsibility and skill that goes far beyond the mere transmission of knowledge, as Daniel Jutras explains

Daniel Jutras's avatar
University of Montreal
1 May 2023
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A man standing on a rock, staring out into the distance

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In the mid-1980s, I had the privilege of completing my graduate studies at a major American university. I was young, passionate about constitutional law and keen to learn all there was to learn.

My supervisor was a foremost expert on public law in the United States, and a prolific, wise and brilliant writer. I didn’t meet with him often during my happy stay in Boston – he was busy and had the responsibility of mentoring a large number of students.

He had glasses with black frames and a large moustache à la Groucho Marx and he rarely smiled. But what I remember most clearly, and perplexingly, is that he would get up from his chair each time I walked into his office. Our conversations about my dissertation, what I was reading, my small victories and my nagging doubts would take place like this, with him standing behind his desk, hands in his pockets, and me standing by the door, trying to juggle my notes as best I could. Our meetings were brief. They always left me with a bitter taste.

The explanation for his choice of stance wasn’t some strange desire to combine physical activity with constitutional debate. Nor, speaking of posture, was it lumbago that led him to adopt a vertical position. I soon realised that my youthful reflections on Canadian constitutional law were of little interest to my professor. Rather, this standing supervision was part of a clever strategy for managing time and expectations. Standing up is enough to end a conversation before it has even begun.

I don’t know if my professor had completed any training to ensure successful supervision at the graduate level. Perhaps there wasn’t any in those days. Today, he would have no excuse. At Université de Montréal, for example, on the graduate and postdoctoral studies website, there is a wealth of documentation, resources, guides and training opportunities for supervisors. Any dedicated supervisor should make the most of the training and preparatory guides available to them, via their institution. Quality supervision is not something most people are born with – it is learned.

The supervision of graduate students is a weighty responsibility, one that goes far beyond the transmission of knowledge of a discipline through specialised expertise. It’s a matter of teaching the students not only to be researchers but to stand up for themselves.

Supervisors must – among many other related tasks – take the time to:

  • get to know the person they’re supervising
  • get to know their strengths and weaknesses
  • establish a caring interpersonal relationship with them, never intimate nor overly familiar but not too distant, either
  • organise their process of methodological acculturation
  • encourage their integration into the team or the laboratory
  • expand their conceptual and theoretical horizons
  • formulate clear expectations and set reasonable deadlines
  • keep track of the pace of their work
  • prepare them for professional life
  • keep an eye on their mental, physical and financial well-being, without acting like a parent.

Research supervisors are fiduciaries in the legal sense: people who are required to act diligently and in good faith, in the best interests of the inherently vulnerable person in their care. This is no small task and should never be taken lightly nor refused too quickly.

A late colleague of mine used to joke that we should treat doctoral students like mushrooms: keep them in the dark, feed them waste and watch them grow. A bad joke.

One of my favourite songs, J’apprends à me tenir debout (I’m Learning to Stand Up), written by David Portelance and movingly sung by Fred Pellerin, illustrates the point more poetically, even if it has nothing to do with writing a thesis:

“It’s in the dark that the light is beautiful,
“It’s in the fog that an encounter is beautiful,
“It’s in the silence that an answer is beautiful.”

Darkness, fog, silence. Three situations where a research supervisor can take a wrong turn. There are others: indifference, inertia, conflict of interest, abuse of power. And, I would add, the arrogance of believing that one knows, intuitively, how to supervise another person’s research just because one has experienced the ritual of graduate school oneself.

Directing research can’t be improvised. Like any other professional skill, it is developed with advice, training and practice.

Epilogue: I completed my dissertation as best I could. My research supervisor read it very attentively, if I go by the detailed and relevant comments that filled the margins of my paper. He was wise, eminent and brilliant. Just too busy. Still today, I have the feeling that I missed a unique meeting of minds, as if he arrived after I’d already gone, leaving me frustrated that I’d waited for him in vain.

Daniel Jutras is rector of the University of Montreal.

This is an edited version of a blog, “Standing up”, originally published on the University of Montreal website.

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