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Let's hear it for our graduate supervisors

Innovative program increases support, recognition for supervisors who have daily contact with grad students
August 25, 2015
Four supervisors hoist their mugs during the supervisor appreciation event last year. Photo by Clayton MacGillivray, University of Calgary

Four supervisors hoist their mugs during the supervisor appreciation event last year. Photo by Clayton MacGillivray, University of Calgary 

With the award of excellence are, from left: Gillian Robinson, senior director of strategic operations in the Faculty of Graduate Studies; Dave Hansen, assistant dean and biological sciences professor; and Dean Lisa Young. Photo by Riley  Brandt, University of Calgary

With the award of excellence are, from left: Gillian Robinson, senior director of strategic operations in the Faculty of Graduate Studies; Dave Hansen, assistant dean and biological sciences professor; and Dean Lisa Young. Photo by Riley  Brandt, University of Calgary 

Planning is underway for the second annual GREATsupervisor event in September. Supervisors who attend can expect another round of “muggings” along with a new feature: presentations from faculty and a grad student on the nature of supervisory relationships. Photo by Riley Brandt, University of Calgary

Planning is underway for the second annual GREATsupervisor event in September. Supervisors who attend can expect another round of “muggings” along with a new feature: presentations from faculty and a grad student on the nature of supervisory relationships. Photo by Riley Brandt, University of Calgary 

In the drive to enrich the graduate education experience on campus, the Faculty of Graduate Studies is not only reaching out to students, it’s also connecting with their supervisors. Just a year and a half ago, FGS became one of the first graduate studies faculties in North America to introduce a supervisory development program.

Heading up the program is Dave Hansen, who works part-time as FGS’ assistant dean  (supervisory development) in addition to his responsibilities as associate professor in the Department of Biological Sciences. Hansen sees increasing support to the university’s more than 1,000 graduate supervisors as essential.

“We want to enhance the quality of the graduate student experience, and we know a major way of doing that is to support the supervisors who are in daily contact with graduate students,” says Hansen, who’s served as a graduate supervisor throughout his 12 years at the university.

Workshops for onboarding and graduate supervision

Under Hansen’s direction, FGS now offers new supervisors a mandatory two-hour onboarding workshop on policies, procedures and best practices. It’s also launched My Supervisor Skills, a new series of workshops for new and experienced supervisors. Led by experts on campus and from outside, the sessions cover different aspects of graduate supervision, everything from resolving conflicts to encouraging respect in the research environment to how to prepare students for oral exams. So far, FGS has hosted 19 workshops reaching more than 350 supervisors.  

Ray Turner, graduate program director for the Department of Biological Sciences, sees the positive changes the program is already having in these early stages, saying that “a greater awareness now exists around expectations and issues between supervisors and students. This is leading to a much more enjoyable learning experience for all our graduate students.”

In overseeing the program, Hansen balances different roles — as a workshop presenter, a mentor to other supervisors, and as a motivator.

Recognition for a job well done

“Graduate supervisors at the university want to do a good job. They really care about students. But they can sometimes feel underappreciated for the significant effort, so one of the other things we’ve done is to recognize their efforts.”

In September 2014, FGS held its first annual Supervisor Appreciation Week. The week coincided with the GREATsupervisor awards event, where Hansen and others in FGS presented about 60 graduate supervisors nominated by their programs for recognition with GREATsupervisor coffee mugs.

The effort to support supervisors is attracting attention not just on campus but elsewhere. In March, the program was recognized with an award for excellence and innovation in graduate education from the Western Association of Graduate Schools and the Educational Testing Service.

“With the program, our hope is we’re steadily building more excitement and enthusiasm in support of quality graduate supervision on campus.”