Supervising the PhD: identifying common mismatches in expectations between candidate and supervisor to improve research training outcomes
Preprint posted on 23 February 2020 https://www.biorxiv.org/content/10.1101/2020.02.20.958520v1
Article now published in Higher Education Research & Development at http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/07294360.2021.1874887
Getting a PhD is a personal and academic achievement, but it is also a challenging and frustrating endeavor. Good mentoring, predictably, is vital to the successful completion of a PhD. Effective mentoring in graduate school in STEM disciplines is essential for students to be happier, successful, and well-trained to obtain promising job opportunities . On the contrary, incompatibility and conflicts between students and their advisors prompt candidate dissatisfaction, PhD discontinuation and depression . Given the fact that a PhD student and supervisor spend on average 4-6 years working with each other, both parties need to manage expectations throughout the graduate school.
Here, Cardilini et al used survey results from PhD candidates and supervisors to identify key mismatches in the student-mentor relationships within Australian institutions. The quantitative understanding of mismatches described in this preprint provides key suggestions for the emotional and intellectual wellbeing of students and how to prevent poor graduate school experience for both students and mentors.
Scope of this study
A mentor-mentee relationship is very individualistic and develops over time between a graduate student and their supervisor(s). Both students and mentors bring expectations at the beginning and end of the training that might evolve their relationship for the better or the worst. One of the key objectives of the student-PI relationship must be supporting graduate students throughout graduate school and beyond.
By quantifying potential mismatches based on the survey from 114 PhD students and 52 supervisors, this study provides tangible mismatches between student-supervisor expectations and henceforth give strategies to address these potential mismatches. Students and supervisors ranked key attributes on the guidance that the students needed as part of the training and whether they were given them or not, at the beginning and end of the PhD. Further, supervisors ranked the guidance they were expected to give to students to filter out discrepancies between students and supervisors on supervisor responsibility.
This survey identified marked differences between the student-mentor expectations and supervisor guidance to support the goals of PhD candidates. While the mismatches identified here are neither surprising nor extraordinary, they provide a roadmap for everyone involved in academia to improve mentorship practices.
Student – supervisor expectations are dynamic and change over time
At the beginning of the candidature, surprisingly there are not many differences in expectations from both parties. e.g. common expectations are that candidates should remain motivated and cultivate written communication skills. Besides, students value good grades and verbal skills whereas supervisors stress developing critical thinking abilities.
Incidentally, the expectations for both parties change at the end of candidature. Students preferred quantitative achievements such as a higher number of papers, awards, and grants. Supervisors cared less for papers and awards but instead emphasized on improving qualitative outcomes such as good knowledge of the field, critical thinking, and written communication skills.
Common expectations and mismatches of a student-supervisor relationship
The most common mismatch was the perception of the quality and quantity of guidance was received vs given. Supervisors believed they gave enough guidance, but the trainees ranked the guidance they received to be inadequate. 82% of mentors believed that they always provided guidance whereas only 64% of candidates agreed that they received guidance at every opportunity or when the supervisor identified the need for it. Additionally, double the number of supervisors ranked their guidance as high-quality compared to students. Incidentally, 10% of students ranked their mentors’ guidance low or very low, however, no PI thought they gave low-quality supervision.
Further, mentors believed that they always adequately provided guidance for attributes that students expected from their mentors such as academic independence, communication and teamwork skills. But students ranked the guidance received from their mentors on these attributes to be unsatisfactory.
Overall, these results show how the need for mentorship is viewed from a student and supervisor perspective and what key attributes derive mismatches between mentor-mentee expectations.
Mental health has always been a concern for graduate students in this highly competitive academic world . A whopping one-third of student participants in this survey experienced mental health issues. While half of those students associated their wellbeing directly to their research progress and personal expectations, one-third directly attributed them to their relationship with their supervisor. Female candidates indicated receiving better quality supervision compared to male counterparts, but they also reported higher instances of mental health issues due to the strenuous relationship with their supervisors. The understanding of these stressful attributes helps build intervention strategies to alleviate mental health crises in graduate students.
How to avoid conflicts and promote candidate success?
- Open communication between mentors and mentees is essential to avoid conflict. A periodic update in mentor-mentee expectations incorporating attributes mentioned in this preprint through continual communication will help determine common, achievable goals.
- The mismatch between the student (quantitative skills) and supervisor (developing qualitative skills) expectations at the end of candidature can have negative consequences for the mentor-mentee relationship. Further, many students do not directly receive guidance from their mentors or do not know how to cultivate the skills their mentors find important. Supervisors and departments can devise their lab policy and work ethics on manuscript reviews, lab meetings, and journal club, etc. to ensure that students are well-trained.
- Student dissatisfaction often stems from their unrealistic expectations and the need to excel at every academic front. Key take home for students is to not expect too much from a limited time-window of PhD.
Questions for authors
- Supervising PhD candidates is tricky for supervisors. Did the authors compare mentorship experience between early-career, mid-career, and late-career supervisors? Which group managed student expectations better?
- Supervisors ranked their quality of guidance better compared to students. Considering the low number of PIs compared to grad students in the survey, do you think supervisors are underrepresented in the survey? Do you think the survey is biased and only supervisors who are serious about mentorship took the survey?
- Did the authors identify student – supervisor pairs where the supervisor was ranked badly by the student(s), but the mentor ranked themselves better? What follow-up strategies do you have for such mentors and departments to recognize pitfalls in their mentorship expectations and styles?
- Did mentorship style (good vs bad) affect academic independence? For example, students who received bad mentoring, became independent to compensate for the lack of training.
- Did female candidates prefer female supervisors compared to male supervisors for guidance and mental wellbeing?
- Did candidates report additional criteria that significantly contributed to their mental health that were not part of the survey?
- Tenenbaum, H. R., Crosby, F. J., & Gliner, M. D. (2001). Mentoring relationships in graduate school. Journal of Vocational Behavior, 59(3), 326–341
- Levecque, Katia, Anseel, Frederik, De Beuckelaer, Alain, Van der Heyden, Johan and Gisle, Lydia, (2017), Work organization and mental health problems in PhD students, Research Policy, 46, issue 4, p. 868-879.
- Evans, T., Bira, L., Gastelum, J. et al. Evidence for a mental health crisis in graduate education. Nat Biotechnol 36, 282–284 (2018).
Posted on: 1 April 2020Read preprint