Supervising the History PhD

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Convocation Hall, University of Toronto

Convocation Hall, University of Toronto. Credit: Kara M, via Unsplash.

By Catherine Carstairs

The report of the CHA Task Force on the Future of the History PhD in Canada is now available (in English and in French). This is the fifth in a series of posts by Task Force members, offering their perspectives on selected themes from the report. encourages readers to join in the conversation, either in the comments or on social media, or by submitting a response piece to be considered for publication upon the series’ completion.

For the past year, I’ve been lucky to work with an amazing group of colleagues on the CHA Task Force on the Future of the History PhD, including Will Langford and Sam Hossack, whose posts in this series preceded mine. As Will and Sam have articulated, one of our key concerns was the lack of academic jobs and the paucity of funding, especially in the later stages of the degree program.

One of the issues that I helped to investigate was whether or not better supervisory practices could improve the student experience, speed the time to completion, ensure greater diversity among PhD students, and encourage groundbreaking scholarship. Supervisors cannot change the bleak academic job market for recent PhD graduates, and we have little direct control over the funding provided to PhD students. We can and should lobby for better funding and against the growing precarity of the academic workforce, but we can also work to ensure that our students complete in a reasonable period of time and are producing valuable scholarship that has meaning inside and outside of the academy. We can help our students articulate the skills that they have learned through the PhD, and we can make our departments more welcoming to people who have long been excluded from our profession.

Supervisors receive very little training in how to be PhD supervisors. We often model our own supervisory practices on what worked and what did not work for us when we were PhD students. There are several guides to best practices in graduate supervision. Richard James and Gabrielle Baldwin at the University of Melbourne suggest 11 principles:

  1. Ensure the partnership is right for the project
  2. Get to know students and carefully assess their needs
  3. Establish reasonable, agreed upon expectations
  4. Work with students to establish a strong conceptual structure and research plan
  5. Encourage students to write early and often
  6. Initiate regular contact and providing high quality feedback
  7. Get students involved in the life of the department
  8. Inspire and motivate
  9. Help if academic and personal crises crop up
  10. Take an active interest in students’ future careers, and
  11. Carefully monitor the final production and presentation of the research.

Closer to home, Elizabeth Skarkis Doyle and Gayle McIntyre’s Western Guide to Graduate Supervision stresses flexibility, availability, trust, and respect. The guide includes useful worksheets aimed at clarifying the role of supervisor and students and establishing clear expectations at the beginning of the relationship.

Part of the problem with modelling our supervisory practices over what worked for us is that it risks replicating the already existing inequalities in graduate education. What worked for me, as a white settler, cisgender student with two university-educated parents might not work as well for students who are the first in their families to attend university, for neurodiverse students, or for Black and Indigenous students who rarely see themselves represented in the academy. A recent study in Nature Human Behavior showed that 27% of History faculty in the US have a parent with a PhD. This is the highest of any of the disciplines studied. Another 34% had a parent with a master’s degree and only 13.4% of history faculty had parents who did not attend College or University. While the numbers in Canada might be different, we know that our profession is overwhelmingly white – Census Canada data from 2016 shows that only 2% of people with history PhDs in Canada identify as Aboriginal compared to 5% of the population. Census Canada data from 2016 also reveals that only 11% of people with PhDs in History identify as being a visible minority, compared to 22.3% of the population. The statistics speak to the dire need to diversify doctoral education and the professoriate, something that can only been done through providing PhD students with more generous funding. But it also makes it clear that many of us come to a History professor job already steeped in the cultures and expectations of academia and we may not think to relay learned expectations or cultures to our students in ways that would be valuable to them. Supervisors can better communicate things like the norms of seminar participation, how hiring processes work, and how to ask for letters of recommendation.

One way of ensuring that students get the supports they need is through the creation of more involved supervisory committees. While many universities have a supervisory committee in place, at the Université du Québec à Montréal every student is co-supervised, which helps ensure that supervisors are in regular contact with their students and are returning drafts quickly. Our task force saw a lot of advantages to co-supervision or to supervisory committees that involve the active participation of every person on the committee. Supervisors are not always available for reasons beyond their control and different supervisors can offer very different teachings on how to do research, writing, navigating the complex world of academia and providing career advice.

We would also like to see supervisory committees that include people from outside of the academy. The Canadian Association on Graduate Studies has also encouraged universities to broaden doctoral supervision. This is particularly beneficial for community-based research projects, but it can have value for all sorts of scholarship, especially if students are destined to careers in government, museums or consultancy. Another way to broaden supervision is through the cotutelle. This involves students doing their PhD at two universities: usually one in Canada and one abroad. This gives students vital international experience and understanding of how academic cultures work around the world. Right now, cotutelle seems to be most common at French-language history departments, but many universities across the country have arrangements for cotutelles. All of this has risks – cotutelle can increase the cost and requirements and co-supervision can create conflicts when supervisors give different advice, but carefully employed, they both have the potential to improve graduate supervision.

In the Task Force’s survey of graduate students and faculty members, we heard many complaints about supervisors who failed to return drafts in a timely fashion or did not establish clear expectations for students. While most supervisors are attentive to their students’ needs, the heavy workload of faculty members means that some find it impossible to keep up with the demands. Some departments and/or universities require students and supervisors to have regular progress meetings  Some universities require supervisors to hand back drafts of student work in a specific period of time. At the University of Guelph, for example, the graduate calendar suggests that comments to students “should be returned to the student within two weeks” although it makes allowances for absences from campus or unusually heavy workloads. It also suggests that advisors be “reasonably accessible” to students.

Our task force also encouraged students and their supervisors to take advantage of the growing number of resources being offered across the university, including workshops on supervisory practices. Supervisors themselves often lack expertise on how to network outside of academia, how to communicate the skills learned in a PhD program to employers outside of the university, or how to achieve work-life balance. But more and more universities are offering a range of programs to graduate students. One of the most comprehensive appears to be Concordia’s GradProSkills program, which offers workshops in career development, communication, language training, leadership and management, and wellness and life balance among others. Other universities have hired career counsellors specifically for graduate students. Supervisors are often not well-equipped to provide career advice to students, but they can direct them to these resources. The webinars produced by the Committee on the Future of the History PhD that feature PhD graduates who went on to a multitude of careers in government, consulting and university services are also still available on the CHA You Tube channel.

Changing our supervisory practices is only one aspect of improving our PhD programs, but it is something that we can all do now to improve the PhD experience.

Catherine Carstairs is a professor of history at the University of Guelph.

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