Volume 12, Number 14 March 18, 2005

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Grad student mentoring found wanting - Ricks

By Lawrence McMahen

Canada’s universities are failing their growing ranks of graduate students by not providing adequate faculty supervision and not adapting to students’ learning styles, a University of Victoria official says.

And Frances Ricks says this failure contributes to the “startling” fact that up to one-third of master’s students and half of PhD students don’t finish their degree programs at some universities.

Frances Ricks

Frances Ricks

On top of that, “we will invest two to three years in each of them before they drop out, meaning it’s a significant waste of public dollars,” adds Ricks, Associate Dean of Graduate Studies at UVic.

During a March 11 visit to the U of S to lead a workshop on faculty mentoring of grad students, Ricks told On Campus News that many universities and professors are stuck in the old mindset where the relationship between faculty and grad students centred around scientific research in the lab, with the prof being the detached researcher role-model who infrequently meets with the student ‘apprentice’ to impart bits of knowledge.

But she says the learning needs and career goals of grad students have changed, and many of them need more regular, educationally sound communication with their professors.

“Graduate supervision has got to get better.”

Ricks says the shift in grad student demographics and programs “has required a real shift in (Universities’) pedagogy and practices. We have a social responsibility to graduate students far broader than preparing them as researchers.”

Part of the problem is the rapid growth of grad student numbers in recent years, with faculty taking on the additional supervision without more resources or time.

In a major study of UVic grad students she did two years ago, Ricks found only one-third of the 600 respondents had regular contact with their faculty advisors, and many of those meetings were just monthly or even yearly. “My administration found that unbelievable and startling.”

With the high dropout rate and this lack of faculty-student interaction, Ricks says graduate colleges across Canada are beginning to address the issue. Research is being done and teaching and learning centres are springing up on campuses to improve the mentorship skills of professors.

She says graduate students today, many of whom have jobs and children, “are not prepared to put up with supervisors who are ill-prepared, mentally ill or oppressive.” That means faculty must understand adult learning styles and must find ways to communicate effectively with graduate students.

Ricks says faculty often supervise in the same way they were supervised when they were grad students. They should consider which strategies worked with them and which didn’t.

She believes three keys to effective supervision are to understand mentorship skills, learn “emotional intelligence” skills like self-awareness and empathy, and look into the concept of “presencing” put forward by authors Peter Senge and Otto Sharmer.

UVic has an 18-member task force trying to improve grad student supervision there.

Ricks led a half-day mentoring workshop for 125 U of S faculty and grad students during her visit. Her goal was to train them “as trainers”, so they can share good practice across campus.

For more information, contact communications.office@usask.ca

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