Wednesday, April 26, 2017

The thorny subject of assessing graduate advisors

One of the most satisfying aspects of graduate school is working together with graduate students to solve fun, important, novel problems. This "working together" can cover the gradient from supervisor, to advisor, mentor, and collaborator. However, from the perspective of a graduate student, the leadership style implied by these different terms can have important effects on graduate student well-being (last week's news item). In one of the mentioned articles, the authors explicitly quantified three different leadership styles:
"Turning to the leadership style of the PhD supervisor, we see evidence for a better mental health in those PhD students who are advised by a professor with an inspirational leadership style (OR is 0.868 for GHQ2+ and 0.908 for GHQ4+). No significant associations were found between an autocratic leadership style and the experience of mental health problems. However, when PhD students were exposed to a laissez-faire leadership style, the risk of experiencing psychological distress significantly increased."

The university spends a lot of time to discussing how to assess undergraduate teaching, but assessing graduate advisors has received a lot less attention. And now there is strong evidence that this assessment has important, positive consequences. A recent article reports on results from a study at eight research universities that concluded that:
"... was a much more effective system for classifying and tracking the performance of supervisors. This has led to problems being addressed earlier, the removal of “totally unsatisfactory supervisors” and an 8 per cent increase in timely completions."

The assessment criteria were: the current and past number of students advised, graduations within the completion period, and "student rescues". While these are relatively easy to quantify, they do not necessarily address some of the aspects covered in the first quote. This would involve graduate student (past and present?) input, and this is where the thorns come into the picture. Because of the close nature of the advisor-graduate student relationship, what would you ask, when would you ask this, and who would you ask it to?

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