Managing Your Student-Supervisor Relationship to Support Well-Being by Christiane Whitehouse

Academia is undergoing a cultural shift. Research highlighting the “evidence for a mental health crisis in graduate education”1 is demanding we re-examine how mental health and wellness are prioritized in academia. Although this cultural shift is occurring slowly and needs to be adopted by those in positions of power (faculty, universities, scientific societies), graduate students can still take meaningful steps to care for their own mental health and wellness by “managing upward”.

Managing upward refers to creating a good and productive working relationship with your boss, to your mutual benefit. In business, this term is often used when discussing how to be a better employee. In academia, managing upward is a skill that graduate students can apply in their relationship with their supervisor, in order to support their health and wellness while maintaining a good supervisory relationship.

Let’s start with an important point: Supervisors want their students to succeed. With this in mind, consider that supervisors have been submerged in the overworking culture of academia, that dismisses mental health and wellness as a priority, and they have succeeded in receiving a job where they supervise students. Their perception of what it takes to succeed in academia is likely biased toward working non-stop and without boundaries, and they might expect or encourage their students to do the same. These expectations may not be explicitly stated but are evident in the way a supervisor works with their students. For example, have you ever had your supervisor email you late at night? Or request something be done that day or soon after?

Research on the topic of work-life balance has shown that the culture in academia that discounts an individual’s mental health and wellness is misguided.

For example, a majority of graduate students (70% of a sample of 387 students) reported that stressors such as academic responsibilities and poor work/school-life balance interfered with their optimal functioning2. Yet we also know that many students feel uncomfortable challenging their advisors’ expectations. So why is it that students feel limited in their ability to demand change?

A student-supervisor relationship is one with a power imbalance. The supervisor holds the power in the relationship. This balance is likely felt more acutely in the beginning of the relationship, such as in the first year of graduate school. For example, as I am now in the 5th year of my 6-year PhD program, I am more comfortable speaking up for myself with my supervisor and faculty in my department. I attribute this to: (1) having developed trusting relationships over time, (2) having completed many of my program requirements (meaning faculty could not withhold or make difficult my achievement of those milestones – part of what contributes to the power imbalance), and (3) applying many of the “managing upward” principles I’ll describe below.

Set Expectations

Ideally it would be the supervisor, in the position of power, who would instigate conversations regarding their expectations with their students. Yet, it is to a student’s benefit to instigate these conversations if their supervisor has not. Questions regarding expectations might include:

  • What are your expectations around replying to emails?
    • I have had supervisors say they email their students late at night because that works for them as a supervisor, but do not expect their students to reply. Yet they have never told their students this, and I would see their students stressed to answer late night emails.
  • How long would you need to provide feedback on this document?
    • My supervisor asked me to always give them at least a week to provide feedback, unless we agreed otherwise.
  • When should we next meet?
  • What is our timeline for this project?
  • When would you expect me to complete this next section?

Conversations around expectations should occur every time there is a change in the situation. A recent example: As many graduate students are working at home during COVID-19, potentially with children to homeschool or other members of their household using the same space, a student-supervisor discussion regarding changes to timelines or goals is appropriate. Students can use additional strategies listed below to navigate conversations regarding expectations.

Establish and Maintain Boundaries

Your supervisor is likely a busy person. As a supervisor, they likely also are subject to pressures to produce research quickly and are used to the overworking culture of academia in terms of achieving their goals. It therefore may fall on you, as the graduate student, to set your own boundaries regarding your time. For example:

  • When discussing email expectations with your supervisor, you can state if you will not be replying to emails at certain times (e.g., weekends, evenings). However, most importantly, your actions must reflect the boundaries you want to achieve, especially as you will likely not have an explicit conversation around expectations with everyone you will interact with.
    • For example, I have certainly done research work on the weekends, and will reply to my emails. I use the Gmail extension “Boomerang” to set all my weekend emails to send Monday morning at 8:00am. This reinforces to those emailing me that they should not expect a reply from me on the weekend. It is important that I am consistent with my boundary if I want it to be respected.
  • When discussing timelines for projects, if you have time you want to protect from work (e.g., weekends), then that should be factored into the discussion.
    • For example, if you are protecting your weekends and are asked on a Thursday or Friday to complete something ASAP, you can say, “I won’t be able to complete that by the weekend, but I should have it to you by Tuesday.” Here, you are demonstrating your boundary by factoring your work-free weekend into the discussion.
    • If you are new to setting boundaries and are worried about starting to speak up in this way, you can always state what you are doing in place of work (e.g., “I am visiting family this weekend”). However, keep in mind that this undermines your boundary. It makes it seem as though this work-free weekend is an exception rather than the rule.
  • You, and only you, are aware of exactly how much work is on your plate. It is useful to always assume your supervisor has not considered that you have other projects or program requirements to complete and to mention those when appropriate.
    • For example, if asked to complete something in next few days, yet you have an unfinished poster presentation due during that time, tell your supervisor of this deadline and state you will be able to complete their request afterward (and provide them a timeline).

Use the “Yes, but” Method

Saying “no” is difficult. It is particularly difficult when there is a power imbalance between yourself and the person to whom you are trying to say “no”. Given this, I always recommend students to use the “yes, but” method. This method allows graduate students to: (1) not take on more work that they have time for, while (2) making it difficult for a well-meaning supervisor to object. For example:

  • Supervisor: We received our manuscript edits, so I need you to go through them this week.
  • Student: Sounds great, but outside of my lab work I am finishing the poster presentation you asked for this week. Would you rather I focus on the manuscript?
    • This simple method has often worked for me, however, if your supervisor resists, remember your boundaries.
  • Supervisor: We need to have both done this week.
  • Student: I agree we need to have both done ASAP, but given my lab work I will only be able to get one done by Friday.
    • In these situations, I will offer to drop the work that is not the supervisor’s priority. This can be difficult, as you are not only setting a boundary with your supervisor, but setting a boundary with yourself in terms of how much work you will take on.
  • Student: The poster is due this week, and the manuscript is not due until the end of the month. If you would prefer, I can withdraw from the conference and not do the poster, although it would be a shame to miss the conference. Otherwise, I can finish the poster this week and make the manuscript a priority for next week.
    • It is reasonable that your supervisor will concede to allowing you to do both the conference poster and manuscript edits.

Overestimate Timelines or Provide a Yourself a Buffer

Be honest with yourself: How many times has a task taken longer than you originally estimated? When we underestimate the length of a task, we end up working longer hours to meet the deadline. Instead, overestimate how long it will take you to do a task. For example:

  • On Wednesday, you and your supervisor receive feedback from the Research Ethics Board on your application. Although you think you can have these edits done by Friday, you email your supervisor to say you have received the feedback, and you will send the updated ethics application to them by next week. If you finish the updates by Friday, great – you are early! If it turns out the ethics edits are more time- consuming than you thought, than you have given yourself enough time to complete them.
  • Alternatively, you can simply give yourself a buffer by telling your supervisor you would like to have the edits completed by Friday but depending on how substantial the edits are it may take you until next week.

Keep Your Supervisor Accountable

Imagine that you have just navigated a meeting with your supervisor using all your “managing upward” skills. You were uncomfortable, but assertive, and left pleased knowing you agreed on reasonable timelines and expectations. If your supervisor is responsible for many students, projects, or you go a long time between meetings, it can be useful to summarize (via email) the main points you agreed on in your meeting. Make sure to include both items you agreed to, and items they agreed to. For example:

  • Thanks for meeting today. Just to summarize what we discussed:
    • I will have my conference poster draft to you by this Friday, June 12th.
    • You agreed to give feedback on the poster by next Friday, June 19th.
    • We agreed writing a manuscript at the moment is not feasible with my current course load and will revisit the topic next term.

In having these points in writing, it will make it easier for you to follow-up with your supervisor if they do not complete the work they agreed on. It will also make it easier to stand your ground if your supervisor goes against something agreed on in your meeting (likely because they forgot). For example:

  • Supervisor: Hi Student, we should meet to discuss the manuscript outline for your current project.
  • Student: Hi Supervisor, unfortunately I will not be able to start the manuscript this term. We had agreed that we would revisit the topic next term. See the forwarded email below with the summary of our last meeting.

Anticipate and Communicate Issues

The earlier you anticipate an issue and communicate it to your supervisor, the better. It is much easier to tell your supervisor well in advance that you will not meet a deadline, than it is to let the deadline pass and require an awkward discussion. For example, say you meet with your supervisor September 1st to outline your research plan, then September 5th you receive all your course syllabi. If you are concerned you will not meet your first deadline with your supervisor, coming up on September 30th, email them immediately and tell them of the change. Although it can feel uncomfortable to readjust deadlines, anticipating problems demonstrates strong organizational and problem-solving skills, and shows respect for your supervisor’s time.

Closing Points

Although there is always a power imbalance between a student and their supervisor, if the student is a member of a minority group (e.g., a Black student, an Indigenous student) and the supervisor is not, then this can further increase the power imbalance in the relationship. A greater power imbalance can make it more difficult for a student to set boundaries and be assertive regarding their needs. Seeking out a mentor who is also of your same minority group, and in your field, can be beneficial in navigating unique challenges you face.

These suggestions I have provided above can be summarized as: (1) being assertive and (2) communicating both clearly and often. Given that being assertive is difficult in a relationship where there is a power imbalance, why would you want to do this difficult work?

I like to ask students: “What makes you who you are, outside of academia?”. In knowing the answer to this question, you can decide what else is important to you beside your schoolwork, and why you might do the difficult work of being assertive with your supervisor.

Are you protecting time outside of work so that you can spend time with your partner? Your children? Your friends? Go hiking outdoors? Work on your art project? Play on your soccer team? Get a full night of sleep?

Without a doubt, implementing these “Managing Upward” strategies are beneficial to your mental health and wellness, as they challenge the unhealthy overworking culture of academia. I hope that you will find them beneficial throughout your graduate student journey, and that you will consider these points when you too begin supervising students.

If you try any of these strategies, let me know how it goes by tagging @ch_whitehouse on Twitter and using the hashtag #ThriveNotSurvive!

References

1Evans, Teresa M., Lindsay Bira, Jazmin Beltran Gastelum, L. Todd Weiss, and Nathan L. Vanderford. “Evidence for a mental health crisis in graduate education.” Nature biotechnology 36, no. 3 (2018): 282.

2El-Ghoroury, Nabil Hassan, Daniel I. Galper, Abere Sawaqdeh, and Lynn F. Bufka. “Stress, coping, and barriers to wellness among psychology graduate students.” Training and Education in Professional Psychology 6, no. 2 (2012): 122.

Christiane Whitehouse

Christiane Whitehouse is a PhD candidate in clinical psychology at Dalhousie University (Nova Scotia, Canada). Christiane has been an advocate for the mental health and wellness of graduate students throughout her training and co-founded the Graduate Student Wellness Committee in her department. Christiane is defending her PhD in August 2020 and beginning her residency in clinical neuropsychology at St. Joseph’s Healthcare (Ontario, Canada) in September 2020.

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