Volume 29 - Number 10 - Thursday, February 13, 1997

Downsizing, death and sabbaticals:
Coping with the loss of supervisors

by Daniel McCabe

What happens to graduate students when their supervisors leave the University? For a PhD candidate halfway through a thesis or a master's student in the middle of a research project, having a supervisor retire or relocate to another university can feel like having the rug pulled out from under your feet.

It can also raise any number of questions: Will I still work in this lab or will it be closed down? What happens to my research assistantship? Is there anybody left at the University with the necessary expertise to help me finish my thesis?

Thankfully, graduate students who lose their supervisors usually end up all right. Departing professors often arrange to continue to act as supervisors--even when they move to another city. Or the student's department arranges for another to be assigned. Some departments have a supervisory committee in place to help out when unexpected bumps in the student/supervisor relationship emerge.
Associate Vice-Principal (Graduate Studies) Lydia White

PGSS Vice-President (University Affairs) Anna Kruzynski


What troubles Anna Kruzynski, vice-president (university affairs) for the Post-Graduate Students' Society, is that McGill departments are not obliged to have formal policies in place to assist graduate students who lose their professors to retirement, death, other jobs or lengthy leaves from the University.

"There have been cases where students come to McGill in order to work with one specific professor and that professor died. Sometimes that professor was the only expert in his area in the whole University. I don't doubt that people usually have the best intentions, but there are drawbacks to dealing with these things on an ad hoc basis. A situation like that is stressful enough--it helps to know that there are procedures in place and that you have rights that will be protected."

PGSS successfully lobbied the Faculty of Graduate Studies to examine the issue this year and has also surveyed McGill departments to find out what sorts of policies they have in place to deal with instances where graduate students lose their supervisors.

According to a PGSS report released last semester, only a handful of departments have some kind of formal policy. McGill's Guidelines for Academic Units on Graduate Student Advising and Supervision states that "procedures should be established for ensuring continuity in supervision when a student is separated from a supervisor."

"I would like to see that 'procedures should be established' changed to a 'procedures must be established,'" says Kruzynski.

Dr. Sandra Miller, the director of graduate programs for the Department of Anatomy and Cell Biology, disagrees. "There would be so many exceptions to the rule for a policy like that, it wouldn't be worth it to have a policy in the first place.

"Every single case that comes up has an entirely different story attached to it--these things should be examined on an ad hoc basis," insists Miller. "We've had two cases occur in this department and we were able to resolve both in a manner that protected the student. In the Faculty of Medicine in particular, there are so many potential supervisors in the departments and in the teaching hospitals, it's never too difficult to find another good supervisor for a student if the need arises."

But some students say that their studies have been harmed when their supervisors left the University.

Hugh Potter is a PhD candidate in the Department of Civil Engineering. Potter's supervisor, Raymond Yong, opted for retirement last year and has moved to Victoria. Potter says that he and seven other PhD candidates supervised by Yong have seen their research environment take a noticeable nose-dive since Yong retired.

"The department is essentially closing down [Yong's] whole area of research," says Potter. "We've lost the research associates who worked at the centre and their technical assistance was essential to our work. We've also been told that our labs will be shutting down regardless of the state of our research."

Yong was the director of McGill's Geotechnical Research Centre and since his departure, the Department of Civil Engineering has decided to close the unit.

Potter and the other students continue to receive research guidance from Yong by e-mail and the department has assigned them an on-site supervisor to monitor their progress. But Potter says that because the supervisor isn't a full-fledged faculty member, he and the other graduate students who began their studies with Yong tend to get lost in the shuffle when decisions are made about resources or departmental initiatives.

"For instance, a Web site was created to advertise the research strengths of the graduate students in this department, but none of us were mentioned on it even though we constitute about 10% of the department's PhD candidates.

"I think the department would be happy if we all just disappeared," says Potter.

Professor Richard Japp took over the directorship of the Geotechnical Research Centre when Yong retired. Recently appointed the chair of his department, Japp insists Yong's students have been treated fairly.

"When I became director of the centre, I told the students I would make sure that their rights were still protected. Several of them have already successfully completed their studies."

Japp agrees that the departure of the research associates from the Geotechnical Research Centre has created hardships. "There was some inconvenience for the students when the research associates left. But they weren't University employees--they were funded by research money that ran out.

"When people leave, holes are created--you try your best to deal with it with the resources you have available. In some cases, we've made arrangements for those students to use equipment in other professors' labs. They won't be denied the facilities they require to complete their work."

Alban Gerd Kellerbauer, a graduate student in the Department of Physics, says his progress was adversely affected when his previous supervisor embarked on a 14-month sabbatical in France. The supervisor assigned a post-doctoral fellow to keep an eye out for Kellerbauer and the supervisor used e-mail to periodically check up on things, but Kellerbauer says the arrangement didn't work out.

"I couldn't help but feel that the post-doc quickly lost interest in the project I was working on, particularly because he [was] looking for a new position and needed to make himself visible to colleagues rather than spending time with students," says Kellerbauer.

Kellerbauer's supervisor counselled him to be patient--that the matter would resolve itself shortly.

"I was not very confident," recalls Kellerbauer. "I did not want to risk losing even more time. I asked another professor from the department whether he was looking for a graduate student. When the occasion arose, I made the decision to give up on the approximately eight months of work I had already done on my original project to work with a different supervisor."

Says Kellerbauer, "I don't blame my original supervisor. I was disappointed by the department's response, though. I didn't feel that I was taken seriously. Probably professors shouldn't take on new students if they know that they are leaving on a sabbatical or they shouldn't leave if they feel that they have students who still need close supervision."

As the Associate Vice-Principal (Graduate Studies), Lydia White often ends up hearing about the instances where the departure of supervisors creates serious hardships.

"The fact that I come across relatively few cases is a good sign," says White. "Most units are very sensitive to graduate students' concerns when they lose supervisors. Usually, the department is able to find someone else who can act as a supervisor."

But White argues that the onus isn't entirely on the department in these instances. "A chair can't just order a professor to take on a new student. The student in question has to contribute to a solution as well--by talking to the professors in the department who might be considered as a new supervisor."

When a professor leaves for a position at another university--taking her research grants with her--the graduate students left behind can lose crucial financial support, White acknowledges.

"Departments are usually conscientious about this, though. If the student does acquire another supervisor in the department, that professor's research grants are often used to support the student. The Office of Student Aid also has bursaries available for graduate students in these situations--especially if they are close to finishing their degrees."

Sometimes students have to face hard choices when they lose their supervisor, White adds. "What works out isn't always exactly what the student wants. If his supervisor was the only person at McGill with expertise in a certain area and if that supervisor is no longer available to the student at all, then it might mean having to switch research topics to work with someone else. If the student has only been here for a year or so, changing topics isn't the end of the world.

Alternatively, "it could mean that the student and the University come to the mutual agreement that the student would be best off completing her degree at another university where she'll have access to the resources she needs."

White says McGill tries to be as flexible as it can be. "For instance, we don't take exception to a supervisor being assigned to the student from outside the University--particularly if the supervisor works at another Montreal university. But we do prefer that someone from McGill be named as a co-supervisor to make sure that the student stays on track in terms of the University's own deadlines and regulations."

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