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Teaching, Supervising, and Supporting PhD Students: Identifying Issues, Addressing Challenges, Sharing Strategies.

FOR MANY FACULTY, teaching and mentoring graduate students is a particular pleasure of our job. Graduate students carry the future of sociology and, in the case of doctoral students, may very well one day be our colleagues. It is thrilling to engage with students who are making strong commitments to the discipline, and who bring to our collective enterprise new interests, fresh insights, and renewed energy. That said, the responsibility of teaching and mentoring graduate students generates a complicated set of emotions. Along with excitement of nurturing new ideas pushing at the discipline's boundaries, there are the very real stresses associated with the weight of students choosing to invest so much time and resources on a specific educational path. That weight is especially acute in the case of the choice to do a PhD. Students feel these stresses and so do the faculty they work with.

All four of us are sociology professors at Carleton University and have experienced the heights and challenges of working with doctoral students as individual supervisors, and at various times in the administrative position of coordinator or Chair of the Sociology graduate programs (PhD and MA) at Carleton. Our cumulative tenure in the latter position covers a span of over 12 years. During this time there have been substantial changes in the wider context of graduate education in Canada and in the positioning of Sociology graduate programs within this context. Pressures put on universities regarding core issues such as funding and times to completion have been passed on to faculty and graduate students. In Sociology at Carleton, we responded individually to those pressures as they came our way, but there came a time when we also made a shift toward trying to respond more collectively by experimenting with putting in place departmental practices and structures that would support faculty and students. We are by no means finished with this experimentation, but we are far enough along to want to share strategies and possibilities with our colleagues more broadly. Through talking informally with sociologists across the country, we are aware that our issues and concerns are shared by colleagues in other departments and universities. We have undertaken this initiative of "Committing Sociology" to hopefully begin a country-wide conversation about experiences working with doctoral students, and to share ideas for supporting both faculty and students involved in doctoral programs.

In what follows, we begin by setting out our identification of the most acute issues facing doctoral students and programs in Canada. We then describe strategies we have been experimenting with to address some of the challenges these issues present. We have organized the discussion of strategies according to the flow of a doctoral program--addressing first the challenges of coming into and surviving a PhD program, then the challenges of moving into and through comprehensives, doctoral research and thesis writing, and finally the challenges of moving on from a doctoral program.


Institutional conditions of doctoral education in many countries, including Canada, have changed significantly. For social science disciplines, these changes date back to the 1980s, when federal funding started to favor science, engineering, and medical programs in the name of tying knowledge to the market economy, leaving students in the social sciences and humanities with less access to financial support (Williams 2005). Since then, we have seen deeper cuts to public funding for universities and students, imposition of quality assurance processes and reductive outcome measures, policy emphasis on timely completion, anxiety about what doctoral students will do after programs, pressure toward professionalization, and corporatization of university governance (Moffatt et al. 2016). According to Williams (2005), over the two decades from the 1980s to 2000s, while provincial governments' contributions to university operating budgets declined from about 80 to 60 percent, university enrollment increased by 18 percent. These trends include a growth of doctoral programs in number and size, and relatedly a significant increase in the number of doctoral students across Canada. Across the country, enrollment in doctoral programs climbed up quite steadily from about 22,000 in 1998 to 36,700 in 2005/2006, an increase by 6.1 percent (King, Eisl-Culkin, and Desjardins 2008). By 2010, full-time PhD enrollments were up to 45,000 (Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada [AUCC] 2011:10).

Not surprisingly, one consequence of these changes is heavier workloads for faculty in the classroom as well as in the numbers of graduate supervisions. Faculty today, especially those in social science disciplines such as sociology, are faced with the impossible task of increasing productivity to deliver a quality education to more students with fewer resources (Moffatt et al. 2016; OCUFA 2010). Particular to graduate education, we often have fewer colleagues to share supervisions as a result of new teaching-stream hiring practices; we have less research funding available to train and support graduate students; and we have less time to provide the extra support needed by students who come into Sociology doctoral programs with increasingly varied academic and professional backgrounds.

In addition, under the pressure from provincial governments, there has been widespread adoption of business management norms and practices such as auditing processes, standardization initiatives, performance indicators, and benchmarks, whose demand for continuous measuring exercises detract more than stimulate efforts to improve education (Brule 2004; Manathunga et al. 2013; Reimer 2004). In the doctoral program at Carleton, we have experienced stricter enforcement of completion times by the university, reduction of funding for graduate students and a corresponding increase in pressure for them to take on paid work, ongoing serious concerns with mental health issues among students, and increased pressure on graduate students to undertake teaching duties before completing their program as a professional development opportunity.

The student body in doctoral programs today is much different from that of the twentieth century. We have noticed that there is a growing segment of first-generation graduate students, which reflects the general trend (King et al. 2008). In Canada, there has been an upward trend since the 1980s in full-time PhD students, which accelerated in the first decade of the new millennium (AUCC 2011:10). In our program, the vast majority of students have full-time status; however, the extent that many of them do paid work practically makes them more like part-time students. Also notable are shifts in age and gender profiles. Doctoral students in 2010 are generally older compared to those enrolled in 1980 (fewer are under 30). As in education generally, female representation has increased in graduate education although this trend was not as strong as for undergraduates and seems to have leveled off after 2000. For doctoral level programs, women generally are just below 50 percent (AUCC 2011:15). Of course, the representation of female students varies tremendously by type of graduate program and as full-time doctoral students they are more strongly represented in the traditional areas of education, health, social sciences, and humanities (AUCC 2011:15). In our program, we have certainly noticed an increase in female, trans, and nonbinary students and students who are parents, reflecting these demographic shifts in age and gender. We have seen also a slow increase in the number of racialized minority students. Many scholars have noted the particular obstacles faced by older, female, and racialized students (Cao 2001; Gonzales et al. 2002; Roach 2001), which often make the PhD process more problematic for them. University-wide, there are a lot more international students who, among other things, represent to the institution a much needed source of income in a time of drastically reduced government funding (McCallin and Nayar 2012). In the last 10 years, foreign students accounted for roughly one-quarter of students in Canadian doctoral programs (AUCC 2011; King et al. 2008) and most come from source countries where neither English nor French is the main language. Sociology programs typically have fewer international students in comparison to others, but the ones we do have are faced with steeper hurdles because of the higher demand for English language proficiency and less funding opportunities.

Mental health among students is an issue in doctoral education that is finally receiving some needed attention. A new study that has received much attention has found "strikingly high rates of depression and anxiety" among graduate students (Flaherty 2018, abstract). Mental health issues are often intersectional, and graduate students who may experience marginalization such as those who are racialized, trans, or nonbinary may face particular challenges. Funding has been noted as the most consistent stressor affecting graduate students' mental health (Grady et al. 2014). Persistent cuts to financial support exacerbate competition for funding (often against peers and friends), financial inequalities among students, income instability, and pressure to undertake paid work (Grady et al. 2014). For some students, as soon as they enter a PhD program in Sociology, they are faced with serious financial issues. Significantly, fewer students in social sciences reported having external fellowships/scholarships or research assistantships as primary sources of financial support than students in sciences and engineering. Not surprisingly, students in social sciences (and humanities) were most likely to have education-related debt than those in sciences and engineering (King et al. 2008). From what we observe, lack of funding presses students into employment, taking time and energy away from their studies, leading to longer stays in the PhD program. Based on data for 2005/2006 academic year, the median time for doctoral students in the social sciences to complete was six and one-quarter years, the longest among all fields of study (King et al. 2008).

The social position of graduate, especially doctoral, students also poses mental health risks due to chronic role conflicts (a student vs. a scholar, a student vs. a teacher) and role overload (juggling different demands from program requirements, teaching, publishing, finances, and working off campus) (Grady et al. 2014; Kamler and Thomson 2014). Students today are faced with a very uncertain job market, which is a source of anxiety. Close to home, doctoral graduates from our program still get good jobs such as tenure-stream professors, researchers in government departments, and research directors or executive directors in nongovernmental organizations. Yet despite these quite good records of postprogram employment, there are persistent worries about not having a good job at the end of the program and sometimes students commit to formal, off-campus positions while still early in the program, creating a tremendous work overload for themselves.

Carleton University's Sociology PhD program is the second oldest and one of the largest in the country, typically welcoming somewhere between 6 and 15 new Sociology PhD students each year. Supervising doctoral students is thus a significant part of the workload for many faculty members in our department. We as a collective have grappled with challenges of doctoral education and accumulated a wealth of experiences, strategies, and reflections. (1) Over the last few years, feedback from our doctoral students and faculty members made us realize that there is a need for sustained and organized conversations about doctoral supervision and doctoral education more generally. We have committed to undertaking these conversations. Some are informal, some take place in our Sociology Caucus meetings, (2) and some took place at our Sociology Caucus retreats. Our most systematic and extended attempt to deal with these issues followed the latest cyclical review of our Sociology programs in academic year 2015/16. In 2016/17, we undertook an internal PhD program review, led by Xiaobei Chen, Aaron Doyle, Janet Siltanen, and Jackie Kennelly, to further consult with our doctoral students and faculty in the hope of addressing some of the stress points of our PhD program. Over the summer of 2017, we produced a new version of our doctoral student handbook ( This activity provided the opportunity to reflect on every aspect of our doctoral program. In addition, separate conversations with different sets of our Sociology doctoral students were organized and reviewed (e.g., with students who are female-identified, racialized students, students with parenting responsibilities, students with disabilities) to help us understand how more general issues were being experienced by students in specific situations.

As these conversations continued, we also increasingly became interested in the burgeoning scholarship on graduate pedagogy, especially PhD pedagogy, with most notable contributions from the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia, and New Zealand. Some of the recent literature points to reflection on long-standing assumptions and expectations about doctoral education and development of a range of emerging ideas about the changing nature of the PhD (Park 2003, 2005). Some examine the multiple factors that influence doctoral degree completion including financial support, institutional support including supervision, peer support, cultural capital, family, and student characteristics (Dinham and Scott 1999; Pauley, Cunningham, and Toth 1999). In general, the issue of support is an overriding concern, and discussions in the literature regarding forms of institutional support in particular captured our attention.

There is quite a bit of literature examining and theorizing about doctoral supervision. It is extensively discussed as a sophisticated, high-level teaching process (Emilsson and Johnsson 2007; Kamler and Thomson 2014; McCallin and Nayar 2012; McCormack and Pamphilon 2004). Critiques of the traditional model of supervision--characterized by "charismatic authority" (Yeatman 1995:9) and a process of "osmosis, where a [white, male] supervisor's genius would rub off on students simply if they remained in the supervisor's presence" (Manathunga et al. 2013:63)--are strongly voiced. As Yeatman (1995:9) astutely observed, the traditional model of supervision is "especially inadequate to the needs of many new PhD aspirants who, by historical-cultural positioning, have not been invited to imagine themselves as subjects of genius" (emphasis in original).

A range of strategies has been proposed to address the inadequacies of the traditional model of supervision. For instance, research with students has revealed the need for strong mentoring relationships (Grady et al. 2014). Yeatman (1995) proposed techniques for building structure and reciprocal accountability in the supervision relationship without bureaucratizing it (such as the supervision log). Manathunga et al. (2013) emphasized the importance of accounting for supervision with reference to place, emotion, and the body. Above all, research on doctoral supervision points to the need for faculty training in a changing context, and also the need for organized and explicit research training for students. It seems that a priority in program design and supervision should be explicit skilling of students in the range of competencies and knowledges required for completing a doctoral dissertation (Kamler and Thomson 2014; McCallin and Nayar 2012; Yeatman 1995). Considering the advantages and disadvantages of these ideas challenged us to think about what would work best and better in our own supervisory arrangements.

In surveying the literature on doctoral education, it quickly became obvious to us that Canadian scholarship in the area is underdeveloped. As Gopaul et al. (2016:56) identify in their report on Canadian faculty, there is a "lack of clarity" about pedagogy at the graduate level that has both practical and conceptual dimensions. We approached Canadian Review of Sociology about contributing some reflections on our experiences and experiments with addressing current issues and challenges in doctoral education. We see this article as a starting point to contribute to a growing international scholarship concerned with reflecting on doctoral education practices and theorizing about doctoral supervision and writing. We believe Sociology as a discipline with a long history of graduate education is well positioned in taking a lead in this area.

While some of what we share here can be described as innovations to our doctoral program, we are cautious about the language of innovation. Innovation and productivity are often touted by authorities in Ontario as the answer to resolve incompatible goals of "gains in accessibility" and "improving the quality of higher education and the student experience in Ontario" on the one hand, and "creating savings" on the other" (Moffatt et al. 2016:331). As the Ontario Confederation of University Faculty Associations has warned, technocratic definitions of innovation and productivity are narrow and too often driven by the desire to reduce government investment in higher education and fail to account for the many important social and economic roles of the university (OCUFA 2013:2). We do not see our activities as jumping on the bandwagon of innovation for improved productivity. Rather, we see our efforts as beginning to engage in sociological reflections on what we do in doctoral education, building understandings and alliances across disciplines, pushing back at some changes, and advocating for better support for students and faculty at the university level. In this discussion, we focus on some new practices that we are experimenting with in our program to better help our doctoral students succeed. It is our hope that this will stimulate systematic debate and discussion about doctoral education in the discipline of Sociology and beyond in Canadian universities.


Students coming into a PhD program often quickly find themselves overwhelmed and stressed. While to some extent this is to be expected, we have also come to realize that more could be done to support students by improving the learning environment, fostering strong and productive supervision relations, and encouraging and assisting student mentoring and initiatives in building a stronger graduate community.

Our students have raised concerns about forms of behaviors and interaction inside and outside of graduate seminars that are not conducive to creating a positive learning environment for all. Issues were identified as occurring in student-student interactions, as well as in student-professor interactions. We have identified a number of strategies for creating and sustaining a positive learning environment and are in the process of implementing them. As an example, we have meetings among Sociology faculty members about pedagogical principles and practices in graduate teaching. These include raising and brainstorming about matters such as having difficult conversations, encouraging and assessing participation while valuing different learning styles and ways of participating (such as good listening), respecting and encouraging diversity, assisting students speaking and writing in English when it is not their first language, and identifying more inclusive strategies for student recognition that are not just award based. Having regular discussions about doctoral education not only helps to build good pedagogical practices, it also provides us, whether we are new or more experienced faculty members, with a structure to support each other in efforts to create and maintain inclusive and supportive learning environments.

There is an urgent need to more fully recognize mental health issues among students and to address them. Discussions about the mental health crisis in graduate education often point to a lack of help and support for students from supervisors. Just how supervisors and programs at the front line of doctoral education can best help and support students in the changing institutional context is not something that has straightforward answers. Supervision today seems to be fraught with dilemmas. As faculty, what we have learned from our experiences is that pressing to complete various required work according to tighter program timelines threatens to erode standards for high-quality learning and adds to students' stress, and yet paying little attention to new institutional requirements exacerbates students' stress later in the program when they run out of funding and may even jeopardize their ultimate success.

Based on feedback from students and faculty in our program about the need for stronger mentoring relationships, we have realized that we should be more proactive in fostering supervision best practices. We are in the process of experimenting with a number of strategies. The Sociology Caucus has been organizing discussions for faculty to workshop and brainstorm about difficulties in supervision, to understand what's working well and what we can do to improve supervision. We note that setting a constructive and mutually beneficial tone is important. Furthermore, we have experimented with having supervision-focused meetings at the end of Fall and Winter terms. From the other end of the supervision relationship, we believe equipping students with strategies for managing their supervisors and committee members helps make them be more in control of their studies. Last year, we invited an experienced and arms-length faculty member to facilitate a workshop with Sociology doctoral students to provide advice, from their perspective, for building productive relationships with supervisors and committees. We also encourage our graduate student caucus to organize brainstorming sessions among students to discuss how to make supervision work for them and to exchange experiences of successful strategies.

Our students have expressed a wish for stronger graduate community building. Together with students, we have identified a number of ways to support such community building. These include both informal and more formalized sources of support. In terms of our experiments with more formalized sources, we have introduced three new mentorship positions in the department. Following a general initiative introduced by Carleton University, we have a TA Mentor. In addition the department has initiated two other sources of its own, more formalized support in the form of a Self-Care and Wellness Mentor and a Graduate Transitions Mentor. These are paid positions that we will describe in a little more detail.

Carleton University's TA Mentorship program employs experienced TAs who act as mentors to other TAs by passing on their experience, knowledge, skill, and sense of professionalism. (3) As a large department we are eligible for our own TA Mentor, and each year one of our doctoral students is employed in this role. The TA Mentor is responsible for organizing a series of training workshops for graduate students who work as TAs. While the majority of these workshops are specifically about teaching, a few of them are designed to support TA's/students' overall success in managing multiple roles. To that end, in the past few years the TA Mentor has (co-)organized writing retreats and workshops for our graduate students on topics such as "Finding your writing voice" and "Tips and tricks for managing stress and anxiety." In performing this support role, students have come up with some very innovative ways of helping each other and this spirit of collegiality helps to foster other such initiatives. For example, about three years ago, a doctoral student who was the then TA Mentor suggested hosting informal weekly coffee/tea gatherings for graduate students. These are still running at the time of writing. And in a similar spirit, students one year initiated an "anti-isolation squad," which paired students up for peer connection and support.

In addition to the TA Mentor, at the suggestion of our graduate students, the department introduced the position of a part-time Self-Care and Wellness Mentor to provide support to students and foster community and relationship building. This is a senior graduate student who organizes self-care workshops, wellness and social activities, writing groups for graduate students, and provides one-on-one support and referrals to other sources of support on campus. Part of the mentor's job is thus to develop a rich knowledge of what other sources of support are out there for our graduate students, whether offered by the university, the graduate student association or other on-campus groups. The mentor is also a channel through which graduate student concerns can filter back (sometimes anonymously) to the Department Chair, graduate program Chair, and other graduate faculty. Given the sensitivity of this role, it was important that the student who first developed this position, Melissa Conte, and others later taking on this responsibility also be supported--and in our first experiment with this arrangement Xiaobei Chen undertook this support as part of her position at the time as Chair of the Sociology graduate programs, as did Aaron Doyle as Chair of the Department.

The Graduate Transitions Mentor will be discussed in the section on moving on from a doctoral program, but it is interesting to note that while intended as support for the education to employment transition, the idea of "transitions" has become extended to include encountering other new experiences such as presenting at conferences and thinking about publishing. Consequently the workshops of the Graduate Transitions Mentor are increasingly attracting and supporting students at all points of their graduate career.


In this section, we discuss our attempts to provide more departmental structure to support the completion of our PhD program requirements from year 2 onward.

From Courses to Comps and Thesis Proposal

Two features of Sociology doctoral students and programs in Canada put extra pressure on progress through program requirements. The first is that not all students coming into Sociology doctoral programs have a Sociology MA. The second is that graduate pedagogy is typically associated only with first-year coursework. We discuss here the possibility of extending graduate pedagogy beyond the first year to provide support for comprehensive papers and thesis proposals, and suggest that doing so offers an opportunity to work with and across a diversity of disciplinary backgrounds to build a Sociology doctoral cohort.

Given its focus on course work, the first year of a PhD program is fairly familiar territory for new PhD students. It is the second year--and the transition into comprehensives and thesis proposal development--that presents new challenges. We identify our PhD program as one that is student-led in that students have a lot of choice in what they do, and when and how they do it. The second year is where these positive features of our program can present their own challenges. Decisions about the content of comprehensives can take too long and the writing can become bogged down by uncertainties and escalating expectations. Our two comprehensive exams each involve producing a written paper in a specialized area and then an oral defense of that paper. The first comprehensive may be particularly stressful. It involves negotiating the new responsibility of managing supervisory and committee relationships, as well as the new experience of defining the specific focus of the comprehensive. If the first comp takes too long to complete, there is often then a domino effect, with the second comp also taking a longer time resulting in work on the thesis proposal not starting until well into the third year.

The second year is also when students who come into Sociology doctoral programs from related disciplines can run into extra challenges. They now have responsibility to identify sociological topics for their comprehensives, and to formulate doctoral thesis research that will make an original contribution to Sociology. These tasks involve not only matters of familiarity with substantive issues and resources, but also awareness of sociological approaches to knowledge production. This can be an additional source of anxiety as students move toward taking on a professional sociological identity, and connecting with the broader sociological community.

Given the current financial and administrative pressures on doctoral programs, it is clear that students need to be approaching ABD status by the end of their second year. Outside of contact with supervisors and committee members, we previously did not have any other support structures to help doctoral students to successfully complete their second year. We decided to run a pilot project to provide this departmental support.

Our doctoral students take one mandatory full year course out of the three full course credits they need for their program. This course is the doctoral seminar. Previously, it met weekly throughout both terms of the first program year for 24 sessions total. The content of the course has varied, but basically the first term focused on early formulations of doctoral research statements (for use in OGS and SSHRC applications) as well as some core theoretical and methodological questions and some professional development, and the second term focused on more elaborate presentations and discussions of individual student research proposals. For the pilot, we reduced the frequency of meetings to once every two to four weeks and extended the meetings into the second year. The full credit for the course is still based on 24 sessions but the sessions now run over two years.

The main agenda for the second year of our doctoral program is two comprehensive papers and a thesis proposal. It is expected that each comprehensive will take four months to prepare and finalize. The first year of the doctoral seminar still focuses on writing fellowship applications, and some core theory and professional development. We use the momentum of the first year of the doctoral seminar to help students get started on their first comp as soon as the summer term begins. There are two meetings of the doctoral seminar over the summer of the first year--the first requires students to present the first 5 pages of the first comp, and the second requires presentation of the first 15 pages of the first comp.

At the beginning of the second year of the doctoral seminar, we do further work with students on their comprehensive papers by discussing in class the challenges they are likely to encounter. We have found that it is helpful to recognize that writing comprehensive papers is a significant step in the transition from a student to a scholar, which poses particular challenges (Kamler and Thomson 2014). Drawing on our own experiences and doctoral pedagogy literature, we discuss the purposes of literature reviews, how to take up a scholarly stance, what it means to be critical, and how to identify and justify a point of entry for their research.

We added to the second year of the doctoral seminar a curriculum of reading on the principles and practices of sociological knowledge production. While the seminar aims to help students keep to a good timetable for the completion of their two comprehensives, it also aims to bring them to a point where a first draft of a thesis proposal is imminent. To accomplish this latter aim, we address the theoretical and practical aspects of constructing a research design. A challenge in supporting thesis thinking in the context of a dedicated doctoral course is the range of research backgrounds and perspectives that are likely to be present. A solution we have tried to address this challenge has been to employ a pedagogical tool that we call the research design spine, developed by Janet Siltanen in the context of our compulsory MA methods course. It is a thinking tool that is student-driven, open-ended, flexible, and developmental. Details of the design spine, and some examples of how it has been used by our MA and PhD students, are on Janet's website (

An advantage of the design spine is that it is process focused. It is an agenda-setting and decision-making tool that highlights the thinking involved in designing a research project. A key feature of the design spine is its flexibility. It is flexible in terms of when it is used--it can be used at different stages of project construction. It is flexible in terms of its content, which can vary depending on the type of project planned and the stage of thinking of about the project. The development of a design spine begins with a page that is blank except for an image of a spine. This has some practical and symbolic advantages. The spine is intended as a symbol of the core argumentative line and logic of the research. Its connectedness helps to keep in mind that all components of the project--research question, theoretical resources, literature review, case selection, data production, data analysis, writing up, etc.--are linked and relate to one another. The content of the spine is fluid, determined by the students, and will be different at different stages of their thinking process. Eventually, after a number of iterations, the content of the design spine will be the material needed to fill in the sections of a traditional thesis proposal format.

As part of the development of the design spine, we schedule class time for free writing. This is time for students to think about how the research design issues (reflexivity, ethics, researcher-participant relations, coherence etc.) we are reading about and discussing relate to their own project. It is also used for time to think freely about the direction and substance of their intended research projects. The unstructured thinking time of free writing, along with the open format of the design spine, offer students opportunities to explore and discover what they want to say and write about. This eases some of the unproductive performance pressures students experience. That these activities happen in the context of a structured department-supported learning environment also assists the students' supervisors and committee members by providing department resources to support the development and achievement of the second-year program requirements.

Supporting Students' Writing in Year 3 and Beyond

Once students have completed their comprehensive exams and proposal defense in our program, they move into the dissertation writing stage. While we aim to set up infrastructure for this transition, particularly in the second year of the doctoral seminar, the shift to ABD status is often extremely difficult. Part of this transition is structural--as students progress in their PhD program, they tend to have more commitments in their lives, from wage work beyond the university to caring for children or family members. Once they are beyond the four-year mark, funding, while available, is not as solid as before. These tend to intensify the financial and time pressure on their lives. As well, moving into an ABD stage can intensify isolation, feelings of being an impostor, of not having anything to contribute to the academic conversation, or of being bored with things they used to find interesting. The dissertation is a more sustained project than students have previously done, and in some cases the adaptive strategies that served them well earlier become hindrances. For example, sometimes people have had the practice of writing when they are either greatly inspired or under time pressure to work on writing, which can produce habits of procrastination and perfectionism.

These habits can then be reinforced by supervisors and committee members if they ask students to only submit fully finished work, and do not respond in timely ways to students' writing, or whose primary mode of giving writing feedback is critique. Some of these patterns are part of a broader story about the workload faculty experience--we are busy, and it is less work to not read multiple drafts of chapters, to just never write back to students, or to criticize writing without offering suggestions. Faculty frequently have received no training about writing pedagogy, particularly at the graduate student level, and simultaneously have our own problems with writing. We have been shaped in relation to the writing cultures that animated our own supervisors and committees, and have our own writing blocks, difficulties, and insecurities. Too often faculty induce writing troubles in our students, perhaps in ways we do not even notice or understand.

Led by Alexis Shotwell, we have worked to create social and practical infrastructures to support students at the thesis-writing stage. One piece of this is hosting more workshops and sessions about writing--for example, one called "Practical Strategies for Suffering-Free Academic Writing," another does hands-on drafting of grant applications, and one that focuses on preparing for and presenting at conferences. As we have discussed, the department has collective conversations about how to support student writing, which we see as an ongoing project. Some supervisors in our department host "thesis groups," gathering all of their students together regularly to share work and check in; this can be a valuable way to build community among graduate students and can also serve as a bit of a time-saving structure for supervisors who are able to talk to all of their supervisees at once about situations they may all face. As mentioned earlier, the department also supports students self-organizing writing retreats during Fall and Spring reading weeks; for the past three years, these have been a very successful way for students to gather and support one another in their writing practice.

We have also taken the more resource-demanding step of creating a thesis-writing class. This class is open to MA and PhD thesis writers; it is taken for credit and students are graded, but the substance of the class is writing and reading about writing, as well as collectively reading students' own drafts. Integrating practical and sometimes playful writing exercises, the class also takes academic writing seriously as a creative craft practice that can be improved upon. Every other week we have a directed writing lab, in which the task is to show up and write in guided blocks of 45 minutes, during which the only rule is that no one checks emails, social media, or phones. Last year, 2018, marked the second year of the course, which has so far been very generative for students.


In addition to mentoring supervisees individually or through the professional mentoring offered through our doctoral seminar, we have introduced other measures to help prepare students for the job market and for life post-PhD. One such measure is the launching of an Emerging Scholars Colloquium Series in 2016 to 2017 to provide an opportunity for PhD students to present their thesis work, normally just before submitting their thesis or soon after defense. The practical objective is to have a structured venue for PhD graduates to try giving a "job talk," which is very different from usual conference presentations, and to receive constructive feedback. The colloquium can also serve a number of other purposes including the pedagogical purpose of "demonstrating" a completed doctoral project to other students.

Transitioning from a doctoral student to a teacher of Sociology is a major challenge to be confronted in the later years of the doctoral program. Aaron Doyle has developed a discipline-specific teaching course for Sociology PhD students, with various supports from other teachers on campus and from our Educational Development Centre. The course has multiple goals: it aims to ease PhD students' first teaching experience so they are not "thrown into the deep end" when teaching their first courses, whether during or after their doctorates, it aims to prepare them for the job market, and it aims to improve the quality of our courses taught by new contract instructors.

In 2008, we offered for the first time this term-long credit course for our PhD students called Teaching Sociology, which we have offered three additional times, and are offering again in 2019 to 2020. The course has operated as a for-credit graduate seminar, but the majority of students who have taken it are PhD students in later years who had already completed their coursework and were formally auditing (but nevertheless completed all the course requirements). We found there was enough demand for the course to offer it in alternate years with 10 to 12 students a year taking it. Since we began the course, Carleton's Education Development Centre has started offering the Preparing to Teach certificate program for PhD students and some of our students do that course as well: they are not mutually exclusive options.

Our Teaching Sociology course draws on three sources of knowledge about teaching: literature from Psychology and from Education about teaching and adult learning, sociological literature about critical pedagogy and about the role of broader social forces in the classroom, and our own practical experience with teaching and TAing. Our experience is that PhD students entering our course will have already informally developed their own personal critical sociology of postgraduate education, and that it is best to grapple head-on in the class with ideas such as the neoliberal university and the precarious labor market for contract instructors. We have found it motivating for our PhD students to understand that, in sometimes "swimming upstream" to create effective and inspired undergraduate teaching, they are struggling against broader forces.

Key themes of the teaching class include the PhD students learning techniques for making the future classes they will teach interactive and spontaneous, bringing their future classes to life with videos, activities, and speakers, engaging their future students' emotions and making the class about them and their lives, and pushing their future students to challenge their key assumptions. As research shows (e.g., Boice 2000), new university teachers who move away from a teaching method where they are just reading lengthy lectures from their notes will not only engage students more effectively and do a better job of fostering critical thinking and higher order learning, but will also ultimately save on preparation time, a key benefit to students struggling to find time to finish dissertations. While the class attempts to move our PhD students away from the traditional academic "sage on the stage" model of lecturing for the entire class, there is nevertheless an emphasis on some traditional fundamentals such as clear learning objectives.

The course requirements include producing written reflections on readings and discussion, designing a syllabus for a Sociology course the student can teach in the future, and producing a teaching philosophy statement/dossier. Another key component, the center piece of Teaching Sociology, is that each of the students produces two iterations of an hour-long "guest lecture" and receives feedback on them. (Although we call it a lecture, we require the hour-long class led by the student to incorporate some lecturing, discussion, video, and in-class activities.) Each of the 10 or so students in the Teaching Sociology class presents a "dress rehearsal" version of their guest lecture to all the other PhD students in the class, and the PhD students workshop it and give feedback as they go. After receiving feedback on their guest lecture, the PhD student refines the lecture and then a few days later gives it to a real class of Sociology students as part of one of their regular courses, observed by the Teaching Sociology instructor who gives further feedback, and also collects feedback from the undergraduates who are being taught. Because the PhD students have received extensive feedback on a dry run, by the time they lecture to actual students, the lectures tend to be a big success.

Some of the challenges with Teaching Sociology have involved: winning acceptance from colleagues that a full for-credit course on teaching is a legitimate graduate level course, that the course is quite time-consuming and labor-intensive to offer, defining evaluation criteria and marking, and finding the optimum timing of the course--during coursework versus in later years of PhD Nevertheless, the class seems to have helped fuel and reinforce a passion for teaching among our PhD students, which in turn is motivating more generally about the PhD In addition, students who were taking the teaching class later in their PhDs enjoyed having the weekly structure and regular contact with peers as an antidote to the isolation of dissertation writing.

Another key initiative we have introduced in our department starting in 2016 to 2017 is creating a position we have called the Graduate Transitions Mentor. This started with the then Sociology Graduate Coordinator (Xiaobei Chen) beginning work on PhD Transition by hiring Dr. Kara Brisson-Boivin to do some research. Kara and Xiaobei proposed to the department to put in place a mentor for graduate transitions. This position was created and we employ one recent doctoral graduate to support our students transitioning out of graduate school into the working world. The Graduate Transitions Mentor provides students with support in regard to postgraduate employment--job searching, job and postdoctoral applications, CV and resume writing, interviewing, feedback on job talk rehearsals, networking, and proposal writing in both academic and alternative-to-academic fields. The Mentor offers individual face-to-face or Skype consultations and also a certificate program for graduating students which includes a series of monthly workshops. The mentor also moderates a Facebook group for our graduate students, which is used primarily to post job ads, helpful job search resources, and information about upcoming events/workshops taking place in the department. The feedback from students and recent alumna has been extremely positive.


This paper reports and reflects on a range of measures we have introduced, or are experimenting with, to better support our PhD students and help them succeed. These are efforts at the department and program level that respond to various issues and challenges in doctoral education. Echoing many other scholars writing on doctoral education, we argue that changes need to happen at the macro level as well. Governments and universities should not perceive doctoral education as primarily a business of auditing enrollment and completion, and innovating for "creating saving" (Ontario Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities 2012:8). They should support the development of scholarly research communities through the provision of resources required for high-quality graduate education. In the meantime, it is our hope that this paper will stimulate debate and discussion about doctoral education in the discipline of Sociology and beyond in Canadian universities.

We welcome further dialogues about pedagogy in doctoral programs and are interested to hear how others are identifying issues, addressing challenges and experimenting with innovations. We encourage you to contact us, and look forward to more conversations on these matters at the 2019 annual meeting of the CSA in Vancouver this June.


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Carleton University

The authors thank Tracey Adams for her support in writing this piece, and especially acknowledge the late Francois Depelteau who expressed great interest in the idea of initiating a discipline-wide discussion about graduate pedagogy and encouraged our efforts in helping to do so.

Janet Siltanen, Department of Sociology and Anthropology, Carleton University, Ottawa, Canada K1S1P3. E-mail:

(1.) One of us even co-authored a book of advice for graduate students (Haggerty and Doyle 2015).

(2.) Our department is home to two disciplines, anthropology and sociology. Thus, we have an Anthropology Caucus and a Sociology Caucus where discipline-specific discussions about curricula and programs take place.

(3.) For further details, see httpsy/
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Author:Siltanen, Janet; Chen, Xiaobei; Doyle, Aaron; Shotwell, Alexis
Publication:Canadian Review of Sociology
Geographic Code:1CONT
Date:May 1, 2019
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