Lessons Learned and Challenges Faced: Outgoing Grad Advisors Share Their Wisdom

As the calendar turned to July, three of our grad advisors ended their terms: Catherine Leger (French), Elena Pnevmonidou (Germanic and Slavic Studies) and Sara Beam (History). Between them, they have amassed over 12 years of experience supporting graduate students and graduate programming in Humanities. This wealth of experience presents an ideal opportunity for us to gain insight into and advice on this central Faculty role, and so I asked them to share the lessons learned, the insights gained and the challenges faced. As you will see, their responses echo a sense of duty, of responsibility, of privilege, of joy.

Outgoing Humanities Graduate Advisors
Left to right: Catherine Leger (French), Elena Pnevmonidou (Germanic and Slavic Studies) and Sara Beam (History).

“There is a huge difference in goals of undergraduate studies and graduate school. This journey can be scary, and it is the role and duty of the graduate advisor to accompany students during this adventure, interspersed by successes but also necessary and character-building failures; to always push them to become more effective in research, to develop new tools, and also to continually engage their curiosity. In a nutshell, graduate studies training is transformative; to be a witness and to be able to contribute to the intellectual growth of a student is quite a gratifying experience. It is actually the essence of our profession.” (Catherine)

What advice do they have for incoming advisors? Set boundaries: for tasks, for time, for responsibilities.

 “The role of the grad advisor is one of mentorship and advising, but there are administrative tasks as well. Do not let these tasks distract you from your main objective: to support and to inspire students. Listen to their needs, develop a relationship of trust with them, lead by example. Students count on you for your guidance, your knowledge and your experience. Enjoy the inherent satisfaction of making a difference in the academic life of graduate students. You are preparing the next generation of leaders in your disciplines and for society.” (Catherine) 

“Set clear boundaries for what is your jurisdiction. With the help of your Department Chair, the Associate Dean Research, and the Associate Dean of Graduate Studies, familiarize yourself with the resources and protocols that are available to help students navigate the challenges of being a graduate student. You are not responsible for solving all problems; what you need to know is where to go to get help.” (Elena) 

What was learned along the way also involves boundaries—not about holding them up, but about knowing when to set them aside. 

“What I learned is how collaborative a job it is to be a grad advisor: you are working with students, with departmental colleagues and with other grad advisors and the Associate Dean Research to understand the nature of problems and to seek solutions that are workable and equitable. As grad advisor, I learned a lot about collaboration, compromise and consensus building. It’s good to set boundaries, but it’s also good to have porous territories. All our programs are stronger when we see ourselves as collaborators in a larger project. That is the Humanities.” (Elena)

And of course, there were also surprises along the way.

“I was most surprised by the joys and challenges of calendar changes. Joys because you can make lasting change to the lives of students. And the consultations that were needed took me all over campus and led me to meet some fantastic people. The actual process of entering the changes into the calendar was tedious and painful (despite the ever-patient guidance of Lisa Surridge), but, as I say, they can be transformative.” (Sara)

Moving forward, Sara sees online teaching in the coming year as a space for opportunity and mutual engagement between students and faculty:

“I hope it can be a productive space where TAs (who might be more tech comfy) and instructors can learn together.” (Sara)

In all of this, it is students who sit at the heart of our graduate programmes. Conversations about being a grad advisor always came back to them.

“Getting to know our graduate students better was one of the expected pleasures of the job and it delivered.” (Sara) 

“By far my favourite thing was hanging out with graduate students.” (Elena)

Elena’s thoughts on graduate programming highlight themes that were raised by Sara and Catherine too:

“Beginning an MA program is such huge transition. Graduate study is really about acquiring a new identity as a professional, a budding scholar and our junior peer. I very much enjoy mentoring students through that process and I absolutely love to see the excitement, intellectual curiosity, and community that develops among them as they settle into this new space, become more confident and start moving with their projects. I am awed and inspired by their creativity, commitment, guts and sheer grit. One of the most gratifying aspects of my job as grad advisor has been to help students articulate their research goals and to see them grow and flourish.” (Elena)

Not surprisingly then, what will our outgoing advisors miss the most?

“Without any doubt, working with the students” (Elena) and “the connections I’ve made” (Sara).

Grad advisors, thank you for all the dedication and passion you bring to supporting our students and teaching them, through your principles, morals, and practices, what it means to be not just a scholar but a Humanist.

by Alex D'Arcy, Associate Dean Research