Just Relationships for Research

We are increasingly asked to envision and implement respectful and non-extractive research involving marginalized communities. But we are rarely challenged to bring those principles to bear in our own research groups, where asymmetries of institutional power between colleagues, students, and staff are normalized.  

This interdisciplinary panel with Dr. Kishonna Gray, Dr. Liz Nilsen and Dr. Rhona Hanning outlined roles and responsibilities as well as best practices for graduate student supervision to frame a discussion of how to foster and maintain just relationships among researchers. The panel focused on the principles and practices animating non-extractive student-supervisor relationships. The panellists shared their knowledge of institutional guidelines for student supervision and/or experience with cultivating and leading non-oppressive research groups. Furthermore, they encouraged conversations about what constitutes just research relationships within and across disciplinary and institutional contexts. 

Watch the highlights:

Remote video URL

Meet The Panelists

Dr. Kishonna Gray
Dr. Kishonna Gray: Dr. Gray is an associate professor of Writing, Rhetoric and Digital Studies and Africana Studies at the University of Kentucky and faculty associate at the Berkman Klein Center at Harvard. She has published numerous books related to race, gender, and digital spaces, including Race, Gender, and Deviance on Xbox Live (Routledge), Intersectional Tech: Black Users in Digital Gaming (LSU Press), and Feminism in Play (Palgrave).

Dr. Liz Nilsen
Dr. Liz Nilsen: Dr. Nilsen is a professor of Psychology and Assistant Vice President of Graduate Studies and Post Doctoral Affairs at the University of Waterloo. In the latter role, she is part of the Academic Leadership team in the Office of Graduate Studies and post-Doctoral Affairs that supports graduate education and community, as well as grad related initiatives that align with the university strategic planning.

Dr. Rhona Hanning
Dr. Rhona Hanning: Dr. Hanning is a professor in the School of Public Health Sciences in the Faculty of Health, and a fellow with the Dietitians of Canada. Her research involves evaluation of school, community and policy-based interventions that support healthy eating for Canadian youth, especially those living in First Nations communities, and her current teaching and research activity explores decolonizing education and healthcare practices. She is also a recipient at the UW Award for Excellence in Graduate Supervision and former associate Dean of graduate Studies.

Key Terms

Exploitative relationships: Describes where research collaborators or participants receive a form of harm from the researcher instead of benefits. This harm could be the result of overworking, inequitably work division or from a lack of harm mediation if a problem occurs.   Similar themes are explored in, “Indigenous Research and Epistemology,” and “Designing for Disability and Accessibility.”  
Harm Mediation: Describes the methods and processes used to heal the harm done on a person or group. These harms could be due to the direct effects of a research project or be the result of generational harm.   See “Indigenous Research and Epistemology” to learn about how one research project aimed to address generational harm. 
Structures of Care: When having a conversation regarding the expectations of a supervisor – student relationship, each party must think about what things must be put in place to ensure that each party's care needs are being addressed. These needs could be related to how much time you’ll spend working, time off or decision-making procedure.  To learn more about identifying your care needs, see “Structures of Care.” 

Learning Objectives

The viewer will be able to...

1. Identify That There are complex, unequal power dynamics in a supervisor-student research relationship. 

2. Analyze their own goals and expectations of their supervisory relationship through applying and answering the asked reflection questions.  

Developing a Just Research Relationship

Graphic of people shaking hands

Although many researchers and academics understand how power dynamics play a part in their own research with participants, many fail to recognize how power differentials interact in their supervisor and student relationships. While most graduate students are satisfied with their supervisor relationship, according to Dr. Nilsen, at the University of Waterloo, 10% of graduate students feel very unsatisfied, and there is a vast mental health crisis among graduate students more generally.

Why are graduate students unsatisfied in these relationships, and how can we ensure that there is reciprocity between the supervisor and student?

Our three panellists discussed both questions, describing the long-standing issues with uneven reciprocity, as well as tips on how to improve these relationships. The goal is to have a relationship where both parties feel respected and understood, so that an extractive relationship is less likely.

Use the reflection questions found throughout this summary as guides in your future discussions in a supervisor-student relationship.

Recognise the Asymmetry of Power in a Graduate Supervision 


Since academia is rooted in western colonial practices, the standards of supervisor relationships are founded on the ideas of exploitative relationships that we now recognize can cause harm. There is a risk that the hierarchies embedded in academic institutions can perpetuate these exploitative relationships, and supervisors must understand the possible dangers of the inherent power imbalance between supervisor and student

For instance, sometimes the work assigned to graduate students can be accompanied by unreasonable expectations (e.g., short turnaround, work during evenings and weekends), or “volunteer” work might be encouraged or expected. These are forms of exploitation that cause harm, particularly to students who are marginalized by other power structures. Thus, it is important that students and supervisors foster a non-exploitative practice, striving to enhance just relationships and a sense of belonging.  

“Being in the institution for a little while, I realize that a lot of our goals are mostly incongruent with the goals of the university and the institutionWe must constantly remind the universities that  we have populations here who are vulnerable and are being impacted, whether intentionally or unintentionally, by the practices of the university. Dr. Hanning

Identify Goals and Expectations Prior to Starting New Supervisor Relationships 


The panelists noted that by having a healthy discussion about one anothers goals and expectations at the beginning of a new supervisory relationship, many potential obstacles can be managed more effectivelyArticulating these expectations also requires establishing reasonable boundaries between supervisors and students (see the resources linked at bottom of page)

One crucial aspect of the relationship between supervisors and students is research and collaboration. Thus, it is important to discuss what your goals and expectations are regarding this to ensure that everyone is on the same page and reduce the potential avenues of harm

How will authorship work? What expectations do the students and supervisors have? How will articles and research reports be written? Who will oversee each aspect of the research?  

“[There] needs to be a boundary established early between supervisor and student. They may want to be friendly, but there are risks to lowering the walls quickly and can help create emotional and psychological abuse.” – Dr. Nilsen

Structures of Support 


Although there are resources and methods that exist to help with a crisis it is important to practice prevention techniques. One prevention technique is to identify what support you need from this relationship and how that support will be achieved.

In these relationships, the supervisor and students support each other in various ways. However, each relationship will be different in terms of what support is needed. Once both parties have identified what supports are needed, there is an opportunity to discuss how this support will be given or achieved. 

Will the supervisor only help the student’s research process? Will they provide a sense of structure?  Is support given through weekly or biweekly meetings? How would you want to be supported if your positions, student and researcher, were flipped?  

You know, these individuals and maybe their parents, need to work 20 hours a week outside of their work as a graduate student just to make ends meet. And they have these constraints on their lives and so we need to be setting up a better stage, truly understanding each other's contexts and expectations.” Dr. Hanning

Harm Prevention 


Although there are many questions and considerations that supervisors and students can use to guide a conversation around expectations, and many universities offer checklists or worksheets, many of them lack consideration of the potential harms that could happen in these kinds of relationships. Thus, it is important to recognize potential harms to understanding how and if a supervisor can appropriately and effectively support students dealing with the harms of academic institutions and hierarchies. 

It is also important to recognize that it is not only a one-way harm from the supervisor to the student, but that in some circumstances students can also cause harm to the supervisor. This is because power is not just shaped by a hierarchy of academic structure, but also is influenced by lived experiences and identities.

Based upon your lived experience, can you foresee or predict potential avenues that can lead to harm on you or your collaborator?  

“The women, queer women, women of colour doing a lot of the care because we know what it [harm] feels like. The burden falls on, you know, the most vulnerable… instead of like something the other end.” - Dr. Gray 


"So, in terms of reparations and how [can we] be aware of the harms that we bring but not give them weight. - Dr. Nilsen

Call for Institutional Changes in Harm Reparation 


Although having discussions prior to collaboration can aid in harm reduction, the panelists highlighted that structural change is still needed in how institutions deal with harm reparation.

Current structures assume that if harm is done to someone, that the person who has been harmed can separate themselves from the event and go back to work with ease. Thus, one way to practice equity and a decolonization of academic norms is to adjust the way we treat punishments and reparations for harm. We need reconciliation and reparations to ensure that people who do harm do not do it again. Yet, in our current structure, it often involves removing the person who caused harm without addressing the root causes. Nor do our practices emphasize the importance of supporting the healing of the person harmed. This is a major issue that does not assist in making the student or supervisor feel supported if harm is done to them.

What structures does your institution have in place to support people who have been harmed? What kinds of harm reparation are available?  

“‘Take time off then just come right back’ or ‘we fired the problem person, just come right back’. We just expect these people who had harm done to them to get over it and forget it happened.” - Dr. Gray


Find here some of the resources and worksheets that our panellist highlighted to assist your future just supervisor-student relationship:

University of Waterloo's Guide for Graduate Research and Supervision

Canadian Association for Graduate Studies Guiding Principles for Graduate Student Supervision