Q&A for Supervisees

How and when do I start my search for a supervisor?

The process and timing of getting a supervisor is different in each department. Consult your department’s website, and contact your Graduate Program Coordinator to learn more. Some academic units assign supervisors based on your research interests and plan. Your academic unit is ultimately responsible for ensuring that all of their research thesis graduate students have a supervisor; however, in some units, you will need to approach professors and ask them if they will take you on as a supervisee. In this case, learn about the professors by reading about them on their faculty pages or research websites. Email those you feel would be a good match and introduce yourself. Tell them about your research interests and intentions, and ask to meet. If you are having a hard time with this process, be sure to contact your Graduate Program Director.


What if my supervisor is taking a leave?

You should discuss this issue with your Graduate Program Director who will appoint a new supervisor or a co-supervisor, depending on the kind and length of the leave.


I am having difficulty contacting my supervisor. What should I do?

To avoid these problems, be proactive by discussing expectations for communication including methods of communication (email, phone, in person) and how frequently you would like to communicate. If the problem persists, speak with your Graduate Program Director, and, if necessary, contact an Associate Dean at Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies.


I might want to work with a different supervisor. What are the consequences if I change supervisors?

To discuss both the academic and financial consequences of changing supervisors, you should first talk with your supervisor and then with your Graduate Program Director. As in any professional relationship, both you and your supervisor are responsible for ensuring that you have an understanding about what you expect from each other, including a modification or dissolution of the relationship.

Although most supervisory relationships are successful, in some cases either party may feel that the relationship is not conducive to smooth progress towards the degree. At that point there needs to be a frank discussion about what modifications or alternatives could be considered. A common option is to add members to the supervisory committee or add a co-supervisor.

Sometimes, a change in supervisor may be beneficial to both parties. Your Graduate Program Director will help you identify a new supervisor and mediating the transition. The Chair of your department or the Associate Dean (Graduate Studies) within your faculty or at Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies may also be helpful in identifying and securing a new supervisor, and in mediating any concerns that may arise during the transition (e.g., change of research plan; funding changes; to what extent already completed research may be shared). Changes in supervision should accord with the regulations on graduate student supervision.


I was told my stipend was to support my research, so do I have to do work unrelated to my progress to degree?

Probably not, because stipends are degree-related. You should first speak to your supervisor to clarify the difference between a stipend and a research assistantship using the information on the Student stipends page. If the two of you cannot agree on whether your work falls under the definition of stipend, you should speak to your Graduate Program Director.

According to the Student stipends page, a stipend is a fellowship paid to a student from a professor’s grant to assist him or her “in qualifying for a degree or other scholastic recognition in the field in which the research is being carried on.”


My supervisor is threatening to “withdraw funding.” Is he/she allowed to do that?

Your supervisor and/or academic unit must honour the funding agreement as long as you are still registered in the program. You should speak to your Graduate Program Director and, if necessary, the Associate Dean in Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies about your situation.

Because your registration in the program is partly contingent upon satisfactory progress toward the degree, you should also be aware of the policies related to progress tracking.


If my supervisor requires me / refuses to let me take a position as a teaching assistant, what should I do?

This is your decision to make.  As someone supervising your research and helping you to complete your degree, your supervisor can always provide advice on your academic career. She or he, therefore, could advise you on:

  • whether a teaching assistantship  would be beneficial to your educational experience and training;
  • whether the time taken away from your research is worth the training and experience of teaching (there can be different answers to this question depending on your discipline, year, etc.); and
  • whether there will be financial consequences if the teaching assistantship is part of the package of funding that you receive.

You may want to discuss this issue with someone besides your supervisor or to get a second opinion on his or her advice. Consider speaking to an advisor (separate from your supervisor), if your program has assigned one to you; a member of your supervisory committee; your Graduate Program Director; the Chair of your department; or an Associate Dean at Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies.


My funding has been unexpectedly eliminated, reduced, or turned into a teaching assistantship. Can anything be done?

Supervisors and/or academic units enter into agreements with individual students for financial support. If you feel that this agreement is unclear and/or not being honoured, see your Graduate Program Director (if the change was made by your supervisor) or an Associate Dean at Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies (if the change was made by your academic unit).

There is no university-wide policy that guarantees graduate student funding at McGill. Nevertheless, many individual supervisors, departments, and other units provide funding packages for graduate student support. This funding varies from department (or other academic unit) to department, and/or supervisor to supervisor, and also from student to student.

Supervisors and/or academic units enter into agreements with individual students for these funding packages. There should always be an explicit and signed written agreement between supervisor / academic unit and graduate student regarding the awarding of such packages, which includes terms and amounts. These agreements should be in place at the start of the student’s program.

Faculty members at McGill provide funds for graduate students and postdoctoral fellows primarily by two means: stipends and research assistantships.

Simply put, student stipends are fellowships; research assistantships are employment.


A due date for a scholarship/job application is coming up, and my supervisor won't write me a letter of recommendation. What can I do?

Supervisors are not obliged to write letters of reference. However, it is generally assumed that your supervisor is the person who knows your work the best and it would normally be expected that he or she would be supporting your application with a letter of reference. Consequently, not having a letter from your supervisor may be perceived as a warning signal to assessors.

Talk frankly with your supervisor about the reason for refusal. Your discussion may provide you with your supervisor’s assessment of your abilities and achievement. There may be reasons why a supervisor would not provide a reference letter. For example, the supervisor may feel that she or he has not been given enough lead time to write a proper letter or he or she may feel that the scholarship or job is an inappropriate fit for you.

On the other hand, you may discover that your supervisor feels that he or she cannot write a letter that presents a positive view of your academic accomplishments; if that were the case, it would be worthwhile to ask the supervisor what you can do so he/she can write you a positive letter in the future.

However, the discussion may reveal that your supervisor has problems with the quality of your work or the supervisory relationship. If your quality of work is the problem, you might consider conducting a self-assessment to determine whether you are satisfied with your work and how you might improve it. Consider what might be preventing you from achieving your best and why; then determine how you might resolve the problem.

If your supervisory relationship is the problem, take some time to discuss the relationship with your supervisor and why you have a problem. Work together to find a solution and see if the relationship improves. If it doesn’t, you may want to consider changing supervisors.