Q&A for Supervisors

What are some strategies to attract graduate students who are likely to succeed and flourish under my supervision?

In disciplines where the supervisory relationship is established prior to application and admission (commonly the bench sciences) and where the unit does not have a listing of all available positions, it is worthwhile to have a simple, but engaging personal website that advertises your research field and that you are accepting new graduate students. Some part of the website should be specifically directed at new students; it is, for example, useful to have a list of current and past students and their projects.  It may also be useful, particularly in laboratories, to describe the personnel and the culture of the research environment.  Obviously, having a well-developed research network, record (publications and conference presentations), as well as a current research profile allows potential supervisees to assess the possibilities for a successful supervisory relationship.  One of the best ways to assess the fit of potential supervisees is to interview them (at a conference, by Skype, etc.).  You can also put them in contact with one or two of your current supervisees.  Sometimes, you can meet potential supervisees at academic conferences:  seeing them interact in academic and professional contexts is an effective way to assess their critical thinking skills, organizational skills, collegiality, and interpersonal skills.

 

My supervisee is nervous about his/her upcoming presentation at a conference, how can I support him/her?

Attending academic conferences is common professional practice for academics. However, new graduate students may not know what to expect. Be sure to talk with your supervisees about the format of an academic conference and give them tips for developing their own academic network (e.g., ask questions after presentations). You can also offer to read over your supervisee’s presentation plan or have your supervisee practice their presentation for you or a larger group of peers to provide feedback. You may also suggest that your supervisee take advantage of a SKILLSETS workshop or a Graphos course to further develop their professional and communication skills.

 

I support my graduate students with money from my research grant, but am not satisfied with the work one of them is doing. What can I do?

You might be supporting your supervisees through stipends (i.e., fellowships) or through research assistantships (i.e., employment).  In either case, you, your academic unit, and the University must honour the specifics (amounts, terms, etc.) of any agreement regarding financial support made with the student as long as the student is registered in the program.  However, registration in the program is contingent upon making satisfactory progress toward the degree; satisfactory progress is defined in terms of courses and research progress.  If you have concerns about the student’s performance and research, be sure to discuss these as they arise, and in your annual progress reporting meetings and regular supervisory meetings. Speak clearly with your supervisee about what you need from them and how they can improve. Consider setting objectives for the next month or months to encourage your supervisee stay on top of the work. If necessary, rate your student’s progress as unsatisfactory in their progress report. If your student’s performance is not improving, consider discussing your options with your Graduate Program Director. If the problems persist then you may need to speak with your Department Chair.

 

What happens to my supervisees if I take a leave of absence?

Talk to your Graduate Program Director as soon as possible, who will assign a new supervisor or a co-supervisor, depending on the nature and length of the leave. This will allow for a smooth transition for your supervisees.

 

My supervisee is taking a leave of absence, should I take on a new student?

A leave of absence is a temporary leave, up to a maximum of one year. As such, you should not take on a replacement student. During the leave, financial commitments to the supervisee should be suspended.

 

A supervisee I have been supporting with a stipend has informed me that he/she has been approved by GPS to take a leave of absence. Am I obliged to keep providing financial support for the student during the leave?

Supervisors are not obliged to continue paying a stipend to a student who takes a leave of absence, and it is up to the supervisor to decide whether to continue support during the leave.  That said, in the case of a parental leave of absence, if the stipend is provided through a CIHR or NSERC grant, the agencies will provide a supplement to the student.  Check with your granting agency to determine if this is an option.

 

I am concerned for the wellbeing of my supervisee. What should I do?

It is important that you address any concerns early and that you know the services available at McGill to support student wellbeing.  You are not expected to take on the responsibility of counselling your supervisees, but you should speak to your supervisee to get a better understanding of the type of stress or issue they are facing so you can direct them to the right support service. Begin by asking general questions such as “how are you finding your workload?”, “are you happy with your balance between your work and your personal life?”. Actively listen to your supervisee. Remember that it is always better to offer support and resources than not.

You should also be aware that there are often additional stressors for international students related to adjusting to life in Canada (housing, employment, social integration, cuisine); stressful workloads and lack of social and familial supports; financial pressures; or experiences of racism/discrimination.

If you ever have concerns that a supervisee is a danger to themselves or others, contact Security Services at 514-398-3000. Other services for the support of graduate students’ well-being are listed here.

 

Over the course of working with my supervisee, I have come to feel that we are not working well together and that a change of supervisor might be the best solution; what can I do?

Most supervisory relationships are successful; however, in some cases you may feel that the relationship is not conducive to smooth progress towards the degree.  There might be personality conflicts, differences in research approaches, or a change in research focus.  You should think carefully about what the issues are, possibly conferring with colleagues if that would be helpful.  Then, think of possible solutions or modifications to address the issues (such as modifying the supervisory committee, or adding a co-supervisor).  After having done this, have a frank and objective discussion with your supervisee about the issues.  During this discussion, listen carefully to the student’s perspective, and work together to come up with mutually agreeable solutions, one of which could include a change in supervision.

Sometimes, a change in supervisor may be beneficial to both parties. It is the Unit’s responsibility to ensure that graduate students have a supervisor; therefore, if you have decided to make a change, you should consult with the student about other faculty who could supervisor him/ her.  The Graduate Program Director, Chair of your department, or the Associate Dean (Graduate Studies) within your faculty or Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies may also be helpful in identifying and securing a new supervisor, and in mediating any concerns that can arise during the transition (e.g., funding, progress of the research, stage in the program).

When a student is having difficulties, it is important that the new supervisor is someone with whom the student feels comfortable personally, and someone who has the appropriate expertise for supervising the student’s research. Depending on what stage the student is at in his/her program, a change of supervisor may require a change in the topic or plan for the research. Throughout the process, it is critical to keep all parties informed of the actions under way. The process should be completed as quickly as possible to reduce delays in research progress and associated concerns.   In addition, within 3 months following a change in supervisor, there should be a supervisory committee meeting in which a progress tracking report is completed.

 

One of my supervisees has asked me to write him/her a letter of recommendation, but do I do not think it would be to his/her advantage if I did. How can I say no?

Since it is expected that you would typically be writing a letter of recommendation for your supervisee, not having a letter from you could be perceived as a warning signal to assessors. However, as a supervisor, you are not obliged to write letters of reference for your students and it is not good practice to agree to write a letter that would be unsupportive. Seriously consider declining, but if you do agree to write the letter, then you must disclose to the student that you will not be making a strong recommendation. It is important that you explain to your supervisee why you do not want to write the letter (e.g., you do not feel you are the best person to write it; you have concerns about the student’s performance; you don’t think the position being applied for is an appropriate fit; the request came to you too close to the deadline). If you do not feel you are the best person to write the letter or the request came too close to the deadline you may provide him/her with suggestions on how to find suitable referees. If you are concerned about your supervisee’s performance should be addressed in annual progress tracking meetings and regular supervisory meetings. If you don’t think the position is an appropriate fit for you student than may want to ask them to explain why they are interested in the position. Remember it is your job to mentor the student, but it is not your job to tell them what they should do; if you choose to voice your concerns be sure to recognize the weight your words may carry with your student and be supportive of their final decision.

 

My supervisee has expressed an interest in pursuing a non-academic career. What can I do to help?

Not all graduate students want to or will follow an academic path post-degree. Graduate students often feel that supervisors envision that an academic career is the only or preferred outcome for them, even in cases where supervisors acknowledge the limited academic job possibilities. As a supervisor, you should try to be as knowledgeable as possible about the diversity of job possibilities related to your field or about those that can be connected to your field through a shared skillset. It is, however, unlikely that you are in a position to advise students towards all of these possibilities. It would be helpful to refer these supervisees to Career Planning Service (CaPS) for guidance, or if you have colleagues who have chosen other career paths, you could refer your supervisees to them. Most importantly, don’t lessen your commitment to supporting the growth and development of your supervisees. Their career goals may change several times throughout their degree. No matter what they plan to do post-degree, continue to guide them towards the successful completion of their degree.

 

What are the grounds for withdrawing a PhD student from the University?

The grounds for withdrawing a PhD student from the University are summarized here:

1. PhD Comprehensives Policy
– Students can repeat one time. A second failure is an F and the student will be withdrawn from the University.

2. Failure Policy
– Two courses (automatic withdrawal);
- Two unsatisfactory progress reports (GPD can recommend withdrawal);
- One course and one unsatisfactory progress report (GPD can recommend withdrawal).

3. Thesis Examination or Oral Defence Failure
– Essentially, students have the option to revise and resubmit, or revise and re-do the Oral Defence, or both. This depends on the outcome of the oral defence.

4. Disciplinary case that leads to withdrawal.

 

Over the course of working with my supervisee, I have come to feel that we are not working well together and that a change of supervisor might be the best solution; what can I do?

Most supervisory relationships are successful; however, in some cases you may feel that the relationship is not conducive to smooth progress towards the degree. There might be personality conflicts, differences in research approaches, or a change in research focus. You should think carefully about what the issues are, possibly conferring with colleagues if that would be helpful. Then, think of possible solutions or modifications to address the issues (such as modifying the supervisory committee, or adding a co-supervisor). After having done this, have a frank and objective discussion with your supervisee about the issues. During this discussion, listen carefully to the student’s perspective, and work together to come up with mutually agreeable solutions, one of which could include a change in supervision.

Sometimes, a change in supervisor may be beneficial to both parties. It is the Unit’s responsibility to ensure that graduate students have a supervisor; therefore, if you have decided to make a change, you should consult with the student about other faculty who could supervisor him/ her. The Graduate Program Director, Chair of your department, or the Associate Dean (Graduate Studies) within your faculty or Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies may also be helpful in identifying and securing a new supervisor, and in mediating any concerns that can arise during the transition (e.g., funding, progress of the research, stage in the program).

When a student is having difficulties, it is important that the new supervisor is someone with whom the student feels comfortable personally, and someone who has the appropriate expertise for supervising the student’s research. Depending on what stage the student is at in his/her program, a change of supervisor may require a change in the topic or plan for the research. Throughout the process, it is critical to keep all parties informed of the actions under way. The process should be completed as quickly as possible to reduce delays in research progress and associated concerns. In addition, within 3 months following a change in supervisor, there should be a supervisory committee meeting in which a progress tracking report is completed.