Communicating with your supervisor

Aim to develop an honest and open line of communication with your supervisor

You are beginning a long-term relationship with your supervisor. Being yourself from the start will help you quickly determine if you and your supervisor are the right fit.


At the first few meetings

Meetings early in the graduate degree are the time to set expectations. Strive to:

  • communicate respectfully and professionally
  • ask questions to clarify what your role(s) and responsibilities will be for the coming year (see discussing expectations
  • ask your supervisor for help in determining areas for your professional growth - see the Developing transferrable skills page for more information, and SKILLSETS for opportunities for personal and academic skill development.

Addressing problems

Problems can occur in any relationship (see FAQ for superviseesAsk an Associate Dean and Staying on track). When conflicts or problems occur, consider taking the following actions.

  1. Seek first to understand
  2. Refer to university policies
  3. Live up to your responsibilities


Who can I ask for help?

If you’re having a conflict with your supervisor, or another type of personal or academic concern, there are a variety of people at McGill that can help. Reach out to your Graduate Program Director or your Department Chair as early as possible for support. 

Additional services for the resolution of confidential concerns are provided by the Office of the Ombudsperson, the Dean of Students, and the Post-Graduate Students Society (PGSS). For non-confidential issues, your fellow students can be great resources and support systems.

How can supervisors and supervisees coordinate their personalities and navigate differences?

Navigating differences in age, gender, culture, experiences, opinions, theoretical orientation, and work styles can take time and effort, but they can lead to a more enriched supervisor-supervisee relationship. Consider what you can learn from your supervisor, within and beyond academic counsel.


What do you think a typical supervisory relationship looks like?

  • Considering what you think is typical in a supervisor-supervisee relationship will help you establish a relationship that you are happy and comfortable with. 
  • Talking to peers about supervisory relationships can help you build enough context to communicate what works well in your supervisory relationship, and to articulate any issues you might want to address with a supervisor. 

What do you want and need from your relationship with your supervisor?

  • Trust: Is it important for you to trust your supervisor to be honest, punctual, or helpful?
  • Respect: Is it important that your supervisor demonstrate respect in a particular manner such as how they greet you, how they address you, and how they provide criticism?
  • Availability: Do you want your supervisor to allocate a certain amount of time for you each week or month, and/or be available to meet on short notice?
  • Mentoring: Is it important that your supervisor provides and/or recommends opportunities to grow and develop your professional skills and academic identity?

What might your supervisor need from a relationship with a supervisee?

The best way to learn this is to ask, and to consult documents like a Letter of Understanding for clarification. 

You can also consider the same questions above, but from your supervisor's perspective: 

  • Punctuality: What does your supervisor need from you in terms of arriving on time to meetings, and providing them ample time to critique your work before major deadlines?
  • Availability: Professors have very busy schedules. How can you find opportunities to connect? How can you make good use of your supervisor's time when you meet? 
  • Communication: How does your supervisor like to communicate and how often? What is a reasonable amount of time for a supervisor to expect a response to an email or phone call?

Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial 4.0 International LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial 4.0 International License.
Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies, McGill University.

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