Would you like to help us improve this website?

Avoiding delays

Many causes for delay are avoidable, but some are not

Most of the common reasons for delay that are reported at McGill are avoidable, such as failure to apply for graduation, lack of communication with supervisor and faculty, and unsatisfactory academic standing. This suggests that students bear much of the responsibility for avoiding delays. In some cases, however, the supervisor causes delays, whether through benign neglect or other means. In other cases, a cause for delay may be unavoidable, such a parental leave.


McGill strives to have a high calibre of students with high rates of graduation and timely degree completion. The University has services to support graduate students who face unavoidable delays (whether medical, personal, or familial; see the Resources page for a detailed list of student services), but many delays can be avoided.


Avoidable reasons for delay

McGill graduate students are encouraged to work towards their degrees with progress and prevention in mind. Here is a list of common delays that can be prevented, beginning with those that definitely involve the supervisor (the others being potentially related to the supervisor in some cases).

Involving the supervisor

Graduate students who do not regularly communicate with their supervisors are prone to delays in completing their degrees. This lack of communication can result in:

  • difficulty setting up meetings with the supervisor: If your supervisor is routinely unavailable to meet with you to discuss your research, you should write to them and set a reasonable deadline for a response and for a subsequent meeting.

  • lack of guidance from the supervisor: If your supervisor does not give you sufficient feedback on your research and work, you should ask for specific improvements to the feedback. For more information on this, see the Feedback and Self-assessment page of this website.

If you do not receive a response within a reasonable time, or your request for a meeting or feedback is not heeded, contact the Chair of your department and, if that does not solve the problem, contact a GPS Associate Dean.

Tending not to be the responsibility of the supervisor

To avoid common delays, where the responsibility is often the student’s, students can:

  • follow the correct procedures and timeline to request graduation: Non-thesis graduate students must apply to graduate on Minerva. Deadlines are available on the Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies (GPS) website. GPS applies for graduation on behalf of thesis students when they initially submit their theses. Should graduate students miss the deadlines, they must contact their faculty’s Student Affairs Office immediately to discuss their options. See the Resources page for additional information on graduation.

  • maintain a satisfactory academic standing: Repeated unexcused absences, missed exams without supporting documentation and/or incomplete (K) marks will affect graduate students’ academic standing. Graduation may be delayed until these issues are resolved.

  • ensure sufficient documentation: Students’ status may be affected if they lack up-to-date, government-issued documentation (e.g., visas).

  • check if credits from other institutions are transferable: If graduate students have completed graduate level credits at a different institution and would like McGill to honour these credits, students must speak with their faculty to see if credits can be transferred.

  • follow research policies and protocols: Graduate students must adhere to the university’s Research tracking policy, including obtaining approval from the relevant Research Ethics Board (REB) prior to beginning research. Please note that the REB submission process can be lengthy.

  • clarify expectations regarding funding: The amount of funding allotted to graduate students affects program completion and may inadvertently cause a delay in graduation. Graduate students are encouraged to speak with their faculties and supervisors about possible sources of funding, including graduate assistantships (i.e. teaching assistantships and research assistantships), stipends, fellowships and awards, etc. Establishing a clear expectation of amount and timing of funding can allow the student to ensure they will be financially stable throughout their degree.

  • comply with the time limitation policy: Graduate students who do not complete their degrees within the allotted time frame will be denied graduation, but they may be eligible to apply for readmission. McGill’s Time limitation policy and Thesis guidelines outline the university’s expectations.

  • engage in academic and personal development activities: Graduate students who report program dissatisfaction and feelings of isolation are at greater risk of attrition (Boyle & Boice, 1998). McGill offers a variety of resources, including SKILLSETS, the Wellness Hub, the Post-Graduate Students’ Society, and departmental student associations to help foster academic, professional, and social success.

  • avoid procrastination and maintain motivation: For more information on this, see the Staying motivated page.


Unavoidable reasons for delay

While graduate students should strive for timely degree completion, McGill understands that extenuating circumstances, sometimes requiring a leave of absence, do arise. Typically, leaves of absence are requested in light of the following reasons.

  • Maternity or parenting

  • Personal or family health

  • Professional development (graduate students only)

  • Required military service (graduate students only)

  • Employment that precludes progress towards the degree (graduate students only)

A leave must be requested on a term by term basis and may be granted for a period of up to 52 weeks.


Who faces delays?

All students are susceptible to delays in graduation and attrition. However, it is important to consider student diversity when discussing delays- the factors affecting timely progress may be different across students (Gardner 2008; Olkin 2002; Quarterman 2008). For example, students with children, or with families living internationally, may have their progress affected by those characteristics. Click here for more information on diversity.

How can relationships contribute to delay avoidance?

Relationships with peers and mentors can help avoid delays. As a graduate student or postdoctoral fellow, you can meet with people at a similar stage of their education and careers to foster collegiality and a sense of being in a cohort. Consider going to academic conferences together, because the deadlines and support are motivating. Your relationship with your supervisor can also be encouraging, or a different researcher can become a mentor and help in this way. Setting common deadlines, motivating each other, and having a support system for academic or personal concerns can help ensure that you stay on track.


Factors that enhance graduate student enculturation and affect graduate student attrition rates include (Boyle & Boice, 1998) collegiality among students, student-faculty mentoring relationships, and program structure. Here are a few questions for each to help you determine how you can further enhance your graduate school experience and avoid delays.

Collegiality among students

  • Do you feel connected to other students in your lab, research group, program, department or the graduate student community in general? If not, what can you do improve this?

    • Journal clubs, writing groups, departmental student associations and interdisciplinary societies (e.g., the Post-Graduate Students' Society) are great opportunities to meet other students and foster collegiality.

  • Do you set common deadlines with your peers (e.g., submitting an abstract to a conference) and motivate each other? If not, would starting to do this help you stay on track and feel supported?

  • Do you go to conferences or seminars with other students? Are there any upcoming events that you would be interested in going to where you can ask a classmate or friend to join?

    • In addition to a common deadline, conferences are a great networking opportunity and can help you feel more connected to others in your field.

Student-faculty mentoring relationships

Consistent, open communication between graduate students and their supervisors, is key to the students’ success.

  • Do you feel that you can contact your supervisor easily? Do they respond in a timely manner? Are you satisfied with the frequency of communications and meetings?

    • If not, you should discuss this next time you meet with them. If you’re having trouble scheduling a meeting, see the practical advice tab of this page for suggestions on how to approach this.

  • Is there anything about your original supervisory agreement that has been affected by changes to your research or other aspect of your academic or personal life, and may be causing a delay in your progress?

    • If so, address this with your supervisor in an organized and timely fashion in order to minimize any associated delays.

  • Do you have a faculty mentor, other than your supervisor, that you are comfortable contacting? If not, do you think you would benefit from having one?

Program structure

Graduate students with program support, including “short-term goals, structured assignments, and timely feedback,” completed their degrees more quickly than those without these resources (Boyle & Boice, 1998).

  • Do you feel that short-term goals are established for your research?

    • If not, you can create some now and run them by your supervisor at your next meeting. Making a habit of creating short-term goals can help increase motivation and reduce delays.

  • Do you feel that you give and receive timely feedback?

Although students cannot determine their own programs (except in the sense of researching programs and applying to the universities that have programs they like), they can work with supervisors and Graduate Program Directors to customize the program as much as possible to their needs (e.g., through course selection, choice of supervisory committee members, and goal-setting in the context of progress tracking).

A variety of factors play a role in delayed graduation and attrition

The supervisory relationship, funding, intellectual climate and time spent in degree are only some of these factors. When a student experiences dissatisfaction in at least some of these aspects of graduate studies, this can lead to overall dissatisfaction with their experience, and therefore delays and possible withdrawal.


Possible predictors of delayed graduation and attrition

Based on several research studies (Archambault et al.,, 2006; CAGS, 2003; Girves & Wemmerus, 1998; Golde, 2005; Nerad & Miller, 1996; Pyke & Sheridan, 1993; Schulte 2002, 2003; Sigafus, 1998), predictors of delayed graduation and attrition were extracted as shown in the figure below.

Theoretical models and conceptual frameworks

Why do graduate students delay graduation? What influences graduate students’ time to degree? What factors influence graduate student retention and attrition? The following theoretical models and conceptual frameworks attempt to examine these questions.

Psychological models

Katz (1976 as cited in Baird, 1993) focused on graduate students’ academic and personal growth. He proposed several stages of graduate student development.

  1. Challenge: Students wrestle with feelings of insecurity and inadequacy upon entry.

  2. Management: Students learn to cope with these feelings, developing confidence and gaining perspective along the way.

  3. Reconciliation of tensions: Students work to find a middle ground between reality and idealism, academic discipline and creativity, etc.

Fishbein and Ajzen (1975 as cited in Andres & Carpenter, 1997) stressed the importance of graduate students’ intentions, a product of behaviour, attitudes, and norms. Cooke, Sims, and Peyrefitte (1995) echoed Fishbein and Ajzen, citing “intent to remain” as a predictor of graduate student attrition.

Sociological models

Golde (1998) emphasized graduate students’ socialization processes. He proposed a series of transitions.

  1. Intellectual mastery

  2. Learning about the realities of life as a graduate student

  3. Learning about the profession for which one is preparing

  4. Integrating oneself into the department

Tinto (1991) identified persistence as a predictor in graduate students’ success. He believed that graduate students’ desire to obtain a degree impacted their grades, which, in turn, influenced their “academic integration into the university” (Baird, 1993; Girves & Wemmerus, 1988).

Ecological model

MacFagden (2008) highlighted graduate students’ relationships and surroundings. He contended that factors within the university sphere (e.g., students’ supervisory relationships, the structure of the graduate program, financial support) and outside the university sphere (e.g., students’ family responsibilities, careers, health) affected the quality of student life (MacFadgen, 2008).

Integrated model

Baird (1993) stated that both faculty and peers influence the graduate experience. If students perceive a poor quality of graduate student life, it may foster feelings of discontent and inadequacy in their relationships with faculty and/or peers.



Andres, L., & Carpenter, S. (1997). Today’s higher education students: Issues of admission, retention, transfer, and attrition in relation to changing student demographics [Report]. Centre for Policy Studies in Education. University of British Columbia, Vancouver.

Archambault, E., Bergeron, S., Bertrand, F., Campbell, D., Caruso, J., & Kishchuk, N. (2006). Environmental scan for SSHRC doctoral fellowship program [PDF document]. Science Mix, final report.

Baird, L. L. (1993). Using research and theoretical models of graduate student progress. New Directions for Institutional Research, 80, 3-12.

Boyle, P., & Boice, B. (1998). Best practices for enculturation: Collegiality, mentoring, and structure. New Directions for Higher Education, 101, 87-94.

Canadian Association for Graduate Studies [CAGS] (2003). Report and recommendations October 2003. The completion of graduate studies in Canadian universities.

Cooke, D. K., Sims, R. L., & Peyrefitte, J. (1995). The relationship between graduate student attitudes and attrition. Journal of Psychology, 129(6), 677-688.

Diederich Ott, M., Markewich, T. S., & Ochsner, N. L. (1984). Logit analysis of graduate student retention. Research in Higher Education, 21(4), 439-460.

Gardner, S. K. (2008). Fitting the mold of graduate school: A qualitative study of socialization in doctoral education. Innovative Higher Education, 33, 125-138.

Girves, J. E., & Wemmerus, V. (1988). Developing models of graduate student degree progress. Journal of Higher Education, 59(2), 163-189.

Golde, C. M. (1998). Beginning graduate school: Explaining first-year doctoral attrition. New Directions for Higher Education, 101, 55-64.

Golde, C. M. (2005). The role of the department and discipline in doctoral student attrition: Lessons from four departments. The Journal of Higher Education, 76(6), 669-700.

MacFadgen, L. (2008). Mature students in the persistence puzzle: An exploration of the factors that contribute to mature students’ health, learning, and retention in post-secondary education. In Canadian Council on Learning (CCL).

McGill University. (2002). Graduate Admissions, Retention and Funding. Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies.

Nerad, M., & Miller, D. S. (1996). Increasing student retention in graduate and professional programs. New Directions for Institutional Research, 92, 61-76.

Olkin, R. (2002). Could you hold the door for me? Including disability in diversity. Cultural Diversity & Ethnic Minority Psychology, 8(2), 130-137

Pyke, S. W., & Sheridan, P. M. (1993). Logistic regression analysis of graduate student retention. The Canadian Journal of Higher Education, 23(2), 44-64.

Quarterman, J. (2008). An assessment of barriers and strategies for recruitment and retention of a diverse graduate student population. College Student Journal, 42(4), 947-967.

Schulte, L. E. (2002). Graduate education faculty and student perceptions of the ethical climate and its importance in the retention of students. Journal of College Student Retention: Research, Theory and Practice, 3(2), 119-136.

Schulte, L. E. (2003). A comparison of cohort and non-cohort graduate student perceptions of the ethical climate and its importance in retention. Journal of College Student Retention: Research, Theory and Practice, 4(1), 29-38.

Sigafus, B. (1998). The creation of ABDs: A turning point in educational doctoral programs? Distributed by ERIC Clearinghouse.

Tinto, V. (1991). Toward a theory of doctoral persistence. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association, Chicago, April 1991.

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.

Back to top