FAQ for supervisees

I have a question about supervision. Who can I talk to? 

If you have questions or concerns about a supervisory relationship, the conflict resolution section of this website provides helpful advice. The first person to talk to is a Graduate Program Director. Graduate Program Directors can help you talk through an issue, can help mediate conflicts, and can connect you with the right person if it's an issue they're not equipped to help resolve.

Visit the Ask an Associate Dean page for real student questions answered in video format. 

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

The process and timing of getting a supervisor is different depending on what program(s) you are interested in. The Future Graduate Students website has a step-by-step guide for how to connect with a supervisor. For program-specific information, consult your department’s website and contact your Graduate Program Coordinator.

We asked current graduate students to share their experiences in finding and interviewing potential supervisors. They share their advice in the video below: 


What if my supervisor is taking a leave?

You should discuss this issue first with your supervisor, and if needed, with your Graduate Program Director or Chair who will ensure you continue to receive appropriate supervision. Depending on the kind and length of leave, your Graduate Program Director or Chair will appoint a new supervisor or a co-supervisor.


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

A Letter of Understanding is key to clarifying how you and your supervisor will stay in contact, including methods of communication (email, phone, in person) and how frequently you would like to communicate. If you have already signed a Letter of Understanding with your supervisor, review how to get in touch with them in between meetings, and ask them to revisit these expectations if anything is unclear.

If you are having trouble establishing contact with your supervisor, or if you have tried to contact your supervisor multiple times through agreed-upon channels without receiving a response, speak with your Graduate Program Director and, if necessary, your Chair.


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

To discuss both the academic, logistic, 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 understand what to 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 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 necessary. Your Graduate Program Director will help you identify a new supervisor and your Chair is ultimately responsible for mediating the transition. 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.

Associate Dean Russell Steele answers this question in the “Ask an Associate Dean” video series.



If I receive a stipend to support my research, am I required to do work unrelated to my progress to degree in exchange?

Probably not, because stipends are for degree-related work. 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 work proposed 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 them “in qualifying for a degree or other scholastic recognition in the field in which the research is being carried on.”


My supervisor asked me to help write a grant application. Can I ask how grant funds will be spent before agreeing to contribute?

Yes. It is important to clarify early on with a faculty supervisor if/how you would be involved with any future projects to be funded by a successful grant (e.g., if you will be funded from the grant as a research assistant).

For example, graduate students may wish to confirm if grant funds will be used to cover their thesis costs (e.g., participant compensation), and postdoctoral researchers may want to confirm what expenses will be reimbursed (e.g., software, conference travel).

There are various issues you might want to address prior to working with a faculty member on a grant application, such as:

  • What aspects of the grant application will I be responsible for (e.g., literature review, tables, budget, writing)?
  • Will this grant fund my thesis/postdoctoral project if it is awarded? If the grant is rejected, will my project still be funded?
  • How will I be compensated for grant preparation (e.g., salary, stipend, volunteer)? Will I be included as a grant co-applicant or collaborator?
  • Can I put the grant on my CV if it is successful?

Regardless of the question, it is important to discuss such issues before you start working on a grant application with a faculty member to ensure expectations are clear and responsibilities are understood by all involved.

See Guidelines on Supervisor-Trainee Collaboration in Grant Writing for a full FAQ on grant writing.


My supervisor is threatening to “withdraw funding.” Are they allowed to do that?

Although the answer depends in part on if you are paid hourly (e.g., as a research assistant) or via stipend, it is required that your supervisor and/or unit honour written funding agreements 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.

Associate Dean Russell Steele answers this question in the “Ask an Associate Dean” video series


Can my supervisor require/refuse to let me take a position as a teaching assistant?

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. A supervisor can 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 to get a second opinion. Consider speaking to a departmental advisor (separate from your supervisor), a member of your supervisory committee, your Graduate Program Director, the Chair of your department, or an Associate Dean at Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies if you require additional clarification.


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 can vary between departments, units, and supervisors, and also from one student to the next.

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/unit and graduate student regarding the awarding of such packages that 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 best and it would normally be expected that they support your application with a letter of reference. Talk frankly with your supervisor about the reason for refusal, and consult your committee members or Graduate Program Director if you require additional information on reference letter protocols or options.

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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