The supervisor-supervisee relationship

Be honest and open

You are beginning a long-term relationship with your supervisor. It is important to be honest and open about yourself – you don’t want to put on an act that you might have to maintain for the duration of your degree. Being yourself from the start will help you quickly determine if you and your supervisor are the right fit.




  • Clearly state your expectations and set milestones
  • Know and follow policies
  • Respect, compliment, and thank your supervisor
  • Watch for and address signs of dissatisfaction
  • Set unrealistic expectations
  • Assume what your supervisor does or does not know
  • Assume what your supervisor can or cannot do
  • Be disrespectful or act unprofessionally
  • Exploit your supervisor
  • Ignore problems – they only get worse

At the first meeting

Early meetings are the time to set expectations. The nature of the relationship is established early on. Strive to:

  • show respect to your supervisor (consider cultural differences);

  • let your passion for your subject shine through;

  • express interest in your supervisor as an academic, and also as a person with hobbies, interests, friends, and family; and

  • set out a number of parameters.

After the early meetings but in the near future, try to:

  • establish a clear project proposal - see Defining the research topic; and

  • ask your supervisor to help you assess your skills and determine areas for improvement  - see the Skills and development page for more information, and SKILLSETS for many opportunities for personal and academic skill development.


Addressing problems

Problems can occur in any relationship (see Questions and Answers and Avoiding delays). 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. The hierarchy of help below lists these people in the order that you should contact them (e.g., First, speak with your supervisor. If that does not resolve the issue, contact your supervisory committee).

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!


Attending to cultural differences

Cultural differences can sometimes make communication unclear, awkward or uncomfortable. Considering asking friends from both your culture and your supervisor’s culture to better understand these issues. It may be helpful to recognize and discuss cultural differences if you notice they are causing problems when communicating with your supervisors–for more information, refer to Adapting to cultural differences. Below are some common examples.

  • Turn-taking: Some non-Western cultures do not encourage speaking freely and expressing personal points of view to authority figures. If your supervisors appears uncomfortable with your manner of speaking, it might be wise to address the issue, consider your cultural differences, and attempt to solve the problem.

  • Addressing miscommunication: Cultural differences can make it difficult to understand common metaphors and clichés, resulting in misunderstanding. While you may be hesitant to ask for clarification, it is better to clear up the issue before it leads to a bigger problem.

  • Interpersonal space: The appropriate distance between individuals when communicating varies from culture to culture and may be dependent on gender. If you find this to be a problem with your supervisor, try to reposition yourself to a distance that makes you more comfortable. If the issue persists, consider mentioning it your supervisor or asking for advice from other people you trust who know your supervisor.

  • Gestures: Body language is a significant aspect of all cultures but the meanings associated with various gestures vary from culture to culture. Misunderstandings can occur as issues such as variations in speech, facial expressions and other non-verbal cues (e.g., eye contact, nodding or shaking of heads, touch) are misinterpreted. Try to recognize when this might be happening and adjust as necessary.

At other times, the supervisor and student might have closely related cultural backgrounds with even subtler differences, such as those between rural or urban, and American or Canadian, backgrounds. The associated political views, for example, should neither be taken for granted nor ignored as possibilities.

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 the supervisor-supervisee 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.


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

  • Trust: Is it important to you that you can trust your supervisor to be: honest, punctual, 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 you will do for your supervisor?

  • Respect: How can you demonstrate your respect for your supervisor? Consider how you greet them, how you address them, and how you respond to their ideas and opinions.

  • 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?

  • Flexibility: Professors have very busy schedules, to what extent should you work around their schedule?

  • 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?

A critical relationship

The supervisor-supervisee relationship has a significant impact on the success of a graduate student. It is important that the relationship provides stability, security, trust, opportunity for intellectual debate, and support in pursuit of a student’s goals (Vessey et al., 2008).


Supervisors are comfortable talking about non-academic issues

In the 2012-2013 Supervisory Surveys, 90% of responding supervisors “agreed” or “somewhat agreed” that they felt comfortable talking about non-academic (personal or professional) questions and issues with their supervisees. Supervisees were less comfortable (64%) talking about non-academic issues, but if they would like support or advice in these matters, the survey results suggests that nearly all supervisors are comfortable discussing these issues.

Verbal encouragement and emotional support

In the 2012-2013 Supervisory Surveys, 95% of responding supervisors “agreed” or “somewhat agreed” that supervisors should provide verbal encouragement and emotional support to their supervisees. As a supervisee, you should feel encouraged and supported by your supervisor.


In the 2012-2013 Supervisory Surveys, only 22% of supervisors reported experiencing non-work related conflict with a more than 10% of their supervisees. In other words, conflict as a result of personality, time, or mental health is uncommon in most supervisor-supervisee relationships. The most common reasons for conflict as reported by supervisors was the supervisee’s academic performance or a difference in expectations. Overall, 45% of responding supervisors reported experiencing conflict or serious difficulties with a supervisee, 75% of whom reported a satisfactory resolution to the conflict.

While conflict may arise, supervisees should remember that there are supports at McGill to help them resolve such conflict to the satisfaction of everyone involved. Such supports include trusted fellow students, trusted colleagues in your lab or on your research team, other faculty who you trust, Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies, your Graduate Program Director, Counseling Services, and the Office of the Ombudsperson.



2012-2013 Supervisory Surveys. Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies: McGill University.

Vessey, K., Davies, G., Driver, J., Lalande, F., & Smith, B. (2008). Guiding principles for graduate student supervision. Canadian Association for Graduate Studies

Further Reading

Mainhard, T., van der Rijst, R. & van Tartwijk, J. (2009). A model for the supervisor-doctoral student relationship. Higher Education, 58(3), 359-373.

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

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