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Supervisory committees

All PhD students at McGill must have a supervisory committee

Supervisory committees act as a support system for both students and supervisors, and assist with progress tracking and research project development. They also help with problem solving in the supervisory relationship. Participating in supervisory committees can help faculty members develop important supervisory skills, including communication with graduate students and evaluation of student work.


According to McGill’s Regulations on Graduate Student Supervision, “PhD students must have a supervisory committee consisting of at least one faculty member in addition to the supervisor(s). The supervisory committee must provide, on a regular basis, guidance and constructive feedback on the student’s research.”

The supervisor and supervisee should choose supervisory committee member(s) as early as possible in the PhD program. This is often in the first or second term of the program.

Points to consider when selecting committee members

  • Field of expertise

    • What value will this expertise add to the student’s research program?

    • Does the expertise of committee members and supervisor(s) cover a broad range?

  • Availability

    • Do they have the time to complete the responsibilities of a committee member, such as attending annual progress tracking meetings and giving feedback on writing?

  • Objectivity on committee

    • Committee members cannot have a conflict of interest with the supervisor(s) or supervisee.

General roles and responsibilities of committee members

All supervisory committee members are expected to:

  • participate in annual progress tracking meetings (see the Monitoring student progress page and the Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies’ page on research tracking for more information);

  • participate in additional meetings if there is unsatisfactory performance, or a change in supervisor;

  • evaluate academic progress and advise on the next year’s objectives;

  • ensure academic standards in the discipline;  

  • assist the supervisor in providing guidance, consultation, and advice on the student’s research;

  • determine mutually-agreed upon expectations for feedback and best methods of communication (see Clarifying expectations for more information);

  • provide expertise that complements and expands on that of the supervisor; and

  • with the rest of the committee, approve when the thesis is ready for examination.


According to Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies, it is the responsibility of students to communicate regularly with and send progress reports to their supervisory committee (for more, see Responsibilities of the Academic Units).

Specific responsibilities of committee members

Although many roles and responsibilities of supervisory committee members are consistent across all graduate programs at McGill, some responsibilities may be specific to the requirements of certain programs. A list of possible responsibilities are below; however, it is a good idea to contact your academic unit for clarification of their expectations.

  • Helping define courses and other program requirements (e.g., comprehensive exam requirements)

  • Providing timely feedback on draft dissertation chapters only after the student has completed at least one round of revision based on feedback from the supervisor, or on other written work

  • Evaluating comprehensive exams, research proposal, final thesis and oral defence (see Being an examiner for more information, and note that the composition of the oral defence committee is slightly different than supervisory committee)

  • Advising on career options and opportunities for professional development

  • Providing mentoring/ mediation if the relationship with the supervisor is strained

How would you handle conflicts in the supervisory relationship?

When there is a conflict between a supervisee and supervisor, supervisory committee members are often expected to help with conflict resolution.


Consider the following situations that may be experienced by committee members. If you were a committee member, how would you respond? Would your thoughts on the situations change if you were the student’s primary supervisor (i.e., how would you expect the student’s committee members to respond)?

  • The student has not had a committee meeting or a formal evaluation (comprehensive or thesis) for over a year. You have not received any updates from them since the last meeting.

  • When discussing the student’s objectives for the upcoming year at an annual meeting, another committee member expresses ideas that are in contrast to your own.

    • What if, despite attempts to resolve this disagreement, you continue to have differences of opinions with the other committee member(s) and the student appears to be confused and unsure how to proceed?

  • The student’s primary supervisor approaches you and expresses that they are having conflicts with the student (e.g., lack of progress or communication, differences of opinion). What would you suggest? Would you react differently if the student approached you expressing the same conflict?


In all cases, attempt to resolve the conflict between those involved; however, if this is not successful, supervisory committee members, supervisors, and students can contact the Graduate Program Director. If this still does not resolve the issue, contact a GPS Associate Dean.

Supervisory committees have a positive impact on student progress

In the 2012-2013 Supervisory Surveys at McGill, 70% of student respondents who had supervisory committees reported that their committees had a positive impact on their progress. The survey also showed that 90% of supervisor respondents participated in at least one supervisory committee, reinforcing the importance of clarifying the roles and responsibilities of committee members.


The benefits of supervisory committees to students, supervisors, and committee members include:

  • providing students with input from individuals with a variety of perspectives and areas of expertise;

  • giving the student additional supervisory figures in the event that the primary supervisor is unavailable;

  • providing the student and supervisor with a support system in the event of student-supervisor conflict or concerns about the research project;

  • allowing the sharing and dividing of supervisory roles to best fit the skills and interests of the primary supervisor(s) and committee members; and

  • providing opportunities for committee members to develop supervisory skills through collaborations with more experienced supervisors.

Adapted from Epigeum (2014), Phillips and Pugh (2000), and Watts (2010).

A faster time to degree completion has been demonstrated for students reporting timely feedback from their supervisory committees (Seagram, 1998).

The importance of clarifying expectations with supervisory committee members

In addition to clarifying expectations between supervisors and supervisees, discussing expectations with the supervisory committee can help prevent conflicts and misunderstandings. Questions to consider in this discussion include:

  • What are the requirements for committee members in the student’s program? For example, how many committee members?  

  • What are the supervisory styles and areas of expertise of the primary supervisor(s) and committee members?

  • What are the student’s, supervisor’s, and committee members’ expectations of the direction and outcomes of the research project?

  • What are the expectations of the student, in terms of the supervisory committee (e.g., initiating scheduling of meetings)?

    • Many students may not have experience with supervisory committees prior to beginning their doctoral program, so these expectations may not be apparent without explicitly discussing them (Skarakis-Doyle & McIntyre, 2008).

  • What are the expectations of the supervisor, in terms of the supervisory committee (e.g., leading committee discussions)?

  • What are the expectations of each committee member? How will roles be shared or divided?

  • What will committee feedback be given on, how often, and using which mode of communication?

  • Do all parties agree with the discussed role and responsibility distribution?

  • Will any forms of progress tracking be used in addition to those required by the University?

  • What procedure will be employed in the event of conflict?

  • What procedure will be employed in the event of prolonged absence of the student, supervisor, or committee member?

    • It is important to inform the others of absences to ensure that deadlines are met and to avoid disruption in progress.

Adapted from CAGS (2013) and Epigeum (2014).

Managing conflicts within the committee

While most supervisory committees are conflict-free, there is a potential for differences of opinion between committee members. The following strategies can help prevent and handle conflict, thereby avoiding situations where the student is left without support or is given conflicting guidance.

  • Have the student send an agenda, draft of relevant work, and progress update before a committee meeting. This allows the supervisor(s) and committee members to discuss their thoughts before the meeting and work out any disagreements at that time, in order to have a consistent message for the student at the meeting (Watts 2010).

  • Make a judgement call on whether to address within-committee disagreements with the student. Including the student in such discussion can help promote critical thinking, and allow for their knowledge and questions to play a role in the outcome. However, conflict may arise if the discussion becomes competitive between committee members (Watts 2010).

  • Ensure committee members have an open and collaborative mindset. This includes acknowledgement and acceptance of the diverse opinions present in the group, willingness to learn and discuss alternative approaches, and recognition that the student may suffer in the event of conflict (Epigeum 2014).

  • Regularly review the committee expectations. Ensure that expectations of all individuals, as well as project progress expectations, are being met. Discuss whether the original expectations are still appropriate and effective, and whether the student is receiving the guidance and support that they need and want (Epigeum 2014).



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

Canadian Association of Graduate Studies (CAGS). (2013). Evidence based strategies for supervisors. Retrieved from http://www.cags.ca/documents/publications/3rdparty/Evidence-based%20pedagogies%20for%20supervisors.pdf

Epigeum (2014). Managing relationships with co-supervisors. Retrieved from https://researchskills.epigeum.com/courses/researchskills/1153/course_files/html/tro_1_60.html#t0

Watts, J. H. (2010). Team supervision of the doctorate: managing roles, relationships and contradictions. Teaching in Higher Education, 15(3), 335-339.

Phillips, E. M., & Pugh. D. S. (2000). How to get a PhD (3rd ed.). Maidenhead: Open University Press.

Seagram, BC., Gould, J., Pyke, SW. (1998). An investigation of gender and other variables on time to completion of doctoral degrees. Research in Higher Education, 39(3), 319-335.

Skarakis-Doyle, E., & McIntyre, G. (2008). Western guide to graduate supervision. The University of Western Ontario Teaching Support Centre. Retrieved from  http://www.uwo.ca/tsc/faculty_programs/pdf/PG_1_Supervision.pdf

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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