Clarifying expectations

A Letter of Understanding clarifies what you expect from students and what they can expect from you

When taking on a new student, clarify your expectations in writing in a Letter of Understanding as early as possible. Unclear expectations are a common source of tension in supervisory relationships.


Sign a Letter of Understanding (LOU) with supervisees

Most supervisors and students enter the supervisory relationship with a sense of trust that the whole experience will be a positive one and that each party will do what is expected (usually undefined). Clarifying expectations at the outset through discussion allows supervisors and students to check for mutual understanding.

A Letter of Understanding is a tool to facilitate early conversations that can help avoid misunderstandings, conflicts, and bigger issues down the road.

McGill’s Regulations on Graduate Student Supervision state that “A Letter of Understanding (LOU) is mandatory between Ph.D. students and their supervisor(s). GPS strongly recommends that units also implement an LOU for master’s students.” Units have a standard template that includes relevant policies and resources.

In the LOU, clarify the following

  • regular meeting schedules
  • expected turnaround time for written feedback
  • research responsibilities (e.g., lab etiquette, safety training)
  • funding for the student
  • publication, intellectual property, and authorship policies
  • support for professional development


Review the McGill Expectations for Graduate Supervision as well as any policies included in your department’s LOU template.

If issues arise, return to the LOU to reclarify expectations

Establishing and clarifying expectations is an ongoing process. Expectations set in the early weeks may need to shift and change to meet both parties’ needs one or two years down the road. See the Communication page for more information.

Who has the right to publish results of the supervisee's research?

Some supervisors believe that the guidance they provide assures them of the right to publish the results of the supervisee’s research, but many supervisees believe that a claim to such a right is an abuse of power. The Regulations on the Conduct of Research provide a framework for supervisors and supervisees to follow. Specific expectations regarding collaborative research should be further clarified at the beginning of the student in a Letter of Understanding.


Supervisors should not assume that students will automatically understand the nuances of local research culture, including the practices of assigning authorship in collaborative research. Establishing a clear sense of “who contributes what” in a Letter of Understanding may help ensure realistic expectations on both sides.

Policies on research collaboration involving student work

The Regulations on the Conduct of Research provide a clear framework on the responsibilities of researchers as they pertain to collaborative research, including authorship.

  • “Researchers shall ensure that where a co-authored publication is based primarily on the work of a Student, including dissertation or thesis, the Student is granted due prominence in the list of co-authors in accordance with the established practices of the discipline.” (Regulations, 6.2.2)

The Research Integrity Office is available for consultations regarding the conduct of research, and provide links to relevant policies on intellectual property, copyright, and conflicts of interest.

Expectations for authorship must be clarified in a Letter of Understanding

When preparing to clarify expectations in an LOU, consider how you will articulate:

  • Who owns, and who may use under what conditions, empirical experimental data collected by the student?
  • In a team environment, what are the different roles of principal investigators, postdocs, and other members of the lab – as primary supervisor, co-supervisors, mentors, etc.?
  • Are there ideas developed in common, whether one-on-one or in a team, that should be understood to be co-owned?
  • What are the co-authorship procedures for any publications arising from work done by the student or by members of a research group?

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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