FAQ for Supervisors

What are some strategies to attract graduate students who are likely to succeed and flourish under my supervision?

In disciplines where the supervisory relationship is established prior to application and admission, and where the unit does not have a listing of who is currently recruiting supervisees, it is worthwhile to have a simple, but engaging personal website that advertises your research field and that you are accepting new graduate students. The website might include:

  • A section specifically directed at new students
  • A list of current and past students and their projects
  • Insight into the culture of the research environment to help students determine if they would be a good fit

Having a clearly explained description of your research network, record (publications, conference presentations), and profile allows potential supervisees to assess the possibilities for a successful supervisory relationship.

One of the best ways to assess the fit of potential supervisees is to interview them. You can also put them in contact with one or two of your current supervisees. You can also meet with potential supervisees at academic conferences, with observing them interact in academic and professional contexts being an effective way to assess their critical thinking skills, organizational skills, collegiality, and interpersonal skills.


My supervisee is nervous about their upcoming presentation at a conference, how can I support them?

Attending academic conferences is common professional practice for academics. However, new graduate students may not know what to expect.

Be sure to talk with your supervisees about the format of an academic conference and give them tips for developing their own academic network (e.g., ask questions after presentations).

You can also offer to review your supervisee’s presentation plan or have your supervisee practice their presentation for you or a larger group to provide feedback. You may also suggest that your supervisee take advantage of a SKILLSETS workshop or Graphos course to further develop their professional and communication skills.


I support my graduate students with money from my research grant, but am not satisfied with the work one of them is doing. Can I withdraw funding?

You might be supporting your supervisees through stipends (i.e., fellowships) or through research assistantships (i.e., employment). In either case, you, your academic unit, and the University must honour the specifics (amounts, duration, etc.) of any agreement regarding financial support made with the student as long as the student is registered in the program. However, registration in the program is contingent upon making satisfactory progress toward the degree, with satisfactory progress defined in terms of both coursework and research progress (see the Graduate Student Research Progress Tracking policy and the Failure Policy for details).


My graduate student's progress does not meet expectations. How can I help them improve?

If you have concerns about a student’s performance, be sure to discuss them with your student as they arise, and explicitly address them your annual progress reporting meetings and regular supervisory meetings. Speak clearly with your supervisee about what you need from them and how they can improve.

Consider setting feasible short-term objectives for the coming months to encourage your supervisee stay on top of the work. You can encourage your student to take advantage of supports like Graphos that provide support in meeting writing deadlines, or encourage your student to create an Individual Development Plan to clarify their short-term and long-term goals. If you think a student might need support from a mental health professional, review the guidelines on Helping Students in Difficulty provided by the Office of the Dean of Students.

If your student’s performance is not improving, you should bring it to the attention of the Graduate Program Director and discuss options. If necessary, rate your student’s progress as "unsatisfactory" in their progress report to clearly document dissatisfaction with their progress. If the problems persist, you may need to speak with your Department Chair.


What happens to my supervisees if I take a leave of absence?

Talk to your Graduate Program Director or Chair as soon as possible, who will assign a new supervisor or a co-supervisor, depending on the nature and length of the leave. This will allow for a smooth transition for your supervisees and ensure supervisory support during your absence.


One of my supervisees will be taking a leave of absence. Am I obligated to continue financial support for the student during the leave?

Supervisors are not obligated to continue paying a promised stipend to a student who takes a leave of absence, and it is up to the supervisor to decide whether to continue support during the leave. In the case of a parental leave of absence, if a stipend is provided through a tri-agency grant (CIHR, NSERC, or SSHRC), the agency will provide a supplement to the student (refer to this summary for more information). If the student is paid as a research assistant (i.e., employment income), they are likely unionized. In such a case, you should consult their collective agreement.


I am concerned for the well-being of my supervisee. What should I do?

It is important that you address any concerns early on and that you know the services available at McGill to support student well-being. You are not expected to take on the responsibility of counselling your supervisees, but you should speak to your supervisee to get a better understanding of the type of stress or issue they are facing so you can direct them to the right support service.

You could begin by asking general questions such as “how are you finding your workload?” or “are you happy with your balance between your work and your personal life?”. Actively listen to your supervisee. Remember that it is always better to offer support and resources than to avoid or dismiss the problem.

You should also be aware that there are often additional stressors for international students related to adjusting to life in Canada (housing, employment, social integration, cuisine); stressful workloads and lack of social and familial supports; financial pressures; or experiences of racism/discrimination.

If you ever have concerns that a supervisee is a danger to themselves or others, contact Security Services at 514-398-3000. Other services for the support of graduate students’ well-being are listed here.


As my supervisee and I are no longer working well together, I think a change of supervisor might be the best solution; what can I do?

Most supervisory relationships are successful; however, in some cases you may feel that the relationship is not conducive to progress towards the degree. There might be personality conflicts, differences in research approaches, or a change in research focus. You should think carefully about what the issues are, possibly conferring with colleagues if helpful. Think of possible solutions or modifications to your supervisory arrangement to address the issues (such as modifying the supervisory committee or adding a co-supervisor). After having done this, have a frank and objective discussion with your supervisee about the issues. During this discussion, listen carefully to the student’s perspective, and work together to come up with mutually agreeable solutions, one of which could include a change in supervision.

Sometimes, a change in supervisor may be beneficial to both parties. It is the Unit’s responsibility to ensure that graduate students have a supervisor; therefore, if you have decided to make a change, you should consult with the student about other faculty who could supervisor them. The Graduate Program Director, Chair of your department, or the Associate Dean (Graduate Studies) within your faculty or Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies may also be helpful in identifying and securing a new supervisor, and in mediating any concerns that can arise during the transition (e.g., funding, progress of the research, stage in the program).

When a student is having difficulties, it is important that the new supervisor is someone with whom the student feels comfortable personally, and someone who has the appropriate expertise for supervising the student’s research. Depending on what stage the student is at in their program, a change of supervisor may require a change in the topic or plan for the research. Throughout the process, it is critical to keep all parties informed of the actions under way. The process should be completed as quickly as possible to reduce delays in research progress and associated concerns. In addition, within 3 months following a change in supervisor, there should be a new Letter of Understanding completed and a supervisory committee meeting held in which a progress tracking report is completed.


One of my supervisees has asked me to write them a letter of recommendation, but do I do not think it would be to their advantage if I did. How can I say no?

Since it is expected that you would typically be writing a letter of recommendation for your supervisee, not having a letter from you could be perceived as a warning signal to assessors. However, as a supervisor, you are not obliged to write letters of reference for your students and it is not good practice to agree to write a letter that would not be sufficiently strong.

Seriously consider declining, but if you do agree to write the letter, then you must disclose to the student that you will not be making a strong recommendation. It is important that you explain to your supervisee why you do not want to write the letter (e.g., you do not feel you are the best person to write it; you have concerns about the student’s performance; you don’t think the position being applied for is an appropriate fit; the request came to you too close to the deadline).

If you do not feel you are the best person to write the letter, or believe the request to be too close to the deadline, you may provide them with suggestions on how to find suitable referees.

If you are concerned about your supervisee’s performance, such issues should be raised in annual progress tracking meetings and regular supervisory meetings as opposed to letters of reference. If you do not think the position is an appropriate fit for your student you may want to have them explain why they are interested in the position. It is your job to mentor the student, but it is not your job to dictate or veto their personal or career development. If you choose to voice your concerns, be sure to recognize the weight your words carry with your student and be supportive of their final decision.


My supervisee has expressed an interest in pursuing a non-academic career. What can I do to help?

Not all graduate students want to or will follow an academic path post-degree (see the TRaCE McGill project for insight into how PhDs navigate their career pathways).

Graduate students often feel that supervisors envision an academic career as the only or preferred outcome for them, even in cases where supervisors acknowledge limited academic job possibilities. As a supervisor, you should try to be as knowledgeable as possible about the diversity of job possibilities related to your field or about those that can be connected to your field through a shared skillset.

It is, however, unreasonable to expect that that you can optimally advise students in regard to all potential career options. It would be helpful to refer these supervisees who are interested in non-academic careers to the Career Planning Service (CaPS) for guidance, or refer them to colleagues who have chosen other career paths.

Most importantly, do not lessen your commitment to supporting the growth and development of supervisees who express interest in non-academic careers. Their career goals may change several times throughout their degree. No matter what they plan to do post-degree, continue to guide them towards the successful completion of their degree.


What are the grounds for withdrawing a PhD student from the University?

The grounds for withdrawing a PhD student from the University are summarized here:

1. PhD Comprehensives Policy
– Students can repeat one time. A second failure is an F and the student will be withdrawn from the University.

2. Failure Policy
– Two courses (automatic withdrawal);
- Two unsatisfactory progress reports (GPD can recommend withdrawal);
- One course and one unsatisfactory progress report (GPD can recommend withdrawal).

3. Thesis Examination or Oral Defence Failure
– Essentially, students have the option to revise and resubmit, or revise and re-do the Oral Defence, or both. This depends on the outcome of the oral defence.

4. Disciplinary case that leads to withdrawal.

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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