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Student-supervisor relationships

Try for mutual respect and openness.

As a supervisor, try to develop a relationship with your supervisee based on clear expectations and mutual respect from your first meeting onward. Then, as trust develops and interpersonal or cultural differences can be discussed openly and pragmatically, think ahead and imagine what relationship you want in two, five, or ten years. Work towards that.

Developing the student-supervisor relationship at the first meetings

Early meetings provide the basis for developing student-supervisory relationships and expectations. Such meetings can demonstrate a supervisor’s respect for the individual student and an interest in learning about her or his values. Early meetings should aim:

And, after the early meetings but in the near future, try:

Addressing problems

Problems can occur in any relationship. (See Problems and solutions and Avoiding delays.)

Do

Don't

  • Clearly state your expectations and set milestones
  • Know and follow policies
  • Contact advisory committee members and monitor student progress
  • Respect, compliment, and encourage students
  • Treat each student as an individual
  • Watch for and address signs of dissatisfaction
  • Assume what a student does or do not know
  • Set unrealistic expectations
  • Expect perfection
  • Be the problem or act unprofessionally
  • Exploit your students
  • Pretend that problems are not happening – it only gets worse

Adapted from the presentation of Best Practices for Graduate Supervision, McGill University, February 2010.

When conflicts or problems occur, consider the following:

  • Seek first to understand
  • Refer to university policies
  • Live up to your responsibilities
  • Discuss with student
  • Discuss with the student’s mentor, if applicable
  • Consult with the supervisory committee
  • Discuss with the Graduate Program Director
  • Discuss with the Associate Dean of Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies
  • Seek advice from the Office of the Ombudsperson
  • Know when and how to quit (changing supervisors or programs, or withdrawing)

Adapted from the presentation of Best Practices for Graduate Supervision, McGill University, February 2010.

Attending to cultural differences

The relationship can also be influenced by differences in cultural background between the student and supervisor. The expectations of supervisory and other face-to-face meetings may need additional attention with some Recognizing student diversity because of different cultural understandings, for examples:

  • Turn-taking. Students probably will come to their doctoral studies with a particular model of the student role in mind which they see as appropriate for them to adopt. This may turn out to conflict not only with the culture of the host country but also with the expectations of their supervisors. This may be evident in, for instance, the place of turn taking. Some students who come from non-Western cultures may be reluctant to speak freely and express their points of view with their supervisors unless given very clear signals that they are expected to do so. This sort of apparent reticence is associated with deference in many societies, where the student expects the supervisor to frame and drive the meetings, introduce topics for discussion and, maybe, draw the conclusions as well. Additionally, these students may be hesitant to actively seek to address issues of miscommunication or lack of understanding. They might not want to admit that they need further explanation of comments from their supervisors, or to make suggestions that could imply a criticism of their supervisors.
  • Interpersonal space. The physical space that individuals in social situations find comfortable to maintain between them often varies from culture to culture and, sometimes, for different sexes within the same culture. Students from cultures who stand and converse at a closer distance than their supervisors are comfortable with may feel puzzled, possibly rejected, by their supervisor’s embarrassment and attempts to avoid the violation of their own sense of personal space.
  • Gestures. Body language is a significant aspect of all cultures but the meanings associated with various gestures vary from culture to culture. For international students and supervisors alike 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.

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.

Who can help someone over many years and in many ways?

The student-supervisor relationship can last longer than the student's time to degree, and the duration complicates the relationship. Furthermore, the people involved might have different motivations for academic study. No one person can fulfill all of the demands and achieve all the potential of graduate supervision. The one-to-one relationship can expand.

A platonic, professional long-term relationship

An effective student-supervisor relationship is rarely static. This document from the University of Oxford addresses its potential evolution: How the student-supervisor relationship changes over time [.pdf].

The relationship can also be supported by other academic relationships that the student may have. If you are a supervisor, to what extent do you encourage your students to seek out other mentors and advisors? The 2012-13 Supervisory Surveys at McGill showed that more than 85% of supervisors and supervisees agreed that supervisors should strive to be mentors and thereby offer verbal support and encouragement in addition to research guidance, yet no one person can fulfill all roles, and so one may be open to colleagues who might complement the supervisor. See this related Oxford document: Different support roles [.pdf].

Beyond the first of the following characteristics from the University of Western Ontario's Western Guide to Graduate Supervision [.pdf], which of these could be achieved with help from colleagues?

  • Trust and respect: Although both the supervisor and the student are responsible for building an environment of mutual trust and respect, the supervisor should take the lead to do so because of the power imbalance. Factors that influence the trust and respect on the supervisor’s side include (a) whether feedback is provided timely and is helpful, (b) how open the supervisor is to the student’s consultation about non-academic as well as non-academic issues, and (c) the extent to which the supervisor is knowledgeable about the appropriate assistance or resources when he or she is not able to help.
  • Flexibility: Supervisors need to identify students’ different learning styles, strengths and weaknesses, and accordingly take individualized approach in working with them.
  • Availability: Supervisors make enough time for students and are approachable when help is needed.
  • Mentoring: Supervisors not only ensure students’ progress for the degree, but encourage and support the overall development of students as academics, field experts, or other professionals.

Understanding student motivations and career choices

The student-supervisor relationship can be further complicated when student and supervisor have different ideas as to the motivation behind doing the degree (see Finding motivation to study). For instance, not every student comes into a program because of personal intellectual interests—some for career change and some for promotion purposes. There are also students, especially in the late stages of the PhD, who decide to pursue non-academic jobs or jobs in different fields. Different ideas regarding motivations and career choices between supervisors and students may lead to tensions in student-supervisor relationships.

A discovery about attitudes vs. expertise

Although supervisors often encourage their mature and competent students to relate to them as peers, the students are sometimes anxious about meeting the expectations of an equal. Perhaps it correlates that students place lesser value on the supervisor's expertise than on attitude and other affective dimensions of the relationship.

Time together and comfort level at McGill

McGill graduate students and supervisors are generally satisfied with how they relate to each other. For example, the 2012-13 Supervisory Surveys indicate that nearly 70% of the 1389 student participants are satisfied with the amount of time that they spend interacting with their supervisors. 88% are comfortable or somewhat comfortable discussing academic questions or issues with their supervisors, and 64% discussing non-academic issues (personal or professional). On the supervisors’ side, 90% of responding supervisors “agreed” or “somewhat agreed” that they felt comfortable talking about non-academic questions and issues with their supervisees.

Positive and negative relationships

Other studies conducted at McGill have helped to reveal what positive or negative supervisory relationships are like from students’ perspectives. This student, for example, described how her supervisor helped with her dissertation writing:

[My supervisor] is brilliant at coming up with organization...moving sections around, coming up with better subtitles, or reorganizing...[his feedback] is not written in stone either, he says “you don't have to do this” - but I have to admit I rely on him for that kind of input because he's good at it. I mean why would I beat my head against the wall coming up with something when I know that just given a ten-minute talk with him, with the suggestions, I know it is going to be much better.

In contrast, this student pictured her supervisor as one who never provided the guidance and support that she needed:

I don't think that [my supervisor] feels any real responsibility or—she might feel a theoretical responsibility—but there is no practical aspect to the responsibility to get me to graduate. I don't feel like … she thinks she has to do anything.

Supervisees as "near peers"

Research at the university suggests that some supervisors tend to treat students as if they are colleagues or peers, especially in the students’ later phases of the PhD. This student, for example, said that he had been treated as a peer by the members of his supervisory committee:

We behaved together like peers through the entire length of my [study]…. I mean [I recognize] that there are absolute differences and that they have responsibilities that are different from mine, but [professor name], for example, who has been on the committee … for three years has been saying, “You are not somebody that I have to worry about. ...I know that you’ll just go and do your thing and you’ll do a good job and you can send me things when you want some feedback and that’s it.” So that’s how he treated me for the whole way. And [my supervisor said this as well] because he knew that I would just do the work on my own and I didn’t need him to sort of spend much time, hold my hand or anything like that.

However, students who are treated like peers do not always feel like peers, as this student articulated:

[The interaction between me and my supervisor is a] mentor-learning kind of situation. I think that his perception is that I'm moving into a more equal kind of position with him as I come very close to completion and I'm looking for a job...we've done presentations together and he's talked about doing a book together—things like that indicate to me that he thinks of me, or is beginning to think of me, as an equal, but I don't think I will ever feel that way.... I just don't think I will ever see myself on equal footing with him.

Affective dimensions preferred over scholarly proficiency

One particularly interesting finding of the studies on the “ideal” supervisor is that it is the affective dimensions that candidates value the most highly in their supervisors (e.g., support, availability, interest and enthusiasm). Issues of technical “know-how” are usually rated somewhat lower down the list of desirable characteristics.

Research also suggests that a productive relationship arises from a process of discussion based on agreed goals and values such as:

  • mutual respect
  • an understanding of the expectations of the other 
  • shared commitment to the supervisee's success
  • open communication

Regarding the last item, possibly the most commonly reported difficulty for students relates to communication difficulties with supervisors. Establishing sound and productive communication early, and regularly reviewing communication strategies, can help avoid some of the more distressing situations in which students and supervisors find themselves. While many such situations can be resolved, it is sometimes appropriate to consider supervisor change. While it is difficult to get local figures, a student survey (Heath, 2002) demonstrated that it was not as rare as frequently thought: 18% of students had a change in principal supervisor and 11% a change in the co-supervisor. Further the change was not always the result of student concern: 52% of changes were due to supervisor departure and 10% to a change in topic; only 13% were linked to breakdown in relations. Students frequently report their fear at initiating change, not understanding that changes do happen and can be mutually beneficial. Procedures do exist (e.g., on the Problems and solutions page of this website). Further, they wish not to be left in limbo for too long while new relationships are arranged.

The text of this page was based on:

Further reading:

Where to learn more about the supervisory relationship

This relationship is a recurring topic of helpful conversation and debate between professors at workshops sponsored by Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies and offered by Teaching and Learning Services (TLS). TLS conceives of the relationship as an alliance between supervisors and supervisees. Workshops on other important topics are also available.

For graduate students, the SKILLSETS program at TLS helps participants to develop a wide range of their aptitudes and apply them far beyond their academic programs.

Acknowledgements: Original content prepared by Margaret Kiley and Gerlese Akerlind, CEDAM, Australian National University. Updated by Lynn McAlpine, Oxford Learning Institute, May 2012. Adapted through an agreement with Oxford and ANU at McGill by Shuhua Chen and Joel Deshaye, July 2013.